Orthodontist vs. General Dentist

So, you think you might want to give your chompers a little straightening up, do you? These days, both general dentists and orthodontists can correct your bite. But is it really the same? Although both orthodontists and general dentists go to dental school to earn their DDS degrees, orthodontists attend a 2-3 year-long residency after dental school to qualify them as dentists who are orthodontic specialists. Let’s take a closer look at the qualifications and path of each.


Both general dentists and orthodontists start out as pre-dental students. They must attend an accredited four-year university. During their undergraduate years, both need to fulfill the pre-dental requirements which include courses such as English, general chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry, physics, and biology. Some dental schools ask for additional classes such as psychology, humanities or a foreign language.  

Before applying to dental school, aspiring orthodontists and general dentists must take an exam called the Dental Admission Test (DAT). The DAT is specially designed to determine if students are good candidates for dental school. Applicants are tested on biology, organic chemistry, general chemistry, reading comprehension, qualitative reasoning, and perceptual ability.  

Being a good applicant for dental school may not sound so difficult. After all, anyone can fill out an application and go to an interview, right? Well, keep in mind that in 2017, 11,873 people applied to 66 accredited US dental schools and 10 Canadian dental schools but only 6,122 of those applicants enrolled. Of those who enrolled, 30% had a GPA of 3.75 or higher. So, let’s just say, dental school is pretty tough to get into!

Dental School

Now, our excited pre-general dentist and pre-orthodontist are first-year dental students! They will have to complete four years (or three, depending on the school) of intensive academic and clinical training to obtain licensure and, finally, their DDS. During this time, their paths start to diverge a bit.

Although both must fulfill all of the course requirements set forth by their respective dental schools as well as Parts I and II of the National Dental Board Examinations, the dental student pursuing a career in orthodontics must go a little bit further to bulk up his or her resume. This includes engaging in community service like volunteering at free dental clinics. Orthodontic residency applicants are also expected to have a strong background in research. As far as standardized testing goes, most orthodontics residency programs require the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) and some accept the Advanced Dental Admissions Test (ADAT).

Both dentists and orthodontists have a TON of studying to do before ever touching teeth.

In the spring before they graduate from dental school, dental students can begin to apply to orthodontic residency programs, which include a combination of clinical and academic training that is specific to the specialty of orthodontics. Students applied to, on average, 15 orthodontic residencies and received roughly 4 interviews in the 2017 application cycle. Considering there are a little more than 70 accredited orthodontics residencies in the US and Canada and each of them accept 3-6 residents each cycle on average, there aren’t a lot of spots for the 515 people who applied in 2017. This makes orthodontics the second most competitive dental specialty, oral surgery being the most competitive.

Orthodontic Residency

Orthodontic residency programs range from 24-36 months. On top of balancing their classes and research, residents spend loads of time in clinic, working with patients to straighten their teeth. A 2009 study found that 60% orthodontic residents will complete 30 orthodontic cases by the time they graduate from their residency program.

Once a student graduates from residency and becomes an orthodontist, he or she can complete another set of oral, written, and clinical exams to become board-certified by the American Board of Orthodontics. A board-certified orthodontist has gone through the most intense training to specifically straighten teeth and correct bites.

Now, what is our general dentist up to?

General dentists who want to straighten their patients’ teeth must take special Continuing Education (CE) courses. These courses range in duration and depth and offer dentists different skills such as fixed braces or Invisalign. For example, in order to become an Invisalign-certified provider, general dentists need only to attend a four-hour course. In comparison, orthodontists spend an additional 2-3 years after dental school to focus their on learning the intricacies of teeth movement.

Ideally, general dentists know their limits and will restrict themselves to only taking on mild cases. Usually, general dentists will charge less for orthodontic treatment than orthodontists, and patients have the convenience of seeing one practitioner for both teeth cleaning and straightening.

Patients who are considering teeth straightening have many options. It is important to know and be comfortable with the level of training and expertise of your provider since orthodontics is complex and restructures the bones in your face!

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