Before you even decide to apply for dental school, you should reflect on whether dentistry is the career for you. If looking into mouths (and not the ones you see in magazines and movies) and working with your hands are not things you’d enjoy or excel at, then to attend dental school and become a dentist may not be the choice for you. The process to become a dentist is a time consuming and expensive process, but also incredibly rewarding from a professional, interpersonal, and financial standpoint.
Dentistry is an ever-expanding and stable industry that will provide job security until the day dentists choose to retire. While not everyone may need to visit an optometrist or a dermatologist, but most people visit a dentist a couple of times a year. The American Dental Association reports that the average salary for recently graduated dentists is about $130,000 while the average across all general dentists was over $200,000 per annum.
Your work as a dentist helps people regain their confidence, and it’s one of the few industries where your clientele always leaves with a smile on their face. Once you’ve become established in the industry, you can expand your businesses, set your own hours, and give yourself flexibility with your personal life.
Once you are set with your choice, be ready for accompanying work and effort required to get your foot through the door.
1. Know your goals
Of course, you’re not committing to anything this early on, but it’s helpful to look at some prospective schools for comparison’s sake as it will help you set more concrete goals with your studies.
There are three dental schools in Illinois, the University of Illinois at Chicago (Chicago), Southern Illinois University (Carbondale), and Midwestern University (Downers Grove). Their admission rates and statistics are all close to the national average, with UIC being the most competitive and Midwestern University having slightly lower admissions average numbers.
If you want to go to dental school somewhere other than Illinois, you have 66 programs nationwide to choose from; just make sure to do research on each one you’re interested in. Just as you did while researching undergraduate programs, you should know what benchmarks to hit to qualify for your reach schools, your target schools, and your safety schools.
It doesn’t matter whether you choose a DDS program or a DMD program, as the licensure and qualifications of graduates from either program would be equivalent.
2. Get good grades and hit the prerequisites
The most obvious objective is to get good grades. Of course, you should do this regardless of your future career choices, but especially for the dental school, since the national average GPA of applicants admitted into dental school is 3.55 (on a 4.0 scale)
Although this is the average, it’s always advantageous to be above average in any competitive scenario.
Dental schools typically accept candidates who have 2 semesters (or 3 quarters) completed of general chemistry, organic chemistry, biology, and physics as well as their accompanying lab sessions. Although their official stated requirements tend to be lower (1 semester or 2 quarters), it’s generally safer to go beyond the base prerequisites.
You don’t need to major in the hard sciences, you just need to excel in whatever you study, so long as you fulfil the prerequisites necessary. Most students in dental school have studied sciences, in particular biology, biochemistry, molecular biology, biomedical sciences, and chemistry.
3. Take the DAT and get a good score
The next thing to do well on is your Dental Admissions Test (DAT). While the average score of students taking the DAT is 17.5 on a 26 point scale, the national average score for admission into dental school is 20.5. As with all other factors, scoring above average on your DAT will open up doors. A student who scores 23 will be considered in the top 2% of test takers and will have their choice of schools. There are many digital and print resources to help you study with this with many available through the ADA itself.
4. Fill your resume with experience
Get experience (part time at a local clinic or volunteer, this will help with references too). If you’re able to pick up a part time role during the school year or a full time role during the summer, hands-on experience will be invaluable for both experience and admissions purposes. Not only will you get a better feel for a professional dental environment, you’ll also figure out quickly whether this is the career for you. If you happen to know a dentist, a personal connection is the easiest way to get a position. Otherwise, contacting practices local to you/your school is traditionally a great way to get in the door if you demonstrate a willingness to learn. If you find it difficult to gain a position, try volunteering at a local clinic or community health center.
The experience itself is amazingly helpful, and you’ll also be able to prove yourself to individuals who you can later approach for letters of recommendation. Having the professional statement of a dentist in your application is always a plus, and in some prestigious or research-orientated schools is a must.
Extracurriculars help! If you can join a dental related club or organization, your chances will increase for demonstrating a committed interest in dental. Naturally, the availability of these organizations will vary on your locale as well as your college.
5. Look into scholarships and alternative ways to help pay for school
The days where a summer job could pay your way through college are long gone, and most dental school students would find it impossible to find time between their studies for a job. However, excelling at the criteria for dental schools will also make it easier for you to apply for scholarships and grants.
While a quick Google search will reveal multitudes of dental-related scholarship to apply to, there are also thousands of scholarships available on a local and school level. Many dental students also look into loan forgiveness programs, where you work in an underserved community for a couple of years and as a result have most or all of your loans forgiven. Although it’s not uncommon to graduate with $300k+ in loans, a disciplined dentist can easily pay this off by leveraging multiple tools.
Some would say that these are bland suggestions, and that doing each thing on the list just turn you into the average dental school student, but realistically, that’s the goal. These are the characteristics of the average dental school student because it’s what the average dental school is looking for. There’s nothing terribly convoluted about the steps to become a dentist, but each step comes with a fair amount of work.
The good news is, for every incremental step you get closer to a rewarding career in dentistry, and closer to a professional life with growth and stability.