How the DAT Works

The DAT will test some of the skills you'll need to become a successful dentistry student -- and eventually, a successful dentist.
The DAT will test some of the skills you'll need to become a successful dentistry student -- and eventually, a successful dentist.
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There are people out there who do not fear dental work. They're called dentists, and all 142,000 of the ones practicing in the United States took the DAT [source: BLS].

Dentistry, like most high-paying professions, is a competitive field. Dental schools get thousands of applications every year, and that number is steadily increasing. Between 2001 and 2006, the number of applications to U.S. dental schools nearly doubled to reach 11,000 [source: DSB]. That rise in interest brings a rise in admissions standards, and one of the primary considerations in acceptance is the Dental Admission Exam, or DAT.


Nothing is guaranteed, but rocking the DAT is a good way to start pursuing a dental career. The test is a big one -- more than three hours long, 280 questions, typically just three chances to score high and required by every accredited dental school in the country. It tests several different skill areas, including math, science, reading comprehension and perceptual (or spatial) ability, and every area matters, contributing to eight different scores that dental schools look at when determining who to accept. The overall purpose is to predict who will excel both in dental school and, later, as a dentist -- essentially, who has what it takes to go the distance.

The DAT is not the only part of an application that matters. College performance, for example, is a significant component, too. But the test is the largest single contributor to an acceptance or a rejection. In this article, we'll take a look at the Dental Admission Exam and find out what it's all about. We'll see what the content is like, how the scores are generated, how to study for it and what's required to register for the test.

We'll begin with the basics: What's on it?


DAT Content

The DAT is multiple choice and computer-based. It has four distinct sections, each with its own time constraint and purpose (sample questions are from the ADA guide):

Natural Sciences


The natural sciences section is the most substantial. Test takers have 90 minutes to answer 100 questions in three areas: biology, organic chemistry and inorganic chemistry. Sample question:

An enzyme is added to an aqueous solution of ATP, DNA, albumen, fat and glycogen; the reaction mixture is incubated for 10 minutes. If an analysis of the mixture reveals the presence of all of the above compounds plus glucose, it can be concluded that the enzyme hydrolyzed some of the:

A. albumen

B. fat

C. glycogen



Quantitative Reasoning

This section tests several math concepts, including algebra, geometry, word problems, geometry and basic skills. Its 40 questions must be completed in 45 minutes. Sample question:

Evaluate the expression 5 x 10-3 x 3 x 107.

A. 1.5 x 10-10

B. 1.5 x 10-4

C. 1.5 x 104

D. 1.5 x 105

E. 1.5 x 1010

Reading Comprehension

Reading comprehension involves reading a passage from a scientific essay and answering questions about its content. This section tests the ability understand language, and it asks the test taker to interpret tone, analyze information, pick out the main idea and put ideas in context. There are 50 questions to complete in 60 minutes.

Perceptual Ability

Perceptual ability is also known as spatial reasoning. It tests the ability to perceive in three dimensions, discriminate different angles and viewpoints, and see shapes within shapes, among other space-oriented skills. This section requires completing 90 questions in 60 minutes.

The end result is one score for each section. Those four scores are then combined in various ways to get the eight DAT scores that schools look at when considering a candidate:

  • Quantitative Reasoning
  • Reading Comprehension
  • Perceptual Ability
  • Organic Chemistry
  • Inorganic Chemistry
  • Biology
  • Total Science
  • Academic Average

Each score is a number between 1 and 30. There's no absolute minimum score for admission to a dental program. Academic Average scores of accepted students range from 16 to 24 at different schools [source: DSB]. In general, a score over 19 is believed to give a candidate a pretty good chance of getting in.

But the average DAT score is 18 [source: PsychometricSuccess]. So the question is, how can a candidate break through the average to become a noteworthy candidate?

The answer is, prepare, prepare, prepare.


Preparing for the DAT

Before you start studying dentistry, you'll have to practice for the DAT.
Before you start studying dentistry, you'll have to practice for the DAT.
Photo courtesy of

Study and preparation methods for standardized tests are as varied as the people taking them. There are lots of ways to increase the chances of a high score. Winging it is not one of them.

So, how to prepare? There are lots of study methods that work, from flash cards on science concepts to brushing up on basic math skills from college. Lots of people take DAT preparation courses and read DAT test guides that describe the test concepts and strategies. Perhaps the best approach, though, is to take practice tests. Lots and lots of practice tests.


Practice tests are available in book stores and via the Web. Some are free, some are for sale. They're the best way not only to study up on the tested skills but also to practice completing each section in the allotted time. Testing strategies are pretty individual, and practice tests can help test takers find out which time-management, relaxation and thinking-under-pressure strategies work best for them.

A couple of online locations for DAT practice include:

  • ADA -- Thompson Prometric
  • Kaplan

Just like with study preparation, arranging to take the test is not a last-minute deal. It's best to start early, with dental-school deadlines in mind: Students who take the DAT between their college sophomore and junior years have time to re-take it and resubmit their scores if they do poorly. A minimum of three months is required between tests, and students need to apply to take the exam (see ADA: DENTPIN) before scheduling a testing date, time and location, so a good buffer between the test and the application deadline is a good idea.

To take the DAT more than three times requires special permission. This may actually be a good thing, since each test costs $190. If only for financial reasons, it's probably a good move to study up the first time. There'll be plenty of school loans to pay off later.

For more information on the DAT, dental school and related topics, look over the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • DAT. Kaplan.
  • Dental Admission Test (DAT). American Dental Association.
  • Dental Admission Test. Indiana University -- Bloomington.
  • Dental Admission Test. Psychometric Success.