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Smiles at Fairfax Corner
4210 Fairfax Corner Ave W, Ste 220, Fairfax, VA 22030

A Guide to a Career in Dentistry

Dentistry is defined as the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of conditions and diseases of the mouth. This includes conditions that impact the craniomaxillofacial area. Some dental conditions can lead to major problems in other bodily systems. Dentists are well-trained medical professionals who must complete rigorous educational programs and pass national and state exams before they begin practicing. Dentists are not the only professionals in the field of dentistry, however.

Dentistry Degree Information

Dentists have either “D.D.S.” or “D.M.D.” listed after their names. “D.D.S.” stands for Doctor of Dental Surgery, while “D.M.D.” stands for Doctor of Medicine in Dentistry. No matter which letters are after their names, dentists receive the same training and education in dental school. It’s up to the school to decide what sorts of degrees they confer. Dental school requires education and clinical training that’s much like medical school. After a dentist receives their degree, they must pass national and state licensing examinations to begin practicing. Afterward, they must earn continuing education credits to maintain their license. Dental specialists like orthodontists also have to complete post-graduate training in those specific fields.

Degree Length

It takes people about eight years to become a dentist. The first four years are spent at college obtaining a bachelor’s degree. Then, they spend four years in dental school either earning a D.D.S. or a D.M.D. Students who know they want to become dentists during high school can apply to dental programs that combine undergraduate and dental degrees. These programs can take as little as six years to complete. They also mean that students don’t have to apply to dental school during their senior year of college. Students who want to specialize in a certain part of dentistry also will complete residencies where they learn these skills.

Shadowing a Dentist

High-schoolers who think they are interested in becoming a dentist as a career should consider shadowing a local dentist so that they can learn more about the day-to-day work of the job. Usually, a student’s own dentist is happy to help one of their patients explore becoming a dentist themselves. It’s also wise to reach out to family and friends to see if anyone knows a dentist who would be willing to let a student shadow them. If possible, it’s also a great idea to see if any dental office will let high-schoolers work as interns at the front desk or do other behind-the-scenes tasks so they can get some real-world experience working in the field.

Dental School Admission Requirements

Requirements differ from school to school, but getting into any dental school is very competitive. It’s important that students maintain high grades in their freshman and sophomore years of college. They should also take lots of science-based classes, even though dental school doesn’t require any specific undergraduate major. Many colleges have pre-dental clubs, and joining one will let students network and learn from other students pursuing dental school admission. Some schools also have pre-dental advising available to help students decide how to make the best choices to increase their chances of admission. It’s also a good idea to pick extracurricular activities that show an interest in dentistry, sciences, and caring for people. And one of the biggest requirements to get into dental school is the Dental Aptitude Test.

Dental Aptitude Test

All dental schools require applicants to take the Dental Admission Test (DAT) in order to be considered for admission. The DAT is a multiple-choice exam that tests students’ knowledge in four separate sections: Survey of the Natural Sciences, Perceptual Ability, Reading Comprehension, and Quantitative Reasoning. The test is scored on a scale of one to 30. Students may take the test more than once, but scores from all attempts will be sent to any dental school where they are seeking admission. It’s recommended that students take the test in the summer of their application year.


As of 2020, the average dentist made a total salary of almost $160,000. The top 25% of earners in the profession made more than $200,000, while the lowest-paid 25% of dentists made just more than $115,000. Where a dentist practices can have a large impact on their earnings. The best-paying city for dentists is Dover, New Hampshire, where the average dentist can earn a little more than $286,000.

Related Roles

Not every student wants to spend eight years preparing for a career, but not every career in the dental feel requires that much training. Students could also consider becoming a dental hygienists or a dental assistant. Dental hygienists usually oversee cleanings, have an associate degree, and can expect to make about $70,000 a year. Dental assistants are often the people who collect the patients from the waiting room and assist a dentist with any needed procedures. They also assist hygienists with cleanings. They make a little less than hygienists.

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