How Dental School Admissions Work

Dentists are always in demand.
Dentists are always in demand.
Jacqueline Veissid/Getty Images

So, you want to be a dentist. That makes sense: Dentistry can be a very lucrative career and dentists are in demand pretty much everywhere. You'll need a doctorate in dentistry, so you'd better prepare yourself for that challenge. There are just a few dozen dental schools in the U.S., and they typically field hundreds -- or even thousands -- of applications every year while only accepting a small fraction of those who apply. These schools have rigorous academic standards and you have to take a difficult exam that tests not just your knowledge, but also your eyesight and, in some cases, your coordination.

The one nice thing about applying to dental school is that the process is streamlined in the U.S. You can apply to schools throughout the U.S. through a single organization, so you only have to fill out all the forms once -- no matter how many schools you apply to.

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Of course, before you even get to the application process, you have to decide what kind of school to apply to. Public or private? Specialty or general practice? Three or four-year program? Keep in mind that you'll be entering a field with an average salary of more than $100,000, but you might rack up more than $200,000 in student loans. Hey, no one said becoming a dentist would be easy.

With that in mind, this article will offer a basic road map of the dental school admissions process. What courses should you take? What grades do you need? How can you get the best possible score on the required exams? Find out on the next page.

Applying to Dental School

The American Dental Education Association (ADEA) lets potential dentists apply to any participating dental school in the U.S. through the Associated American Dental Schools Application Services (AADSAS). There are currently 55 participating U.S. schools and one in Canada. The benefit is that you only have to fill out one application -- no more writing out your references, past jobs and extracurricular activities five different times. The application is available at the ADEA Web site.

The deadlines for filing applications vary by school. AADSAS accepts applications during admissions cycles that run from June 1 of the year prior entering school to the following Feb. 1. Therefore, if you were planning to attend dental school in 2011, the AADSAS cycle would run from June 1, 2010, to Feb. 1, 2011. You can file an application with AADSAS at any time during the cycle, but if a specific school's deadline has passed, you won't be able to apply to that school. It pays to have your application in early. Most schools delay reporting admission decisions until December.

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The convenience of the AADSAS system comes at a price: $195 for the first dental school to which you apply, and $60 for each additional school.

Next, we'll discuss the grades and courses you'll need to get into your dental school of choice.

Dental School Grades and Courses

It's difficult to get into dental school without some kind of bachelor's degree (it's technically possible, but highly unlikely). Your undergraduate major doesn't really matter -- there are science course requirements for getting into dental school that vary from school to school, but you can major in philosophy, history or anything else you'd like to study. In fact, most dental schools like to see some variety in an applicant's coursework, although they'd like to see a few more science courses sprinkled throughout the transcript. The application requirements for the University of Pennsylvania's Dental Medicine program provide a good example:

  • One year (two semesters) of biology or zoology with corresponding laboratory training. Advanced courses in anatomy, microbiology and physiology are recommended.
  • Three semesters of chemistry with corresponding laboratory training, including inorganic chemistry and at least one semester of organic chemistry. Additional work in organic and physical chemistry is recommended.
  • One year of English leading to competence in the use of the English language. Acceptable courses include speech, composition, literature, technical and business writing, and other writing intensive courses.
  • One semester of mathematics, preferably calculus.
  • One year of physics that covers the subject's basic principles.
  • One semester of biochemistry [source: University of Pennsylvania Dental School].

Many undergraduate schools have advisers who can help students learn about and meet the requirements of the post-baccalaureate degrees they plan to pursue. There are even a few programs that combine undergraduate coursework with dental school into one seven-year package. You'll be working toward either a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or a Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD). The two degrees are functionally identical in every way. Some schools simply use different terminology [source: ADA].

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Getting into dental school is so competitive that a 3.0 grade point average (GPA) is the minimum you'd need to even have a chance. A 3.3 GPA or above would set you apart, and you should aim for the same GPA in your science courses.

Getting into dental school isn't just a matter of grades, however. You also need to participate in extracurricular activities that show you're a well-rounded student. Try to volunteer, join an academic group, organize campus activities or lead a campus organization. That said, the best activities you can put on your dental school application should relate specifically to the dental or health care fields. Shadow a dentist for a few weeks or volunteer at an office. That kind of experience will give you a major edge over other applicants.

Even if you have the right classes and good grades, there's one other hurdle to dental school admissions: the Dental Admission Test (DAT). We'll cover that next.

The Dental Admissions Test (DAT)

If you want to attend a dental school like the University of Pennsylvania's, make sure that you take the DAT well before the deadline.
If you want to attend a dental school like the University of Pennsylvania's, make sure that you take the DAT well before the deadline.
William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

The Dental Admission Test (DAT) has been offered by the American Dental Association since 1950. The computerized test offered at testing centers in the U.S. all year long and takes about five hours. Make sure to schedule your DAT early enough to meet any dental school application deadlines. It costs $225 to take the test, and you can retake it up to three times -- paying the fee each time, with a minimum of 90 days between tests -- before you have to reapply. You should take it in April, May or June one year before you plan to apply to dental school. This will give you enough time for retakes if your score isn't up to par.

The DAT consists of a natural sciences segment, a perception test, a reading comprehension segment and a qualitative reasoning segment. The Canadian version of the DAT differs slightly - it also has a segment that tests coordination (you have to carve a specified shape out of a bar of soap). As a result, Canadian DAT scores are accepted by most U.S. dental schools, but the reverse isn't true.

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The ADA publishes DAT study guides. Many students find that study guides for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) prepare them well for the science portions of the DAT. However, the ADA's preparation materials include those segments unique to the DAT, such as the perception segment.

The highest possible score on the DAT is a 30; and a score of 20 is considered average. An 18 is generally considered the minimum score for getting into any dental school. If you're looking to get into a more prestigious school or into a specialty program, a score of 21 or higher is a must.

The Dental School Application

Filling out the AADSAS application is a lot like filling out a detailed job application. It starts with basic information like your name, address, phone number and Social Security number. There's a section on your family (in case any of your immediate relatives went to one of the schools you're applying to, which can factor into admissions decisions), and a part where you can describe your background, including whether or not you qualify for disadvantaged status.

From there, you fill out information on your education, starting with high school, and then moving on to your undergraduate years. There's a system for having transcripts sent to AADSAS and attached to your application. You'll need to note your coursework and DAT scores, if you've already taken the test when you first create your AADSAS account.

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One of the more important parts of the application is labeled "Professional Experience." Here's where your volunteer work or shadowing time in the dental or other medical field will pay off. Of equal importance is your personal statement, which allows you to explain why you want to be a dentist. (Make it more interesting than, "I just want to help people" to set yourself apart.)

At this point, the application is almost finished. You need to read and acknowledge some formalities indicating that you want AADSAS to release your information to dental schools. Pick which schools you want to apply to, and the application is done. Some portions of it can be changed later (for example, if you retake your DAT or if you apply to additional schools).

Most dental schools have rolling admissions, but the schools agree not to mail out acceptance letters until December the year before entrance, which is roughly six months after applications are first accepted. Applying late in the cycle can make it harder to get into the school of your choice, because there will be fewer spots still open.

The amount of time you have to respond to acceptance from a school and send in a deposit to reserve your place in the class varies from school to school, but it's typically between one and two weeks.

Head to the next page for more information on dental school admissions.

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Sources

  • American Dental Association. "What is the difference between a DDS and a DMD?" Accessed March 18, 2010.http://www.ada.org/public/topics/dds_dmd.asp
  • American Dental Education Association. "ADEA Associated American Dental Schools Application Service (AADSAS)." Accessed March 18, 2010. http://www.adea.org/dental_education_pathways/aadsas/Pages/default.aspx
  • University of Pennsylvania. "DMD Program: General Requirements for Admission." Accessed March 18, 2010.http://www.dental.upenn.edu/academic/DMDprogram/dmd-admit-general.html