The most wonderful thing about being an orthodontist is working with children and adolescents and having the chance to impact them personally in addition to changing their smiles. Many orthodontists entered the field because of the positive experiences they had when they went through orthodontics, so one of the most common questions I get from patients is “How do I become an orthodontist?”
In theory, becoming an orthodontist is very straightforward: Finish high school and college, attend dental school and then finish an orthodontic residency. In all, it’s about 10-11 years of schooling after high school. With no breaks in the educational process, one can expect to finish school and be an orthodontist at around age 28-30.
In reality, the process of becoming an orthodontist is actually more difficult than you might expect. There are both academic and financial hurdles that while manageable, need to be considered.
I tell everyone who is interested in becoming an orthodontist that first and foremost you must be a great student. Not a good or very good one, but rather an excellent student. I’m not just talking about grades, which is mandatory. I’m referring to being the type of individual who interacts and studies everything. Orthodontics is a profession that uses the mind much more than the hands. Think of it as a job that requires solving puzzles everyday. It’s very different than general dentistry, where most of the work happens by the dentist themselves performing an actual procedure on a patient.
So, you need to have college grades good enough to get you into Dental school and it’s at this point where the real importance of grades plays a role. You can’t just sit back and revel in the fact that you got into dental school (with a bunch of other high achievers, I may add). Nope, you need to excel there as well. The primary differentiating factor that orthodontic residencies look at is grades. You may have done mission work in Samoa, climbed Everest or invented a new computer coding language, but none of that matters until you pass the primary gatekeeper, grades.
The generally accepted rule is that you should be in the top 10% of your dental school class which is tougher than you might think. Remember, everyone in your class had to work pretty hard to get good grades for dental school admittance and they’re no dummies. In a class of 80, it means that you want to be in the top 8 or so. There have been many orthodontists who weren’t in the top 10% but the overwhelming majority were.
There are only about 300 total spots per year for all orthodontic residencies combined, and you’re going to be competing with many students who were top 5 in their dental classes (A LOT of #1’s), so while getting accepted with grades outside of the top 10% is a possibility, I wouldn’t gamble all of your hopes and dreams on that happening. Remember, statistics show that every single year, about half of those who apply to orthodontic residencies don’t get in. It’s not that they get into “lower level schools” (those don’t exist). They simply don’t get in and need to readjust their life plan. So, I tell everyone that if you want to be an orthodontist and can’t get awesome grades, you should be prepared to be a general dentist or another type of specialist for the rest of your career. If you can’t consider that, you know what you have to do in school. Enough said.
The other thing one has to consider is the cost of going to school. College and dental school are generally not free and the vast majority of orthodontic residencies require that you pay tuition (and living expenses) while in school, so be prepared to take out school loans…a lot of them! It’s not unusual to see orthodontists graduate school with $400,000 or more in school loans. The good news is that most orthodontists do OK for themselves in terms of salary, and you will likely pay back your loans (albeit over a long time) but taking out massive loans is a very scary experience and you should be prepared. Being 28 years old and starting your career with a half a million dollars in loans is a scary thing to go through.
A great place to start finding out of orthodontics is for you is by interning or assisting in an orthodontic practice. Many practices require someone to help with smaller tasks like cleaning or sterilizing instruments and it’s a great opportunity for a teen to learn about what really happens in an orthodontic practice behind the scenes. Every state is different, so check online and see what restrictions are placed, but I would tell my own children that they shouldn’t consider being an orthodontist until they work in an orthodontic practice for at least a little while.
I love coming to work every day and the joy I see in my patients’ eyes when they smile their new smile for the first time makes my journey worth it. For those interested in becoming orthodontists, I support you 100%. It’s an amazing profession and I hope that it happens for you. If there’s anything I can do to assist you in any way, please don’t hesitate to ask.
All the best,