How to Become a Dentist in 2024

April 8, 2024
10 min read


Reviewed by:

Jonathan Preminger

Former Admissions Committee Member, Hofstra-Northwell School of Medicine

Reviewed: 4/8/24

Are you considering a career in dentistry? Dentistry can be a fulfilling career for those who are passionate about oral health and hygiene. The educational path to becoming a dentist can be long and complex, but we’ve got you covered. Here is your complete step-by-step guide on how to become a dentist, from education to salary. 

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What’s It Like to Be a Dentist?

So, what can you expect from a career in dentistry? A day in the life of a dentist typically consists of an early start, reviewing patient files, and seeing 3-4 patients a day before heading home. 

Here are a few regular tasks that you can expect to complete as a dentist:

  • Reviewing patient files
  • Preparing for procedures
  • Seeing patients for consultations
  • Performing procedures (up to 10 a day)
  • Taking mental and physical breaks to ensure quality performance

Many dentists have reported fairly long work hours in the first few years, which can be draining at first. Hours typically become more flexible as you get to know your clients and gain more experience. Dentists generally report high levels of job satisfaction, especially after the first few years of adjusting and building a client base. 

Steps to Become a Dentist

Here is our step-by-step guide on how to become a dentist. 

Step 1: Complete an Undergraduate Degree

Most US and Canadian dental schools require applicants to complete a four-year bachelor’s degree; this is the first education requirement to become a dentist. Although certain schools will admit a few students during the final years of their undergrad, it is uncommon. 

During your undergraduate degree, you should create a list of dental school choices and prepare for them by completing the necessary prerequisite courses and gaining volunteer and work experience to add to your dental CV. 

Step 2: Take the DAT

The Dental Admissions Test is a computer-based multiple choice exam to assess necessary skills before applying for dental school. The test is 4.5 hours in length and includes material on the natural sciences, perceptual ability, reading comprehension, and quantitative reasoning. 

Most students take the DAT after they’ve taken all of their undergraduate prerequisite courses. This timeline still gives students many months before applying to dental school in case they need to retake the test. 

The DAT score ranges from 1-30, and a competitive score is 20 or higher. The test is administered year-round to give students ample opportunities to choose a date that best suits their schedule. 

Step 3: Complete Dental School

Once you’ve completed a bachelor’s degree and been accepted into a dental school, you can begin focusing on your passion. During your four years of dental school, you’ll take medical courses such as biology and anatomy, as well as specific dental courses like preventive dentistry and dental anatomy.

Throughout dental school, you will also spend time in labs gaining hands-on experience, shadowing, and performing basic procedures. After you have successfully earned a dentistry degree at a CODA accredited institution, you can move on to acquiring licensure. 

Step 4: Earn Your Dental License

Once you’ve earned your DMD or DDS degree, you can acquire your dental license by completing a written exam. Formerly, US dental licensure required successful completion of Part I and Part II NBDE exams, which have now been discontinued. 

To replace the NBDE, dental graduates must now take an Integrated National Board Dental Examination (INBDE). For more information on the updated examination, a detailed presentation can be found on the ADA’s website. 

Most U.S. licensing jurisdictions also require candidates to complete a clinical examination requirement. Clinical exams are typically administered by regional testing agencies. 

In clinical exams, candidates are faced with one or two dental-related problem solving tasks. For more information on clinical exams, check out the ADA’s information on the Dental Licensure Objective Structured Clinical Examination (DLOSCE).

Step 5: Complete a Specialty Residency (Optional)

If you want to specialize, you can attend a residency program after your dental degree. Dental specialty residency programs can take two to six years to complete, depending on the complexity of the material. Currently, there are twelve dental specialties recognized by the ADA:

  • 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

Although taking a dental specialty program adds years to your education, it can be worth it for passionate learners who want to focus on one area of dentistry. Specialists are also often compensated more than dentists who choose not to specialize and may have more job opportunities in the future. 

How Much Does It Cost To Become a Dentist?

Here’s a general overview of how much it costs to become a dentist:

Expense Type Cost
Tuition & Fees $140,000-$386,000
Textbooks and Equipment $11,000-$34,000
Living Expenses $109,000-$160,000
Exam fee At least $845
Total Range $260,000-$581,000

Please note that these prices reflect the cost of an entire DDS program, not its yearly costs. Let’s break down these costs further:


The average cost of dental school tuition in the US ranges from $53,000 to $120,000 per year for private and out-of-state schools. However, these numbers can vary greatly depending on a number of factors. 

In-state schools will always cost less, and most dental schools increase tuition each year of your degree. For example, public schools can cost anywhere from $30,000 to $60,000 per year for in-state students. 

Application Fees

Application fees should also be factored into your dental school budget. The more schools you apply to, the more costly your application fees will be. The ADEA AADSAS has an initial application fee of $264 for your first school and charges $115 for each additional application. 

Cost of Living & Transportation 

Another important addition to your dental school budget is the cost of living and transportation. First year students often choose to live in residence on campus, which can be a great way to meet fellow students but may be costly. Living in residence can help you save on transportation fees. 

Depending on your area, finding a rental space near your school may be less expensive than living in residence. To make the comparison, search for the average cost of living in your state and compare them to the cost of residence at your target schools.

Other Expenses

Depending on where you choose to attend school, you may have to account for some added expenses. Flights home, for example, can become a bit of a financial burden for international or out-of-state students. Your budget should also account for materials such as: 

  • Textbooks
  • Writing materials 
  • Personal computer
  • Other necessary equipment

How Much Money Do Dentists Make?

According to the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the median salary of dentists is $159,530. The average income for a dentist depends on a number of factors, including education, specialty, experience, and geography. Dentists typically work full-time hours, with longer hours in the first year or two of their careers.

The highest earning dental specialties are oral and maxillofacial surgery, with an average annual salary of $311,460. As for the future of dentist salaries, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 4% employment growth for dentists between 2022 and 2032. In that period, an estimated 6,800 jobs should open up.

Other Considerations

Now that we’ve covered the essential steps to becoming a dentist, let’s talk about what it’s like once you’re practicing. Here are some considerations for future dentists.

Job Satisfaction

Dental professionals report varying levels of job satisfaction. Seasoned dental professionals often report high job satisfaction, while new dentists report having a harder time. 

One contributing factor to low levels of job satisfaction can be a lack of respect in the medical world. Although dentists take similar education programs and are highly trained professionals, they are often not treated as such. On top of this, many people do not like going to the dentist, which can be difficult for dentists to deal with throughout the week.

Dentists report higher job satisfaction the longer they’ve been practicing. Over the years, patient relationships become well established, hours become more regular, and salaries increase. The more comfortable dentists become in their positions, the more satisfied they generally are with their choice of career.


As mentioned above, you should expect long work hours in the first few years. Seven to twelve hour work days are normal, with most dentists racking up 36 hours or more a week. 

As you establish your client base and gain more experience, your hours will become more normal and even more flexible. Dentists report a generally stable pace around the five-year mark. 

Chair-Side Manner

One of the most important parts of being a successful dentist is your chair-side manner. As a dentist, you will be spending a lot of time getting to know your patients. Many people do not feel comfortable going to the dentist, so a big part of your job is to ease your patient’s anxiety by adopting an approachable yet professional manner. 

Your chair-side manner can also determine how many long-term patients you’ll have. Patients may decide to keep coming back to see you simply because they enjoy the way you talk to them, or the little gifts you let them take home. 

How to Become a Dentist: FAQs

Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions on how to become a dentist. 

1. How Long Does It Take To Become A Dentist?

It takes eight years to become a dentist: four years in a bachelor’s degree, and four years in dental school. If you choose to specialize, you’ll need to attend a residency program, which can add two to six years to your education.

2. Is Dental School Worth It?

Sometimes it can be challenging to decide whether or not to go to dental school. To ease your decision, try attending a pre-dental program, shadowing, or volunteering in a dental setting. Being a dentist can be a great career choice if you are passionate about healthcare and enjoy interacting with patients.

3. What Is The Annual Salary Of A Dentist?

The median annual salary of dentists in the US is $159,530. Salary varies depending on your education, specialty, experience, location, and individual employer.

4. Do You Have To Complete A Bachelor’s Degree Before Dental School?

Most dental schools require applicants to have completed a four year bachelor’s degree. However, some schools allow select students to begin dental school in the final years of their bachelor’s degree.

5. What Are The Types Of Dental Specialties?

The twelve ADA recognized dental specialties are: 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, and Prosthodontics.

6. What Are The Prerequisites For Dental School?

The general prerequisite courses for dental school are one year (with lab) of biology, general chemistry, organic chemistry, and physics. Sometimes more science, anatomy, and English courses are also required.

7. Do Dental Schools Have Supplemental Essays?

Yes, dental schools do often have supplemental essays. Many dental schools request applicants to write brief secondary essays to help them get to know their applicants better before inviting them for interviews. 

8. Is Residency Required In Becoming a Dentist?

No, general dentists are not required to complete any residency program after dental school to begin practicing. However, if you choose to specialize, you will have to complete a residency program in that specialty. These residencies typically last one to two years.

Final Thoughts

Becoming a dentist is an excellent career choice for individuals who are passionate about healthcare and enjoy interacting with patients on a daily basis. If you’re thinking of becoming a dentist, you should be prepared to attend at least eight years of school or more, if you choose to specialize. 

If you’re having trouble deciding if dentistry is right for you, try attending a pre-dental program or shadowing a dentist to get a better idea of what to expect as a future dentist. 

Good luck!

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