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Part III: Clinical Experience for Pre-dental students
Gaining Clinical Experiences in Dentistry: Having clinical experience in dentistry is absolutely essential for pre-dental students. As we mentioned earlier, dental schools do not want to take their chances on someone who does not know anything about the dental profession and has not thoroughly explored the field. The more thoroughly you explore the dental profession, the stronger your application. Remember, shadowing a parent who is a dentist or having clinical exposure during high school is not sufficient clinical experience.
Does Paid Clinical Experience Count? Both volunteer and paid clinical experiences add value to your dental school application. We encourage students to choose the experience that affords them the greatest opportunity to observe dental care in action and get an understanding of the dental profession. Volunteer experiences tend to be better in this regard, but some paid experiences can be valuable. If you are a paid dental assistant (DA), registered dental assistant (RDA), x-ray technician and/or dental hygienist, these experiences are considered very impressive on your application.
When Should I get Involved in Clinical Experience as a Pre-dental Student? It is always wise to get involved in clinical experience early on. We recommend that you begin gaining exposure to clinical dentistry during your freshman year of college or as early as you decide that you want to be a dentist. The good news is that you only need to spend 4 hours per week shadowing, volunteering, or working in a dental setting. What matters more is how long you have been involved in the experience and how consistently you have been doing it. If you were unsure about what healthcare field you wanted to go into and have shadowed at a medical office, hospital or pharmacy in addition to clinical dentistry, you may put that in your application. This will show that you have gone through the process of eliminating other fields and have found something special in dentistry. We advise that your total dental exposure not be less than 150 hours.
Which Type of Pre-dental Clinical Experience is Best? There are many different ways to get clinical experience and some are better than others. It would greatly help if you have gained experience in dentistry in more than one setting. Shadowing dentists in various specialties can help demonstrate that you have explored dentistry thoroughly, but only shadowing specialists is not always a good idea. You want to demonstrate and interest in general dentistry before you delve into experiences with specialists. Below we review some possible avenues through which you can gain clinical experience in dentistry and discuss the pros and cons of each.
1) Volunteering at a Hospital: There are many different ways to get clinical dental exposure in a hospital setting but choose one where you can shadow general practice residents in hospital dentistry, interact with patients, and contribute by assisting in different ways. Often times busy county hospitals offer more opportunities for pre-dental students to get involved, observe, and learn than private community hospitals in suburban areas. Avoid choosing a volunteer program where you are only interacting with administrators and filing paperwork. If you are taking time to do dental volunteer work, you should do something meaningful that will give you the chance to learn and boost your application to dental school. Please note that non-dental volunteer work in a hospital setting can also show interest in healthcare and compassion towards the ill. However, the bulk of your clinical experiences should relate to dentistry.
2) Volunteering at a Local Dental School Clinic: Pre-doctoral dental clinics at dental schools are good venues to gain exposure to clinical dentistry. In these settings, you will have an opportunity to meet dental students and faculty who may have insight into the admissions process and could guide you. Like the hospital setting, if you are planning on working in a clinic, it would be more beneficial for you to work in the back office of the clinic, where you are shadowing dentists or dental students, as opposed to working in the front office, where you are only involved in paperwork.
3) Serving as a Dental Assistant (DA), Registered Dental Assistant (RDA) or obtaining a Dental x-ray License: These experiences are great ways to gain experience in dentistry, assume responsibility in patient-care, and to better understand the process of patient assessment and treatment planning. They are also a good way to learn more about various dental procedures and better understand the instruments/materials used in dentistry. Keep in mind the following issues if you choose to obtain training as a DA, RDA, or dental x-ray technician:
• Just becoming a DA, RDA, or x-ray technician by itself is not sufficient to impress dental schools. You need to gain clinical experience using your license.
• These licensures give you the chance to be involved in clinical dental care, but they do not replace shadowing experience.
• Obtaining these licenses takes time because it requires taking courses and preparing for examinations. Only commit to it, if it does not interfere with your pre-dental coursework. Doing well in your courses and your DAT are more important than obtaining these licensures.
4) Working at a Free Dental Clinic: Free clinics that cater to the underserved tend to offer pre-dental students more opportunities for involvement than private outpatient clinics in affluent neighborhoods. In addition, sometimes through free clinics, you will have the opportunity to become involved in health fairs or other community-based health initiatives that could further enhance your application, enable you to gain community service experience, and perhaps even take initiative in the community.
5) Dental Interpreter: If you speak another language (especially Spanish), there may be opportunities for you to serve as an interpreter for dentists or oral surgeons in hospitals or community dental care settings who have a large population of non-English speaking patients. This is a great opportunity to be involved directly in the care of patients. As an interpreter you have the opportunity to serve as a liaison between the dentist and patient as you help take a patient history or provide information to the patient in their native tongue.
6) International Clinical Experience: Dental school admissions committees tend to look favorably upon clinical experience abroad in a developing country setting. This experience is only worthwhile if it is done right. Identify a legitimate, well-established organization, with which to travel abroad. Look for an experience that allows you to be on the front lines and assist in patient-care. Make sure you carefully assess the situation in the area you are traveling to, consider all safety issues, and take the necessary precautionary measures including immunizations and prophylactic medications. It is important to point out that international dental clinical experience by itself is not sufficient. Most international clinical experiences last only a few weeks or a few months. Also, while working in a developing country setting can be impressive, admissions committees also want to see your commitment to providing dental care in the United States.
7) Pre-dental courses and seminars: Some dental schools offer courses for pre-dental students that allow you explore the manual and technical aspects of dentistry and learn more about working with your hands as a dentist. The Basic Dental Principles Course at UCLA, the UCLA Waxing course, the Impression Day Seminar at UCSF, and the UCSF ASDA Life as a Dental Student Workshop are examples of such courses. Other schools may offer similar courses which will give you the chance to make casts, work on tooth models, etc. These experiences are quite unique and add to your application while giving you the opportunity to learn more about the dentistry.
Important Points About Clinical Experience:
a. Consistency is Crucial: Find one or two good experiences and do them for extended periods of time. Do not jump around from dental practice to dental practice too frequently. It is good to explore different specialties and its ok if you switch from one practice to another that suits you better earlier in your pre-dental career. However, by demonstrating a more long-term commitment to one practice you prove that you can work with people around you, follow orders, and are wanted in the dental clinic.
b. Community vs. Private Practice Dentistry Experience: It is good to have experience working in a dental school clinic or with the faculty and/or students on community outreach dental efforts as well as working in a private practice setting. This way, you can show that you have seen different aspects of dental care and you understand the profession well.
c. Limit Working with Family Members: Do not ONLY volunteer in the office of family members. Go out into the real world and get out of your comfort zone. Admissions committees do not look favorably at clinical experiences with a parent, aunt, uncle, or sibling who is a dentist if that is the only exposure you have to the field. Having said that, if you have a family member who is a dentist or is in dental profession, it is important to mention that your interest in the field may have initially emerged from observing them. Having someone in your family from the field may show that you are familiar with the life style and sacrifices that are needed to become a dentist.
d. Focus on the Underserved: While it is not essential to work in a clinical setting that caters to the underserved, we have found that students tend to get the most out of these experiences. They are able to be more involved, they have the chance to learn more about the social issues surrounding dental healthcare, they gain a more mature understanding of the profession, and they demonstrate their compassion for the less fortunate. We have also found that students who gain clinical experience working in underprivileged areas tend to be more successful at gaining acceptance into dental school. In other words, every thing else being equal, the person who works in an underserved clinic as an undergraduate tends to get accepted to better dental schools than the person who works in a private clinic that serves the affluent. In a way, if you are working with an underserved clinic, you are hitting two birds with one stone, because you are gaining clinical experience and serving the community as well.
e. Identify a Dentist Letter Writer Early: When you get involved in clinical experience, identify a dentist who you could approach for a letter of recommendation when you are getting ready to apply. Interact with this individual and make sure they get to know you and see your commitment. Spend a lot of time working with them to show them your passion.
Part IV: Dental Organization Membership Opportunities:
Becoming a member of student-based and professional dental organizations is a great way to learn more about dentistry and to meet others with common interests. Make sure you take advantage of these opportunities throughout your undergraduate dental career. One great example is pre-dental membership with the American Student Dental Association (ASDA).