Keeping up with the Basic Sciences

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I had pretty much no idea what to expect when I first started dental school. I heard from some people that it is waaay harder than undergrad, but no one really explained why. Is it more volume? Is the material conceptually difficult? Both? So, now that I have wrapped up my first quarter of dental school, I thought I would share my thoughts on how to prepare for the basic sciences in dental school.

First of all, turn back now. It’s not too late, you can still do something else with your life!

Just kidding… Sort of.

Study hard for the DAT

In all seriousness though, I can’t stress enough just how important it is for you to do well on the DAT. So far it seems that dental school is all about volume. The concepts are tricky at times, but nothing like advanced mathematics or physics.

During undergrad, my professors seemed to pride themselves on asking for some fine-print detail buried on a slide somewhere. They got pleasure from marking up our exams with red ink I think.

So far that has not been my experience in dental school. The questions are fair. No one is trying to trick you or ask you about obscure facts that were buried in the deepest recesses of a giant textbook.

Volume is key

What makes dental school difficult is really just the volume of material that you cover. We take a basic sciences exam every week. Every exam has a similar amount of material to a typical midterm or final exam during undergrad.

Some folks say that each week is equal to an entire undergraduate level basic science course, but I think that is a pretty big exaggeration. Our biochem exam may have covered more in one week than I did during a semester as an undergraduate, but that is the exception, not the rule.

Mostly I would say that each week is equivalent to 1/3 or 1/2 of an undergraduate course. But because 70-80% of it is review, you should be just fine if you did well before coming to dental school.

We usually have about 300 slides to study for each test. You need to be familiar with all of them. You don’t need to memorize every last slide, just being familiar with what is on them and focusing on key concepts is usually enough.

Adopt a learning strategy

It is important to identify things that need to be memorized and separate them from the conceptual topics. Most students at our school do not attend the science lectures because they prefer to watch the recorded lectures at home. This works well for some people, but not for me.

My strategy involves learning the concepts during lecture as much as possible and then going back over them again a second time during my studies. Last, I work hard to memorize the details that need to be memorized and create a list of items to study just before examination time.

In this way I maximize my exposure and focus my efforts on the most difficult to memorize material, and I ensure that I have a basic understanding of the concepts before taking the exam.

Another important skill that you have to develop during dental school is the ability to adapt your study method to suit the exam. For some subjects (biochemistry) I spent a lot of time memorizing, but not as much time understanding concepts. For other subjects (cellular biology) I spent a lot of time working through concepts and mechanics and a lot less time memorizing details.

So far this quarter we have completed 12.5 credits of microbiology, immunology, biochemistry, histology, and cellular biology. Next semester we will be adding neurobiology and anatomy, two of the more rigorous courses of this academic year. I hear that neurobiology is the most failed course we will take this year.

I plan to spend a lot of time memorizing anatomy and a lot of time working through complex concepts in neurobiology. The more adaptable you are to the course content, the better off you will be. Try to anticipate what kind of studying you will need to do to ace the exam.

You know much of what you need to know already

Getting back to the DAT, it is amazing how well it prepared me for dental school. If you cover every potential biological topic that may appear on the DAT, then you will be just fine. The DAT requires the same knowledge required to learn more advanced material in dental school.

Also, anything you learn in undergrad biology will probably be encountered again in dental school. The better you perform in your undergrad bio course the better off you will be in dental school.

My advice to anyone wanting to do well is to work hard in your undergraduate courses. Focus on biology, biochemistry, immunology, and cellular biology. I know that a lot of dental students say that we cover the undergraduate material in our first few weeks, but in my experience that isn’t true.

Yes we learn new things, but mostly we are just building upon the foundation of knowledge you should have established during your undergraduate courses. Work hard now and save yourself the extra effort later on!

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