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Perspectives of a Recent Dental School Graduate

By Dr. Natalie P

When I got my acceptance to my top choice dental school, I remember just screaming with excitement. The next several months, I looked into housing, explored things to do in the City of Brotherly Love, and connected with future classmates. I was looking forward to a whole new adventure.

The four years of dental school consisted of hard work, some play, and trying to make it through practicals, board exams, and competencies to graduate. There was a lot of information to learn in the first two years, each class instructor conveying large quantities of information that I wasn’t sure I was going to remember. The subsequent two years focused on applying the knowledge we had learned, while fine-tuning our hand skills and perceptual abilities.

Looking back on my dental school adventures, here’s some advice I wish I had received before I started:

Stay organized and don’t worry about what your classmates are doing:  Dental school is competitive and most of the people who got accepted are driven with a high sense of ambition. So, focus on yourself and what works best for you. How do you best study – by yourself or in a group setting? Do you take copious notes during class? Do you require more “practice” when it comes to the hands-on learning? It is best to not compare yourself with others, be honest with yourself, and take on an approach that works for you.

Dentistry requires a lot of hand skills and certainly with practice comes efficiency. I had classmates that only had to practice cutting on a manikin tooth once before it looked great. I, on the other hand, had to cut about twenty manikin teeth to hone my skills enough. I realized early on that I can’t compare myself to others and need to focus on my own relative progress.

That being said, I had always taken art classes and this really helped me to look at different colors, shades, and forms. Some of my other classmates were big into DIY crafts, ceramics, drawing, and carpentry. Having hobbies or taking classes that increase your artistic and hand skills would be of benefit before you start dental school.

Do your research: If you come from a family of dentists or you are knowledgeable about the field before going to dental school, then you have an advantage. I didn’t have either and I realized halfway through dental school that there are specialties and even subspecialties. Do you want to be a general dentist and do a wide range of procedures when you graduate or do you want to go into a specialty such as oral surgery, periodontics, orthodontics, endodontics, pediatric dentistry, or prosthodontics? 

Applying to a dental specialty means you need to think about grades, standardized exams, extracurricular experiences, and potentially research experience during dental school. These factors are taken into account by programs when they review residency applicants.

Consider how you are going to pay for your education: Dental school is expensive, some schools cost more than $100,000 per year between tuition, room and board. This means it could easily cost close to half a million dollars for four years of dental school! Do you plan on taking out student loans as I did?

I didn’t start thinking about repayment until I was done with all my schooling. However, with interest, student loans can exponentially increase and you may end up having to pay back a lot more than you initially expected. There are many different scholarships that you can apply for now and this could be a great option to cover some of the costs.

Other options that you may want to consider are becoming a teaching assistant or working outside jobs during dental school to offset some of the costs. An alternative is to join the Air Force or Navy to get your dental school paid for in return for service. Finally, the National Health Service Corps or Indian Health Service provide opportunities to work in underserved areas for a number of years while helping you pay back your loans.

While there is a lot to think about, these are just a few points I would have considered that would have made dental school and the journey of becoming a dentist a bit easier.