Applying for Dental School
Applying for dental school? You’re not alone! In fact, over 12,000 people apply to dental school every year. And with only 5,000 seats available, getting in can be tough.
Like many applicants, you may be asking, what qualities does a great candidate possess?
- Exceptional grades
- A great DAT score
- Leadership experience
- A standout personal statement
- Good letters of recommendation
- Volunteer activities
- Dental shadowing
Coursework and Grades
The ideal dental school applicant will have a 3.5 cumulative GPA or higher. Many schools average Biology, Chemistry, and Physics (BCP) GPAs together. For these science courses, the average applicant should strive for a 3.4 GPA or higher. Don’t be average!
Applicants may not score below a C in any required course, end of story. Earning anything less than a C in a required science course is equivalent to a failure.
If an applicant does retake a course, then their new grade is averaged with the old grade by the American Associated Dental School Application Service (AADSAS). For example, an applicant who initially receives a D in organic chemistry and then earns a B after retaking it will average the two grades to a C.
Many schools accept community college credit, some even accept Advanced Placement (AP) credit as well. Which AP courses or CC classes are accepted varies by school. Be sure to check with the specific program(s) you are applying to before submitting your application.
|Biology with lab||2 semesters / 3 quarters|
|General Chemistry with lab||2 semesters / 3 quarters|
|Organic Chemistry with lab||2 semesters / 3 quarters|
|Physics with lab||2 semesters / 3 quarters|
|English / Writing / Communication||2 semesters / 3 quarters|
Other Common Courses
- Physiology with lab
- Human Anatomy with lab
Dental school applicants are required to take the DAT before applying to any US dental school. The DAT is a multiple choice examination covering topics in the basic sciences, mathematics, perceptual ability, and reading comprehension.
Generally, a score of 19 or higher for the Academic Average (AA) is considered safe. The average dental school matriculant has around a 19 AA. Again, the goal is not to be average. Strive for a higher score and you will increase your odds at an acceptance. A competitive score would be 20 or higher.
To do well on the DAT, I recommend studying for at least two months in advance. Three months is probably optimal for most. I have put together a guide for studying the DAT that is broken down into four separate articles:
- Part 1: Background and Materials
- Part 2: Basic Science Preparation
- Part 3: Working the PAT
- Part 4: Quantitative Reasoning and Reading Comprehension
What’s on the DAT?
The DAT consists of six sections that are each scored separately. All of the scores are then combined to determine the Academic Average (AA) score. Science scores (Biology, General and Organic Chemistry) are combined to determine the Total Science (TS) score.
- Biology (BIO)
- General Chemistry (GC)
- Organic Chemistry (OC)
- Quantitative Reasoning (QC)
- Reading Comprehension (RC)
- Perceptual Ability Test (PAT)
The examination takes about four hours and fifteen minutes with tutorials and breaks.
|Tutorial (Optional)||15 Minutes|
|Survey of Natural Sciences||90 Minutes||100 Questions|
|Perceptual Ability Test||60 Minutes||90 Questions|
|Break (Optional)||15 Minutes|
|Reading Comprehension||60 Minutes||60 Questions|
|Quantitative Reasoning||45 Minutes||40 Questions|
|Survey (Optional)||15 Minutes|
How do I take the DAT?
In order to take the DAT you must first request a DENTPIN from the ADA. Follow instructions on the ADA’s website to register for an examination date at an approved testing center.
It currently costs $415 to take the DAT and an additional fee if you reschedule your exam date depending on how much advance notice is given. Partial fee waivers are available to eligible applicants who demonstrate a financial need.
Applicants may retake the DAT exam up to three times. If a fourth attempt is required, candidates must request approval from the ADA. The DAT may not be retaken sooner than 90 days after a previous attempt.
Many applicants aren’t aware that their AADSAS applications may be submitted before they have received their official DAT scores. If you are running behind on studying, it may be a good idea to get the application out of the way before taking the DAT. This allows extra time to study for the DAT while still allowing candidates to submit their application in an early batch. Note that it is advantageous to apply as early as possible to schools with rolling admissions.
Several weeks typically pass from the time AADSAS receives your application until it is finally reviewed by any schools. Receiving thousands of applications and mailing them off to schools requires some logistical heavy lifting.
Schools collect applications and review them as they arrive. Applicants should have their DAT score available for review with their application by the time the school receives their application (typically 3-4 weeks after submission).
The DAT can only do so much
Many students hope that a high DAT score will offset low grades. Although it’s true that higher DAT scores can help, it is very difficult to get the kinds of scores that will make up for poor grades. The following table illustrates the DAT score recommended for each GPA.
A score of 23 represents the top 1-2% of all DAT scores in the nation. For a applicants with a 3.1 GPA to balance their low GPA with a high DAT score, they must aim for an exceptionally high DAT score.
Dentists are leaders. They lead staff, patients, and their community. Naturally, dental schools want to see whether applicants have leadership potential.
The easiest path to leadership experience is to take on a leadership role in a club or organization you are already involved with. Some admissions committees may see this as double-dipping, but it likely won’t be a problem.
More than anything, schools want to see that applicants have drive, initiative, and the ability to take ownership of whatever they do. Schools want responsible, self-starting students who will finish what they start.
Here are a few ideas for demonstrating your leadership potential.
- Assume a leadership role in an established organization
- Form and lead your own organization
- Lead a research project
- Organize a local outreach event
- Plan a dental mission trip
- Champion a cause
- Start a business
Some applicants have leadership experience and don’t realize it. Below are some examples of leadership experience applicants should highlight on their application.
- Managerial / supervisory experience at a job
- Teaching / tutoring
- Coaching / personal training
- Being a parent
- Military leadership
- Religious leadership
Writing your Personal Statement
Writing a good personal statement is very difficult. Do not underestimate this part of your application. Many students with stellar academics fail to get any interviews during an application cycle. This is may be due to a bad letter of recommendation, criminal history, or a poorly conceived personal statement.
Do yourself a favor and have multiple people review your personal statement. If you want to, contact me here and I’ll be happy to give you feedback.
It is important that the people reviewing your statement are themselves good writers. Some people have professors review theirs, others have had theirs reviewed by newspaper editors.
A good resource would be the pre-dental adviser at your school. They see lots of personal statements for professional school and have lots of experience. Advisers also have a vested interest in seeing you get accepted to dental school.
Letters of Recommendation
You are required to submit at least three letters of recommendation through AADSAS. Some schools require more, so be sure that you know if a school you are applying to expects something different.
I recommend that you have a dentist and a science professor each write a personal statement for you. This is by no means a requirement, but I have heard admissions committee members say this in the past at more than one school. Your third personal statement is up to you. I had the volunteer coordinator for one of my volunteering activities write one for me.
You may submit more than three letters of recommendation, but most programs will only review the three that you designate. You should plan to submit more than three because it is better to have more letters than needed in case one of your letter writers does not come through in time.
It took me three months to get a letter from one of my professors. Luckily, I had three more that I was able to submit with my application. Many applications are delayed because the applicant is waiting for a letter from a professor or their dentist.
Dentistry is a profession and a service. Dental schools want to be sure that your commitment to dentistry extends beyond just your own motives and desires. A commitment to service for the community demonstrates that you are an applicant who cares about the world around them. A good dentist cares about his patients.
Volunteering hours can help make up for lower academics. Quantity is less important than quantity. Also, commitment is king. If you volunteered for an organization and did 100 hours over winter break, that is less valuable than an activity that gave you 100 hours over a year or two.
Commitment to service is more important than just racking up a lot of hours quickly. That said, 100 hours will be seen favorably by everyone, no matter how long it takes you to get there.
You should start volunteering as early in your undergraduate career as you can, even sooner if you can. The more you volunteer the better off you will be. Also, it is far less stressful to get to the 500 or 1,000 hour mark over the course of three or four years than it is to do so in just a few months.
There is no rule of thumb that can relate hours of volunteer service to your grades or DAT score. Volunteer hours are more important at some schools than others, and will therefore have a different impact depending on where you apply. Having a lot of volunteer hours (500+) can set you apart from other candidates, and that is always a good thing.
Note: Try to avoid double-dipping. If you are volunteering for your church and also count that as leadership experience, then it will count less for either leadership or volunteering. That doesn’t mean they won’t count it, just that you should be sure to have other volunteer and/or leadership activities as well.
Dentistry is a commitment. When you sign on the dotted line for $300,000 or $400,000 in debt, you are locked in to this profession. There are very few careers that will allow you to pay back that kind of student loan debt. Consequently, you are stuck in this one, like it or not.
If you become a dentist and decide that it’s not for you, that won’t be enough to save you from your student loans. Be absolutely 100% sure that this field is for you before you go to dental school! Shadow lots of dentists, and do as much research as you can. There is pretty much no turning back.
Learn about dentistry
There is no better way to learn about dentistry than to shadow a dentist. Some applicants are lucky enough to have dentists as family members. For the rest of us, there is shadowing.
You should spend most of your time shadowing a general dentist. Dental schools teach you how to become a general dentist and they want to be sure that you will be okay as a general dentist in case your specialist aspirations don’t pan out. You can shadow specialists too, just make sure you have plenty of time shadowing a general dentist.
All schools require at least some shadowing experience, but anything above fifty hours should be enough for all but a handful of schools. For anyone looking to prop up their application a bit, do more than 150 hours and most schools will take notice.
Shadowing is a lot like volunteering in that it demonstrates commitment. Unlike most volunteer activities though, shadowing demonstrates commitment to the field of dentistry. Don’t go crazy and shadow for 1,000 hours at the expense of other things though.
Generally speaking, shadowing hours are less important above the 100-150 hour mark. This is different from volunteering and leadership activities which continue to increase in value the more you have.
Schools want to see that you are more than just a good student. Involvement in your community during college is a good sign that you can balance dental school with the rest of your life.
Generally, admissions committees want to see a commitment to extracurricular activities. A violinist who has studied their instrument seriously for 15 years will have more impact on admissions committees than someone who plays intramural softball once in a while.
Most schools also seek well-rounded applicants. For the next 3-4 years, you will be like family to your faculty and classmates. This is why upperclassmen often give their input during interviews alongside faculty. No one wants a classmate or student who brags, is negative, or who displays a serious lack of judgment.
The Application Process
The dental school application season starts on June 1st of the year before you hope to matriculate. Submit your application as early as possible because many schools have rolling admissions.
Dental schools will start reviewing applications as soon as they are received from AADSAS. Some schools start the interview process as early as August. It usually takes a week or two for them to process the first batches of applications because this is when the most applications come in.
Every batch of applications is given a batch number that corresponds with the date that the application was mailed out. The first batch is received during the first week of June. Every week a new batch is mailed out and the batch number increases by one.
You will need to submit your electronic AADSAS application through the online portal. Below is an example of what the online AADSAS application portal looks like.
You will need to complete every section under the Application Checklist. As you progress through the application the checkbox to the left of each section will fill in with a yellow dot to indicate that it is complete.
Apply to Dental School!
If you have completed all of the steps above then you are ready to apply to dental school! Many years of hard work and effort have paid off. Follow the advice on this page and you will be a great candidate for any dental program in the country.
If you are on the weaker side and have a low GPA, DAT, or both, then apply broadly to as many schools as you can afford and are able to go to. Apply early and start practicing your elevator pitch.