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How To Become an Orthodontist

September 10th, 2021

If you have ever been to my office, you have probably noticed it is not like an ordinary dental office. I am usually wearing comfortable sneakers (I love my Yeezy’s) and pre-covid, I’m usually wearing blue jeans and a t-shirt (now scrubs). I love music so the office is always playing good music room-to-room through our Sonos speakers. If you are one of my patients I think you know I am a little too OCD about your teeth and I love being an orthodontist. In the past three years, I got to know many of my patients (one of the fun parts of my job). A frequently asked question I get from my middle, high school, and college students is, How do I become an orthodontist? 

Steps to Becoming an Orthodontist

Step 1. After high school, attend a 4-year university and graduate with really good grades and a high GPA. Many people choose a science major (Bachelors of Science) but you can also choose an economics major (Bachelor of arts). If you choose an economics or other arts degree you still have to take all of the science courses required to apply to dental school. Besides having a high GPA (preferably high science GPA) it helps to do research, volunteer, and show leadership in extracurricular organizations. 

Step 2. Take and crush the Dental Aptitude Test (DAT). The test is a nearly 5-hour test that is required to apply to the 66 dental schools in the United States (and 10 dental schools in Canada). The highest score is a 30, average is 17 (top 50%) but to be competitive in the dental school application process a score of 20 and above is recommended (top 25%). If you are curious about what an orthodontist does, click here for a free DAT sample test

Step 3. Apply and graduate from a US accredited dental school. Dental school is very competitive and if you want to become a specialist you have to graduate with really high grades and Board Scores (NDBE Part 1  and NBDE Part 2). Along the way of dental schools, there will be many State and National Licensure and Clinical Board Exams all of which have to be passed so you can apply and get a Dental License. Certain programs require you to have a dental license valid in the state in which you are doing your residency. Dental residency programs are similar and yet different from medical residency programs. There are 12 recognized dental specialty programs but the most competitive (arguable) is Orthodontics followed by Oral Surgery. To be considered to one of the top dental specialty programs you should be top 5% of your class

Step 4. Apply and graduate from a US accredited Orthodontic residency program. 

Step 5. Activate or convert your dental license to a specialty license in the state in which you plan on working in. A few states do not require you to have a specialty license (ie, Arizona) but in some states, it is mandatory to get a specialty license and then limit your practice to only that residency. 

How Long Does it Take to Become an Orthodontist


18 $0 Graduate High School

22 $30,000 – $150,000+ Graduate University/College

26 $160,000 – $240,000+ Graduate Dental School

28-31 ***0-$150,000 Graduate Orthodontic Residency and Masters program

* Assuming the individual does not take any breaks in between university and dental school. Many people choose to obtain a master’s degree (1 -2 years) prior to applying to dental school but it is not required. 

** Please note these are ranges, total costs will vary based on state or private education and many other factors.   

*** There are several orthodontic residency programs that will pay you an annual stipend but there are also programs that require an annual tuition

After High School: 


4 Years of University/College

4 Years of Dental School

2-3 Years of Orthodontic Residency and Master’s Program

So, how long does it take to become an orthodontist? Roughly 10 – 12 years if students do not take breaks and complete school according to their schedule. After completing school and becoming a licensed practitioner, it is time to open your own office! 

Starting an Orthodontic Practice

Many new graduates can have an average debt load of over $200,000 after going to school for a decade. Therefore many orthodontists usually associate with an existing orthodontic office or for another orthodontist. However, there are banks that will finance the build-out of a new orthodontic practice or help finance the purchase of an existing orthodontic office from another doctor. 

The cost of building a modern orthodontic practice can range from $200,000 –  $500,000. 

There are specialized banks that will finance the construction costs, equipment, and sometimes even working capital if the business plan is sound and the orthodontist can show some form of supplementary income (usually working as an associate at a different office). 

If you are truly interested in learning how long it takes to be an orthodontist. I would strongly recommend you read and complete this workbook titled, *A Dental Office Checklist: OPENING A NEW DENTAL OR DENTAL SPECIALTY OFFICE, by Dr. Naren Chelian. This is an activity/workbook which outlines very important questions to be answered by the future business owner to help open a new office. I personally utilized this book during the process of starting my own practice. 

* This book is written by my brother, Dr. Naren Chelian, who is a well-established orthodontist in Las Vegas, NV. I do not receive any financial compensation for the recommendation but sincerely hope this helps others as much as did for me.

Now that you know how to become and how long it takes to become an orthodontist. Contact us to book an appointment and learn what an orthodontist does!

Dr. Chelian is an orthodontist in Union City New Jersey. After completing his orthodontic specialty residency at Roseman University, he practiced orthodontics in Nevada and Arizona before ultimately settling in New Jersey. Dr. Chelian is passionate about all things ortho!

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