Ready for Residency: Year-by-Year Preparation for Dental Residency Applications

Last Updated on June 24, 2022 by Laura Turner

You spend most days in dental school trying to survive. Tests pummel you; dentures demand that you grind away acrylic for hours; three, four, five millimeter pockets haunt you as you perio chart in your nightmares. You have spent 17 years in the formal education system before ever matriculating in dental school, and yet you may choose to extend your training beyond 21st grade by applying for residency.

The application process for residency is wildly overwhelming, and–if you’re anything like most Type A dental students–you might be itching for a way to start preparing now. Details about applications could fill a whole book, but below are some general guidelines for what to expect during the process and how you can get a head start in your early years.

About the Ads

A Note on General Dentistry

A general dentist is licensed to perform just about any procedure that she can confidently and consistently perform to the standard of care of a specialist. This means that a general dentist can perform a molar root canal, place an implant, or treat children instead of referring to a specialist. On the flip side, a general dentist has the autonomy to pick the procedures they prefer to perform. For example, a dentist who hates endodontics has the right to refer out any and all root canals. This gives general dentists the unique ability to perform a diverse range of procedures and to tailor their practice life to their own talents and interests. This flexibility was a game-changer for many of my classmates who originally wanted to specialize. They instead chose to pursue general dentistry because they could attend CE courses or a general dentistry residency to learn more specialized procedures and still retain the diversity of general dentistry.


Your only guarantees upon graduation from dental school are a boatload of debt and a license to practice general dentistry, so make sure that you would be happy being a general dentist before applying to dental school. The only way to do this is to spend most of your shadowing hours at a general dentistry practice. Shadow at multiple offices and note differences in procedures and office flow. If you have time, visit some specialty offices. The exposure will give you a very basic understanding of each specialty before you enter dental school.

First Year

You have two main jobs: work hard and get involved. A perfect GPA doesn’t guarantee a residency acceptance, but good grades in your didactic and pre-clinical courses certainly open doors during the application process. Get involved in an extracurricular activity that excites you, whether that is a student organization, research, or regular volunteer opportunity. The type of activity matters less than evidence of long-term commitment. The earlier you start, the more years you have to grow in opportunities for leadership roles, conferences, presentations, and more. Remember: quality over quantity. Your classes and studies mean you will have less time for these activities, so make sure you pick activities that are a valuable investment of your time.

Second Year

Spend this year digging into your specialty options. By your second year, you have a better understanding of what each specialty entails and can begin to make an educated decision about your future.

Here is a short list of factors to consider when choosing a specialty:

  • Specialty-specific didactic material that interests you
  • Personality of your future colleagues (faculty, residents, and private practitioners) in that specialty
  • Patient population served by that specialty
  • Lifestyle upon graduation from residency
  • Years of residency required to achieve a certificate in that specialty

Your second semester is also a good time to begin gathering basic information about residencies that interest you. Check the length of each program, as it can vary within a single specialty. See if your program offers a master’s degree. Get a basic idea of whether you will be paid during your residency or if you can expect to take out more loans. This information doesn’t need to be specific but should help prepare you for what you will face when you apply next year.

The one detail you should pay close attention is a requirement for any additional testing. The most common tests required are the Advanced Dental Admission Test (ADAT), Graduate Record Examination (GRE), or Comprehensive Basic Science Examination (CBSE). The CBSE is usually required for oral surgery, the GRE for orthodontics, and the ADAT for a variety of specialties. These tests can require several months of studying, and you may want to begin preparing during your second year.

You may also consider applying for externships during your second semester. Externships are necessary for certain specialties, like oral surgery, and not required for others, like orthodontics. Taking off clinic time during your third year is difficult, so consider using the spring or summer breaks during your second year to pursue these externships. Externships can fill up quickly and often require letters of recommendation, malpractice insurance (usually provided through your school), and more, so plan in advance if you are applying for an externship.

Third Year

Set yourself up for application success during your third year. Complete externships and talk to current and former residents from programs that interest you. I found that during my application process, programs tended to extend interviews to students who had previously expressed interest in their program and could readily answer the interview question, “Why did you choose to apply to our program?”

Compile a curriculum vitae (CV) and draft your personal statement early in your third year. Tuck the documents away for a few months, then revisit them with fresh eyes to check for revisions. Find a few trusted colleagues, former English teachers, or current faculty to proofread both documents. Once polished, deliver this packet of information to the faculty who agree to write your letters of recommendation. Approach your recommenders several months in advance, as they may be writing letters for many students and will need multiple reminders. These recommenders will also have to complete an evaluation through the universal application system, Postdoctoral Application Support Service (PASS), once the application portal opens.

Compiling your program list is the final preparation push before applications open over the summer. Determine exactly where you will apply, and scour the program websites for required supplemental materials. Often, these materials include digital or physical copies of a headshot, transcripts, additional fees, etc. and are required before your application is considered “complete.” To expedite this process, take a professional headshot and order any indicated transcripts from prior institutions in advance.

Summer Between Third and Fourth Year

PASS (finally) opens. You will input all your information –demographics, education, past experiences, personal statement, CV, and other indicated documents. You will send your dental school transcript directly to PASS according to the directions within the portal, so hold off on ordering this transcript until the application opens. In the portal, you will also invite your recommenders to complete your evaluation. You will also register separately for MATCH, a system that allows applicants and programs to rank each other and ultimately pairs you with a residency. After all that work… you wait.

Fourth Year

This is the year that your control over your application leaves your hands. Once your application is submitted, you may or may not receive a confirmation email from your indicated programs. This email may or may not dictate supplemental materials needed for a “complete” application (which is why you did your research during your third year!) You may or may not receive a rejection email. You may or may not hear from the programs you have paid to review your application ever again.

If you are lucky, you will receive an interview invitation. Throughout the fall, you will jet set to the fabulous destinations where you are called, usually to attend a pre-interview dinner the evening before a one- or two-day interview. Prepare yourself for buckets of small talk and fun adventures in new cities.

So where am I in this whole process? I have externed, begged for recommendation letters, typed my way through PASS, and interviewed. Now I have nothing left to do but wait. I am hoping to MATCH with a pediatric residency on January 28, 2019, and trust me, after years of preparation, simply waiting out the two and a half months between my last interview and MATCH Day is the most uncomfortable task yet. I don’t know what January 28th will bring, but I know that through this process I have learned to plan, to think critically about my future, and to never forget how grateful I will be to graduate 21st grade as a dentist.​