1. Get a bachelor's degree.
Keep dental school requirements in mind as an undergrad. Dental schools don't care if you major in science or obsess about being "pre-dental"—they know you'll learn how to become a dentist in dental school. Most programs seek well-rounded candidates who have studied a wide variety of subjects. So if you want to learn Greek, then learn it, geek. That being said, each dental school (there are just under 60) has specific requirements. Dental school requirements usually include classes in English, chemistry and organic chemistry, biochemistry, mathematics, physics, and biology or zoology. You can find a list of ADA (American Dental Association) approved dental schools here. Check out their requirements and make sure your undergrad program provides the classes you'll need.
2. Take the Dental School Admissions Test.
Figure 10.2 RateMyDentist.com pioneered the use of a tongue camera, but Christopher Walken's unsettling play-by-play commentary doomed the venture.
The DAT measures your potential to succeed in dental school. This test covers many of the required pre-dental classes you take as an undergrad, including chemistry, organic chemistry, and mathematics. If you want to become a dentist, you must score well on the DAT. It's a big deal. Indeed, this high-stakes test will prepare you for stressful situations like performing a root canal on a rabid, sexually excited monitor lizard. But there are plenty of good study materials that will ease your anxiety (see left). The ADA recommends taking a preparatory course, and they also supply practice items (which I don't pretend to understand) and even—for a price—practice tests. Usually, aspiring dentists take the DAT during their junior year of college.
3. Apply to dental schools.
Getting into dental school may be the hardest part of becoming a dentist. With only 59 accredited dental schools—and class sizes being very small—you'll need to be impressive. Chuck Norris impressive. You'll need to score well on the DAT, make an impression during the admissions interview, and write a face-melting personal statement (i.e., I want to become a dentist because . . . ). You'll also need to have scandalously positive recommendations from your professors. And you'll need to build a resume that shows you're well rounded, participate in extracurriculars or at least have hobbies, and have spent some time in a dentist's office either shadowing or otherwise. Volunteering in your community won't hurt your chances either. When should you apply to dental school? Most do it junior year.
4. Survive dental school.
Figure 10.3 Tired of uncooperative children, Dr. Grant began administering greater doses of nitrous oxide.
It's far more difficult than college. The course load will go from 32 credit hours per year in college to around 100 credit hours per year in dental school. The first year, it's mostly lecture and coursework and a lab here and there. By senior year you'll be working on patients (under supervision), striving to complete a certain number of cleanings, fillings, root canals, biopsies, etc. You'll come out of this challenging four-year experience a changed person.
The National Dental Boards 1 and 2 are the big, scary exams. These are monstrous tests you'll take during dental school to ensure everything you've learned has sunk in. And you won't be able to obtain a licence without passing them.
5. Pass the clinical exam.
You'll need to play dentist on real patients, in front of judges. It's the last big hurdle to becoming a dentist. You find some willing patients that qualify for the test, obtain your liability insurance, furnish your own dental equipment, and perform a series of procedures for the benefit of some expert dentists. It's difficult, and some people fail the first time around. But at this point in your professional development, you will know how to handle yourself and and the adversity of your elite profession.
6. Find a job, keep studying, or intern.
You're a dentist now, but not everyone goes right to work. Students who have done well in dental school might go on to study any one of the nine areas of specialization in dentistry—which means 2‒4 more years of school, but a higher income in the future. Other students purchase their own practice and begin chipping away at their debt. But not everyone can afford this move right away, and these dentists usually work in another dentist's office as an associate, putting away money for supplies and a practice. Still others polish their skills by taking a one-year residency in a hospital setting. At the end of the long journey to becoming a dentist, you'll have options.
How to Pay for Dental School
Dental school will cost you anywhere between $150,000 and $300,000, and that doesn't include the nickel-and-dime fees (that pile up to untold thousands) that you'll face at every stage in the process. Keep in mind that once you've become a dentist, your earning potential will allow you to handle this awesome bill without subsisting on Ramen noodles. But there are other ways to pay for dental school and avoid the mountain of debt. The military is one obvious option. The National Health Service Core is another, less dangerous route. They pay for your tuition, fees, books, equipment, and even living expenses in return for an equal amount of years of paid service in high-need areas. Another place to look is the ADA Foundation, which hands out scholarships and grants to qualified students. But the best thing you can do to save money is take it upon yourself to research and plan out your financial decisions carefully. The private companies that supply student loans DO NOT have your best interests in mind, after all.