Are you looking for a career that enables you to help other people while enjoying a generous degree of professional autonomy? If so, you might consider pursuing a career as a dentist. Dentists help patients achieve better health and quality of life while also enjoying significant earnings potential and an enviable work-life balance. Take a look at the pre-dental requirements for getting into dental school and learn what you can expect from the training process.
What Does a Dentist Do?
It’s common knowledge that dentists help people care for their oral health. But did you know that dentists also play a significant role in your overall health? Your oral health doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it influences other areas of health, and vice versa.
For example, cardiovascular disease, endocarditis, pneumonia and pregnancy complications are more common in people with poor oral health. Similarly, some health conditions, such as diabetes and HIV/AIDS, can increase the risk of oral health problems.1 Dentists are trained not only to promote oral health, but also to look for signs of other health problems that can indicate that a patient should be evaluated by a physician.
If you’re intrigued by the role that oral health plays in a person’s systemic wellness, then pursuing a career as a dentist could be the right move for you. Some of the specific tasks that dentists typically perform include:
- Examining medical imaging studies of patients’ teeth, jaws and other oral structures to look for signs of a problem
- Administering local anesthetics, occasional oral conscious sedatives and general anesthesia
- Prescribing medications, such as antibiotics
- Filling cavities, repairing damaged teeth and extracting teeth that are not salvageable
- Applying sealants to protect teeth
- Creating impressions of teeth to fabricate dental appliances
- Delivering patient education, particularly about the importance of preventive oral hygiene
These are just a few of the responsibilities of a dentist. Dentists also evaluate patients’ bite patterns, measure gum pockets, screen for cancer and monitor the development of the oral structures. Of course, different types of dentists have different responsibilities.
A Look at the Pre-Dental Requirements
If you’ve decided that becoming a dentist is the right career decision for you, you can get started working toward your goals right away, even if you’re still in high school. Aspiring dentists must complete extensive coursework in science and mathematics. Talk to your guidance counselor about your current schedule and see whether you can add any extra science and math courses that will help you prepare for your post-secondary education.
You’ll need to earn a four-year bachelor’s degree before you can apply to dental school. It’s a good idea to first research dental school admission requirements, because each dental school can have slightly different prerequisites.
Identify a few dental schools that appeal to you and check their pre-dental requirements regarding undergraduate courses. Make sure the undergraduate degree you choose will allow you to fulfill those prerequisites.
If your chosen baccalaureate degree program doesn’t quite fit the prerequisites of your preferred dental schools, you may still be able to apply for enrollment. You should plan on using your electives to take additional courses that will allow you to meet the dental school prerequisites.
Although each dental school has their own set of criteria regarding admissions, there are a few commonalities. You’ll be a more competitive applicant if you:
- Maintain a high GPA
- Undertake dental research-related activities
- Are active in pre-dental related extracurricular activities
- Complete relevant job-shadowing opportunities and internship positions
- Forge good working relationships with your professors (for letters of recommendation)
Earn Your Pre-Dentistry Degree
A pre-dentistry degree isn’t an official type of degree. Rather, it’s a career track that is woven into the curricula for a number of different STEM degrees. One common example is a Bachelor of Science in Biology with an Emphasis in Pre-Dentistry. This type of pre-dentistry degree will give you a thorough grounding in fundamental scientific concepts. It will also strengthen your critical thinking and analytical reasoning abilities, while enabling you to fulfill pre-dental requirements with courses such as the following:
- General Biology
- Human Anatomy and Physiology
- Pathophysiology and Pharmacology
Since you’ll be in a pre-dental track, you may also take some additional courses that are more specific to the profession. For instance, you may take a course in the anatomy of the head and neck, which will give you a detailed look at the skeletal structures, neuroanatomy and musculature of these areas.
You’ll have the opportunity to take a few electives throughout your undergraduate years. Some good choices include biomedical engineering, sociology, lifespan development and communications.
As you look ahead to applying to dental schools, remember that not all pre-dental requirements are related to your curriculum. Visit your professors during office hours to clear up any questions or ask for guidance. This will also help your professors write solid letters of recommendation as part of your dental school admission package.
You should also take the time to look for dental-related job-shadowing and internship opportunities during your time as an undergrad. Your school’s career services department can help you with this.
Take the Dental Admission Test
The Dental Admission Test (DAT) is a computer-based exam administered by the American Dental Association (ADA) at Prometric testing locations nationwide. Once you meet the coursework requirements, you can request a DENTPIN from the ADA. The DENTPIN is your identification code that allows you to apply to take the DAT.
You don’t have to wait until you have your bachelor’s degree in hand before you can take the Dental Admission Test. In fact, you can take the DAT as early the second semester of your junior undergraduate year. However, you may want to wait until the summer before your senior year to take the exam, as you’ll have more of your coursework completed by then.
The DAT is entirely composed of multiple-choice questions divided into the following sections:
- Survey of the natural sciences
- Perceptual ability
- Reading comprehension
- Quantitative reasoning
You can retake the exam if you do not earn your desired score on the first attempt.
How Long Does Dental School Take?
After you’ve fulfilled your pre-dental requirements, you’ll be ready to apply to dental school. Dental school will take four years of full-time study to complete. The specific curriculum and structure vary somewhat from one school to the next.
The first two years consist primarily of classes and some clinical education via simulations. In your classes, you’ll study crucial topics such as oral anatomy, pathology and histology. In labs, you may practice performing procedures on models of mouths and teeth.
The final two years consist largely of clinical rotations, with some practice management matters tossed into the curriculum. During your clinical rotations, you’ll likely spend time at a few different clinics and other off-campus dental settings to gain exposure to a wide variety of patients, health conditions and practice structures. Your clinical rotations give the opportunity to practice interacting with patients, performing exams, developing treatment plans and performing procedures — all under the close supervision of a licensed dentist.
The next step is to acquire state licensure. The dental licensure requirements can vary somewhat from state to state, but all states recognize the Integrated National Board Dental Examination (INBDE), which is governed by the Joint Commission on National Dental Examinations (JCNDE).
The INBDE is a two-day, computer-based exam. It can be taken during the final year of dental school, although you could also take it later if you’d prefer to have more prep time. Rather than relying on the rote memorization of medical science concepts, test-takers must be able to demonstrate that they understand and can appropriately apply clinical concepts.
After earning a passing score on the exam, you must also demonstrate that you meet other state licensure requirements. Some states, for instance, may require that you:
- Possess good moral character
- Are at least 21 years old
- Have completed coursework/training in identifying and reporting child abuse
- Meet education and experience requirements
Not all dentists need additional training at this point. General dentists, for example, do not. However, if you chose a specialty, you may need to complete a period of postdoctoral (postdoc) training.
Are Dentists in High Demand?
There is expected to be a steady demand for new dentists in the years to come. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the job growth rate for dentists is estimated to increase by about 8% from 2020 to 2030 — as fast as the average for all professions — accounting for an estimated increase of 11,100 jobs in the field.2 This encompasses all types of dentists, including general dentists, orthodontists, prosthodontists and oral surgeons.
Grand Canyon University has a long-established tradition of delivering exceptional healthcare education that enables our graduates to live a life of service to others. If you’re passionate about helping others improve their oral health, you can apply for enrollment in the Bachelor of Science in Biology with an Emphasis in Pre-Dentistry degree program.
1 Retrieved from Mayo Clinic, Oral Health: A Window to Your Overall Health in October 2022.
2 COVID-19 has adversely affected the global economy and data from 2020 may be atypical compared to prior years. The pandemic may impact the predicted future workforce outcomes indicated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as well. Accordingly, data shown is based on September 2021, which can be found here: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Dentists, retrieved on 02/01/2022.
Approved by the Associate Dean for the College of Science, Engineering and Technology on Nov. 23, 2022.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.