A Guide to Getting into Dental School

This is a (LONG) guide based on my own personal experience getting into dental school as well as advice from other students and mentors including tips for the personal statement, the DAT, letters of recommendation, extracurricular activities, and the interview process.

Personal Statement

Hopefully you’ve had some thoughts on the personal statement. Knowing where to start is always the hardest part especially if you’re not someone who is used to “bragging” about yourself. But this is a little different. The personal statement is meant to highlight the important parts of your life that led you to the path of dentistry and to display why you would make a good dentist. Was it a specific incident that occurred while working in a volunteer clinic that broadened your life view? Was it the moment you realized what it really meant to be a leader? The personal statement is about the human connection and the details that are often excluded from a resume.

Another thing to emphasize are hobbies that may indicate that you have fine motor skills since this is an important part of dentistry! In mine, I talked about how, in my free time, I spread and pin butterflies. This is just one example, but if you have other hobbies this can range from piano to painting, knitting or whatever. And of course, you could choose to emphasize other things as well such as community service, why you chose to pursue dentistry and how your personality and goals work into this career field.

There is a word limit for the personal statement so I would highlight 3-4 interesting things about yourself and really tie them into how dentistry is a good match for you.

And, on a side note, although some may disagree with this, admissions officers are looking to see people who have an interest in becoming a general dentist. Obviously, it is okay to want to pursue a specialty (oral surgery, orthodontics, etc), but the sentiment of many schools is that you’re not in dental school yet so you should focus on getting in first before talking about a desire to specialize. They want to make sure that you would be happy being a general dentist because not everyone who wants to get into specialty residencies get them. So if you are pursuing a residency after dental school…I wouldn’t mention it in your personal statement or, only if they ask in interviews, but be prepared to have a good answer (and excellent grades to back it up) as to why you would want to pursue that particular residency.

The DAT

Some people can study for this in two weeks, others, like myself, may need a few months. So, depending on when you plan to study these are the resources I used.

The following includes how I studied for each subject on the DAT including general chemistry, organic chemistry, biology, quantitative reasoning, reading comprehension, and the PAT:

General Chemistry/Organic Chemistry

  • I was particularly weak in this area so I used Chad’s Videos (Coursesaver) to relearn everything. He tailors it specifically for the DAT so you generally won’t learn beyond what will appear on the test. He also provides a lot of tips and tricks for test-taking and dealing with the limited amount of time you have. I would definitely watch these videos for areas you have trouble in. Since I took chem and orgo years ago, I watched every video while taking notes and took each quiz afterwards.
  • I also used the DAT Destroyer – it’s pricey, but well worth it. I would get the one that includes all the science sections. There are a lot of questions particularly for the chem sections, they are a lot more difficult that what you’ll find on the test.

Biology

  • If biology is your strong suit that you’re in luck! This section can cover nearly everything and anything you’ve ever seen in your biology class which is why many people have trouble with this section even if they’ve covered all the biology topics in their study materials.
  • I used Cliff’s Biology AP 3rd Edition. – this is probably the most popular resource and is an easy read.
  • I also used Feralis’ Biology Notes – although I think it’s a little more in depth than you need. But it lays everything out in a very organized manner.
  • DAT Destroyer – again, this was a helpful resources for extra questions to test my biology knowledge. These questions are VERY similar to what I found on the actual DAT because they are all over the place and include very detailed questions to many different topics.

Quantitative Reasoning (aka the math section)

  • Thankfully ,the math section does not go beyond pre-calc.
  • I would definitely recommend using the CourseSaver videos for this. Chad does an excellent job of explaining concepts such as estimating logarithms and giving surefire techniques to solving convoluted “word problems” (remember those?) At the end of each video there are a few practice questions to really make sure you understand the concepts.
  • Another thing to mention is that the math on Ari’s practice tests were slightly easier than the math section on the actual DAT. If you want a real challenge, I would stick to DAT destroyer. These questions are actually slightly more difficult than what you’ll see on the actual exam but if you can answer these then you’ll definitely be prepared.

Reading Comprehension

  • Because I was so focused on the chem sections I did not study as much for this section but I ended up doing alright anyways. I would definitely try to get used to the format of the passage and questions (literally how they are presented on the screen, again use Ari’s practice tests), the types of questions they ask and so on. Basically, you’ll be reading a passage and answering questions about it.
  • They provide the same types of questions over and over, so I would find a technique that works for you such as reading the questions first and then skimming the passage to find the answers. Some people read the passage first and then answer questions while jumping back and forth to the passage and the questions. The first method personally worked better for me! I would also use Ari’s practice tests for this section.
  • Learn how to skim passages effectively.

PAT

  • Finally, the PAT. This is scored separately from the other topics so you will receive two final scores. Ari provides an awesome page here that generates an unlimited number of PAT problems. This was amazing and was something I could do during my free time on my phone/laptop while waiting for class to end. The PAT problem generator was probably the best way for me to study because it also described why the incorrect answers are wrong.
  • Ari’s practices tests were also particularly helpful in this area as they also provided very detailed corrections and explanations when you got something wrong.
  • I would ALWAYS look over the wrong answers on every section and see why you got them wrong.

A couple tidbits – I remember many people before my class (2020) suggested taking the 2009 and 2012 DAT practice exams that are available online. I think the tests previous classes took were more similar to the 2009 and 2012 practice exams but in my opinion, these practice exams were WAY easier than the actual exam. I would still suggest taking them for more practice but keep in mind that they are way easier. I also found that there were more conceptual questions than math calculating or identifying the molecular product kinds of questions on both the organic and general chemistry subjects than what was generally on any practice test that I had taken.

Letters of Recommendation

First, I would check the letters of recommendation that the schools you are applying to require. Usually schools have some variation of requiring letters from professors (science or non-science and sometimes both), a dentist you shadowed/worked with, etc.

As with any letter of recommendation, make sure the person knows you. For professors, this means asking questions in class, going to office hours and actually having a “getting to know you” conversation with the professor. Let them know what your goals are and that you plan to apply to dental school. You wouldn’t want a professor to first realize that you’re pursuing dentistry when you ask them for a letter of rec and then have to describe why you’d be good fit for dentistry.

If you’ve worked in a dental office and had a good experience then you’re in luck! These are very valuable letters of recommendation especially if you’ve worked closely with the dentist. Same goes with shadowing. It’s better to shadow 2-3 dentists for the required number of hours (and yes, most schools have a required number of shadowing/working hours ranging from 50-150 hrs) because it’s quality over quantity.

Most of all, make sure you build those relationships so your mentors, professors, dentists etc can write you an honest and great letter of rec.

Extracurriculars/Community Service/Shadowing

In terms of my extracurricular activities I’ve been building this up since my freshman year of college, but intended for medical school (before I realized what it meant to have a lengthy residency on top of medical school). So most of my dental-related activities actually happened within the last two years before applying!

On the application, there will be a section for you to give the name/type of extracurricular, a short description of it, and the number of hours you’ve committed to it.

So generally, I would emphasize clubs you are in (your role, if it’s a leadership role that’s even better), church groups that you might be particularly active in, sports you might play, there’s even a section for hobbies (fine motor skill-type hobbies can go here!), and of course working in labs (outside of class, so something like orgo lab would not count), the type of research you may have done in lab, and shadowing.

A frequent concern I get from a lot of people is about not having enough hours of community service/extracurriculars/shadowing. If you do not have enough hours spent on these activities it wouldn’t hurt to hold off a year. Oftentimes, this is what can bring people down in the application process despite having a competitive GPA because dental schools really try to recruit well-rounded applicants. Not saying you won’t get in, but this could hurt your chances. Typically schools prefer applicants to shadow 2-3 dentists. Quality, is more important than quantity, so spending more time (usually between 50-150 hours depending on the school) with fewer dentists is ideal. Admissions want to make sure that you know what you’re getting into. If you had a job working in a dental clinic for a while that’s even better.

The Interview Process

The best piece of advice I got was to already have a set of life events/stories in your head (I would say 5-8 different life experiences) that you can pick from and tie into the various questions they will ask you. Honestly, this is a social interview to make sure that you can interact with others in a “normal” or comfortable way and that you can answer questions and be reflective on the spot. Some schools, have a Multiple Mini Interview (MMI) style where there will be multiple interviewers who will each as you a question.

I cannot disclose the exact questions from my interviews, but the questions are all general Tier 1 interview questions that you can encounter in almost any job interview. They relate to your strengths/weaknesses, working in a group, what you would do in terms of an honor policy infringement (honesty is always the right answer), what to do in a social conflict, failures in your life (and how you dealt with it), and of course, why you chose this career field.

Again, the questions here are NOT from my interviews, but they are a collection of general types of questions I’ve found for Tier 1 social interviews.

Strength/Weakness type questions In almost any interview, you will probably come across the “weakness” question at some point. And of course, you don’t need to turn every weakness into a strength but you should describe these as “areas of growth”. One thing admissions hate to hear is, “I’m a perfectionist, and sometimes I just need to stop and learn when it’s perfect enough.” Although this may be true, it sounds like BS and it sounds like you don’t know what your real weaknesses are. An example of an “area of growth” that I talked about was my personal inability to delegate jobs while in a leadership position. The main thing is to always have an answer ready and extrapolate. And it’s always something you’re working on. In terms of strengths, this can involve your personality, your persistence against adversity, or your kind and caring nature. Remember to tie this strength into how this could contribute to your future success as a dentist.

Working with a group: disagreements, issues with one person, someone not pulling their weight. With questions in this realm, I talked about a specific instant that occurred at one point in my life. For example, how I disagreed with the leader in my group project for class and how I later pulled him aside to talk to him about it face to face. I handled the problem in a direct manner and was able to help him understand my point of view as well as gain an understanding of his views as well. What admissions is looking for are the steps you took to solve the problem as well as your thinking throughout the situation.

Honesty Policy Questions – This should be a no-brainer. ALWAYS be honest, and yes, you have to snitch for the better of the community. You can describe your feelings of being somewhat conflicted, in that maybe you can see your friend’s point of view if they decided to cheat, but always conclude with taking the honest path. No one wants a dentist who cheated their way through dental school.

Fine-motor skills-type questions – Aka: What hobbies do you have that show that you have the fine-motor skills to be a good dentist? I played piano, knit, and, weirdly enough, pinned bugs as a side hobby so I mentioned these things.

Why do you think this career field is a good fit for you type of questions – This is a very common one and you should always be expected to be asked this question. And if you’re applying to dental school, this should be an obvious one to you. My answer was generally related to how I love the clinical science aspect of dentistry combined with the fine motor-skills that are required, as well as being able to talk to people because I love interacting with and meeting new people. Unlike many other fields, people oftentimes see the same dentist for a very long time and you can eventually form a very tight-knit community which I think is awesome. On top of all that, dentists have great hours compared to others in the medical field. You can oftentimes set your own hours and balance family and work life which is a very attractive aspect to dentistry. Dentists also tend to be higher earners…but I wouldn’t mention that in the interview. Remember to try to tie your answers to how this would make you a good dentist and explain clearly your thought process.

Do you have any questions for me? – Yes, you ALWAYS have a question for the person interviewing you. Obviously, something you can’t find on their website, but shows that you did your research. Maybe it’s related to the program itself, or something you want to clarify about the community service opportunities, curriculum, or externships. The last thing you want to do is make the interviewer know that this is your backup school. Make sure you have a pocketful of good questions to ask for the interview.

It is important to think of every question as a way to highlight or expand on something on your resume or even as a way to “brag” about yourself. And yes, there are ways to do this without seeming cocky. Another thing to remember is that generally there is no right or wrong answer. Interviewers are interested to see how you think so make sure you can reflect on both sides of a given situation.

I hope this is helpful for any pre-dents looking for some tips for applying to dental school! If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to comment below.

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