Whether you want to focus on the clinical practice, research or surgical branches of dentistry, you’ll need to get your Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD) first. The application process for a four-year dental program is similar to that of many other graduate programs. In order to be considered for an accredited program, you’ll need to have completed your undergraduate degree at a four-year college or university, as well as provide scores for the DAT (Dental Admission Test).
After having decided where and when to apply, your next step is to obtain application forms from the various schools that you’ve selected. Call the admissions offices around January (a year and a half before you’re planning to attend), and have them put you on their mailing lists. Also check the school’s Web site.
Most dental school applications are completed through the AADSAS, but if you’re applying to other schools, make sure you’ve received all the applications by April. Once the applications begin arriving, you’ll notice one thing quickly: No two applications are exactly alike. But despite their differences, most follow a general pattern with variations on the same kinds of questions.
When it comes to applying to dental school, think of yourself as “the product.” Your application is your marketing document. Marketing yourself doesn’t mean that you should lie or embellish the facts. It simply means that you need to make a lucid and convincing presentation. Everything on your application should contribute to an overall picture of yourself that clearly demonstrates that you belong in the class and will make a solid contribution to the learning of your peers. Sell yourself. Your application should be as clear as possible, typed or very neatly printed. Use your full name on everything, even the little cards and other trappings that schools often request.
Your College Extracurricular Activities Can Be Important
Dental-school admissions committees select applicants who have demonstrated intelligence, maturity, integrity, and a dedication to the ideal of service to society. One way for them to assess your nonacademic qualities is to look at how you lived your life prior to completing your dental school application. To this end, many committees will ask you to submit a list of your extracurricular activities. While not all admissions committees consider extracurriculars in the application process, those that do consider the nature and depth of the activities you have undertaken to be a significant factor in your admissibility to dental school.
Of all extracurricular activities, the one that is most likely to be considered essential by a dental school admissions committee is clinical experience. The best way to find such an experience is to call those organizations in your community that work with the chronically ill or disabled. Pick an organization whose work interests you and inquire about volunteering. Keep in mind, however, that you may be asked to make a commitment of up to one year.
In general, the only time research experience is an absolute must is if you are planning to apply to either M.D. or Ph.D. programs or are interested in an academic or research career. If this is the case, it is important that you have documented experience that validates your interest and potential in the career field.
But that doesn’t mean applicants planning a pure clinical career wouldn’t benefit from a research background. As a future dentist, your job will involve research, either as you seek to determine your patients’ medical conditions or through the process of continuing education, in which you will study other individuals’ research efforts.
A third category of extracurricular activity common to many successful applicants is teaching. One of the most important roles that a dentist plays is that of a teacher who imparts information to patients. Teaching patients enables them to play a more active role in their own health care.
The diversity of teaching experiences of dental school applicants during their undergraduate years is very broad. Such experience might include teaching bible study in your place of worship, teaching swimming or a musical instrument to children, or becoming a teaching assistant in a lower-division class in which you did exceptionally well. Teaching can encompass just about anything you enjoy doing. All you need to do is share it with others in a structured, organized manner.
Many undergraduate students need to work throughout their college years in order to stay in school. Many admissions committees recognize that the time you work necessarily means that you have less time for your studies and other forms of extracurricular activities. These committees understand that maintaining academic performance while holding down a job is hard work. If an applicant has been able to do both well, it is an indication that the person will be able to maintain a certain academic performance upon entering dental school.
Your GPA and DAT Score Are Vital
How your GPA is viewed is colored by where you went to school, the particular classes you took, if your grades are inflated, and if there are any other mitigating circumstances. Some dental schools consider a positive trend in your GPA over time. If you started off slowly; but improved significantly in later semesters, take heart. On the other hand, if your grades have been dropping over time, you may have a problem. For example, these schools believe that a GPA of 3.5 arrived at by GPAs of 3.0, 3.5, and 4.0 in your freshman, sophomore, and junior years respectively, differs markedly from a 3.5 earned by a 4.0, 3.5, 3.0 sequence.
The DAT Provides a Standard Measure
Because GPA is subject to such variability and interpretation, the DAT score has taken on more predominance in past years. Admissions committees look at your DAT score to determine if you have the academic ability to succeed in dental school. An outstanding DAT score won’t necessarily get you into the school of your choice but a low score will probably keep you out. If you scored poorly on the DAT, consider taking it again. Admissions committees usually focus on your most recent score. Taking the test more than once can work in your favor if you improve, but it can be a black mark if you do poorly in a particular subject more than once. If your first test results indicate a weak area, make sure you prepare well before you take the test a second time. Although, there is no limit to the number of times you can take the DAT, you must wait a minimum of 90 days before registering again.
How Should You Approach the DAT?
The DAT is a standardized test; therefore, it has standard ways of approaching it—question type strategies, time-management techniques, etc. Understanding the format of the exam and the ways you can use it to your advantage can significantly increase your score. Because of the intensity of the DAT and the competitiveness of today’s dental school admissions environment, we highly encourage you to prep formally for the exam (obvious reasons aside…). The structure that preparation provides can help you build the skills, techniques, and confidence to score your best.
The first criteria for getting an interview and an offer is, “Can the student do the work?” You will have to prove that you are capable of dental school level work primarily with your grades and DAT scores. Some admissions officers will candidly admit that they have a formula, such as GPA × “school conversion factor” × DAT score. Many have soft cutoffs that differ for in- and out-of-state candidates. The first cut will eliminate those who fall below the school’s typical standards for both GPA and DAT. Left are those who have sufficient proof of their academic ability. The weighing of the two depends on a number of different things.