CareerExplorer’s step-by-step guide on how to become an orthodontist.
Is becoming an orthodontist right for me?
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According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, high school students considering a career as an orthodontist should take courses in biology, anatomy, organic and inorganic chemistry, physics, and mathematics.
Before they are admitted to dental school and train as an orthodontist, students must complete pre-dentistry requirements as an undergraduate. While some programs will accept students with a minimum of two years of undergraduate education, most prefer to admit applicants with a bachelor’s degree.
Although there is no subject major requirement to enter dentistry school, most students follow a science-focused curriculum that prepares them to take the Dental Acceptance Test or DAT.
Typical curricula encompass both classroom and lab components in biology, organic and inorganic chemistry, and physics. Dental school admissions committees also look for training in anatomy, biochemistry, psychology, and mathematics. Business, foreign language, humanities, and social science courses, while not directly related to the field, often make applicants stronger candidates.
Dental Admission Test (DAT)
In addition to submitting GPA and transcript information, undergraduate students must pass the Dental Admission Test or DAT, also referred to as the Dental Acceptance Test and Dental Aptitude Test. All schools have a minimum score requirement.
The Dental Admission Test (DAT) is composed of four sections:
Survey of the Natural Sciences
Biology – 40 questions
General Chemistry – 30 questions
Organic Chemistry – 30 questions
Six different problem sets designed to test perceptual ability, specifically in the areas of three-dimensional manipulation and spatial reasoning
Three academic essays, each of which is followed by questions about the passage’s content
Basic mathematics skills, with emphasis placed on algebra, critical thinking, fractions, roots, and trigonometric identities
Studying Resources and Practice Exams
There are many test-prep books, guides, and courses available to help applicants prepare for the DAT. The most popular and widely available resources are available through the Kaplan and Princeton Review.
Before you can become an orthodontist, you must become a dentist.
Most dental schools use the American Dental Education Association’s website for the application process.
Students generally submit their applications during the summer after their junior year of Bachelor’s studies, when they have their final DAT scores. Admissions committees take the following into consideration when evaluating dental school applicants:
- DAT scores
- Letters of recommendation
- Personal statement
- Experience shadowing at a dental office
Dental school is four years of intense study. In the first two years, students focus on scientific coursework that will prepare them for the clinical components of later years. These science courses go into great depth and detail, and challenge students to memorize and understand systems of the body that may be affected by their work as a dentist.
During the second half of dental school, while learning the clinical aspects of dentistry, students will be under the direct supervision of an instructor/licensed dentist. They will be required to walk through every procedure presented to them, answer questions about patients and procedures, and respond to feedback from observers.
Students graduate from dental school with either a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or a Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD). The DDS and DMD degrees are essentially the same.
To be granted a dental license, candidates must graduate from a CODA-accredited dental school, pass the National Board Dental Examination (NBDE), and pass a clinical exam administered by the state or by a regional testing agency.
The NBDE consists of two parts and takes three days to complete:
Four hundred multiple choice questions emphasizing basic sciences:
- Human Anatomy, Embryology, and Histology
- Biochemistry and Physiology
- Microbiology and Pathology
- Dental Anatomy and Occlusion
Requires two days and focuses on clinical dental topics:
- Operative Dentistry
- Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery/Pain Control
- Oral Diagnosis
- Orthodontics and Pediatric Dentistry
- Patient Management, including Behavioral Science, Dental Public Health, and Occupational Safety
The Joint Commission on National Dental Examinations (JCNDE) provides detailed information on the National Board Dental Examination.
For the most up-to-date information on state-administered clinical exams, visit the American Dental Association website.
After earning their DDS or DMD, dentists who wish to become an orthodontist must complete an orthodontics residency accredited by the ADA’s Commission on Dental Accreditation. During two or three years as a resident, future orthodontists learn the skills required to both manage tooth movement (orthodontics) and guide facial development (dentofacial orthopedics).
There are two systems used to find these postdoctoral programs. The Postdoctoral Application Support Service (PASS) and the Postdoctoral Dental Matching Program (MATCH) provide a standard format that allows applicants to fill out just one application to apply to multiple programs. Candidates need high National Board Dental Examination scores to secure a residency.
Depending on their career goals, orthodontics residents can earn a masters or Ph.D. in Orthodontics or a Master's Degree in Oral Science or Oral Biology.
The requirements to practise as an orthodontist vary from state to state. In most states, a dental license allows you to practice both general dentistry and orthodontics.
Other jurisdictions issue separate licenses for a specialty practices. Contact your state’s dental board to find out which license(s) you need before you can begin your practice.
Orthodontists can become certified by the American Board of Orthodontics. The voluntary certification is awarded after candidates pass written and clinical exams. Recertification is required every ten years.
You can take the written exam after completing eighteen months of your residency. If you pass it, you qualify to take the clinical exam.