Wondering if Dental School is for you? [Show Summary]
Dr. Barry Rothman shares everything students should know about the dental school application process drawing on his knowledge as an Accepted Admissions Consultant and former Health Professions Advisor and Director of SFSU’s Pre-Health Profession Certificate Program.
Interview with Barry Rothman, Dental School admissions expert [Show Notes]
Welcome to the 464th episode of Admissions Straight Talk. Thanks for tuning in. The challenge at the heart of admissions is showing that you both fit in at your target schools, and stand out in the applicant pool. Accepted’s free download Fitting in and Standing Out: The Paradox at the Heart of Admissions will show you how to do both. Master this paradox, and you are well on your way to acceptance. You can download this free guide and accepted.com/fiso.
Our guest today, Dr. Barry Rothman, is the former Health Professions Advisor and Director of San Francisco State University’s Pre-Health Profession Certificate Program, which served pre-med, pre-dental, pre-nursing, and other pre-healthcare students who are preparing themselves to apply to their graduate professional schools of choice. Since 2015, Dr. Rothman has helped Accepted’s clients in all aspects of the application process to graduate healthcare programs and graduate schools and life sciences, including of course dental school, which is the subject of today’s podcast.
How did you get involved in dental school admissions? [2:17]
I think around 1995, I was asked by my university to be the Health Professions Advisor. This was something I had never even thought about. I had been teaching in the Biology Department for nine years at that point. I taught Molecular Medicine and I was interested in Physiology. I had a number of pre-meds and pre-dents in my classes, and I was kind of interested so I figured I’d give it a try.
What I discovered was that there was a huge need at my university, and probably in many universities, to have a Health Professions Advisor who could relate to the students and really give them service. I decided to take it on, and I fell in love with it. I fell in love with being the Health Professions Advisor for all sorts of health professions, including dentistry. Also, I had had some contact with the UCSF Dental Post Bac Program, which was doing well at UCSF, and because I was the Health Professions Advisor at SF State, and UCSF is two miles down the road, we put our forces together and I joined them.
I got to learn how they ran their post-bacc program. Then I took my own ideas about having programs that were extremely supportive of students, and had lots of mutual support, and not competitive, a nurturing environment, and decided after a year or two delay to create my own post-bacc program at San Francisco State, starting with a sort of multipurpose pre-health program mainly for pre-meds and some pre-dents. The students at SF State actually asked me to create this program.
At that time, pre-meds were allowed to be Second Baccalaureates in the whole CSU system, but they weren’t given much in the way of service. It was more like, “Okay, you can take classes, but don’t expect anything.” They were willing to pay more money for a post-bacc program in order to get more service. Over a period of a year, the Dean, the Academic Senate, and I put our heads together and created the program.
It was a win/win situation. It made me happy. I continued running the post-bacc program, and actually expanded it into dental and into nursing over the next nine years.
What are the prerequisites for applying to dental school? [5:24]
They’re very much like the medical school prerequisites, with some exceptions. You need a year of Intro to Bio with Lecture and Lab, a year of General Chemistry with Lecture and Lab, a year of Organic Chemistry with Lecture and Lab, and a year of Physics with Lecture and Lab.
Unlike medical school, only some dental schools want you to have Calculus and some of them will take Statistics instead. Many of them, perhaps all, want Biochemistry. That’s something that’s different from medical schools.
Medical schools are happy to see you take Biochemistry, and it’s considered an upper-division elective. But dental schools want it. I think the reason they want it is because there’s a lot of chemistry that goes on in the materials for dentistry, and also there’s chemistry that goes on in the mouth. They want you to have a beginning understanding of Biochemistry. Many of them want you to have taken an English class. Some want you to take Anatomy or Physiology as well, so every dental school has its particular set of prerequisites.
The wise dental applicant looks at the prerequisites for all the schools they’re considering and makes sure that they have met them before applying. If you don’t meet them before applying, it will very much make your application process more difficult.
Dental schools, like medical schools, have an onslaught of many more applications than they handle. One of the easy ways to get rid of applications is to see who hasn’t completed the prerequisites and tell them, “Sorry, why don’t you finish them and apply again next year.”
What are the non-academic prerequisites for a successful dental school application? [7:27]
As you might imagine, having some dental experience is very helpful. There are different levels of dental experience. I think of shadowing as the lowest level. It’s still very good to do, but it can be rather passive. You hang out in the office, you watch. If the dentist who’s helping you is being very supportive, they’ll ask you questions, put you on the spot, make you think about things as if you were a dentist. But they could just let you watch and not say a word. So, shadowing is one level.
Becoming a dental assistant is a much better level because you set up trays, and you break down trays. In the COVID era, you sterilize rooms and equipment. In many cases, you’ll talk to patients, get them seated in the dental room with the chair, which dentists call an “operatory.” Being a dental assistant is really good, and you can become a dental assistant through training with a dentist, and then take an exam, or you can actually take dental assisting courses. That’s another level.
You can also get hired in a dental office at even a higher level where you do what’s called “front office” and “back office” work. In the front office, you see patients, you can do insurance work, you can do the scheduling. In the back office, you do the things that I already described. So, being a dental assistant or a dental helper in a dental office is fantastic.
You’ll also need to see different types of dentistry. There’s general dentistry. Those are plentiful. Many, many offices to choose from. When you look at general dentistry though, it’s very important to have some sense of what people without a lot of resources do for dental care. What you find out is that sometimes they don’t do anything for dental care, because they spend their money on medical care and try to put off dental care as long as possible.
Have an idea of the socioeconomic factors that go into people being so “stretched” for money that they don’t get the proper care. One way to understand that is to take some public health classes. Dental schools very much respect students having taken some public health classes so that they have an idea of the socioeconomic factors and maybe can do things to help patients access more dental care. People without a lot of money, instead of getting an expensive crown or root canal will just have a tooth pulled because it’s cheaper. It’s sad. Dentists don’t like seeing a perfectly good tooth, or almost perfectly good tooth get yanked out.
You should also have some kind of experience, it could just be shadowing, in the other dental specialties. There’s pedodontics, which is working with kids. There’s periodontics, which is working with the gums. The gums are extremely important for dental health because when your gums go, your teeth lose their attachment to the bones. They get loose and eventually they fall out. So, periodontal care is extremely important.
There are also endodontists, who take care of root canals, again to salvage a tooth, drill down into the pulp chamber, clean it out, clean out the infection, fill it with an inert material, and your tooth is still good. Orthodontists, many of us have gone through orthodontia, so we know about that.
Lastly, there are oral surgeons. Sometimes they’re called maxillofacial oral surgeons. This often requires extra training, and you can become a maxillofacial oral surgeon through being an MD or through being a DDS or DMD.
What does the dental school application cycle look like? [12:01]
It looks very much like the medical school application cycle. There’s an online application, a single application called the AADSAS. It’s run by the American Dental Education Association, ADEA. It’s an online application that will open up in mid-May and will close around the beginning of February of next year. That’s a nice window of time to get a very complex application filled out.
Do dental schools do rolling admissions like medical schools? [12:41]
Dental schools can start admitting people in December. They have to work hard to process the applications and get their interviews set up, and then make admissions decisions. There’s a lot for them to do in that period of time. It seems like a lot of time, but remember, they have 11,000 applicants to dental schools.
How many spots are there for dental school each year? [13:21]
There are 66 dental schools and I think there are about 5,000 spots. It’s similar to applying to medical school where you have about a 40% chance of getting into an MD school. You have about a 50% chance of getting into a dental school.
It’s pretty tough to get in, but you know, half of the people who don’t get in, don’t get in because they haven’t even fulfilled all of the requirements. It’s not that their application isn’t good. It’s just that they actually did not fulfill all of the requirements. Looking at the requirements is extremely important to be a viable applicant to any dental school.
Is it common for applicants to take gap years before dental school to fulfill the necessary requirements? [14:25]
Yes, it’s really hard to finish your senior year with all of the requirements, often full-time requirements, and then get everything together for dental school. I highly recommend taking a gap year to finish everything and be a strong applicant. It’s much better to spend an extra year getting it together than to apply prematurely, go through all the torture of not getting in, and then still have to reapply. I very strongly advise my students and my clients to apply late. Not late in the cycle, but to give themselves time to really have a strong application.
What factors should applicants consider when choosing which schools to apply to? How do they determine where they should apply? [15:24]
That’s an interesting question. First of all, I wanted to clarify that the dental school applications are mainly supplemental applications now. In other words, when you choose the schools that you’re applying to, on your AADSAS application you’ll see a link to that particular school’s requirements. There will be a tab that has general information, a tab that has the questions they want you to address, and then a tab that has documents that they want you to upload. The whole secondary application process has become morphed into a supplemental application that’s part of the AADSAS application. Some schools still send secondaries. In that case, they wouldn’t have a supplemental with the AADSAS. They would instead revert to a secondary.
When you’re applying for dental school, let’s say School Number One, if you complete their requirements and complete their supplemental application, you can hit the submit button. You don’t have to hit the submit button for every dental school at the same time. You can work on each in succession. Otherwise, the application process would be even more horrible.
Dental schools vary. Some are very public service oriented. They want to train you to be a general dentist who’s working with people of all different socioeconomic statuses and keeping the general population happy. Dentists love to see people with nice smiles. That’s what really motivates them. Many people who apply to dental school talk about the sheer pleasure of fixing somebody’s smile, and increasing their confidence. That seems to be a big source of satisfaction for many dentists, which is to see somebody leave their office with a smile that’s been improved and with more confidence. Any dental school can train you to do that, but some will focus on general dentistry and working with people who are disadvantaged.
Others are more research-oriented. Some schools, like UCSF, UCLA, and Penn, are very research-oriented universities. Their dental schools actually turn out quite a bit of impressive dental research. In choosing your schools, I’d say take geographic area into account and consider the percentage that is accepted in-state versus out-of-state. That’s going to be really important in deciding. Then look at their average GPA and their average DAT scores.
I don’t see huge amounts of difference among the dental schools. The average GPA is around 3.5, and the average DAT score is around 20. That doesn’t mean you have to get those to get in. Your personal circumstances can have a lot of weight, but those are the averages. If you’ve had extenuating circumstances, if you’re very disadvantaged, dental schools will note that if you tell them about it.
Is manual dexterity an important quality for getting into dental school? [20:28]
Yes, these are called “hand skills.” They’re very important. I’m really glad you brought this up. Things like playing the guitar, knitting, painting, doing woodwork, ceramics, fixing your car, all of those things that show manual dexterity are very helpful. In fact, there’s a question on the AADSAS application about your manual dexterity. These skills are extremely important.
There’s also a part of the DAT called the PAT, Perceptual Aptitude Test, which supposedly measures your ability to see three-dimensional shapes and fold them and unfold them in your mind. People have gained the PAT, so there are some standard ways to learn how to solve PAT problems, which involve counting sides and faces, and things like that on these geometrical figures they’ve shown you.
Should students who are retaking the DAT and expecting test scores in July or August still apply this cycle or what until next year? [21:58]
I think it really depends on the individual’s situation. If you’re getting 15s on the DAT, it’s not going to be very competitive. If you’re getting 18s, then you’re within the average, but a little below. So, you’re a viable applicant. It really depends on the schools you’re applying to, and how thoroughly you studied for the DAT. If you got 18s and you actually didn’t study that hard, well maybe you could really bump them up into the 20s. If you really, really study methodically and you wind up with 18s, maybe it’s not worth going through retaking the DAT.
The DAT is an independent gate that you have to get through. No matter how high your GPA, and no matter how much dental experience you have, if you have low DATs it’s going to be difficult.
I think of those three as the major gates: dental experience, academic performance, and DAT scores. One doesn’t compensate for the other.
You mentioned that some universities really like to see research in the applicants because they’re research-oriented programs. Is it necessary for other dental schools? [23:25]
I think for dental schools that are aimed as public service dental schools, it’s not that important, especially if they’re not conducting a lot of research themselves. If you haven’t done any research, it’s okay. It’s not a deal killer. Just pick your dental schools wisely.
What is the role of supplemental or secondary applications in the dental school admissions process? [24:01]
Each school gets to tailor make them. There are many commonalities, but each school might have a unique question. Some of the common questions are, “What did you do during the COVID pandemic?” You might separate that into what was happening in your personal life, what was happening in your professional life, and what was happening in your academic life. In the medical school world, I’ve seen that secondary question almost from every school.
Another popular one is, “How will you contribute to the diversity of our school?” There’s a way to break that down into two different parts, if not more. One is, growing up, have you experienced discrimination or oppression? Are you part of a minority group? Did you witness minority groups having a difficult time? Then also, how will you contribute to the diversity of the school? If you are from a minority background, mention that. Then also, talk about your cultural competence. How much exposure have you had to other groups, other socioeconomic groups, and other ethnic groups?
That’s really important because to be a well-functioning dentist, you really do have to have the ability to communicate and make people comfortable even if they’re not part of mainstream culture. A lot of trust can be lost by patients when someone who’s clumsy does not treat them well in a dental setting, or any health profession setting.
What advice would you have for a dental school applicant who’s invited to interview? [26:23]
Practice, practice, practice. It’s really important to practice. Not many of us were born with an interview gene. So you have to develop the skill. How do you develop the skill? You practice under many different circumstances. There are many standard questions you should be able to answer. For example, “Why do you want to be a dentist?” If you say, “Oh, that’s an interesting question. Let me think about that.” That’s not going to go very well in an interview.
You should know why you want to be a dentist. Saying, “I want to help people,” is not a very deep answer. You have to dig deep and think about what is it about dentistry that fits you and your particular personality, style, and needs. That’ll be different for everybody. Just as an example, one thing might be, “I really like to relate closely to patients. I like to see their lives improved.” That could be used as one of many reasons for a medical school interview, or a dental school interview.
But there can be very unexpected questions. You also have to practice fielding weird questions, or questions that you would never anticipate. You can’t anticipate every question. You can anticipate maybe 20 or 30 standard questions, and you should practice, practice, practice those. Then learn to be flexible and agile so that when you get hit with that zinger question, then you’ll be able to handle it.
One thing that’s important is to be able to say, “I don’t know.” If somebody asks you, “What are the main proteins in the inner membrane of the mitochondria?” Maybe you know. Maybe you don’t. If you don’t, you can say, “You know, I studied that in my Biochemistry and Intro to Bio class, but I’m not remembering any of those proteins right now.” It’s okay. You don’t have to know everything.
Do you have any suggestions for dental school re-applicants? [29:24]
Yes, dental schools are pretty forgiving of re-applicants. When I work with pre-medical students who are re-applicants, after around the third time of applying, their application is pretty tarnished no matter what.
When you reapply, you actually should improve your application, not just reflexly reapply. What happens often is that you don’t realize you’re not getting in until the end of the cycle, so you don’t have a lot of time.
Unless you were already preparing ahead of time for reapplication, you really haven’t had a lot of time to do anything. That’s where the gap year comes in. It’s okay. In fact, I think dental schools really respect the idea of taking an extra year, or even two years, to get everything together and to realistically assess what went wrong. Maybe you didn’t have enough dental experience. Maybe your application was not written very well. Maybe you didn’t have a letter from a dentist. There are lots of things that could be deal-breakers in a dental school application.
You need to get help from somebody else because it’s really hard to know from one’s self what the problem was. You can call a dental school. Sometimes they’ll tell you. Of course, you’re welcome to work with us. We have a Rejection Review package that’s rather reasonably priced. You can do that. Definitely find out what went wrong, and then address each of those points specifically.
If you didn’t have enough upper-division Bio electives, then take a bunch. If you didn’t have enough dental experience, go get more dental experience. If you didn’t write your application well, then rewrite it.
I had a student at San Francisco state many years ago who applied to dental school, who was fantastically prepared, but decided to be a rugged individualist and apply on their own without any advice from anybody, and didn’t get in. They had a phenomenal application, they just didn’t point out how many disadvantages they had, because they were sort of embarrassed about them. As soon as we recalculated things, and I encouraged them to talk about their disadvantages and challenges, they got into seven or eight dental schools.
What do you advise for applicants planning to apply this spring and for those who are planning to apply in 2023 or later? [32:42]
For the people that are applying soon, you should start looking at the AADSAS website. You should start looking at all the things that are required from the schools. I was just looking on the AADSAS website today, and they’re not showing a lot of dental school information right now, but they will. Also, you can search each school’s website and see what they want. There are websites out there that consolidate the information in terms of all the requirements for each of the dental schools.
For the people ready to apply now, I would get going on it. One of the early things to do is to arrange your letter writers, to give them time. You don’t have to choose your schools so quickly, but you do need to pay attention to the prerequisites. You have to make sure you really do meet all their requirements. As we mentioned before, don’t assume that you can finish a requirement after you hand in your application. Schools will likely not look at that.
For the person who’s looking a year ahead, that’s a much less tense situation and you’ve got a whole year or maybe a little longer to plan, but you need to still know “What are my goals? What do I have to complete in order to be a viable applicant in a year from June?” You just have more time and more space, but the ideas are the same. You still need to have your letter writers at some point. You still need to take the DAT.
With the year ahead you’ve got some time to take the DAT, and I would say in preparing for the DAT to practice. Take many, many practice tests to train essentially like an athlete. Get up at the same time in the morning that you would take the DAT. Spend as much time taking the DAT on a computer. It’s just more leisurely, but it’s very easy to say “Oh, I’ve got a year. I guess I’ll just wait a while.” It’s better to get going now.
I would say to make sure you take all your science classes at a four-year university, not a community college. You can take English and Public Health, classes like that, at a two-year university or college. Take all your science courses at a four-year university.
How do dental schools look at people who take the DAT more than once? [36:16]
Again, dental schools are very forgiving, more so than medical schools. I’ve seen people apply six or seven times to dental school and finally get in.
I was amazed to see that, but the people who have done that have learned perhaps slowly what they needed to finally get in. I think dental schools are impressed with persistence as long as you’re a viable applicant. If you’re just completely out of reality, then yes, you’ll never get in. If you’re really sincerely trying, and realistically trying, you can try multiple times. That includes taking the DAT multiple times.
What do you wish I would have asked you today? [37:09]
Maybe what it’s like being a dentist?
This is stereotype but I think dentists have a certain personality. They really like their edges square and their Is dotted and Ts crossed. They get great satisfaction out of doing that with your teeth and giving you a perfect smile. If your personality runs in that direction, it can be tremendously satisfying. Also, if you have an artistic side and you’re good with your hands, it can be very satisfying. I think it’s really good to get to know dentists, and hopefully, you will get to know a number of dentists in your process of applying to dental school.
I think their personalities in general are a little different from the personalities of physicians. Again, these are stereotypes, but I think it’s an interesting thing to think about.
One rumor that I think is not true, but I’ve heard countless times, is that dentists have a high suicide rate. When I actually looked at the data, it’s not true. Don’t worry about that. It’s not going to make you suicidal to be a dentist.
However, being a dentist can be hard on your body because your body has to assume some unnatural positions to lean over a patient, and also the drill gives off very high-frequency sound. Those of you who studied Physics know the higher the frequency, the higher the energy in the waves that are being carried. The high-frequency sound, even though it doesn’t sound that loud, actually has a lot of decibels. You can really hurt your hearing as a dentist. Those are some of the occupational hazards of being a dentist.
- Fitting In & Standing Out: The Paradox at the Heart of Admissions
- How to Get Into Dental School
- Wondering How to Land a Dental School Acceptance? Kristina Shares Her Journey to NYUCD
- Get in touch with Barry
- Accepted’s Dental School Application Packages
- An Inside Look at USC’s Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry
- Life as a Dental Student at UCLA
- Writing a Compelling Personal Statement
- Is a Postbac Program Right for You?