Understanding Dental School Requirements – The Complete Guide

Everyone knows that medical school is tough. Future MDs must work hard to get into medical schools at Johns Hopkins, Duke, Stanford, and elsewhere. But what about future dentists? 

Dentists serve an equally important role in society, as caring for our teeth often includes drawing attention to the food we consume and potentially terminal diseases that can form in our mouths. Accordingly, those who want to study dentistry must spend years in school, in programs as rigorous as those experienced by their MD counterparts. 

Like its fellow medical fields, dentistry is a highly lucrative career. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for dentistry will only grow over the next few years, raising their already impressive $164,010 annual salary. With such an incredible career ahead of them, future dentists should be diligent in preparing to study their trade.  

As we’ve discussed here at College Gazette, there are plenty of great dental schools available. While they all have their individual standards, there are some fundamental requirements from nearly every program. If you know these requirements, you can start preparing yourself now and give yourself the best chances of acceptance. 

Because of their importance in society, dental schools have extremely high standards. To get into the best school, you’ll need to have solid standardized test scores, a high GPA, a convincing personal statement essay, and more. 

It will require years of hard work and dedication to acquire these things, but it’s not impossible. 

This overview will give you direction, which will not only help you plan your education, but also provide hints for crafting a strong application, even if some aspects don’t meet the normal standards. 

As you work on your applications, keep this overview nearby to help your process. Keep these points in mind and you’ll have the best possible chance to enter the school of your choice. 

Think of this as the next necessary step on your journey to becoming a dentist!

DAT (Dental Admission Test) Requirements

School of Dental Medicine - University of Colorado
ProudGamecock, Dental School Building, CC BY-SA 4.0

Nearly every dental program requires applicants to submit their scores on the Dental Admissions Test (DAT)

The DAT is a computer-based, multiple-choice standardized exam that measures a potential student’s aptitude for the profession. Tests can be taken on any day of the year, but they are administered only at Prometric testing centers

Before taking the test, students must submit a preliminary application to the American Dental Association and pay a non-refundable $475 fee. Students are allowed to take the DAT up to three times. After that, they must apply for special permission for a fourth try.  

The DAT consists of four sections. 

In the first, students have 90 minutes to answer questions about the natural sciences. 

The second section takes 60 minutes to assess the test taker’s perceptual ability. 

The next 60-minute section features reading comprehension abilities. 

In the final 45-minute section, students answer math questions to demonstrate their quantitative reasoning skills. 

In the perceptual ability section, students address six different problem sets, related to three-dimensional manipulation and spatial reasoning. The reading comprehension section presents test-takers with three academic essays and asks them questions about their content. The math questions in the last section focus on algebra, critical thinking, fractions, roots, and trigonometric identities. 

Test-takers receive their scores immediately after they complete the test. The scoring comes from eight standardized scores, which are then calculated on a scale of 1 – 30. 

The first six scores are derived from the test, determined according to perceptual ability, reading comprehension, quantitative reasoning, biology, general chemistry, and organic chemistry. The final two scores summarize the first six, including an academic average weighted according to all scores and a total science score that focuses on the science questions. 

With these scores, dental schools can determine the level of scientific knowledge and logical reasoning a student will bring to their program. 

Completing the GRE Exam for Dental Schools

Nearly every school requires the DAT, while some dental programs also require GRE scores from applicants, particularly Ph.D. programs. 

The GRE (Graduate Record Examinations) is a standardized test designed for graduate school applications. It consists of a general section, which all test-takers must complete, and several specialized tests, for those entering specific fields. GRE scores are a standard requirement on most graduate school applications. 

The general GRE exists to measure verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, analytical writing, and critical thinking. This exam consists of six sections, which feature questions concerning algebra, geometry, arithmetic, and vocabulary.

In the analytical writing section, students have a limited amount of time to write two essays. One essay involves an issue task, which asks the writer to explain a complex topic. 

In the verbal and quantitative sections, test takers answer sets of 20 questions, timed for 30-35 minutes. The verbal section consists of questions about sentence completion, analogies, and critical reading. In the quantitative section, test takers make comparisons, complete problems, and interpret data. 

The exact score varies according to the program, but most programs expect a score of around 150 on the verbal sections of the exam. While the GRE should not replace your DAT results, a strong score can ensure admissions counselors that you’ll be a great student. 

Passing the NBDE (National Board Dental Exam) 

Of course, the goal of any student in dental school is to become a dentist. To be licensed to practice dentistry, students must pass the National Board Dental Examination (NBDE)

However, some dental schools also require NBDE scores for admission into some of their programs, particularly those emphasizing clinical practice over research. 

The exam is broken into two parts, labeled NBDE I and NBDE II

The first part consists of 400 multiple choice questions, which cover basic sciences, including human anatomy, embryology, histology, biochemistry, physiology, microbiology, pathology, dental anatomy, and occlusion. 

The second part covers clinical dental topics and requires two days to finish. Questions cover topics such as endodontics, operative dentistry, oral and maxillofacial surgery/pain control, oral diagnosis, orthodontics, pediatric dentistry, patient management, periodontics, pharmacology, and prosthodontics. Overall, the exams cover 56 areas of fundamental dentistry knowledge.

The NBDE exams are scored only according to pass or fail. If a student fails, they are given details about the questions they answered incorrectly to prepare for a retake. Students who pass cannot retake the exam unless required to do so by a regulating body. 

The NBDE is a tough exam that all dentists will have to take at some point in their careers, so it’s important to begin preparing for it right away. 


University of Michigan Dental School
AndrewHorne, University of Michigan Dental School, CC BY-SA 3.0

Even though admissions emphasize standardized test scores, dental schools care just as much about the personal statement essay can be just as important, as it provides key information that isn’t always expressed in an exam.  

A personal statement essay is exactly what it sounds like: a short (no more than 1-2 pages) essay in which you tell the school why they should accept you. 

The essay should give the admission committee a clear picture of the type of person you are and what you’ll bring to the school’s learning community. 

The personal essay can be the scariest part of a dental school application, simply because it asks for so much in so little time.

However, it need not be so scary. 

Structurally, the personal essay follows the same five-paragraph form you learned in high school. The essay should have an introductory paragraph, complete with a hook and a thesis, several body paragraphs that develop the main point, and a conclusion that sums everything up. 

That familiarity should give you some basic steps when writing the essay. You should, of course, brainstorm, outline, and write multiple drafts, just as you learned in high school. But because your reader will be the admissions committee at dental school, you must include excellent content

While this prospect may be scary, it doesn’t need to be stressful. After all, you are the content of the essay. Your life should be the focus of the essay. 

Avoid the temptation to talk about even people who influenced you, such as important teachers or family members. 

Instead, identify your strengths, personal characteristics, and values. Tell your reader who you are as a person, so they can see what you’ll bring to the school. 

Although you’re training to be a dentist, it helps to think of the essay as an argument. You want to convince your reader that you will be a good student at the school. 

So you need to make claims about your abilities and characteristics, and then provide evidence to back up the claims. Engaging anecdotes and compelling facts will help your argument stand out. 

With the right focus, the personal statement can be your best chance to make a case for yourself and the dentist you will become. Don’t let it scare you. 

Instead, revel in the opportunity to introduce yourself to your future dental school. 

GPA Requirements

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that exam scores and a strong personal statement essay are essential parts of an application. 

But elements should serve to advance the quality of work you did throughout your undergraduate studies. 

The grade point average you earn while earning your bachelor’s degree demonstrates to admissions counselors your abilities as a student. What type of GPA do you need to get into dental school? 

The good news is, there is no one standard GPA. Few dental schools have a stated minimum GPA, as most use the average as a general guideline. For that reason, no one GPA will make or break your application. 

That said, the more your GPA fits along with those of students admitted into the school, the more likely you are to succeed in dental school. A high GPA shows admissions committees that you can work hard and are a strong student. 

Furthermore, GPAs play into rankings on outlets such as U.S. News & World Report, so schools like to see students will help them retain their positions. 

Whatever the reason, dental schools tend to expect high GPAs from candidates. In 2019, dental students had an average GPA of 3.57 (3.48 in science classes). The following year, the average GPA was 3.35 (3.25 in sciences).

These numbers reveal that students entering dental school should strive to have a GPA over 3.25, especially in their science classes. These numbers will show committees that take your studies seriously and can work hard. 

All of that said, it’s important to remember that GPA is just one of the elements that a school looks at when making admissions decisions. If your grades don’t speak to your ability to work hard and take your studies seriously, then you should make sure that other parts of your application reflect those qualities. 

Letters of Recommendation

While a high GPA and good test scores are crucial, schools often emphasize other elements, such as letters of recommendation. A letter of recommendation is exactly what it sounds like: a letter written by an expert to recommend a student for inclusion in a program. 

Letters of recommendation allow students to be introduced to important people by someone the committee respects. 

Most know that a strong letter of recommendation should come from a professor who is respected in their field, but that’s not all of it. The recommender should not only be able to speak to your strengths and abilities (in other words, don’t ask for a letter from a professor who gave you a B in their class) but also should be someone who knows you well. 

To secure a good letter of recommendation, future dentists should start early. Figure out which professors have strong reputations in the field you plan to enter and take steps to work with them. 

Take several classes with them and volunteer with them to establish a working relationship. And of course, be sure to earn good grades in their classes. 

With a strong letter of recommendation, a student can offset weaker parts of an application, including a lower GPA. A good letter will assure the committee that you’re a quality student, even if the numbers don’t back it up. 

Required Classes for Dental School

School of Dentistry - University of Alabama
University of Alabama School of Dentistry – public domain photo via Wikimedia Commons

Every dental school requires that applicants have a bachelor’s degree before entering their program. While a pre-dental degree is the ideal undergraduate course of study, that’s not available to everyone. Some people decide to become dentists after earning an unrelated degree, and others attend a school that does not offer a pre-dental concentration. 

If you’re in one of those situations, take heart. A pre-dental degree is not a requirement for dental school. There are classes you can take in any program to give you the best chance for admission into a dental program. 

Most programs require that students take certain science courses at an accredited four-year school (community college classes often are not accepted, nor are high school advanced placement classes). These courses should include biology, general chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry, and physics courses, all with lab elements. 

Dental schools also like to see credits in advanced math courses, such as math and statistics. 

Finally, because dental schools value clear communication, applicants must have passed an English composition class. The more diversity that you can demonstrate in your undergraduate studies, the stronger your application will be. Dental schools want well-rounded students entering their program. 

As that last sentence suggests, dental schools aren’t only concerned about math and science classes. Rather, admissions committees look at the classes you take for the same reason they look at your GPA. They want to get a sense of you as a student, to be able to assess your chances of success in their school. 

For that reason, the specific classes don’t always carry as much rate as your GPA itself. Sure, some courses won’t show committees what they want to see, but schools are interested in the skills you demonstrate more than they are the specific information you acquire. 

Standing Out in a Dental School Application

School of Dentistry - Meharry Medical College
Meharry Medical College School of Dentistry – public domain photo via Wikimedia Commons

Unsurprisingly, most students applying to dental school have strong DAT, GRE, and/or NBDE scores, a solid GPA, and a compelling personal essay. How can you make yourself stand out among the other good students competing for one of those limited spots? 

To make yourself more distinctive, you need to take advantage of opportunities to personalize your application. The more you can develop the skills and experience for dental school and tell the committees about them, the more you’ll differentiate yourself from other applicants.

For most applicants, there are four main ways that they can stand out on applications: internships, school tours and other connections, meeting professors, and having employment. 

Let’s look at each of those in detail. 


In an internship, students get a short-term, part-time job within a field to learn the ropes. While no dental school requires applicants to have an internship, they can differentiate between a mediocre applicant and a shoo-in. 

Of course, the best possible internship for dental school would be in a dental practice. Even running the books for a private practice can expose you to standards within the dental field. 

Fortunately, the American Dental Association offers resources to help future dentists find internships that will look good on an application. 

After that, an internship in a traditional medical office will be good preparation. The more you can learn about working with patients, following legal standards, and aiding medical professionals, the more you will stand out. 

All of that said, every internship can teach you the skills that dental schools expect to see in their applicants. Future dentists can gain leadership abilities, time management skills, and customer service skills in nearly every job. 

Regardless of the type of internship you have, you must be able to communicate the value of that experience to the admissions committee. For that reason, the internship should receive attention in your personal essay and your interviews. 

A strong applicant will explain the skills that one developed in an internship and how that experience is another step in the process that leads to going to dental school. 

With solid details, an applicant can prove to admissions committees that an internship gave you the necessary skills and experience for dental school. 

Demonstrated Interest

Demonstrating interest in a school is another effective way to stand out in an application.

That sounds obvious. Of course, no one would take the time to apply to a school in which they have no interest. 

But everyone you’re competing against will have done that, so you need to show the committee that you’re more interested than the others. Those who have a greater interest in a school will have connections with it long before sending their application. 

Almost every dental school offers several ways for you to make yourself known to them and to familiarize yourself with them. Most schools will set up formal tours of the department, often hosted by students in the course. 

These tours will not only let you see the actual grounds and buildings in which the studies occur but will also give you inside information about the program. You’ll learn how others were accepted into the program and about the expectations of the faculty. 

Dental schools often regularly host online webinars and information sessions for students and community members. While these are not as in-depth as a tour, they will give you basic information about the program and let you make contacts. 

Any of these aspects will give you an advantage over other applicants. Work them into your essay and interviews, and you’ll surely be a more distinctive candidate. 

Meeting Faculty

If you only saw professors in movies and tv shows, you’d think that they were just inaccessible boors who cannot be bothered with the needs of little people. But in real life, most professors are just people who love the subject they teach. 

Many will answer emails sent to them, even from people who aren’t their students and will be glad to meet with people who share their passions. 

A one-on-one meeting with faculty can provide you with much of the same information from a tour, only better. Even if the faculty member isn’t on the admissions committee, they likely are familiar with the process and know what the school wants in a candidate. 

They can not only give you the inside information for your application, but they can also tell you how to develop the skills admissions committees want to see. 

That said, it is true that professors are extremely busy and are inundated with requests. It is imperative that you be professional and accommodating with them, as they have no obligation to spend time with you. It’s always best to initiate the conversation with a brief, friendly, and well-written email. 

Spend no more than 5-7 sentences introducing yourself, telling them you’d like to meet, and asking them to respond. If you don’t hear back in a week, then send a gentle follow-up response. 

For all of these reasons, faculty are an invaluable resource, and most professors are willing to spend time with you. If you respect their time and communicate your expectations, you’ll likely find someone willing to help you. 

Having Been Employed

No dental school requires applicants to have a job in the field before their applications. But it certainly doesn’t hurt, especially if you want to stand out in a sea of potential students. 

As with internships, a job in the dental field is the best possible option. If you can get a job as a dental assistant, or even just working menial work in the office, you’ll be more distinctive than most other applicants. 

Many dentists will let students shadow them during a day, and while that practice does give you experience, employment is rarer and therefore preferred. 

All of that said, the fact of the matter is that any employment is better than no employment at all. A job at McDonald’s can teach you to be a hard worker, a good communicator, and a critical thinker

Wherever your former place of employment, you must explain the relevance of your work history to your journey toward dental school. 

In your personal statement essay, your interview, and other materials, clearly identify how the skills you developed relate to your process of going to study dentistry. The story you tell should take the reader from your previous jobs, into dental school, and toward your future career.