Is Dental School Right for You?

Before you apply to dental school, one crucial question you should ask yourself is “Why are you going?” Although you are not expected to map out your entire life plan, you should be able to provide at least a thoughtful, well-reasoned response.

There are plenty of great reasons to pursue a career as a dentist. A good salary, continuing intellectual challenge, job autonomy and security, enjoyment of contributing to research, and the opportunity to work with people are just a few. However, it’s important that you establish why attending dental school is the right choice for you. A dental degree can open up a world of opportunity, but attending school is hard work.

Whatever your reasons for going back to school, you should be prepared to make a serious commitment. So is it right for you? Ultimately, that’s a decision you have to make. Dental school is a serious time and financial commitment. But if you have specific career goals and apply yourself, the pay off can be extraordinary.

Prerequisites to Dental School

The key to dental school admissions success is planning based on correct information. Research the schools in which you are interested. What are their admissions requirements? And, keep in close contact with your pre-health advisor. Are you taking the proper classes now? By knowing all of the information before hand, you will avoid the extra scrambling and aggravation upon finding out that you do not meet all of the necessary prerequisites.
  • Required Coursework

    Most schools agree on the basic elements for pre-dental education. Minimum course requirements for most U.S. dental schools include one year each of biology, general (inorganic) chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, and related lab work for each science course. In addition, many dental schools require English and Math courses. Check the Admissions Requirements of U.S. and Canadian Dental Schools, published by the American Association of Dental Schools, for admissions requirement information on specific schools.

  • Selecting a Major

    While science majors are certainly more common, dental schools stress their interest in well-rounded students with broad-based undergraduate backgrounds. In fact, regardless of your major, your undergraduate transcript is a vital part of the admissions decision. If you are not majoring in a science, your work in both science and non-science courses will be evaluated. However, with fewer courses on which to judge your science ability, your grades in the core science courses will take on greater importance. Bottom line? Don’t choose a major because you think it will get you accepted to dental school. Choose to major in a subject in which you are really interested. You will probably get better grades.

  • The DAT

    For all U.S. dental schools, the DAT carries significant weight in the admissions process. Your score on the DAT is a relatively objective way for admissions committees to compare you with other applicants. In addition, dental schools use DAT scores to assess whether or not you have the academic foundation upon which to build a successful career in dentistry.

  • Dental Experience

    Obviously, dental schools look favorably on dental-related experience. In fact, some require it. Check with the dental schools to which you are applying to see if they require dental work experience for admissions.

Your Pre-Health Advisor

If you have doubts about whether dental school is for you or are concerned about your chances for admission, you should schedule an appointment with your pre-health advisor. As a matter of fact, you should be in constant contact with them anyway.

Your pre-health advisor can be instrumental in helping you decide if dental school is right for you and assessing your chances for admission. In addition, he or she will be particularly helpful in guiding you to the right schools, both in terms of the best curriculum for your interests and the most likely schools that will accept you. Finally, your pre-health advisor will have specific data about dental school requirements, how students from your school fared in the admissions process, and where students with similar academic backgrounds and DAT scores were accepted.

In many undergraduate institutions, the pre-health office handles the letters of recommendation. In some cases, they simply relay the letters to the dental schools. In other cases, the pre-health advisor—or committee—writes a letter to the admissions offices on your behalf. It’s imperative that you get to know these people and that they know you.

With the number of applications to dental schools at an all-time high, pre-health advisors are extremely busy. It’s possible that if you’re not a particularly strong candidate, you may find your advisor less than enthusiastic. He or she may have legitimate concerns about your competitiveness and may try to dissuade you from applying. At that point, it’s up to you. You may have to go it alone without the full support of your school’s pre-health office. Be realistic. If everyone agrees your chances are slim, have a backup plan just in case you’re not admitted.

Planning Your Dental School Search

The trick to assessing your chances of getting into a particular program is knowing where you stand with regard to the various factors that programs consider when making admissions decisions. A good way to get a sense of how dental schools perceive you is to create a fact sheet with your DAT scores (or projected scores), overall GPA, and GPA in your major (and minor, if applicable).

Relevant outside activities, work experience, internships, publications, etc. will also contribute to the overall strength of your application. How many dental schools you should apply to is best determined by your strength as an applicant, the difficulty of admission at schools to where you’re applying, and the general difficulty of getting into any program in your discipline. If you’re applying to five or six dental schools, pick a couple of dream schools, several in the “likely” category, and one or two safeties.

Use A Guidebook

The next step is to find a current source of information about dental programs. There are several guides published every year that provide rankings of schools, as well as data about acceptance rates and median GPA and DAT scores. In addition, some rank schools according to their reputations among students, professors, or prominent people in the field.

Put your DAT score and GPA alongside the median numbers of schools that interest you. The comparison will give you a rough idea of where you stand. But remember, DAT and GPA are not the only criteria for admissions. Many other factors like recommendations and “intangibles” like activities and relevant experience can factor prominently into the admissions equation. Once you have some idea of where you fall in the applicant pool, you can begin to make decisions about your application strategy.

Make Sensible Choices

A sensible application strategy will include schools in three general categories:

  • Dream schools – places you’d love to attend, but where your chances of acceptance are up in the air or even unlikely.
  • Good possibilities – programs you’d like to attend and where your grades and DAT score are close to the median.
  • Safeties – schools where your numbers make acceptance likely.

How To Evaluate Dental Programs

Once you’ve made the decision to pursue graduate studies, your next step is choosing the right school. This decision will have a major effect on your daily life for the next several years and can influence your academic and career paths. Choosing the right school for you involves many aspects. Among the many factors to consider, concentrate on the following:

ReputationWhat schools in your field have the best reputations? Will a prestigious school really be the best one for you?
CurriculumWhich schools offer the specific programs in which you’re interested? What are the prerequisites?
WorkloadWhat’s expected of the students in those programs? There are often big differences between programs. Will you be able to keep up?
Location and SizeAre you interested in moving to a new locale? If so, do you prefer a school in a large city or in a rural area—or somewhere in between? Which will serve your needs?
CostShould you consider public universities over private ones? What are the differences in the cost of living at the schools that interest you?