Education Required to Become a Dentist

Dental school combines class instruction with clinical work.
Dental school combines class instruction with clinical work. (Image: Medioimages/Photodisc/Photodisc/Getty Images)

A dentist needs good academic ability in science, excellent manual dexterity and strong visual perception skills. Since many dentists work in private practice as solo practitioners, dentists also need good business sense. To become a dentist, take high school and college classes in the sciences. Then you must complete four years of dental school to prepare for national exams and state licensing.

High School Education

Prospective dentists should take high school classes in math, health, chemistry, biology and physics. These courses will prepare you for more advanced courses in undergraduate college and dental school.

Undergraduate College

Most students finish a bachelor's degree before starting dental school, although some dental schools will admit applicants after two to three years of college. An undergraduate major in chemistry or biology will give your the best preparation for dental school, but you can choose a non-science major if you also also include science classes. A major in chemistry will include physical and analytical chemistry, physics and advanced math courses. A major in biology will include general biology, microbiology, ecology and organic chemistry. Check with the dental schools that interest you to learn their specific prerequisite requirements.

Dental School Application and DAT

In addition to undergraduate college, you must take the Dental Admissions Test to qualify for dental school. The DAT lasts five hours, including optional breaks and tutorials. It includes a 90-minute test on natural sciences, a one-hour test of perceptual ability, a one-hour reading comprehension exam and a 45-minute test of quantitative reasoning. Your admission to dental school will depend upon your DAT score, your grades and other factors such as interviews or recommendations.

Dental School and Professional Degree

You must complete a Doctor of Dental Surgery or Doctor of Dental Medicine degree, which requires four years. During the first two years, you'll take science classes relevant to dentistry, including dental diagnosis, anatomy, microbiology, physiology, biochemistry, histology and dental occlusion. Some of these courses include laboratory sections where students learn hands-on dentistry skills. During the final two years, students receive clinical practice and undergo assessment on their ability to diagnose and treat patients.

National Examination and Licensing

After completing dental school, dentists must pass the National Board Dental Examination of the American Dental Association as part of state licensing requirements. The first part of the exam tests specific fields of dentistry such as anatomy, occlusion and biochemistry. The second part tests areas such as diagnosis, operative dentistry and pharmacology. State licensing requirements vary, but they normally include an accredited dental degree and a practical examination in addition to the National Board Dental Examination. Some states also require a residency period of as long as two years.

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