How Long Does It Take To Be A Dentist?

By Kristin Kizer - Oct. 24, 2021

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Key Points:

  • After graduating from high school, it takes 8 years to become a dentist, with 4 years of undergraduate education and 4 years of dental school

  • Accredited dental schools will issue a DDS (Doctor of Dental Surgery) or a DMD (doctor of Medicine in Denstistry or Doctor of Dental Medicine) — these are equivalent certications with the same requirements

  • Most dental specialties take between 2-3 additional years of education and/or residency to complete

  • A speciality in oral and maxillofcial surgery takes between 4-6 additional years, the longest of any dental specialty

  • The dental school acceptance rate is 55%, nationwide

  • The average college GPA of accepted dental school applicants is 3.57

  • The average DAT score of accepted dental school applicants is about 19AA, with no sections below a 17

  • The average dentist salary is $134,000, and the year-over-year job growth rate is 7%

Becoming a dentist is a difficult but worthwhile pursuit for people who are interested in medicine but don’t want to work in a hospital setting. There’s a lot of job security in dentistry, and it’s a fascinating career. On top of that, you’ll get to call yourself a doctor, and dentists are basically guaranteed financial security.

The downside to becoming a dentist is that it takes a lot of school and quite a bit of money to become a dentist. That means it’s a real commitment, and it’s not something to undertake if you’re not serious about putting in the work.

How Long It Takes to Become a Dentist

Let’s look at the big question: how long will it take you until you’re working as a dentist. Of course, it depends on if you’re going to school full-time, if you’re double majoring or taking extra classes, and if you pass all of your classes the first time. Let’s assume you’re a full-time college student, and you’re doing well in school.

  • General undergraduate school. Most dental schools require that you have an undergraduate degree before even starting. That means you’ll be attending a four-year college and getting a degree. If you’re buckling down and getting your work done, you can be done with that portion of your training in four years.

  • Dental school. The next step is applying to, getting accepted, and going to dental school. This is another four-year academic program with the entire focus being on dentistry.

    When you’re finished, you will earn either a DDS or a DMD, which means you’re either called a Doctor of Dental Surgery or a Doctor of Medicine in Dentistry. The funny thing is, they actually mean the same thing, and you’ve had the same education.

    You’d think that one meant you had a specialty in surgery, but that’s not the case. The only difference is the dental school you attend. Some give you a DDS, and some give you a DMD.

  • Specialties. So, you’re already into it for eight years after high school at this point, if you’re doing well and getting through school at a good pace. Now, you have a decision to make – are you going to specialize? The American Dental Academy lists the following as potential dental specialties:

    • Dental Anesthesiology

    • Dental Public Health

    • Endodontics

    • Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology

    • Oral and Maxillofacial Radiology

    • Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery

    • Oral Medicine

    • Orofacial Pain

    • Orthodontics and Dentofacial Orthopedics

    • Pediatric Dentistry

    • Periodontics

    • Prosthodontics

    Each of these specialties could take you another two years of specialized training and school to earn your certificate in that field.

  • National Board Dental Examination. This is a national test with two parts, and you must pass both of them before taking your clinical exam.

    The good news is that you can take these exams during dental school, which most people do. If taken concurrently with school, this won’t add any extra time to the process of becoming a dentist.

  • Clinical Examination. This exam is called a clinical or live-patient dental examination. It can also be taken during your last year of dental school, or you can take it immediately after.

    There are two important things to note about this exam. The first thing is that it’s not required in all states, so you might not have to take it at all. The second important point is that if you fail, you can retake it, and it’s not going to count against you.

    When you add all of that up, it comes to roughly eight years after high school to become a general dentist. If you want to specialize, you’ll be adding about two years to your timeframe for each specialty.

The Steps to Becoming a Dentist

If that hasn’t scared you away from becoming a dentist, then you might have exactly what it takes to succeed in the field of oral health. The next thing you need to do is learn the steps for becoming a dentist so you can get on the right path.

When a career takes this long to get off the ground, you want to make sure you’re headed in the right direction as soon as possible.

  • High school dental prep. No, you don’t have to know you want to be a dentist in high school to become one, but you can begin preparing early if you do know. Start by taking as many health and science-related classes as you can.

    Get that grade point average up there and start networking. That’s right; it’s never too early to network. Contact a few local dentists to see if they would be willing to mentor you.

  • College. You’re still in the prep stage for dental school. Most students entering dental college have their undergraduate degrees, but not all. A few exceptional dental students get into dental school with only a couple of years of college under their belt.

    If you are dedicated enough, you might make it, but it’s still good to plan to hit all dental school prerequisites. They can vary a little bit from school to school, but the following are fairly standard.

    Expect to have to earn eight credit hours or have two semesters of the following:

    Some colleges have additional requirements. You might want to plan to take eight credit hours or two semesters of the following fields to open your dental school options to more college:

    • Math (Calculus or Statistics might be required)

    • Anatomy Physiology

    • English

    • Upper-level sciences (These can be Biochemistry, Microbiology, and/or Genetics)

    The good news about undergraduate studies is that there is no required major. There are prerequisite classes, but you can pick any major you find interesting, and it would be in your benefit to select the one you will excel in – grades matter.

  • Get involved. To get into dental school, you don’t just need good grades in the right classes. Dental schools will also review your extracurricular and volunteer experiences.

    They ideally want to see applicants who have had exposure to dentistry, done some community service or local outreach, and that there has been a research element to your experiences.

    You’ll rate even higher if you have demonstrated experience in healthcare, a clinical setting, and of course, they’d love to see dental office experience. This is why making connections with dentists and getting a mentor in high school can be so useful in the future.

  • Dental Admission Test (DAT). This is THE test for future dentists. The latest you should take this test is September of your senior year of university if you plan to go on to Dental School immediately following your graduation from college.

    You might want to take it several months before, so there’s no rush. Studying should also begin several months before you take the DAT.

  • Recommendation letters. Dental schools ask for recommendation letters as part of the application process. It’s a good idea to start gathering these letters early – at least asking for them early so your letter writers have time to write you the thoughtful and thorough letter you deserve.

    Interestingly, dental schools don’t just want a couple of references; they want specific letters from specific people. That will be detailed on their website or through their admissions office, and you need to check with them to make sure you are denied just because you’re missing one important letter.

    Most schools require the following, but again, checking with your preferred school is crucial:

    • Two evaluation letters from science faculty who taught you in a college course

    • One from a college instructor who taught you a course outside of science or your main discipline

    • 1-2 letters from dentists (again, that high school mentor is important)

  • Dental school applications. There is a centralized application service through the Associated American Dental Schools Application Service (AADSAS)

    Applications are often submitted around the time you begin your senior year at university. You’ll need your passing DAT results to submit.

  • Specialization. Are you going to narrow your field of study and specialize in one or two areas of dentistry? If so, you’ll want to decide that at some point during your dental school training and start gearing your education in that direction.

    Once you graduate from dental school, you’ll begin this certification process.

  • National Board Dental Examination. Everyone who wants to work as a dentist in the United States will need to take and pass both parts of the NBDE test.

  • Clinical or live-patient examination. This is not required in every state, so this might not be something you have to do. Even if it is required, your state may have a different setup than another, so you’ll have to find out what you need to do from your state dental board.

Other Professional Dental Options

Dentistry is a lucrative and in-demand profession. But, it’s also apparent that it takes years of work and dedication to succeed in this field. If you love the idea of working in a dental office but aren’t sure you’re cut out for all of the school and training that it takes to be a dentist, there are other options:

  • Dental Assistant

    Dental assistants still provide patient care and can take x-rays as well as help dentists perform procedures. They’ll also have some clerical duties like scheduling appointments and keeping patient records. They can conduct certain functions without the supervision of a licensed dentist and can administer medicines on the dentist’s instructions.

  • Dental Hygienist

    Dental hygienists are more concerned with preventative oral care and treating minor oral health conditions than fixing more significant oral issues. They clean teeth and notice any signs of damage or disease, after which they can provide recommendations or refer you to a dentist for more thorough treatment. If you’re interested in promoting good oral health with a much lower time commitment in education, becoming a dental hygienist might be the perfect path for you.

  • Dental Laboratory Technician

    Dental laboratory technicians construct partial and complete dentures for patients who have lost teeth. They also create dvices that assist in corecting dental irregulatrieties. If you’re more interested in the tech side of dentistry than the patient care side, look into dental lab tech roles.

  • Dental Office Receptionist

  • Dental Office Manager

  • Dental Office Billing Clerk

  • Dental Office Medical Records Specialist

The great thing is, if you work in a dental office, you’re actually headed in the direction of becoming a dentist – if that’s truly what you want. You’re starting to develop your connections, getting in some clinical hours, and learning the business.

You can take your knowledge and go to school part-time while you work until you’re ready for dental school. For some, this is the best path toward achieving their dental dreams.

Dentist FAQ

  • Is becoming a dentist hard?

    Yes, becoming a dentist is hard. There is a lot of education required before an individual can earn a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or a Doctor of Medicine in Dentistry (DMD). After graduating from high school, there are four years for an undergraduate education and degree and then there are another four years of dental school required.

    In addition to that, good grades are required to be accepted in dental school. Most dental school applicants require at least a B average, which is evidenced by the fact that the average GPA of dental school applicants is 3.57. That means your competition is very stiff and if your grades aren’t that good, it’s doubtful you’ll be accepted with other applicants having higher GPAs.

  • Is becoming a dentist easier than becoming a doctor?

    Becoming a dentist is easier than becoming a doctor because you don’t have to complete an internship and residency. But if you decide to specialize in any area of dentistry, then it can become more difficult and more expensive, it all depends on the specialty you select.

    If you’re asking this question because you’re debating between becoming a dentist or a doctor yourself, there are probably other, more important factors to consider. The education is similar for these two professions and can be equally grueling. But the final working conditions may be a bigger difference.

    Whereas doctors often have to manage emergencies, late hours, and a lot of human drama; dentists rarely face these issues and are usually working only their set hours and don’t have to deal with death and fatal illness.

  • How many total years does it take to become a dentist?

    The short answer to how many total years does it take to become a dentist is somewhere between six and eight years. But there are some variables in that estimation and that, of course, is based on someone attending as a full-time student.

    The number of total years it takes to become a dentist can depend on the dental school you select. In the majority of cases, dental schools require their applicants to come with a bachelor’s degree or even a master’s degree. That is at least four years there before even becoming a dentist.

    Dental school itself will take another four years if you’re able to stay on track and graduate on time. But many future dentists choose to have a specialty so they can focus on one area, and that can add years to your educational pursuits.

    There are also some dental schools that will allow students to enter with an early admissions program that doesn’t require them to have a full undergraduate degree, instead they only have a couple of years of preparation before dental college.

  • How hard is dental school?

    Dental school is very hard. People asking how hard is dental school are often looking for a short and sweet answer, but it’s a difficult question. The difficulty of dental school is relative and has more to do with the student than it does with the school.

    Suffice it to say that becoming a doctor of any kind, including a doctor of dental surgery or a doctor of dental medicine, is very difficult. If you’re a good student and very interested in medicine and dental care, then it will be easier for you than some others.

  • Is it too late to become a dentist?

    No, it is not too late to become a dentist. No school is going to discriminate against you because of your age. So if becoming a dentist is something you really want to do, then you should do it – at any age.

    No matter what age you are, it is important to remember that becoming a dentist can take eight years or more, depending on your current education level and if you’re going to go to school full-time. This is not to discourage anyone, but so you can better gauge how long it will take. It’s always best to have a realistic timeframe in mind when you decide to pursue any career path.

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Author

Kristin Kizer

Kristin Kizer is an award-winning writer, television and documentary producer, and content specialist who has worked on a wide variety of written, broadcast, and electronic publications. A former writer/producer for The Discovery Channel, she is now a freelance writer and delighted to be sharing her talents and time with the wonderful Zippia audience.

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