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Dentistry Education

Undergraduate Requirements, The Dental Admissions Test, The Application Process, Licensing and Certification

There are fifty-four dental schools in the United States as of 2001. These schools share the goal of producing graduates who are dedicated to the highest standards of health involving the teeth, gums, and other hard and soft tissues of the mouth. Dentists are educated in the basic and clinical sciences and are capable of providing quality dental care in several specialty areas.

More than 17,000 students were enrolled in U.S. dental schools during the 1998–1999 academic year; 4,268 of them were first-year students. The first-year enrollees were selected from 9,477 individuals who applied for admission to dental schools. The process of applying to dental school involves several defined steps, including completion of specific undergraduate college courses, earning an acceptable score on the Dental Admissions Test (DAT), and submitting formal applications to selected schools.

Undergraduate Requirements

The minimum requirement for admission to dental school is two years of undergraduate or predental education. Most dental schools, however, accept students who have three or four years of undergraduate education. Science courses are the mainstay of the predental education. Most dental schools require courses with laboratory experience in inorganic and organic chemistry, biology, and physics for admission to their degree-granting programs. In addition to these nearly universally required courses, some schools also require courses in mathematics, English composition, zoology, psychology, a foreign language,

social sciences, biochemistry, microbiology, and physiology. Because requirements vary from school to school, applicants should obtain specific information about required undergraduate courses from the individual dental schools.

The majority of applicants to dental schools major in science, predentistry, or premedicine; however, majoring in a science is not a prerequisite for admission. The most important consideration at the majority of schools is whether the applicant has met the minimum course requirements. Most dental schools have established a minimum undergraduate grade point average (GPA) for admission. The lowest acceptable GPA for admission to a dental school is 2.0 (on a 4.0 scale). The preferred GPA for most dental schools is 3.0 or above.

The Dental Admissions Test

The single mandatory requirement for admission to all U.S. dental schools is the DAT. Dental schools view the DAT, along with the undergraduate GPA, as a predictor of performance in dental education. This standardized test has been administered on a national basis since 1950. The test is designed to assess general academic ability, comprehension of scientific information, and perceptual ability. The DAT consists of four separate examinations of 100 multiple-choice questions, which test knowledge of the natural sciences, reading comprehension, quantitative reasoning, and perceptual ability. Most students who sit for the DAT have completed two or more years of undergraduate education. The American Association of Dental Schools (AADS) recommends taking the DAT one year prior to entering dental school. As of 1999 the DAT is administered only on the computer. The DAT can be taken on almost any day of the year at designated testing centers. Scoring of the DAT, which ranges from 1 to 30, is based on the number of correct answers. Nationally a score of 17 on the examination is considered average.

The Application Process

The American Association of Dental Schools sponsors a centralized application service. Applicants to U.S. dental schools complete one application form, which (for a fee) is distributed in a standardized format to the schools designated by the applicant. Most participants in the AADS Application Service (AADSAS) complete and submit the application using the Internet.

Upon receiving the AADSAS application, admission committees at each school may ask applicants to submit an institution-specific application form, letters of recommendation, and academic transcripts. The admission committee, generally composed of dental school faculty members, review the academic and biographical information provided by applicants. Results of the DAT, the GPA, and letters of recommendation are evaluated by the committee. Students who meet requirements for admission are invited for personal interviews. Some dental schools have special programs for underrepresented minority students, which are designed to enhance the diversity of the student population and increase racial and ethnic diversity within the profession. Admissions committees strive to select applicants whose academic and personal qualities appear to mesh with their school's program objectives and suggest the candidate has the potential to successfully complete the academic program.

Choosing and applying to dental school requires careful consideration of one's career goals, personal interests, and family circumstances. Applicants may choose to apply to traditional four-year dental programs that award the Doctor of Dental Surgery (D.D.S.) or Doctor of Dental Medicine (D.M.D.), which are equivalent degrees, or to combined-degree programs. Twenty-seven schools offer formal combined bachelor's and dental degree programs. Thirty-seven schools offer combined dental and graduate degrees. Although deadlines for submitting applications vary among dental schools, most range from October to March. Most schools fill their entering class for the next academic year by December.

Cost is also a major consideration for some applicants. Applicants to dental schools are encouraged to apply for financial assistance at the same time they apply for admission. Federal student financial aid programs, mostly loan programs, are the primary sources of support for dental education. Other sources of support include scholarships and grants, research fellowships, commitment service scholarships, and loan repayment programs. Applicants are advised to contact schools individually to obtain information about financial assistance.

Licensing and Certification

Most students who enroll in dental schools participate in a traditional four-year academic program. During the first two years, dental students study the biological sciences to learn the function and structure of the human body. Courses offered during this phase of education include oral anatomy, oral pathology, oral histology, and principles of oral diagnosis and treatment. The third and fourth years of study provide clinical training. During clinical training, students learn basic techniques for oral diagnosis, restorative dentistry, periodontics, oral surgery, orthodontics, pediatric dentistry, prosthodontics, endodontics, and other areas of treatment. Students acquire these skills by rotating through various dental clinics under the supervision of a clinical instructor.

To fulfill the requirements for licensure to practice dentistry, dental students take Part 1 and Part 2 of the National Board Dental Examination (NBDE) while in dental school. Part 1 is usually taken after the second year, following completion of all biological science courses. Part 1 assesses knowledge in four areas: anatomic sciences, biochemistry/physiology, microbiology/pathology, and dental anatomy and occlusion. Part 2 is usually taken during the last year of dental school and tests for knowledge in the dental sciences. Students are eligible to sit for Part 1 and Part 2 when the dean of the dental school or a designee of the dean certifies the student has successfully completed all subjects covered by the examinations. The minimum standard passing score on each part is 75. Licensure boards in all fifty states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands use the NBDE as a major portion of their requirements for licensure. All states also require a performance-based clinical examination for licensing.

Upon graduation from dental school, graduates may pursue licensure in general dentistry or one of nine recognized specialties: dental public health, endodontics, oral and maxillofacial pathology, oral and maxillofacial radiology, oral and maxillofacial surgery, orthodontics and dentofacial orthopedics, pediatric dentistry, periodontics, or prosthodontics. Dentists who pursue postdoctoral training through residencies and advanced education programs are encouraged to obtain certification from dental specialty boards.



AMERICAN ASSOCIATION OF DENTAL SCHOOLS. 2000. Admission Requirements of United States and Canadian Dental Schools: Entering Class of 2001, 38th edition. Washington, DC: American Association of Dental Schools.

WEAVER, RICHARD G.; HADEN, N. KARL; and VALACHOVIC, RICHARD W. 2000. "U.S. Dental School Applicants and Enrollees: A Ten Year Perspective." Journal of Dental Education 64:867–874.


AMERICAN DENTAL ASSOCIATION. 2000. "Dental Admission Testing Program." <www.ada.org/prof/ed/testing/dat.asp>.

AMERICAN DENTAL ASSOCIATION. 2001. "National Board Dental Examination Program." <www.ada.org/prof/prac/licensure/lic-natbd.html>.


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