The struggle of dental students to find academic balance
It’s the morning of an exam. My fourth exam in five days, I might add. My classmates and I race against the clock to cram in every last bit of information we can before the hour hand hits 1:00 PM and we have to take our test. Then, thirty minutes before the exam starts, the dreaded notification popped up on my phone saying that the results for an exam we took three days ago had been posted. “Wait until after our test to look at what you got!” says my classmate.
Wait? No way. The suspense is killing me. I take out my phone and check my score. Dang. Not good. Two weeks of planning and studying for nothing. Yet both my classmates that I was studying with did great. Great?? They do great and I did poorly? How could this happen? Why do they always do better than me? Why do I bother studying so much? Why do I have to try so much harder than everyone else?
I find myself going down this rabbit hole of self-doubt and criticism far too often. Sometimes you do poorly on tests. It happens. What should not happen is the constant comparing of my skills and abilities to those of my classmates. I get into such a state of distress that I cannot focus on anything else and my mental and physical health start to suffer as a result.
A life-lesson to be learned from this story: never, NEVER compare your self-worth and abilities to those of your classmates. Everyone works at a different speed, and everyone learns differently. But most importantly. everyone that is in dental school ends up with the same exact result; we all will be general dentists no matter our class rank or GPA.
This can be very difficult for dental students to remember on a daily basis. During the first two years of dental school, the curriculum is primarily lecture-based in the biomedical and clinical sciences. This means we go to lecture, go home and study the lecture, and then come back in a few days to take a test on it. Study, dump, and repeat. It is very difficult as students to get out of the mindset of “I have to get A’s, I just have to.”
At this point in our education, getting good grades is the only way to prove to ourselves that we are smart, capable dental students. Its solid proof to say, “Look I’m talented and smart, my work was not wasted.” And when a test does not go our way, we become shut down and full of self-doubt. We let grades define our abilities when really grades mean nothing in the real world. One of my classmates put it perfectly: “Grades are all we have right now to define our performance. I just hope that when I get to clinic I don’t let grades get in the way of becoming a better dentist.”
Getting a 4.0 GPA should not be our ultimate goal. I know, you are all thinking, “wait, I shouldn’t try to get good grades?” That is not what I’m saying. Yes, you should study hard. Yes, you should try your very best to do the very best you can on your tests. But your very best is not always the equivalent to an A. The sooner dental students can come to terms with this concept, the better off their dental school experience will be.
I know what it’s like to let that craving for all A’s consume you and let it have negative consequences on your school-life balance. My first day of high school, I was determined to become valedictorian of my class. At my high school, all you had to do to be valedictorian was get a 4.0 GPA, and I was determined to achieve that. I let my goal of getting a 4.0 GPA ruin many of the enjoyable experiences of high school. I remember constantly worrying about getting a B, shedding tears in front of my teachers while begging them to bump up my grades by fractions of a point so I could end up with a final grade of an A. With hindsight on my side, I now see how consumed I was with letting my grades define my self-worth, and I hope to never be that person again.
Then it was time to go to college, and a different goal consumed my mind: get into dental school. That was the ultimate goal. Which meant, of course, I had to get stellar grades once again. So I continued down the same path I took in high school and did everything in my power to get the grades, DAT score, letters of recommendation, and so on and so forth to get into dental school. I must have done something right because I was accepted into five of the six dental schools that interviewed me. But from then on, my mindset has changed about simply working hard to get an A. I refuse to put myself through the torment of wondering what more I could have done to do better, always questioning my abilities when I do not perform as I wish because I cannot let my mental health suffer any more than it already has.
I came to dental school with a new goal in mind: to gain as much knowledge as I can and to embrace being a life-long learner. In my personal opinion, one will not get very far in the dental profession without this mindset. If there is one thing I have understood the most throughout this first year and a half of dental school it is this: I am not going to learn everything there is to know about dentistry in these four short years I spend within the walls of the UAB SOD. Therefore, I cannot be satisfied after I take a test and get an A.
I will need to know the medications my patients are taking and how they impact their systemic and oral health. I will need to know about the link between bactermia and infective endocarditis and how to help my patients avoid this. I need to know how to identify an allergic reaction or an asthma attack and the necessary steps to save my patients lives. I cannot take a test on the material and dump it out the next day. I know this is easier said than done, but it is the reality of my profession and the rest of the medical professions as well. For the first time in our lives, getting an A is not good enough anymore; the sooner we stop making this our ultimate goal the better.
We all have our weaknesses and strengths. I have to study for hours and hours, days in advance of a test, while several of my classmates cram it all in in one night and almost always get a better grade than me. What I hope readers will get out of this article is that we are all capable of becoming great dentists. We would not be in dental school if this were not true. Some people will shine more with the bookwork while others will excel with their clinical skills. Some people, much to my dismay, do not seem to have to try very hard at all and are just good at everything.
At the end of the day, if you are learning, you are succeeding. Make mistakes, make as many as you can in your pre-clinical classes so that you do not make that same mistake in clinic. Fail tests and learn how you can do better on the next one. But do not base your success on the success of others. Set high expectations for yourself and if you fall just short of them do not give up. There is an opportunity to learn something new around every corner, and the only person that can hold you back from that opportunity is yourself. The choice is up to you; will you be an A-earner or a life-long learner? If you are both fabulous! Give yourself a pat on the back. But for those of you like me who struggle under the pressure to achieve perfection, don’t lose hope. Being knowledgeable does not require a 4.0 GPA.