What does it take to get into dental school?

Dentistry is a great profession! Being a dentist was just listed as the No. 1 job in America in 2013 by U.S. News and World Report.

Dalin Iusd Dean John Williams

... A conversation with John N. Williams, Dean at Indiana University School of Dentistry

BY Jeffrey B. Dalin, DDS, FACD, FAGD, FICD, FADI

Dr. Dalin: Dentistry is a great profession! Being a dentist was just listed as the No. 1 job in America in 2013 by U.S. News and World Report. I followed in my father's footsteps and chose this as my profession. When I applied to dental schools, my father was my advisor. He guided me through the process of choosing a school. Frequently, I'm asked about applying to dental school. What does it take to get accepted? What do prospective students need to think about while attaining an undergraduate education?
Today, we're talking about this issue with Dr. John Williams, Dean of Indiana University School of Dentistry.

Dr. Williams: During the past seven years, demand from prospective students to attend one of the 61 dental schools in the U.S. has been strong. The recent U.S. News and World Report ranking of dentistry as the No. 1 job will keep student demand high. In 2011, there were 12,039 applicants to dental schools for 5,311 first-year positions, according to the American Dental Education Association in Washington, D.C. Therefore, the competition to gain admission is tough. But admission to dental school is not impossible. It takes planning, organization, self-discipline, leadership, and civic engagement, the same things needed to be a successful dentist.

Dalin Iusd Dean John Williams
John N. Williams

Specifically, prospective students should have a strong academic background (a minimum of a 3.0 grade point average on a 4.0 scale in core courses of biology, chemistry, and physics). They should plan an undergraduate curriculum with their college advisors. In addition, working with a predental club can be helpful to learn more about the profession and to gain civic engagement and shadowing opportunities.

Many dental schools evaluate candidates for admission using a comprehensive application review known as a "whole file review." This consists of an admissions committee assessment of biographical and academic information provided by the applicant and the undergraduate and graduate schools the applicant attended. These committees generally assess the applicant's results from the Dental Admission Test (DAT minimum of 17 on the academic average), grade point average (GPA), additional information provided in the application, letters of evaluation, and interviews. The GPA and DAT are minimum scores considered nationally. When a student identifies which schools are of interest, the student should check directly with these programs to obtain minimum qualifications for admissions. A great resource book is the 2013 ADEA Official Guide to Dental Schools at http://www.adea.org/publications/Pages/OfficialGuide.aspx. This guide outlines admissions requirements for each U.S. dental school. ADEA also runs the centralized application service (AADSAS). Almost all U.S. dental schools use this service to assemble applicant admissions information.

Dr. Dalin: How important is the DAT examination? What would you recommend to a student who is preparing for this test?

Dr. Williams: This test is very important. In addition to practice, practice, practice, some students may elect to take a Kaplan review course or purchase DAT review books that are available online or in bookstores. Students should focus strongly on the perceptional ability test (PAT) and the reading comprehension test subcomponents of the DAT. These scores are important to assess a candidate's eye-hand coordination, and the ability to read and comprehend a large volume of content. Overall, candidate scores should be balanced among the various subsections of the DAT.

Dr. Dalin: Do you have any advice about the application process and the submission of a personal essay?

Dr. Williams: One consideration for the application process is to apply early. Even though the various schools may post a closing date for applications late in the fall each year, the earlier applicants submit their materials, the better opportunity they have to be considered initially in the application process.

The personal essay is an important aspect of the application. While the GPA and DAT scores tell an academic story, the personal essay should answer questions such as why a candidate wants to study dentistry, extracurricular activities involving leadership, discipline and civic engagement, sharing experience and knowledge about dental practice as a result of shadowing, and explaining what unique talents the candidate can bring to the profession. Thoughts about a career plan are appropriate, too.

Dr. Dalin: Patients and predental students ask to shadow me. Is there anything that practicing dentists should do during the shadowing process? Should we just make these superficial sessions, or should we try to teach the prospective students some specifics about what we do in the office?

Dr. Williams: Shadowing is a great way for a candidate to actually observe and learn more in depth about dental career options. Many times applicants base their dental experiences on their orthodontic care and their interest in pursuing this career path. Dentistry, however, encompasses many different dimensions -- private practice, specialty care, public health, academics, or research -- so the more shadowing experience a student can gain, the better.

I suggest dentists who are working with prospective students in a substantive way observe a variety of procedures, talk with the front office staff, and keep a journal of the behavior they have seen. Mentorship is an important part of the profession for all of us. So doctors who offer shadowing opportunities should develop a plan to make this a meaningful experience. Students could even approach the doctor about doing some type of project, such as learning about where new patients come from or why certain treatment options are selected as compared to others.

Dr. Dalin: Most dental schools conduct interviews. Please talk about this process, and any advice we can give to prospective students to prepare them for these interviews.

Dr. Williams: Practice, practice, and practice -- there is a theme developing here. Interviews are important to bring a candidate to life. The most promising candidates are invited for interviews. They should be prepared to tell their story in a conversational way, but also to get their essential points across to the interviewer in short order.

It is important to organize the "elevator speech." Can the candidate get his or her essential points across in the time it takes an elevator to travel 10 stories -- perhaps 30 seconds? Most schools calibrate their interview teams so that candidates are asked the same questions, such as why they have an interest in dentistry, what do they know about the dental profession, or their future career aspirations. It is wise for the applicant to have background information about each school in order to ask insightful questions of the interviewers. Excellent communication skills are key to a successful interview.

Dr. Dalin: How have the actual four years of dental school changed since I attended Indiana University School of Dentistry 33 years? I really thought that when I graduated, I was ready to hit the ground running. Obviously there are the simulators now, but there are also new models of dental schools popping up around the country.

Dr. Williams: In some ways, dental education has fundamentally not changed in the last 33 years, but in other ways, it has. We are a biologically based, scientific profession, so the first two years of dental school are concentrated on developing and integrating the biopsychosocial aspects of human biology in the context of clinical patient care. The third and fourth years of dental school provide rich clinical education experiences for students to demonstrate their understanding and application of these biological principles in caring for patients.

The amount of laboratory preclinical work required of a student has diminished. The use of computers and information technology, from digital radiology to using simulators or haptic technology to learn preclinical skills to electronic curriculum and electronic health records, rounds out the innovative ways dental schools have changed in the past 33 years.

Dr. Dalin: Dean Williams, thank you for talking with me. I think our readers will appreciate the information you've offered. There has been much talk on Internet discussion groups about this subject. Many of us have relatives and patients who are interested in joining our profession. Is there anything else you would like to tell our readers?

Dr. Williams: Dental education and dental practice, like so many things in today's U.S. society, are facing changes and opportunities to enhance what we do. At Indiana, we have challenges, too. Like you, Jeff, I have thoroughly enjoyed several aspects of my career. Initially, I served six years as a general practitioner in Louisville, Ky., prior to joining the faculty at the University of Louisville School of Dentistry, where I graduated in 1980.

My experience in academic dentistry has been exhilarating -- initially as an assistant professor doing field research on access to care and workforce needs in Kentucky, and now serving as dean at three fine dental schools. The concerns I have are the cost of dental education, student debt, and the management of this debt. The key to managing student debt, just like making application to dental school, is planning, organization, self-discipline, leadership, and civic engagement. These traits have served and will serve the test of time to enable someone to pursue his or her dreams in dental school, and their dreams once in practice. Enjoy the exciting journey ahead!

Jeffrey B. Dalin, DDS, FACD, FAGD, FICD, FADI, practices general dentistry in St. Louis. He is a cofounder of the Give Kids A Smile program. Contact Dr. Dalin at jeff@dalindental.com.

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