Career Development

How To Become an Orthodontist

February 22, 2021

Learning how to become an orthodontist can lead to new career opportunities. Regardless of your background, knowing what steps you need to take on your way to becoming an orthodontist can improve your odds of success. Training for a career as an orthodontist is an important professional move, but it requires research and study. In this article, we discuss what an orthodontist is and show you how you can become one.

What is an orthodontist?

An orthodontist is a medical professional who specializes in preventing, diagnosing and treating various facial and dental irregularities. Their main role is straightening misaligned teeth, but they also work on fixing various other issues, such as misaligned bites, excess teeth and esthetic issues that involve the jaw, teeth and lips.

Some of the most widely used treatments by orthodontists are:

  • Dental braces: They slowly align the teeth into their proper position with the help of individual brackets for each tooth and an arch wire that connects all of them. They are typically made of metal, ceramics or clear materials.
  • Retainers: They keep the realigned teeth in their new shape after using dental braces until the bone solidifies, making sure they don't revert back to their original position.
  • Facemasks and headgear: They typically work in tandem with braces to correct developmental issues, such as overbites and underbites.

The most important skills and qualities for orthodontists usually are:

  • The ability to work and communicate with children and teenagers, as they are the majority of orthodontics patients
  • The ability to explain complex concepts in popular terms
  • Compassion, patience and active listening skills
  • Communication and delegation skills when working with dental assistants
  • The ability and desire to always keep up to date with the latest industry developments and to apply them to patients

Related: How To Become an Orthodontist

How to become an orthodontist

Follow these steps to pursue a career as an orthodontist:

1. Graduate high school

If you are considering a career as an orthodontist while still being in high school, the most useful courses are likely to be biology, anatomy, physics, mathematics and both organic and inorganic chemistry.

2. Earn a bachelor's degree

Earning a bachelor's degree is a prerequisite for being admitted to a dental school. Although some schools accept students who only two years as an undergraduate, most of them only take applicants with a bachelor's degree. Therefore, earning one is crucial for your odds of becoming an orthodontist.

Although there is no clear prerequisite regarding the right undergraduate program, most aspiring orthodontists choose subject majors that prepare them for the next steps, such as biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics. Two of the most popular degrees for orthodontists are Bachelor of Science degrees in either chemistry or biology.

Related: Orthodontist vs. Dentist: What are the Differences?

3. Take the Dental Admission Test

The Dental Admission Test, also called the Dental Aptitude Test and the Dental Acceptance test is given by the American Dental Association and is also a prerequisite for admission to an accredited dental school, with each school requiring a different test score for admission. The test has four sections:

  • Survey of the natural sciences: It includes 40 biology questions, 30 questions about general chemistry and 30 questions about organic chemistry.
  • Perceptual ability: It consists of six problem sets that aim to evaluate your ability to perceive three-dimensional areas and your general spatial reasoning.
  • Reading comprehension: After reading three academic essays on various scientific subjects, usually one or two pages long, the applicants need to answer 50 questions regarding the content of the essays, in order to prove their ability to understand basic scientific information.
  • Quantitative reasoning: It tests critical thinking and basic mathematics skills, such as trigonometry, algebra, roots and fractions.

4. Graduate from dental school

All orthodontists must first become dentists. Aside from your college GPA and your Dental Admission Test score, other elements taken into consideration by admissions boards are:

  • A personal statement from the applicant
  • Various letters of recommendation
  • Previous experience in working as an assistant in the dental field

Students spend the first two years of dental school learning about human anatomy and how dental work can affect different parts of the body. They spend the final two years learning and practicing various procedures, under the direct supervision of licensed teachers and dentists. At the end of the four years, they must prove that they are familiar with every procedure, both in theory and in practice. Dental school students graduate with a Doctor of Dental Surgery or a Doctor of Dental Medicine degree.

5. Earn your dental license

After graduating dental school, the next step is earning your dental license by passing the National Board Dental Examination, as well as a clinical exam administered by a testing agency within your geographical area.

The National Board Dental Examination is a two-part exam and is taken over three days. The first part consists of 400 multiple-choice questions from areas like:

  • Human anatomy, embryology and histology
  • Microbiology and pathology
  • Dental anatomy and occlusion
  • Biochemistry and psychology

The second part takes two days and focuses on topics specific to dental work, such as:

  • Operative dentistry
  • Oral and maxillofacial surgery and pain control
  • Endodontics
  • Periodontics
  • Prosthodontics
  • Patient management
  • Oral diagnosis
  • Pharmacology

Related: 12 Types of Dentists (With Salaries and Requirements)

6. Complete an orthodontics residency

Now that you are a licensed dentist, the next step on your way to becoming an orthodontist is completing an accredited orthodontics residency. It takes two or three years and it enhances a dentist's knowledge by helping them acquire the skills needed to manage and resolve issues regarding facial misalignment and tooth movement. While a two-year program allows students to graduate faster, a three-year one helps them gain a deeper knowledge of complex orthodontic issues. Three-year programs are more likely to also offer master's degrees in orthodontics.

7. Earn your orthodontist license

Having completed all the previous prerequisites, the final step toward becoming an orthodontist is earning your license. States usually have slightly different requirements, but the main ones are graduation from an accredited dental school, successful completion of the National Board Dental Examinations and passing state clinical tests. Most licensed orthodontists are also licensed to practice dentistry.

8. Get certified

If, after becoming an orthodontist, you wish to showcase your acquired expertise to patients and colleagues, you can get certified by the American Board of Orthodontics. Certification requires passing written and clinical exams and needs to be retaken every 10 years.


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