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Q&A with Dr. Steven Chang, Director of Admissions, UDM Dental

Last Updated on December 19, 2022 by Laura Turner

Dr. Steven Chang (he/him/his) is the Director of Admissions at the University of Detroit Mercy (UDM) School of Dentistry.

Tell us about your institution.

Dr. Chang: The University of Detroit Mercy School of Dentistry is a private Catholic institution in the Jesuit and Mercy traditions. Its religious identity means we are committed to engaging and providing care to the people of Detroit. We are known for our excellence in clinical education. Because of our location in the city of Detroit, we have an unusually busy student-run clinic.  This means that our students do not have to go out and bring patients into their patient family.  The population we serve has a lot of needs, so the patients are medically complex, and our students have experiences that most dentists don’t see until they enter private practice.

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Application Insights

Let’s shift focus and discuss your experiences as an admission committee member. What would you say is the biggest pitfall students fall into in their applications?

Dr. Steven Chang
Dr. Steven Chang

Rushing an application through because of some artificial deadline.  This is your application, and you want to put the strongest application forward possible.  If that means an extra year to take more challenging classes, improve your GPA, and increase your shadowing or volunteer experience, then take that time rather than applying with a sub-optimal application and hoping for the best.  Applying is time-consuming and expensive, so you have to put in the work to polish up your application materials.

What is the first thing you look at when reviewing an application?

GPA and DAT scores.

What stands out to you positively when reviewing applications? 

GPA and the classes and credit hours that go into earning that GPA.  Senior-level sciences, especially biological science coursework, demonstrate that an applicant can handle doctoral-level coursework.  Other things that stand out, other than grades, are concrete examples of juggling a packed schedule, such as working part- or full-time during school, being a student-athlete while maintaining a competitive GPA, or acting as a primary caregiver while in school.

What stands out to you in a negative way when reviewing applications? 

Spelling errors/typos in the application are an indication that an applicant may have rushed through the application.  Attention to detail is important to put your best foot forward.  Not having enough senior-level coursework is also a red flag.  If an applicant is asking to be admitted to a doctoral-level program and be a future healthcare professional, they have to demonstrate a solid educational base in the sciences, so the admissions committee has some reassurance they can handle the doctoral class curriculum.

Do you have any memorable interviews or applications that you can share with us? 

Applicants who have studied abroad or had a rich international/intercultural exchange are interesting and are a good indicator of an ability to relate to people (read: patients) who are different from themselves. 

What types of outreach/volunteer work have the biggest impact on an application, if any?

Engagement with the community on a regular and consistent basis is key.  We focus on quality vs. quantity.  Ping-ponging between different charities or organizations is fine, but it is better to focus on one or two places and devote your time to them.  Then, include it in your personal statement.  Why are you giving up your time to these organizations?  What are you getting out of it?  What are you learning?  Don’t do it just to ‘check a box’.  This should be something you do of your own accord and something you carry forward in your professional career.

Any tips you can share with our audience for interview day? 

We’ve read your file.  Now we want to get to know you as a person beyond what we can read on your application.  Use your interview time wisely to expand upon what’s on your application.  Don’t waste time repeating what we already know or read.  Show us your passion for the profession.  Don’t talk too much.  Being nervous is okay and expected, but don’t talk just to fill the silence.  Practice interviews with someone like your pre-health or academic advisor.

The personal statement can be a source of significant stress for applicants. What advice would you give applicants as they draft their personal statement – are there any tried-and-true strategies that work or any common pitfalls that they can avoid?

This is your time to explain why, out of all the professions out there, you want to be a dentist.  Saying, “I want to help people,” isn’t enough.  There are lots of careers that help people.  It may be a simple question, but it’s one that many applicants don’t answer well.  Do not make the personal statement a laundry list of reasons why you didn’t achieve your full potential. 

We get a lot of questions from students who have an international background. Do you have specific advice for this group?

As a private institution, we don’t have restrictions on residency or citizenship.  There is a distinction between gaining admission and graduating versus gaining employment.  Any student can come to our school and finish the program, but it is up to them to find an employer willing to sponsor them after graduation.  Canadians have an option for a TN visa, which is easier than students from another country.

We get many questions from “reinventing students” who are worried that their low undergrad GPA would remain an anchor in application screening and review.  Do you have advice for these students?

You can’t change the past, so don’t bother retaking classes unless they are prerequisites.  The best path forward is to enroll in a science-based master’s (e.g., biomedical sciences or biology) to demonstrate to a reviewer that you can handle graduate-level biomedical or biology courses.  Explain in your application that you may have stumbled in the past but that you learned how to be a better student, and give concrete examples of how you improved.  Finally, ensure that your DAT scores are above average.  A so-so GPA and a so-so DAT score will not pass the first stage of screening.

Finally, mental health challenges, disabilities, and neurodiverse thinking have become more common among applicants. What do you suggest to help these applicants present a desirable application to your program?

We are prepared to support students throughout their time here, through our Office of Student Services.  A lot of life happens in four years, so we can be a solid source of support so students can be successful in their studies.  At this point in an applicant’s academic career, we expect that they are resilient when challenges are presented and have solid coping strategies and mechanisms.  Again, we are resourced to help students who need a little bump, but at this level, students are expected to be a bit more self-sufficient than in their undergrad days.  If you have these things in your application, present them as something you learned something from and give concrete examples of how you learned to cope or manage.

Reforming Admissions and Recruiting

If there was one thing you could make more transparent about your selection process, what would you want to do?

I think our process is already open and transparent.  Applying and gaining admission shouldn’t be in a shroud of mystery for applicants.

There is a lot of discussion on the importance of diversity and inclusion in health education and training.  How does your selection process truly balance expenses, attributes, and metrics throughout your selection process?

We are committed to diversifying our class and the profession.  Our Office of Diversity and Inclusion, in partnership with the Office of Admissions, does targeted recruitment to underrepresented students, such as pre-dental groups at HBCUs and HSIs.  The Office of Diversity and Inclusion also runs a Summer Enrichment Program, a pipeline program, for students from underrepresented groups.  If a student is from an underrepresented group and/or demonstrates financial need, we will waive our application fee.  Coupled with the AADSAS fee assistance program, it will cost $0 to apply to our program.

Many programs are using additional tools to help assess applicants before or during an interview day.  Describe the tools your program is testing or using outside of a typical primary or school-specific form.

We use Kira Talent to assess students, as well as the Casper situational judgment test.  These are only required for students who are invited for an interview and are not used to screen-out or screen-in applicants.  These tools are more data points, so we get to know you better.

How much impact does having a prior connection with the program (such as a pipeline program, attendance at events, or working on campus) have when it comes to considering an applicant for an interview?

Our pipeline programs are an important part of our school.  We invest a lot in students selected for these programs, so we hope they eventually matriculate to our program.  Connections with our faculty through classes, shadowing, or research is a great way for us to get to know you outside of the paper application.

Closing Thoughts

I always hear faculty exclaim they could never get admitted today, given the contemporary admissions process. Going back in time to when YOU were first an applicant, what would you tell yourself about successfully applying to your program?

This is a great question and demonstrates the self-awareness of the faculty that the conditions and competitiveness today are very different from when they entered into their dental program.  The best piece of advice is to have a backup career plan.  Not everyone who wants to get in will earn a seat, so find an alternative career that will be fulfilling.

Do you have any final advice for students interested in pursuing dental school?

Dental school is not an extension of an undergrad or a master’s program.  You will take more credits and do more work than you have before.  A lot will be asked of you academically, so be aware that dental school is hard because it’s supposed to be hard.  It’s not hard because you’re not smart enough or good enough.  Remain humble in your journey.  Despite your past experience shadowing or working in a dental office, you don’t know everything, and the faculty are here to help you become great clinicians.  Trust that they have your education and best interests in mind.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.


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