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By Joseph Yim

Preparation of the dental school application is likely one of the most time-intensive, stressful, and ambiguous endeavors that an applicant will embark on, particularly because there is no one way to get into dental school. Because each and every student will have a different journey into a career in dentistry, it is crucial that we highlight the essential “checkboxes” for each student to have as general guidelines in preparation of their application. These are: 

  1. Good GPA
  2. High DAT score
  3. Extracurricular activities
  4. Volunteer hours
  5. Shadowing hours
  6. Strong personal statement

As a pre-dental student or prospective applicant, satisfying these criteria is often the easiest way to ensure that you are on the right track. However, equally important is understanding how to be a dental school applicant. That is, the focus of your application should be “being” rather than “doing.” As any good writer or artist would vouch that showing is a stronger form of communication than telling. How, then, can you show and not tell as you prepare for your dental school application? This brings us to your greatest asset as a dental school applicant: authenticity. 

Authenticity is an area of your application that is scarcely mentioned. After all, as long as you look like a strong applicant on paper you will be happy, successful, and admitted to a dental school, right? Surveys amongst dental students tell a different story. In an article published by the American Student Dental Association, Dr. Juliette Daniels of the University of Detroit Mercy School of Dentistry, Dr. Daniels cites a “prevailing sense, among a very high-achieving, goal-oriented population of students, that many people feel they’re not good enough and don’t feel they deserve to be in dental school.” In essence, accomplishments do not necessarily lead to confidence or happiness.

Additionally, many dental school admissions officers encourage students to look beyond the appearance of their application on paper. In an article written by the American Dental Education Association, admissions officers emphasize the importance of being passionate about dentistry, a strong critical thinker, as well as an informed applicant, none of which necessarily pertain to the strength or length of your dental resume. Authenticity and honesty in your application is your most important asset. 

On a practical level, what does this mean? Cultivating authenticity and honesty in your dental journey is simple. Here are 3 Tips for BEING an authentic dental school applicant:

Search for answers: Be introspective and genuine. Learn to shadow, assist, and volunteer with the goal of ensuring dentistry is right for you, not assuming it. Pursue dental experiences with the goal of learning more about dentistry as a field as well as learning more about what makes you a future dentist. Instead of focusing on reaching your hourly goals or fishing for a strong letter of recommendation, identify concrete aspects of dentistry that appeal to your unique characteristics. For example, through accumulating shadowing hours and spending an extended amount of time around dentists, you might find that one of the primary aspects of the profession that appeals to you is the “hands-on” nature of the work. This is valuable insight that will help you determine if dentistry is or isn’t for you; moreover, lessons such as these will help you communicate to schools that you’ve learned why you will be a great dentist. 

Focus on people: Be centered on your interactions, understanding that ultimately you are entering a field that is concerned with the oral health of real people with real lives. Dentistry is, at its core, a profession that serves others, and your academic prowess means nothing for your ability to form connections and impact the people you interact with. This is a skill to develop on its own. Take the time to ask to invest in the people and relationships around you. Build connections with patients you meet or communities you serve. The friendly smile or little acts of genuine care you show tend to go a long way. Make sure to take the time to listen as you encounter different people and learn from their stories. Stay grounded and centered with a focus on others alongside the goals you have for your dental school application. 

Journal: Be reflective, observant, and curious. Whether it be the slow grind of biomedical research procedures or cleaning up trash for your local community park, each experience ought to bring fresh and new realizations to your mind. Don’t be afraid to write these thoughts and realizations out and see the impact that you can have on those around you. In the time you spend assisting your dentist, find things from your experiences to write about. This practice will help you see not only the impact that your interactions have on others but also yourself, clarifying and illuminating the meaning and intent behind each of your experiences. 

Remember, the requirement for a personal statement, supplemental application, and interview is evidence that dental schools have a keen interest in who you are as a person beyond your grades and accomplishments. For example, one of the most common dental school interview questions is shockingly simple. 

“So, tell me about yourself?” 

To rephrase the question, “who are you?” A deep, profound, and multifaceted question that is so open-ended you might explode if you think about all the different directions you could take it. However, when equipped with a library of reflections, journal entries, and authentic conclusions about yourself and your work, you will find yourself to be more than prepared to answer such a question. Further, when asked about why you desire a career in dentistry, you will have an abundance of experiences to point to as examples that demonstrate and describe your passion for the field.

As much as accumulation of experiences and a strong resume is important, authenticity will allow you to stand out as an applicant. The observations you make, lessons you learn, and journal entries you pen will inevitably resurface when it comes time to apply, and you will be able to draw from an abundance of insights, wisdom, knowledge, and experience when it comes time to present your case to dental schools of why you will be a great dentist in the near future.