By Travis Barr, DDS
This article is reprinted with permission from the American Student Dental Association. It originally appeared in December 2014 issue of ASDA News.
For me, the road to dentistry has been more like a grueling endurance race. The ride consisted of three DAT tests, 19 drafts of personal essays and six application cycles in a row—not to mention three-and-a-half years of chair-side experience as a dental assistant, umpteen semesters of graduate courses and some intensive on-the-job training in the roles of husband and father.
I was not what you’d call an ideal candidate. I started college on a football scholarship as a defensive end in Peru, Nebraska, and I was more concerned with making weight, winning games and having a good time than I was with books and grades. Even after I transferred to the University of Northern Colorado, it wasn’t until my junior year that I started thinking seriously about my future and my academic performance. By the time I graduated the following year, I was proud of how far I’d come. I’d turned my performance around, raising my GPA from 2.0 to 3.2 and earning a biochemistry degree while holding down a full-time job and a tutoring position on campus. I had met the girl of my dreams, and I had set my sights on what seemed to be a perfect career for me: dentistry.
That first year, applying to dental school right out of college with a DAT score of 16, I knew my application was a long shot. But I managed a total reversal in college and I was full of confidence and optimism. I knew what I was capable of. Now I just had to convince a selection committee.
As it turned out, CU Dental’s selection committee wasn’t interested in a reformed football player with a lot of enthusiasm, no related experience and a mediocre GPA. My first application, (not surprisingly) did not lead to an interview. But that initial failure only hardened my resolve. I vowed to do everything I could to improve my odds.
I knew my lack of dental experience was a problem, so I started there. I found a job as a chair-side assistant at a busy dental office. My desperation was probably obvious during the interview. I remember being asked about how much I expected to be paid, and I said, “You can pay me or not, I just really need to work here.” They did pay me, in fact (though not very well), and a year later, after retaking the DAT and raising my score by two points, I applied again with some legitimate experience in the field.
I was thrilled when I landed an interview that year, and was confident that I’d do well. Even though I dislike being put on the spot—basically the entire point of an interview—I am a thorough planner. Just as I’d done for my job interviews, I spent time rehearsing questions and answers with family and friends. Always, these interviews had resulted in a job offer. I figured once I made it to the interview, my odds for acceptance were good.
But at that first interview, I felt like a complete train wreck. I had totally underestimated how intense a three-on-one interview would be. My heart was slamming the walls of my chest and I was sweating like a barnyard ox. I flubbed my answers and fumbled my prepared questions. It was awful.
After receiving my rejection letter, I paid a visit to the dean’s office to learn what to do better next time. The advice seemed generic: “According to our notes, your interview went fine. You should probably focus on raising your grades and your scores.”
I had a strong background in chemistry, but I was fairly weak in biology, so I signed up for two semesters of courses in anatomy, microbiology and cell biology at Metro State in Denver. I started volunteering, too, thinking that it would be one more thing I could add to the application. I set a goal for myself. I’d put something down for every question on the application. I’d leave nothing blank. If that form represented what the dental schools want to see in a student, I would do everything possible to shape myself accordingly.
But the third application cycle was like a replay of the second. Again I was invited to an interview, which seemed to go more smoothly; but I still felt on the verge of a panic attack the whole time. Again I received the rejection letter. The feedback from the dean’s office was the same: the interview was fine, work on your numbers.
I took a Kaplan course on DAT preparation and bumped my score up another point. I kept taking classes, continued volunteering, shadowed dentists. By this time I had married and my wife was expecting our first child. She would be taking maternity leave from her job as a high school teacher, and my low-paying work as a chair-side assistant was starting to worry both of us. I was starting to have real doubts about whether this enterprise made any sense at all.
It was at that point that I reluctantly began to formulate a Plan B. I couldn’t afford to put my life on hold any longer, I had to move forward somehow. I knew I wanted to be involved with science, work with my hands and solve complex problems. I knew from my time as a biochemistry student that labs were not ideal conditions for me, so I decided to pursue a parallel track in engineering while I continued, with diminishing hopes, applying for dental school.
I enrolled in Colorado School of Mines part-time as a mechanical engineering student and found an entry-level position at Hach Company doing equipment calibration and client troubleshooting. I had mixed feelings when I left my job as a dental assistant. I was sorry to be leaving, but I was looking forward to the prospect of a respectable income and some opportunity for advancement. The dentists I worked for were supportive and understanding, and they encouraged me not to give up. Keep applying, they said. You never know.
I followed their advice. I applied for a fourth time and was granted a third interview. Once again, I was rejected. My wife and I decided to stop telling friends and family that I was still applying. We wanted to save ourselves the pain of sharing the news of yet another rejection. I was doing well at Hach. Our son Kellan was the light of our lives. Plan B seemed to be working OK.
I couldn’t let it go. I still fussed over my dental application, rewriting and revising my answers. I applied again for a fifth time, with a GPA of 3.4 and a DAT score of 19. My recent job interviews had sharpened my interview skills, and I had made some important discoveries. I’d learned how to buy myself time while I formulated an answer, and I knew now not to try to fill all the spaces between questions with too many words. That interview felt much more like a conversation. It was still a little nerve-racking, but I felt a lot more comfortable. And that year I had a major breakthrough: I was wait-listed for the first time. In some ways that seemed even worse. The anxiety of waiting for someone to back out, checking up on my status week after week, my hopes escalating as the beginning of the semester approached only to have them dashed again when it became clear that I wouldn’t be enrolling in the fall.
By the time the sixth application cycle rolled around, my nerves and my confidence were shot. The odds of acceptance at that point seemed miniscule. My aspirations were starting to look more like pipedreams. I had earned a respectable engineering job for a medical device company, and our second son was on the way. We had a backyard, a porch swing, a good life. But the thing about Plan B is that it is never Plan A, and I promised myself that I would apply just once more. Just once.
I reworked the essay again. I emphasized my experience, my resolve, my demonstrated perseverance. Once more I was granted an interview. Once more I was escorted to the interview room by a familiar-looking dental student, who looked at me with an expression somewhere between wonder and pity. Once more I sat through the questions, though this time my palms didn’t get clammy and my heart rate didn’t change. By this time it had become routine, like a scene out of “Groundhog Day.” The interviewers seemed like old acquaintances, and I knew what they were going to say before they said it. And then came the interviewer’s final question: “Is there anything you want me to relay to the interview committee on your behalf?”
The question hung in the air as I paused, wondering if I dared come out with it.
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, there is. Ask them whether they’d be dentists now if they had to apply six times to get into school. That’s something I’d really like to know.”
The committee was clearly taken aback. I got the impression this wasn’t something they had heard before. One of the interviewers cleared his throat. “Well,” he said, “I’ll be sure to tell them you said that.”
I walked out of that interview feeling oddly liberated. It occurred to me that I really didn’t need dental school after all. Sure, I thought, it would be great to be a dentist someday. It would be great to have the numbers they want to see: the 4.0 GPA and the perfect DAT score. But I don’t fit into that box, and life is too short to sit around and wait for them to decide my fate. I gave it my best, and this year I finally showed them who I really am. It’s time to move on.
Imagine my shock when, a few months later, I finally received the phone call that I’d spent the last six years waiting for.
What made the difference
It’s possible that I got lucky and my number finally just came up, but I don’t think that’s how it happened. After all, if I’d thrown in the towel after my first rejection, or my second, or my fifth, I wouldn’t be here today. I like to think it’s my sheer doggedness that got me here, my refusal to roll over and say “uncle.” It’s true I don’t have the best grades in my class. But what I do have is a work ethic that won’t quit, and enough determination to more than make up for my early lack of focus. I know dentistry is where I belong. I couldn’t be happier to be here.
I did a lot of growing up in those six years. Looking back at my early attempts, I can see myself for the dumb kid I was. I was so wrapped up in trying to show the committee what I thought they wanted to see, so obsessed with creating a perfect application, that I overlooked a really basic fact. In fact it wasn’t until after I’d had some work experience and gained some life perspective that I realized it: people just want to know who you are. They’re not interested in performances or imitations, no matter how earnest or well-intentioned.
So if someone were to ask me what I’ve learned from all this, or what advice I’d give to somebody standing in my shoes today, here’s my summary: First, don’t take no for an answer. Take it instead as a challenge. It costs nothing but pride to try again in the face of rejection, and the whole process can give you some good perspective on the kind of person you want to be. Second, don’t put your whole world on hold waiting to get into dental school. You still have a life to live and you can still move forward. And finally, be yourself. It sounds like a cliché, but it is the single most important thing you can do. Who you are today is who you are going to be as a dentist, so be honest, be genuine, and let the interview committee see the real you. And take it from me: Life is not over when you do not get the acceptance letter you dreamed about, and it is always worth it to apply again next year. Because if you’re like me, it just might be pure persistence and resolve that win them over in the end.