How to Become a General Dentist

Overview Not everyone looks forward to going to the dentist, but a great general dentist will know how to put someone at ease. This is important, because dental health is important to the entire health of the body. Through regular check-ups, preventative care and treatment, a general dentist can help […]


Not everyone looks forward to going to the dentist, but a great general dentist will know how to put someone at ease. This is important, because dental health is important to the entire health of the body. Through regular check-ups, preventative care and treatment, a general dentist can help teach good oral habits, eliminate pain, and improve someone’s quality of life.

What is a General Dentist?

Dentists are focused on oral health, hygiene, and maintenance of their patient’s teeth. They are involved in regular cleanings, filling cavities, extracting bad teeth, whitening, creating dentures, straightening teeth when orthodontic procedures are not required, writing prescriptions for patients, and more.

Some patients see their dentists regularly – for simple check-ups, cleanings and preventative care. Other patients may come in with extreme pain from a tooth problem, and need ongoing work and procedures in order to feel better. A dentist must be ready for all of these scenarios.

In addition to basic care and because many people have a fear or aversion to going to the dentist; it important for dentists to have a good demeanor and comforting way of interacting with patients. This way, they will be at ease through the procedures, and feel more comfortable with the regular care they need.

Dentists work alongside a team of trained professionals in order to provide care. Very rarely do they work alone. There may be dental technicians at their side, x-ray techs, nurses, administrative staff, and other dentists in the same office.

Several skills that are also important for a dentist to have include: ability to work with a variety of instruments, an attention to detail, leadership and communication skills, patience, and the ability to provide systematic care to any patient in their care.

Educational Track

Educational Requirements for Becoming a General Dentist

The minimum educational requirement for becoming a general dentist is the completion of dental school.

Step-by-Step Educational Path to Becoming a General Dentist

Bachelor’s Degree

Every professional starts by completing a bachelor’s degree. The four years of undergraduate study that begins their overall education, becomes the foundation for more in-depth study and training on their way to beginning their career. When used wisely, the undergraduate years can set up a person for success throughout their career. These years can provide the opportunity to be competitive when applying to schools, and help them crystallize their career goals through the experiences and relationships that are built.

For aspiring dentists, undergraduate studies require a number of pre-requisite science courses. The focus of these pre-requisites are based on the dental school they are hoping to be accepted to, but will likely include a minimum number of credit hours, and a minimum GPA in the following: chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry, biology, statistics, and physics. Many aspiring dentists chose to focus on a science-based major in order to ensure these courses are covered without adding extra time to their education at this level.

Some professionals recommend that additional courses be added to increase skills and knowledge, including: physiology, pharmacology, microbiology, anatomy, nutrition, economics and marketing, and even sculpting will all have a place in dental school. Completing these courses will increase the chances that the student will succeed throughout the rest of their education.

The average cumulative GPA ranges from 3.2 to 3.8 for students admitted into dental school. Taking the time to study and obtain the best possible grades during undergraduate school is key to having an application considered for admissions into the school of the student’s choice.

The Dental Admissions Test

The Dental Admissions Test (DAT) is designed to test the student’s preparedness for entering dental school. It is the equivalent to the MCAT or the GRE for students pursuing other careers through advanced education. The test covers the natural sciences, perceptual ability, reading comprehension, and quantitative reasoning. Students will test in biology, general chemistry, and organic chemistry, as well as three-dimensional manipulation and spatial reasoning. Finally, the test will ensure the student has basic math skills, as well as proficiency in algebra, critical thinking, fractions, roots and trigonometric identities.

The test is scored on a scale of 1 to 30. It is important for the student to know their schools minimum DAT test score requirement, as well as what score will make them the most competitive for entrance when being considered alongside others.  For example, the average DAT score for one dental school may be a 17, while another is a 23.

Dental School

Once a student has submitted all of the required materials, including test scores, and is admitted into dental school, the real work begins.

Many students are surprised at how difficult dental school is. The level of detail that is studied and the amount of work required make the four years of dental school a challenge for many. Freshman year includes classes and dental labs in the subjects of human anatomy – including:

  • dissecting cadavers
  • biochemistry
  • histology
  • physiology
  • dental anatomy
  • operative dentistry
  • occlusion
  • preventative dentistry
  • oral dentistry
  • oral biology
  • complete dentures

Students begin their practical examinations and complete a timed dental procedure under very specific requirements, during their freshmen year of dentistry school.

During the second year of dental school, further coursework and laboratory work is needed. In addition to a great deal of studying, examinations, and advanced courses that lead to a deeper knowledge necessary for being a successful dentist, there are opportunities for added hands-on experience.

The third year of dental school is when students get real, patient experience. By working with patients under the direct supervision of a professional, students are able to perform that same procedures they will in their own practice, and get feedback during the procedure.

In the final year of dental school, students spend the majority of their time working with patients, and gaining the specific experience that is required to graduate from dental school.


Unlike medical school, dental residency is not a requirement for general dentistry. However, it is recommended. There is a great deal of knowledge required to be a successful and fulfilled dentist, and a year of residency can be very helpful in increasing the competency of the dentist.


In order to be licensed as a dentist, students must pass the National Board Dental Examinations (NBDE). The first examination takes place after the second year of dental school, and covers all of the courses and topics from those first two years. Part II of the National Boards includes a comprehensive exam that tests an aspiring dentist’s clinical knowledge, including endodontics, oral surgery, pharmacology, and much more, and takes place after the senior year of dental school.


The American Board of General Dentistry offers a board certification for qualifying dentists. Applicants must take a written exam that includes the following topics: Oral medicine, oral pathology, diagnosis/TMD, fixed prosthodontics, operative procedures, endodontics, orthodontics, periodontics, oral surgery and radiology. After passing the written examination, the dentist has five years to pass the oral exam. Recertification is required every five years for this particular board certification with 125 continuing education hours.

Career Path

Understanding the Career Path

Work Environments

General dentists can work in a variety of settings, as long as there is a need for their services. The vast majority of dentists practice in a dental office – either in a partnership,  or in a private or solo practice that likely includes a staff of dental hygienists, administrative professionals, and technicians that aid in the various stages of patient care.

General dentists can also work in a physician’s office, outpatient care centers, general medical or surgical hospitals, or with the government. In a few cases, there are positions in psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals, where patients need specialized care.

The majority of dentists are employed by the office where they practice. However, there are also opportunities for employment from management companies and enterprises.

The top five states that employ general dentists, are:  California, New York, Texas, Florida and Michigan.


Depending on where the dentist works, the type of company they are employed by, and their level of experience, a dentist’s salary can range from $44,870 to $264,500. The mean annual wage is $166,810 with the median annual wage of $149,540.

There is a much higher level of competition in the highest paying areas, and in places with higher quality of life. With over 97,990 general dentists employed throughout the U.S., and an expected two-percent rise in employment, it is important for general dentists to find a geographical area that supports their career goals.

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