By Michael Wolcott PharmD, PhD, Dean for Education, Workman School of Dental Medicine, High Point University

What comes to mind when you think about the frustrations of the dental school admissions process? When we spoke with dentists about their previous experiences applying to dental school, we consistently heard the typical admissions process was complicated, expensive, and lacking transparency. Moreover, it often forgot about the person at the center of the experience. The High Point University (HPU) Workman School of Dental Medicine (WSDM) is working to disrupt dental education, starting with its novel admissions process.

Designing a Novel Dental School Admissions Process: We used feedback from prior dental school applicants as a launch point to design a dental school admissions process that addresses these concerns. We have created an application that has the fewest number of components to make it as easy as possible to navigate. We have reduced the cost of applying to dental school by not using a centralized application process and eliminating the supplemental application fee that is typically charged by programs.

Providing and Receiving Feedback from Applicants: We provide as much information as possible to our candidates about our expectations and how they could best prepare for successful admission to our dental school. Most importantly, we think deeply about the experience of the candidate through the whole admissions process. We continue to collect feedback from our applicants for ways to improve their experience—applying to dental school is already stressful enough; we do not want to contribute to the stress inadvertently.

Using Personas to Create a New Model: One critical exercise we employed in designing our admissions process was the creation of personas: We explored what the typical candidate to our dental school might look like in terms of their background, their experiences, and the factors that would be most linked to their success in the program. The prominent insight from the exercise was that many factors may indicate whether someone would be successful as a dental student. Our goal in the application process is to capture as many data points as possible without being a significant or complicated burden to applicants.

Eliminating the DAT: We have designed an application that focuses on the essentials: knowledge, experiences, attributes, reflections, and insights from others. We removed the requirement for the Dental Admissions Test because the data is limited in terms of its ability to predict success as a dental student and the price tag was high. We found alternative, cost-effective assessments (Acuity Insights) that give us more information about candidates beyond their science-based knowledge.

Attracting a Diverse Applicant Pool: We also recognized we were likely to see applicants who were first-generation college students, those who may not have recent academic experience, or those searching for a career change with a non-traditional past. We designed our application to receive requests from a broader array of applicants and we generated guides to support them through that journey when they may not have access to mentors or coaches. We continue to expand on these resources to help aspiring dentists achieve their goals and commit to providing feedback to candidates where we can. This goal is rooted in our mission to put the people who need our care at the center of everything we do, including our potential candidates.

Focusing on Authenticity: When preparing for this new model of dental school admissions, our advice to applicants—as cliché as it may be—is to be yourself. We acknowledge for some people, becoming an oral healthcare provider (or any healthcare professional) has been a lifelong dream. It can place insurmountable stress on candidates to force themselves to be whatever a program may be “looking for”.

To us, one of the most frustrating questions we receive is, “How can I be a more competitive candidate for your program?” The question, although innocent in appearance, can signal that a candidate wants to conform to the program rather than fulfilling their own passions. We prefer a candidate to illustrate what brings them joy, how they’ll contribute to our local and professional communities, and how we will be able to support them as they achieve their goals. Each candidate has a completely unique lived experience, and we want to honor and foster cohorts that can learn from one another in unique ways.

Although difficult to internalize, it is important for candidates to be their authentic selves through the application and interview process. Any health professions program is a significant commitment to a specific culture. You want to be sure that culture is the optimal place for you to thrive, otherwise, it will be a very difficult educational journey.

While some may argue it is a short period of time, your years in dental school will have substantial implications for your future potential and growth. If you are dissatisfied through most of your education, it could impact your mental health, your ability to learn, or whether you stay within the profession. This is a substantial commitment and candidates need to make sure the program is equally a good fit—do not ignore the red flags that can arise through your interactions.

Remember that interviews are just as much of an opportunity for the program to learn about you as it is for you to learn about them. Be sure to ask the difficult questions. If a program judges you for requesting information about their capability of support and wellbeing, then it is likely they will have difficulty with those types of questions while you are enrolled in the program.

In my opinion, it is better to be rejected for being yourself than being accepted for a façade that you may be unable to maintain. Even though it may feel like an ideal short-term solution, it can have long-term consequences that are worth exploring. Our hope is that other health professions programs will begin to embrace the candidate’s perspective in the experience and consider how to design admissions models that offer reciprocal benefits for both the program and the candidate. And as always, we continue to iterate in the process and welcome any additional feedback.