A Look Into the Dental Education System

September 1, 2021

You trust your dentist with your oral health, from dental cleanings to fillings to root canals. As such, you may be curious about the dental education system. Learning more about the type of education that dentists receive should give you more confidence in the treatment that they provide.

A Quick Overview

If you just want a quick summary, then know that dentists start with an undergraduate degree. Many, but not all, choose to major in a relevant field, such as pre-dentistry or pre-medicine. After that, they study for an additional four years to earn a dental degree. If a dentist wants to specialize, they will have several years of residency in their chosen specialization after this.

A Closer Look at Dental School Admissions

It is incredibly competitive to get into dental school. The good news for dental students is that there is an online application from the American Association of Dental Schools Application Service that most dental schools accept. This lets students fill out a single application and apply to multiple schools.

Educational Prerequisites

The exact educational prerequisites to apply to dental school will depend on the school. While most dental school applications have already completed an undergraduate degree, some dental schools do not require it. Most will require students to have completed at least 90 credits.

However, they will all require at least several courses in science. If a student majors in science, that is typically a plus.

Those applying to dental school typically need to have eight credit hours in each biology, general chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, and English. The first three of these typically have to include labs.

As mentioned, there is no requirement for the major a student completes in their undergraduate study, as long as they meet the science requirements. That said, some undergraduate degrees are more common than others. These include:

  • Biological sciences
  • Physiological sciences
  • Pre-dental

The Dental Admissions Test

Students must take the Dental Admission Test (DAT) and submit their scores along with their application. The test has 280 questions and takes five hours to complete. The exam is scored out of 30 points, with the average score being 19.9.

To do well on the test, students typically need to have finished at least a year of biology, general chemistry, and organic chemistry at the college level. In addition to scientific comprehension, the test also measures perceptual ability and students’ general academic ability.

Dental students typically take this more than a year before they apply to dental school. For most students, this means they will take it during their junior year.

Other Important Parts of the Application

Like any other graduate school application, dental schools typically also look at the applicant’s GPA from their undergraduate degree and ask for letters of recommendation. Many programs have a minimum GPA of 3.2, but many students have higher grades. Most also require personal interviews.

It is also worth noting that the American Dental Association reports that more than 90% of dental students have student loans to help pay for their education.

A Closer Look at Dental School

Dental students look for dental schools that have American Dental Association accreditation. Depending on the school, students graduate with a Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD) or Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS). These two degrees are exactly the same, with the only difference being their name. They have the same educational requirements, and when a dentist completes either degree, they are in the same position.

According to the ADA, the organization’s Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) currently accredits more than 60 schools. Each of those was carefully chosen after rigorous evaluation.

Classroom Learning

The first two years of dental school mainly take place in the classroom or laboratory. Students learn about dental treatment techniques, dental diagnosis, oral pathology, and more.

The following are some of the topics typically studied at dental school:

  • Anesthesia and pain management
  • Dental development and anatomy
  • Microbiology and promoting oral health
  • Oral health and nutrition
  • Oral surgery

Practical Experience

The last two years of dental school involve practical experience. This is frequently in the form of externships with dental rotations. These externships give future dentists the chance to treat patients while under the supervision of licensed dentists. As such, these externships are usually in dental clinics.


If a dentist chooses to, they can also choose a specialty. Some examples include pediatric dentistry, maxillofacial surgery, and orthodontics.

The length of education required for specialties varies based on the specialty. Most of these will take an extra two to six years. They also frequently include residencies to provide future dentists with even more practical experience.

The American Dental Association recognizes the following specialties:

  • Dental public health
  • Oral and maxillofacial pathology
  • Periodontics
  • Oral and maxillofacial radiology
  • Prosthodontics
  • Orthodontics and dentofacial orthopedics
  • Oral and maxillofacial surgery
  • Pediatric dentistry
  • Endodontics

Passing the Dental Licensure Exams

Just because someone graduates from dental school, that does not mean that they are a dentist. They also have to pass the relevant dental licensure exams. There will always be a clinical examination and a written test. To even qualify to take the exam, students must have graduated from one of the ADA-accredited graduate schools.

Each state has its own requirements, so the test can vary slightly. That said, most states have very similar requirements for licensure.

The Joint Commission on National Dental Examination administers the National Board of Dental Examinations. It includes a range of topics, including dental anatomy, biomedical science, ethics, clinical dental practice, patient management, and more.

Bonus: A Quick Look at Dental Assistant Education

Dental assistants can complete their education at a university, dental school, community college, technical institute, or vocational school. Most programs take between nine and eleven months to finish. There are also part-time and accelerated options. Importantly, the dental assistant program must be accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation. There are currently 270 programs fitting that requirement.

After completing their education, students need to become certified. This usually involves getting national certification by passing the Certified Dental Assistant examination from the Dental Assisting National Board. Taking that exam requires completing an accredited program or having on-the-job training.

To learn more about our dentist and dental offices in Chicago, contact American Dental today!



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