Ellisa’s non-traditional path to dentistry [Show summary]
Ellisa Soberon, a dental student at UCLA with a nontraditional path to dentistry, shares her insights on the dental school admissions process and life at UCLA.
What makes UCLA School of Dentistry unique… and the perfect fit for this dental student! [Show notes]
So, you want to go to dental school? Let’s hear from a UCLA dental student how she got in and how she likes it.
Our guest today, Ellisa Soberon, is a first-year dental student at UCLA Dental School. In 2014, Ellisa earned her bachelor’s from UCLA in environmental science with a minor in geography and environmental studies. She worked mostly in business between completing her undergraduate education and starting dental school.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, your background, and where you grew up? [1:48]
I grew up in a small town in Northern California called Alamo, about 40 minutes away from San Francisco. I grew up as an only child to two Asian-American immigrants, one from South Korea, my mom, and my dad, who came from the Philippines. I grew up as the only Asian-American in a predominantly white neighborhood. It was a great experience, honestly. I worked really hard in high school and was always an inquisitive person, and always had a love for the sciences. That carried over when I went to UCLA.
It was interesting growing up with two unique cultures that are very different. I didn’t really know many other people who had that unique blend of different cultures growing up. Our Thanksgiving dinners were always really interesting. We always had Korean dishes, Filipino dishes, and American, and I feel like I was really lucky to have all three growing up.
As an undergrad, you majored in environmental science and then worked in business. How did you move from those pursuits to dentistry? They seem pretty far apart. [4:19]
I’ve always had a love for sciences. I really struggled in undergrad figuring out what I wanted to major in. I was undeclared for two years, and finally my counselor looked at me and said, “Hey you’re approaching your junior year and you need to declare a major.” My roommate was actually an environmental science major. I had not even given that major a thought. I thought that the classes that she was taking were super interesting, and I still had a love for science. So I thought, you know what, I’m just going to go for environmental science. And I’m glad I did. I honestly learned a lot with that major, and it’s incredibly relevant today.
But in all honesty, I ended up choosing a career in technology and business right after graduation, purely because I needed a career. I needed a job after I graduated. So I stuck with that for about four and a half years before I thought, well, is this something that I really want to do for the rest of my career? I thought about it. I had what I like to call my quarter-life crisis, where I went around asking people, “How did you decide that you wanted to become X, Y, or Z?” And through talking to a lot of different people, I had a very honest conversation with myself and thought, I still want to go back to my roots which is the sciences. I ended up talking to my own dentist, and he described everything that he did on a day-to-day basis. And it sounded really interesting, so I decided, you know what? I’m going to give this a try. I’m going to shadow a dentist and see if this is something that I want to pursue. And that’s how it started.
Did you explore dentistry further, in other clinical settings? [6:23]
I definitely shadowed a general dentist in my area. I also volunteered with a mobile dental clinic and got a lot of exposure that way. I shadowed a variety of dentists through that mobile clinic. So I felt like I had a good idea of what it was like through volunteer work and also owning a private practice, which I think is really important when it comes to dentistry. A lot of dentists don’t have that business background, but I’m hoping to really learn as much as I can now so that when the time comes and I graduate, I at least have a little bit more business background under my belt, so I can open up my own practice one day.
Did you have to take prerequisites after you decided you wanted to go to dental school? Did you have to take additional classes? [7:24]
I definitely did. I was lucky because I had most of my prerequisites taken care of through my environmental science degree, but I was missing a handful of classes and decided that I needed to do an informal postbac to get some of those classes taken care of. I also took a few classes that weren’t necessarily requirements, but I felt like taking some more challenging upper-division science classes would really help boost my resume and prove to admissions that I could really handle a graduate-level course load.
This is while you were working full-time, or were you working part-time at that point? [8:07]
I was lucky because I had saved up enough, and I ended up quitting my job when I decided I wanted to go into dentistry. I focused on schoolwork and my application 100% and was lucky enough to be able to do that for about two years.
What were some of the concerns you had as a nontraditional dental school applicant when you decided to apply to dental school? [8:31]
I think my number one concern was my age. I’m a little bit older. I graduated UCLA in 2014. So if you do the math, that makes me 29 years old today. But when I decided that I wanted to go into dentistry, I was 26 years old. That might not seem that much older than the average applicant, but it was a concern because it had been a while since I had taken a class in college or even studied for an exam. I was a little concerned about whether I’d be able to handle it. Luckily, the classes that I took for my pre-reqs gave me an idea of what I could handle. That was my biggest concern. Just being able to study for exams, things like that. And honestly, I can say now after a couple of quarters at UCLA dental, I feel like age is not even a concern anymore. It definitely was in the beginning, but I really had nothing to worry about.
What was the hardest part of the application process for you? [9:57]
Looking back, I gave myself a shorter timeline. Ideally, I think it would have been a lot easier if I had done everything within two years: taking my pre-req classes, studying for the DAT, and also applying. But I was determined, maybe partially due to my age, to get everything done in one year. Balancing everything and also shadowing and volunteer work, doing everything all at once in one year, was a bit challenging for me, but I’m glad that I did it. I was able to do it and it wasn’t impossible. The pressure that I put on myself to get everything done in one year! Obviously, if things didn’t work out, if I had scored lower on the DAT or perhaps I didn’t get in that year, I could definitely apply the next year. So that wasn’t a big deal, but I was determined to get everything done within one year. It was definitely the pressure I put on myself. And I did it!
How many schools did you apply to, and how many did you interview at? [11:20]
I applied to 12 schools, and I ultimately had interviews at five. I was really lucky. I would say I applied a little late, though. I was really surprised that I had as many interviews that I did, but I ended up only attending three of the five interviews. I was lucky that I got into UCLA.
When you got that acceptance from UCLA, how did you feel? How did you celebrate? [11:53]
Oh, I cried. I immediately called my family because it was not just me that was going through it. It was also my parents. They were behind me 100%. And to let them know that I had gotten into UCLA, they were incredibly relieved and extremely excited for me. They were the first people that I told. I definitely went to a dinner and just enjoyed it, reveled in the moment. It was great.
Now that you’re at UCLA Dental, what do you like best about being there? [12:36]
I think the most striking thing about UCLA is that it is such a collaborative environment. In all honesty, I didn’t expect that coming in because everyone is Type A and competitive. I thought everyone was going to be focusing on themselves. I was a little used to that from UCLA undergrad. You’re one of 200 or 300 students in a class, and it was very competitive, especially for anyone who is in the premed or prehealth track. So coming to UCLA dental, when you’re in a class of 88 students, it was a breath of fresh air.
I think what contributed to that is the pass/no pass system that we have. The grading system at UCLA is a little unique. Instead of people competing for that top grade, everyone is really helpful or trying to help you out. Professors want to make sure that you succeed. I am just so thankful that I’m in an environment like that, especially during the next four years, which are supposedly going to be the toughest four years of my life. The collaborative environment is top-notch here at UCLA.
What could be improved? [14:00]
That’s a really difficult question. It’s hard to say, especially now during this pandemic. About half of our classes are online, and everything else, all the clinic / pre-clinic work that we’re doing, we’re lucky that we can be in-person, with PPE, of course, and all the precautions. This is not so much something that UCLA can do, but I wish that I could get to know some of my classmates a little bit better. That is an important part of it, the social aspect, networking, getting to know people face-to-face. So while I am interacting with my classmates in pre-clinic, it’s not quite the same. I do wish that we had a few more opportunities to really get to know one another.
The first year of medical school is famous for being like “drinking from a fire hydrant.” Did you feel that way about dental school? [15:16]
Certain classes, I felt, were pretty challenging. Not in that the content was challenging, but just the sheer amount of information that we’re given that we need to know. Again, I would have to say with the pass/no pass, I didn’t stress about it too much just because there are other opportunities for me to get involved and other things that I’m interested in.
For instance, I’m thinking about starting my own club at UCLA. I actually wanted to start a Filipino club because there isn’t one, surprisingly. UCLA and the LA area in general has a large Filipino population. So during the club fair, I went and I saw all these different cultures being represented, but there wasn’t one for Filipinos. So because I’m half Filipino, I thought, you know what? I think this would be an awesome opportunity to start a club like this. So that’s in the works.
So yes, in a sense it was a bit challenging because there was just so much information thrown my way, but I also wasn’t as stressed because I felt like with the pass/no pass system, I need a 70%. A 70% is a passing, same as a 90% or 95%. I really am focusing on the things that I care about and that will help make me a better clinician in the future. I have more time to focus on those things as well. Yes, it is a little overwhelming, to answer your question, but I feel like you get used to it.
How do you see your career developing? You mentioned that you’d like to have your own practice at some point. Do you have any direction within dentistry, as a general dentist or going into a specialty? [17:08]
I went in with an open mind. I thought that endodontics and orthodontics sounded really interesting. We’ve had a lot of lunch-and-learns with people in their own specialties, and it’s been a real eye-opener learning from them and getting an idea of what it takes to become a specialist. Also, UCLA is awesome because they offer all specialties. So if there’s one that I’m particularly interested in, I can go out and shadow that specialty and get a better idea. But right now, I feel like it’s still a little too early for me to know. I’m leaning a little bit towards general dentistry because I feel like it encompasses the best of everything, but I’m not completely opposed to specializing. I might decide in the next year or so after I’ve had a little bit more exposure to those specialties, but definitely I will open my own practice at one point. That is a big goal of mine. Specialty-wise I don’t know, but definitely my own practice at some point.
Do you have any bits of wisdom or advice for pre-dental students, whether they are traditional or non-traditional? [18:32]
I would say, stay focused, believe in yourself, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. I felt a little overwhelmed in the beginning because I didn’t really know any other pre-dental students. I’d already graduated at that point and didn’t really have a counselor to turn to. But I would say that as long as you stay focused on your goal and persevere, you will get through anything. And also try to stay as organized as you can. And apply as early as you can. I applied about late July, and while that’s not the latest that you can apply, it definitely was not ideal. Definitely apply as early as you can and ask for help in terms of help studying for the DAT. Have someone look over your application several times.
If you need help with your personal statement, don’t be afraid to ask for that help because it takes a village to apply to dental school. If you’re looking for someone to look over your application, or if you just need any advice at all about classes that you need to take, I would definitely turn to Accepted and look for an advisor. I spoke with Barry and worked with him for about a year and a half. And he was an incredible help when it came to my application and applying to dental school. He was there every step of the way, answering all my questions. I honestly don’t know if I could have done it without him. Although I was the one applying to dental school, he really gave me the guidance and the knowledge that I needed to be able to stand out as a competitive applicant in the cycle that I applied. So look for Barry if you want any dental advice!
What do you wish I would have asked you? [20:48]
Anything about the application process. There isn’t as much information about dental school. I feel like there’s a lot of emphasis and focus on medical school. So if you ever have any questions about the application process, don’t be afraid to maybe find another dental student online or on Instagram, maybe someone that you follow, and message them and ask them about what they did to get into their school. If you’re interested in that school, usually the best person to ask is someone who’s already attending that school. That’s something that I did, and I felt like it was tremendously helpful, not just for the application, but also the interview process.
That’s another thing: the interview. I felt like I was somewhat prepared because I was used to interviewing through job applications and things like that. But the interview can be either really stressful, you can make it stressful, or you can go in with the attitude of, “I can get through this, and they really just want to get to know me and if I’m a good fit for their school.”
You just said something really great for interviewees to keep in mind: That it’s a conversation. They’re trying to get to know you. They want to know if you’re a fit for their school. How would you recommend somebody prepare for an interview? [21:59]
I wouldn’t say to look up the top 20 questions and have all of your answers memorized. You don’t want to seem like a robot when you go into your interview. Obviously, you want to prepare a little bit. Come up with an idea of how you’re going to answer the top 10 most common questions, like “Tell me a little bit about yourself” or “What have you been doing the last couple of years?” Things like that. Get to know the school, have all of that down, and also have questions prepared for each school. As long as you go in prepared and confident, then I feel like most people will do well. Try to be yourself as much as possible. Most interviewers can tell when you’re giving a response that’s been memorized, so try to be yourself as much as possible.
Any sites you’d like to invite listeners to visit? [23:13]
For anyone on Instagram, I would definitely recommend going to the UCLA pre-dental page which is full of information for anyone who’s a pre-dent, whether or not you’re interested in applying to UCLA. That’s @UCLA_asda_predental. Or you can follow me on Instagram and check out my stories, where I sometimes post dental-related things. My handle is @EllisaHannah.
- UCLA School of Dentistry’s website
- How to Get Into Dental School
- Wondering How to Land a Dental School Acceptance? Kristina Shares Her Journey to NYUCD.
- Accepted’s dental school admissions consulting services
- Is a Postbac Program Right for You?
- Application Trends to Watch in 2021, and a Look Back at 2020
- How This Premed Student Got Accepted to Medical School Early
- Writing a Compelling Personal Statement