Steps to Getting into Dental School and Becoming a Dentist in USA
The path to becoming a dentist in USA is long, not only in terms of years but also in terms of the number of hoops you must jump through. There is a seemingly endless list of dental school requirements to meet, such as completing prerequisites, maintaining a high GPA and a strong DAT score, dental volunteering, community service, and so on. But getting into dental school isn’t as simple as checking a bunch of boxes based on generic guides.
You must perform well to impress admissions committees, especially if you want to be admitted to the best dental programs. Otherwise, you risk being stereotyped as a predental student. Plus, you don’t have a lot of free time to do everything. The prerequisites for dental school alone necessitate a great deal of attention. As a result, efficiency is critical during your undergraduate years and possibly beyond. You will need to know where to concentrate your efforts and where to avoid devoting too much time.
Many predental students have difficulty with the latter. It’s easy to look around and think that you have to take the same courses and participate in the same extracurriculars as everyone else to get into dental school. If you’re a busy predental student who is curious about dental school requirements, how many years to become a dentist, the best dental schools in the US, how to get into dental school, and the dental school acceptance rates.
Then, this is the dental school guide for you. Happy reading!
How to get into Dental School: A four-year Dental School Guide
There is no single formula or procedure to follow to gain admission to dental school. The next steps to take will be determined by where you are on your path to becoming a dentist in USA, whether you are a high school student, a college senior, or a nontraditional applicant looking to change careers. If you are still in high school, we recommend that you begin by reading our guide on how to become a dentist, which provides an overview of the admissions process ahead of you as well as ways to begin preparing in high school.
This guide will also cover admissions strategies tailored to nontraditional applicants. While the following section provides prospective dental students with a four-year dental school timeline, the information provided applies to all applicants. No matter where you are in the process, the suggestions and milestones listed below can help you plan your path to dental school.
Freshman and Sophomore Year of College
Our recommendations for what to focus on during the two years preceding your pre-application year are as follows:
1. Achieve good grades.
Whether you plan to major in the sciences or not, your freshman and sophomore GPAs will be considered in your application for dental school. Excel in all areas and cultivate long-term, good study habits.
2. Create a strategy and timetable for covering DAT topics and taking the DAT.
The DAT is taken by the majority of students between the summer after their sophomore year and the summer after their junior year. Dental school applications open in late May/early June, so if you’re applying to dental school directly from college, you should have completed the DAT by the end of June of your application year. You can, however, begin working on your dental school application and even submit it without your DAT scores, but schools will not consider your application complete until the scores are received.
To do well on the DAT, you should have completed general chemistry, organic chemistry, and general biology coursework. Molecular and cell biology, human anatomy and physiology, biochemistry, mathematics, zoology, evolutionary biology, genetics, and physics are all classes that can be beneficial. We also recommend that you take a practice DAT by your sophomore year to assess your strengths and weaknesses and to see where additional coursework could help supplement your knowledge.
3. Make an appointment with the pre-dental advising office.
Although not every college or university has a pre-dental advisor, the majority of schools provide some form of pre-professional advising. Use this office to help you decide on a major or to connect with alumni in the dental field.
4. Become a member of the pre-dental club.
Many colleges and universities have a pre-dental club where students can interact with dentists and learn about the dental profession. In addition to meeting working dentists through the club, you might enjoy leading the club—a great extracurricular experience—or starting one if one does not already exist.
5. Take part in meaningful pre-dental extracurricular activities.
The majority of extracurricular activities on your dental school application will be drawn from your undergraduate experiences. It is not recommended that you include your high school experiences in your application for dental school. Many students wonder which extracurricular activities are most important for admission to dental school. Understanding the specific ADEA AADSAS application format can assist you in selecting the most meaningful extracurricular activities to strengthen your application.
The dental school application includes a section for “supporting information,” which includes a list of extracurricular activities with descriptions. Below are the descriptions as they appear on the dental application, as well as suggestions for how to approach each type of activity.
Academic enrichment programs, such as the Summer Medical and Dental Education Program and the Summer Health Professions Education Program, are sponsored by colleges, universities, or other non-profit organizations. Most of the best dental schools in the US provide enrichment programs that range from one day to several months in length. The American Dental Education Association keeps a calendar of enrichment programs and events that can help you narrow down your options.
Furthermore, many dental schools hold several pre-dental days throughout the year where you can interact with students, learn about the school, meet faculty and administration, and even work in a dental school simulation lab using a real handpiece to drill on a fake tooth. Look for these!
This refers to either paid or unpaid work in a dental field where you observed patient care (shadowing), interacted with practitioners, or was in charge of patient care. Most dental schools require shadowing or work experience in the dental field, and you must report the total number of hours you have worked. For each shadowing or work experience, you must include the specific office or dentist as well as contact information to keep track of your experiences and hours.
Some schools do not specify a minimum number of hours required, while others do, with the vast majority of schools requiring between 30 and 100 hours. To be competitive, we recommend obtaining at least 150 hours of dental experience, which should include time spent in a general dentist’s office and at least one specialist’s office. Check with the specific schools you’re interested in to learn about their admissions requirements.
This refers to paid work performed outside of the dental field or a research lab, such as retail or restaurant work. Previous employment may be more important for nontraditional applicants, as discussed further below. However, if you’re applying from undergrad, anything will do—work-study, a job waiting tables, or working as a counselor at a summer camp, etc.
This refers to related activities that you would like your chosen programs to review, such as academic clubs and competitive teams. This section, do not include any paid work experience. As you’ve probably heard, when applying to colleges and the like, you should look for opportunities to lead rather than just participate, and find at least three meaningful extracurricular activities that demonstrate your leadership abilities.
Above all, you want to demonstrate that you will not only be a good and dedicated dentist but that you are also preparing yourself to manage a staff in a practice or work well with others. So, even if it does not appear to be immediately relevant, something like the track team could be relevant to your career in dentistry.
Any experience working on a research project, preferably in addition to or outside of regular classroom work, qualifies. Positions for student researchers, research technicians, summer research students, master’s rotational students, and so on. Having your name on a significant publication in any field of research, particularly health or biological sciences, is ideal, but not always possible. We recommend completing at least six months of research with the same faculty member or lab.
This, once again, demonstrates your readiness for the science curriculum that awaits you in dental school. We would like to draw your attention to the following note from the ADEA website: Although research experience is not required for admission to dental school, it may add an extra layer to your application if the institutions you are applying to have a research focus or if you are particularly interested in research.
Most schools recognize that not all students can gain research experience before entering dental school because not all undergraduate institutions offer research opportunities. You should research if you are interested in it, not just to improve your chances of admission to dental school. While many students believe that lab research is the most important, social science research is equally fascinating and valuable.
Volunteer work done outside of the dental field, such as Habitat for Humanity, tutoring students, participating in or organizing a fundraising walk or blood drive, and so on. Three hours of non-dental volunteer and community service is required. ADEA suggests the following six opportunities as examples:
i. Habitat for Humanity
ii. College clubs and service organizations
iii. Church involvement
iv. Community centres
v. Soup kitchens
vi. Homeless shelters
6. Get a job in a dental office or train to be a dental assistant.
Trying something out is one of the best ways to find out if you like it. Part-time employment in a dental office is possible in a variety of roles ranging from working at the front desk to becoming a dental assistant. Every state has its laws and regulations governing dental assistants, and in many states, on-the-job training is sufficient. Check the website of the Dental Assisting National Board to see what is required in your state.
If you live in a state that requires licensure, dental assisting programs can be completed in as little as eight weeks. As you begin talking to dentists, inquire if they require any assistance in their office. This first-hand experience will be extremely beneficial when writing your personal statement and interviewing for dental school, and it will demonstrate to dental admissions committees that you are passionate about the field of dentistry.
Junior Year of College (or the Pre-application Year)
If you do not intend to take a gap year, your junior year is crucial in the dental school application process. This is frequently the year when students take the DAT, manage a heavy load of upper-division science courses, write their personal statement, and submit their AADSAS application. All of this must be done while maintaining good grades, participating in extracurricular activities, and gaining valuable dental experience through shadowing or work. In addition, the following are key milestones that are frequently completed during the junior year:
1. Sit for the DAT.
Most students require between two and six months of preparation to perform well on the DAT. There are numerous resources available to you, both in-person and online, to help you prepare for the DAT. Make a detailed study plan and stay disciplined in your approach and preparation. Remember that you should take the DAT by late June of your application year to have your application submitted in time for the first round of interview offers in September and October.
2. Request recommendation letters.
Contact potential recommenders no later than three months before your application’s deadline. So, if you intend to submit your application on June 1st when submissions begin, you should secure your references by March 1st. You can submit up to four letters of recommendation through the AADSAS, including individual letters and composite/committee letters. Previously, composite/committee letters replaced three individual letters; however, as of the 2021–2022 application cycle, composite/committee letters count as one letter.
Check the different dental school requirements to which you intend to apply, as each school has its own set of requirements for the types of letters required.
3. Create a personal statement.
Six months before applying to dental school, start brainstorming and writing your personal statement. While the personal statement is relatively short (4,500 characters including spaces), producing a high-quality statement can take several months. Aim to complete the first draft of your personal statement by April of the application year so that you have enough time to edit and revise before submitting it in June or July.
4. Perform the Casper test (optional).
A few dental schools require Casper, a situational judgment test that evaluates traits such as professionalism, ethics, communication, and empathy. Some schools may also require you to complete Snapshot, a video response tool that is used in conjunction with Casper as part of a trio of assessments known as Altus Suite (the third component of Altus Suite, Duet, is not relevant to dental schools). If you plan to apply to dental schools that require Casper, you should register for the exam in April or May and take it no later than late June.
You want your scores to reach schools by the time you submit your AADSAS application, which typically takes 2–3 weeks, so work backward from the date you want to submit your AADSAS application to determine your ideal test date. Casper should be completed by early May for those who want to submit AADSAS as soon as possible (June 1st). Here is a list of dental schools that accept Casper (as of June 2021):
- Boston University (optional)
- California Northstate University
- Case Western Reserve University
- Indiana University
- Temple University (required for those invited to interview)
- University of Louisville
- University of California San Francisco (encouraged)
- The University of Missouri–Kansas City (encouraged)
- University of Utah
5. Submit the AADSAS application as well as any supplemental applications.
The AADSAS application will be available on May 11th, with submissions starting on June 1st. You can use the next few weeks to prepare, review, and polish your application before submitting it. (Please keep in mind that if you are applying to dental schools in Texas, you must do so through the Texas Medical & Dental Schools Application Service (TMDSAS), which has its timeline.) The TMDSAS application will be available on May 3rd, and you will be able to submit your application starting on May 17th.
Make sure to review the TMDSAS website to ensure you understand any additional dental school requirements that the TMDSAS application process may have.) Most dental schools review applications on a rolling basis, which means they are reviewed as they come in. As a result, it’s critical to submit your application as soon as possible, before interview slots fill up. Set a goal and a timeline for submitting your AADSAS application by July 15th of your application summer.
Each dental school will have a supplemental application in addition to your AADSAS application, which can be sent to all dental schools you apply to. In some cases, this entails simply paying a small fee and answering a few simple questions. However, most schools also require several additional essays. The sooner you submit your AADSAS application, the sooner you can start working on your supplemental applications. ADEA has traditionally published a yearly list of all dental schools and whether or not a supplemental application is required. Make use of this list as soon as possible.
(Note: The ADEA’s most recent “supplemental report” applies to the 2019–2020 application year. You can use this report as a starting point, but make sure to cross-reference the information with individual dental school websites. When a new report is released, we will update this dental school guide.)
Senior Year of College (Application year)
1. Interviews for dental school.
Interviews should take place in the fall and early winter of your application year—in some cases, right in the middle of your senior year. Most schools begin interviews in September and can continue until April of the following year. However, because most dental schools accept applications on a rolling basis, you should ideally have a strong application that gets you invited to interviews in September, October, and November. This is when schools typically invite the most qualified candidates, who have the best chance of being admitted.
2. Determine where you will attend dental school.
December 1st, also known as “Decision Day,” is traditionally the first day that dental schools begin sending acceptance letters depending on the dental school acceptance rate. The ADEA advises that if December 1st falls on a weekend, applicants should expect to hear back on the following Monday. On December 1st, many dental schools send out admissions notifications via email throughout the day. Some dental schools call students personally to extend admission offers. Others continue to use snail mail.
Check your junk mail and voicemail to make sure you’re ready to receive these offers.
If you do not hear from any schools by December 1st, it does not mean that your dream of attending dental school has come to an end. The majority of the top dental schools in the US do not fill their entire class on Decision Day and will continue to extend interviews and offer admissions until they do. Most programs will continue to send offers until March or even April, as waitlists move and students admitted to multiple programs make their decisions.
Bottom line: while it would be ideal to receive that offer on December 1st, it may occur later. Finally, after receiving an offer, you usually have 30 days to respond. To secure your seat in the class, most schools require a financial deposit, usually between $500 and $1000. If you receive your offer in January, February, or March, you may only have 10 days to accept it. Make a list of your top options so you can prioritize and make a quick decision.
If you have an offer but it is not from your top school, pay up and reserve your seat at your second-choice school, then wait and hope to hear back from your first-choice school. If you receive a yes from your dream school later, you can always change your mind—but you will forfeit your deposit. It’s probably a good idea to pay a three- or four-figure sum to ensure a safety net.
Nontraditional Dental School Applicants
According to a 2011 article in the Journal of Dental Education, nearly 80% of dental school enrollees in 2009 were between the ages of 22 and 25. The majority of these students are considered “traditional,” meaning that they pursued a pre-dental path during their undergraduate studies and applied to dental school either during their senior year or after taking a gap year. However, the same study found that 6.5% of dental school enrollees were over the age of 30.
Nontraditional applicants typically decided to pursue a career in dentistry near the end of, or after, their undergraduate studies, and frequently after beginning careers in completely different fields. The following are a few examples of nontraditional applicants:
Juan started college as a premed student, but after shadowing a doctor, he quickly realized that medicine was not for him and switched to business. During his senior year, he had a pre-dental roommate who inspired him to pursue a career in dentistry.
Eliana, a 24-year-old dental hygienist, does not have a bachelor’s degree. She has decided to attend dental school after five years of working in a dental office.
James, a 27-year-old investment banker, has a bachelor’s degree in economics. After several years of working long hours, he has decided to make a career change to pursue a career that allows him to keep his high earning potential while also providing a better work-life balance that is more conducive to starting a family.
These are just a few examples of nontraditional applicants; there are hundreds of other stories that qualify as nontraditional paths into dentistry. Nontraditional students face additional challenges in the pre-dental track, which can be difficult for “traditional” applicants. While many of the steps are the same as for traditional applicants, the most difficult part is creating your unique timeline outside of the traditional four-year college plan. For traditional applicants, refer to the information above as well as the summary of key milestones below:
1. Learn about dental school requirements and prerequisite coursework.
As a nontraditional applicant, you do not have the advantage of preparing for dental school applications during your undergraduate years. To understand the application process and develop a plan to complete the requirements, review the information about the requirements provided above in this blog as well as the ADEA AADSAS website.
2. Complete the prerequisites for dental school.
Prerequisite courses are frequently the most difficult aspect for nontraditional applicants, particularly those who are currently working and unable to attend classes full-time. Prerequisites can be completed in as little as two years if you already have a bachelor’s degree; however, a three-year plan is more reasonable. You should plan your chemistry courses first, as you will need two semesters of general chemistry followed by two semesters of organic chemistry.
Remember that physics is not on the DAT, so you can take it after you have submitted your application and are in the interview process.
3. Take the DAT exam.
Create a detailed plan and timeline for taking the DAT. You can take the DAT as late as the summer before you plan to apply, but because admissions are on a rolling basis, you should ideally have your application completed and submitted by mid-July. Although you can submit the rest of your application before taking the DAT, most schools will not consider your application complete until they receive your DAT scores, which can take up to six weeks after you take it.
4. Acquire dental experience.
Some nontraditional applicants have dental backgrounds, such as working as a dental hygienist or dental assistant and will thus have more than enough experience in the dental field. If this isn’t your cup of tea, look for opportunities on how to become a dentist in USA or study in the best dental schools in the US. Depending on where you live, you could work as a front-office receptionist or a dental assistant in a relatively short time.
5. Make use of your experience.
As a nontraditional applicant, you will have a different background than most applicants who followed the traditional path to dental school. Instead of hiding your background, find ways to highlight the experiences you gained and the increased clarity you now have about why you want to pursue a degree in dentistry. If you approach your application methodically, you will be able to demonstrate your increased maturity and life experience, which will likely impress admissions committees and provide interesting material to discuss during your interviews.
How to Apply to Dental School Again
If you did not get into dental school despite applying the previous cycle, examine your application again with a critical eye to identify potential flaws and improve your chances of admission to dental school the second time around. Use the extra year to improve any aspects of your application that have been holding you back. For example, if your DAT score was below average, retaking the DAT and improving your score would be a wise investment. If you don’t have a lot of dental experience, look for a job in a dental office.
Consider enrolling in a pre-dental-specific post-baccalaureate program if your GPA is low. Finally, create an entirely new personal statement that incorporates elements and experiences gained during your extra year. Do everything you can to improve your application, as this will demonstrate to admissions committees your dedication to becoming a dentist.
Because of the significant work and effort required, the application process for how to get into dental school can appear daunting. It will all be worth it, however, when you receive an offer of admission to the dental school of your dreams. Make a plan to achieve high grades and a high DAT score, gain relevant dental experiences, and write high-quality dental school application essays—and then stick to it. You will have the letters DDS or DMD after your name before you know it.
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