How to Choose Your Dental School

Last Updated on June 25, 2022 by Laura Turner

April showers bring May flowers, and May flowers into a summer of applications for dental student hopefuls. Preparation for dental school is overwhelming, and predental students work for years to mold themselves into ideal applicants. But when the time comes to send off these perfectly-polished applications, where should they go? Narrowing down a list of schools is its own unique hurdle. From hefty application fees to websites desolate of helpful information, picking which schools you should actually apply to can turn your dental school dreams into a downright nightmare. This article will help you build an arsenal of questions to ask and specifics to seek when searching for your perfect dental school home.

The Truth

The Internet. A mesmerizing world populated by superhuman students touting their 4.0 GPA, 30 DAT, 60 dental school applications, and dozens of acceptances. After hours down the rabbit hole of discussion forums dissecting schools and their reputations, it’s easy to emerge bleary-eyed and defeated wondering where the heck these students found this information. Thankfully, a quick profile of the University of Alabama-Birmingham School of Dentistry’s (UABSOD) freshman class paints a much more attainable picture of the average dental school applicant.

About the Ads

The average first-year student at UABSOD applied to between four and eight schools. The overwhelming majority (89%) applied to schools based on location. The second most common factor was prestige or word-of-mouth (32%). Other contributing factors included cost (14%), clinical experience (14%), acceptance of out-of-state students (11%), and small class size (7%).

Personally, I was just about average. I picked my list based almost solely on location, with an emphasis on small class size and whatever information on prestige I could glean from the Internet. I applied to five schools, received five interview invitations, accepted four interview invitations, and received two acceptances. These two acceptances were to my in-state school and my “adopted” in-state school (I earned my BS in Microbiology from the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa). I received rejections from schools to which I had no connection, which makes sense. Without a tie to the school, it is difficult to make an educated decision and prove that you are a valuable investment.

Who Controls Your Destiny?

After an arduous application cycle, the anti-climactic reality is that our decision is usually made for us. In a survey of UABSOD’s outstanding freshman class, 43% received only one dental school acceptance, with another 21% receiving two. The median application to acceptance ratio amongst this group was 36%. These statistics ring true nationwide. Most dental school applicants do not have a difficult decision to make once decisions are released on December 1st, so applications become main arena where students can control their dental school destiny. The predental conversations you initiate leading up to your application cycle can uncover the information you need to narrow down a list of potential dental school homes that are deserving recipients of your attendance upon acceptance.

Let’s Begin

The easiest way to build your list of schools is to eliminate based on location and accreditation. Print a list of every dental school in the US, and ask yourself the question: “Could I live here for four years and beyond?” Take a big red marker and cross off schools in cities where you wouldn’t dream of living. During my application cycle, I knew I would never live further than a one-day drive from my home in the Midwest, so I quickly eliminated any schools on the coast. I also recommend withholding your application from unaccredited schools. Verify each school’s accreditation status, as there are a few new schools popping up around the country. These schools may provide a quality education, but you need to graduate from an accredited university to become a licensed dentist. Save the time, money, and mental clutter, and push these schools aside.

Now that you have a more manageable group, start a spreadsheet. Although websites are completely void of personality, they are usually filled with tangible statistics: location, cost, class size, and in-house specialty programs. For more elusive information, such as rate of out-of-school acceptances, the American Dental Education Association publishes a guide (for purchase) that profiles the 76 US and Canadian dental schools. I purchased this guide during my application, and it saved me hours of research. Determine which details are important to you, and add them to your spreadsheet. Begin this spreadsheet early, and update often.

The Interrogation

Most dental schools look the same on paper. Uncovering subtleties that make each school unique is an artful skill best employed in conversation with students, faculty, and recent alumni. The following questions can help you gain access to the top three keys to choosing a dental school: location, atmosphere, and clinical requirements.

Question: Can you see yourself setting up a practice in this area?
You aren’t just picking a school; you’re choosing a city. Dental school may be your 8-5 (or 6… or 8… or 10…), but you will build a life in your hours outside school. You will study in local coffee shops, play food critic at new restaurants, worship at churches and synagogues, and jog through nearby trails. You will form friendships, build your professional network, and sink roots deep in this city. And there is a very real possibility that you will stay. Consider what a life would look like in the area or state that you are choosing. It will definitely affect your four years and could potentially impact your forever.

Follow-Up: How far do your patients drive to come to the school?

It is important for your dental school to exist in an area that is large enough to support a sufficient patient population. At UAB, we are the only dental school in the state. Plenty of our patients are Birmingham residents, but just as many drive from hours away (even as far as Florida) to receive top notch care for reduced prices. Knowing that a school draws in patients for its renowned work is a clue that you will receive an excellent clinical education.

Question: Do you hang out with classmates outside of school?
You will spend over 7,000 hours at school over four years. Those hours are infinitely more tolerable when endured in the presence of friends. Your school friends will understand and support you in unique ways that even parents and spouses cannot. Determining if you could be friends with the students and fellow interviewees you meet is the most crucial information you can gather during an interview. Pay close attention to how the students interact with each other, with faculty, and with you. The dynamic you observe during your interview will be the same one you will live in during your dental school years.

Follow-up: Do you feel comfortable asking your faculty for help?

Students who love their faculty do not hesitate to brag. They will quickly tell you which professors encourage, enrich, support, and save them. They will tell you which professors infuse them with confidence to try new and more complicated procedures, with veteran expertise as a safety net. They will gush with gratitude for professors who have advocated for them. As you walk through the clinic, students and faculty will look like they are actually having fun together.

Dental school professors are training you to become their colleague in four short years, and it is important that they treat you with a deserving amount of respect. A good school will cultivate an environment where faculty celebrates the successes of their students. Aside from classmates and roommates, hundreds of your hours will be spent in community with faculty; don’t forget to observe them as well.

Question: What are your clinical requirements for graduation?
Each school dictates what number of procedures their students need to complete in order to be deemed clinically-competent dentists. This number varies greatly from school to school. Although these numbers are elusive, an easy and specific question that can give you a hint is, “How many crowns are you required to complete before you graduate?” When compared to other schools’ requirements, this number can give you an idea of how much work the school expects of their students. The higher the number, the better clinical experience this school is likely to provide. High requirements can indicate that students are busy and have plenty of patients. Every case is different, and the opportunity to perform the same procedure on many patients prepares students better for less-than-textbook cases upon graduation.

Follow-Up: Do you have any trouble meeting your requirements?

This question can open up information on patient pool and scheduling. If students struggle to meet requirements, this may indicate that they do not have enough patients. It could also mean that they have difficulties getting their patients into the clinic. This problem can either be due to lack of help or lack of space. This question may help reveal if students do not have secretaries to help coordinate their patient schedules or if they need to fight for chairs in clinic.

This is where the fun begins. You’ve decided what you want to be when you grow up, now you just have to decide where to become it. With the help of a meticulous spreadsheet, unquenchable determination, and an army of people who have fought the AADSAS battle before you, you will find your home in the dental profession.

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