Students wondering how to become a dentist must know that this vocation is not an easy one. Dental school acceptance rates in the US and Canada show how challenging this career path can be. We are here to help you learn everything there is to know about becoming a dentist, including application procedures, requirements, responsibilities, as well as pros and cons of this rewarding profession!
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What Does a Dentist Do?
Dentists are unique professionals who diagnose, treat, and care for the health of human teeth and gums. Some of their most common duties include removing and filling of cavities, sealing and whitening of teeth, and providing education about preventative health to patients about flossing, diet, and oral hygiene. To be full-scope professionals, dentists must be able to perform multiple different procedures including administering local anesthetics, reading X rays, and making models for dentures or appliances. Dentists use a variety of equipment such as drills, probes, scalpels, X rays, and lasers to carry out their duties, making their specialty highly procedurally based. Some make implants, others are specialized to pediatrics and others practice general community dentistry.
Dentists work with other healthcare professionals including dental hygienists, dental assistants and receptionists to run a clinic. They perform multiple roles to conduct a general dentistry clinic.
Job Outlook and Salary
Dentists have a very low unemployment rate and are some of the highest paid doctors in the US and Canada. Their income varies by location, experience, and specialty. The average salary of a general dentist in Canada is $126,000 per year and $161,000 per year in the United States. The salaries are higher among those practicing speciality dentistry, such as oral maxillofacial with the average salary was $279,000 per year in Canada and $208, 000 per year in the United States.
Dentists’ incomes continue to be listed above the median salary in the United States and Canada, and higher than the median pay for healthcare practitioners. Even without pursuing a dental subspecialty, this career provides a comfortable lifestyle.
The unemployment rate for dentists in Canada remains quite low at 0.9%, which is much lower than the general unemployment rate of 5.8%. Similar trend is noted in the United States, where dentists’ unemployment rate is at 0.3%. Most dentists are self-employed in their own clinic, which contributes to the variability in income. Furthermore, the dentistry field is expected to grow 3 percent within the next 10 years, likely due to an aging population and increased focus on preventative health.
The shortage of dentists continues across Canada, allowing for flexibility in location. The average age of dentists in Canada is 47, with an average age of retirement of 65. According to the latest statistics, there are around 26, 800 people working as dentists in Canada. Taking into account the population growth and the need for replacements of retired dentists, around 12 200 dentists will need to graduate from dental schools in Canada within the next few years, yet only 7000 expected graduates.
How to Become a Dentist: Before Dental School
Let's go over a step by step guide to understand how you can become a dentist in North America.
Some people know early on what they want to do in their career and take steps throughout their academic journey to pursue the courses and programs to support their aspirations.
High school may be the time during which some may consider dentistry. In high school, it is best to take courses that support your post-secondary options. This means it is important to take math and science courses to allow you to enroll in the dental and medical school prerequisites that will be listed below.
Throughout your journey, seek opportunities to ask those who are in dental school or dentistry lots of questions. These can be career exploration sessions, career mentorship, or one-on-one formal or informal discussions with dentists or dental students. Ask questions about their journey to dentistry, the pros and cons of the industry and career highlights to make an informed decision.
As you transition to college or university, enroll in courses to gain the needed knowledge. It will be important to take introductory biology and chemistry courses. The prerequisites will vary from school to school; however, the typical requirements include:
Some schools will require some of the following:
Despite having science requirements for application to dental school, no particular majors are required. Most people complete a degree in science; however, you can choose to pursue the course of study you like. It is important to pursue a degree which you are passionate about and enjoy in order to do well academically and attain a high GPA. Most degrees require the completion of courses in other faculties, and these can be used to fulfill the scientific requirements of the dental school application if you are not majoring in science.
In post-secondary, take the opportunity to explore the field. Join the student dental association, volunteer in related areas such as clinics or hospitals or even look for relevant work experience. Do some shadowing to get a better understanding of the career and have one-on-one conversations with dentists to understand the pros and cons of the field. Given the time required and financial burden of completing dental school, it is important to feel confident in your decision to pursue a physically and academically rigorous program. After completing the biology and chemistry courses, begin considering the dental aptitude examination (DAT). It can be challenging to devote time to study and prepare for the examination during the academic terms and it may require time during the spring or summer to feel confident in completing the DAT.
At this point, you must also begin considering the non-academic requirements of the application including volunteer and work experiences and the methods of securing strong letters of recommendation.
Dental School Application Requirements
There are a few important components of the dental school application in both Canada and the United States that you must prepare for. These include the dental aptitude test, academic performance, letters of reference, dental school personal statements, supplemental information, and the interview. All of these components have a great effect on the dental school acceptance rates.
Dental Aptitude Test
The dental aptitude test is an admission test required by most dental programs in North America. It is a high stakes examination that requires preparation, and you should plan to take the exam at least 1 year before starting dental school. The dental aptitude test score is required as part of the application process to Canadian dental schools and most of the US dental schools, however, it only accounts for a proportion of your overall application.
The exam is held twice per year in November and February across North America and focuses on assessing both academic knowledge and psychomotor abilities required to excel in dental school. The examination has 4 components:
Firstly, the manual dexterity test focuses on psychomotor abilities of dentistry. It requires carving a model out of a bar of soap. You have 30 minutes to complete the task.
Next is the written components of the exam broken in 3 sections. In the natural science section, there is a focus on biology and general chemistry based on content in introductory science courses. You will have 60 minutes to answer 70 questions, 40 from biology and 30 from general chemistry.
Next will be the perceptual ability section with six subtests of apertures, view recognition, angle discrimination, paper folding, cube counting, and 3D form development. These are the skills required to perform as a dentist, especially in the variety of appliances and molds in the field. There are 90 questions in this section, and you will have 60 minutes to answer them.
Last is the reading comprehension test. For this section there are 3 passages that test your ability to read and comprehend written text and subsequently analyze the text to determine themes and main ideas. Previous understanding of the topics is not required and thus each passage is novel to applicants. There are 50 questions with 50 minutes to complete this section.
For more information about the DAT, please refer to the Canadian dental association.
For more information about the DAT in the United States, please click here.
You will also be required to submit your academic history. This usually takes form of your official transcripts from all post-secondary education. This is used to ensure you have completed the pre-requisite courses and to calculate your cumulative GPA. For this reason, it is important to choose courses you are interested in and able to excel in.
Letters of Recommendation
Next are the letters of recommendation. Most dental school programs require 3 letters of recommendation. These letters are used to highlight your non-academic abilities and emphasize your personal attributes. For this reason, it is important to consider these early in the process of applying to dental school. Give your recommenders at least 8 weeks to write your letter.
To speak about your personal attributes and strengths, your referee needs to have a good understanding of you as a person. Oftentimes, at least one reference needs to be from a university instructor, and one needs to be from someone from a volunteer or employment role you have held. Think about who could speak to your attributes related to dentistry and approach them early to provide them with ample time to write a strong letter of support. Taking opportunities to engage in research, volunteer with student organizations or community organizations, especially related to helping others, and relevant work experiences can provide you with connections who can write strong letters of recommendation for you. If your recommender asks you to draft a letter for them, learn how to write your own letter of recommendation.
Dental School Personal Statements
Some schools will require a personal statement outlining what makes you an exceptional applicant for dental school. It is important to highlight 2-3 experiences you have had and their relevance to dental school. Take the time to consider your past experiences and begin writing some notes about these in small sections before tackling the essay as a whole. It is very common to write multiple drafts of a letter until you feel satisfied with the result. Make sure to have others read your statement for cohesiveness, structure, and grammar. If you need help, you can always reach out to a dental school advisor or medical school advisor for help.
Dental school personal statements must follow the structure of an academic essay. If you are applying through AADSAS, the essays are typically 4,500 characters long. Remember, it's important to be selective about the experiences and events you include in your statement. Your essay must show, rather than simply tell why you are the right fit for dentistry.
Are you applying to dental school? Get some tips from our video:
The last section of the online application is the supplemental information. This takes many forms, but the goal is to provide your volunteer and work experience. Depending on the application system, there is often a word limit for each entry, which requires your writing to be succinct. Focus on your role and the skills and attributes developed from the experience. This is not unlike the AMCAS Work and Activities section, which outlines your extracurriculars for medical school.
Based on your online application, the admissions committee will make the decision whether to move you on to the interview stage of the selection process. The interview will either take a multiple mini-interview (MMI) format, traditional format, or a panel interview format with the aim to assess your judgment, communication skills, and skills related to dental school and dentistry.
First of all, you must go over dental school interview questions. These will help you prepare for dental specific questions that are bound to surface during your interview. Don't forget to practice with MMI questions before your interview and review common interview questions like "tell me about yourself" and "what is your greatest weakness" before your meeting with the admissions committee.
Check out some of the most difficult dental school interview questions in our video:
Successful applicants will then be offered acceptance to dental schools. There are 2 types of dental degrees – Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) and Doctor of Medicine in Dentistry (DMD). In Canada, all dental programs are DDS, whereas in the United States there are both DDS and DMD programs. However, both DDS and DMD provides the same skillset and same job opportunities once graduated.
In your first 2 years of dental school, you will engage in classroom-based education to learn the fundamentals of dentistry, diagnostics and needed anatomy and physiology. There will be procedure-based labs to learn the skills needed for dentistry practice. As you progress to your third and fourth year, you will engage in clinical rotations to learn the practice of dentistry and apply the knowledge and skills from your pre-clinical training.
After graduating from an accredited dental program, you will first get licensed by the country or state/province you want to practice in. A written examination and an OSCE is required to gain certification to practice.
Oftentimes after completing the required certification, most will then begin their career as a general dentist. They may open their own clinic or join other dentists.
Some may choose to do extra training or specialize. This will require a few years of extra education or residency after completing dental school. In fact, dental residencies are some of the most competitive residencies out there.
You will then subsequently write examinations for your subspecialty before being able to practice. There are many specialty areas in dentistry which includes:
- Dental anesthesiology
- Dental public health
- Oral and Maxillofacial pathology
- Oral and maxillofacial radiology
- Oral and maxillofacial surgery
- Orthodontics and dentofacial orthopedics
- Pediatric dentistry
Not all schools across Canada and United States offer all the above specialty programs. When offered, there is a MSc and PhD option for each and as such can take upwards of 7-8 years to complete. In addition, there are research training programs specific to dentistry that are separate from the clinical specialty programs.
Are you looking to become a dentist? Let's recap dental school application requirements:
Pros and Cons of Becoming a Dentist
1. How can I explore if I am interested in dentistry as a high school student?
It is great to be considering your career path in high school. You can approach a dentist and see if they are willing to have an observer. This will provide you with the opportunity to ask him or her questions about the profession, lifestyle of being a dentist, and tips for succeeding in applications and completion of dentistry school.
2. What undergraduate degree must I complete to apply to dentistry?
There is no required major for dentistry. Similar to other healthcare professional programs, there are a list of required courses, however you can complete them in a variety of undergraduate programs. Instead, consider your interests and strengths that will allow you to succeed academically. If you are drawn to an arts degree, such as political science, psychology, or linguistics, you can complete the science pre-requisites as electives. Alternatively, if you enjoy science, you can complete these courses as part of your degree and engage in other options that you are drawn to.
3. What other activities should I engage in to support my application to dentistry?
Outside of academics and DAT score, the programs are looking for well-rounded individuals who are able to demonstrate skills in leadership, collaboration, communication and analytical thinking. Consider volunteering with a program that allows you to develop skills and explore dentistry or healthcare. For example, volunteering with a vulnerable or marginalized group, or leading a student group. You can also look for relevant work experiences, such as receptionist roles to better engage with dentists in practice. You may also consider doing research related to your interest to develop skills in critical thinking, analytical thinking, and communication. Research may provide you with opportunities to present at conferences and network with other professionals.
4. When should I write my DAT?
The DAT only offers 2 writing periods per year and takes some time to get the scores back. As most applications are due in the early Fall preceding your anticipated start date, it would be best to write your exam at least 6 months prior to the application.
5. How can I do well on the DAT?
The DAT tests introductory science concepts such as chemistry, biology, and physics, in addition to reading, comprehension, and manual dexterity. It is best to complete pre-requisite courses prior to preparing for the DAT. Given the amount of material it is best to give yourself a few months to prepare to feel confident in the material. Given the manual dexterity component of the exam, it is important to practice soap carvings as per their website.
6. Are there geographical preferences for dental programs?
In Canada, some programs do preferentially select or save seats for students from their area or province. For example, Dalhousie University only selects students from the Maritime region, whereas University of Toronto does not have preferential selection regarding students from Ontario. As this varies between schools, please check with the programs you are interested in prior to applying as some may reject you solely based on your geographical location.
7. Are international applicants able to apply to Canadian dental programs?
International applicants are eligible to apply to the University of Toronto dental program. It is quite competitive and for those that are offered a position, can be quite expensive. All other Canadian dental programs are restricted to Canadian applicants.
8. Is dental school expensive?
Completing dental school is quite expensive. In Canada, expect to pay between $40,000-50,000 per year for a Canadian student and over $100,000 per year for international students. This excludes living expenses. Although it is quite expensive, at the end of the four year program, students are able to write their licensing examinations and begin practicing as a community dentist immediately. The fees are higher than other professional programs, such as medicine due to the smaller group size and the cost of equipment and tools required for the program.
9. I am interested in becoming a maxillofacial surgeon. Do I have to complete dentistry school or medical school?
The path to becoming a maxillofacial surgeon is to first complete dental school and then complete a fellowship in maxillofacial surgery. This is quite a popular fellowship option and thus it can be quite competitive to obtain a training site. It will be important to do well academically throughout dental school and to develop aptitude in maxillofacial surgery in elective time. There are many other specialty options that oftentimes are not as well known that can also be explored during dental school. Consider talking to a maxillofacial surgeon to explore what the career looks like, job opportunities and advantages and disadvantages of the specialty prior to applying for further training.
10. What can you do after completing dental school?
Most students that complete dentistry go onto join a practice or open their own practice and serve as a community dentist. This may be in a large urban, suburban or rural area. Others choose to do additional training by applying for subspecialty training in a variety of options including pediatric dentistry, endodontics, periodontics, prosthodontics, or maxillofacial specialties that may take up to 8 years to complete. This allows graduates to practice a subset of dentistry and act as a specialist in the field. Some choose to practice community dentistry for a few years before applying or choosing to subspecialize.
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