If you are reading this article then I assume that you are a nontraditional dental school applicant. So first things first; you are not alone! Nontraditional applicants are increasingly common, and a welcome sight on the interview circuit. Take it from me, I was one too!
Many schools are more than happy to round out their freshman class with nontraditional dental school applicants. As a nontraditional applicant you represent many extra years of life experience and maturity. Your age and experience are tremendous assets. Be sure to leverage your life experience in your personal statement and during interviews.
Are you a parent?
Talk about your organizational skills and new-found responsibilities. Relate your experience to admissions committee members who may themselves be parents. Has being a mother or father helped you to connect with other people? Has it given you a new appreciation for life and humanity?
Are you changing careers?
How did your experience in another career field transform you? Did you acquire valuable leadership as a manager? Were you balancing a difficult class load and still working full-time?
Have you acquired any valuable skills?
Are you a professional musician with decades of enhanced manual dexterity? Did you learn a second language while working with underserved populations? Have you worked thousands of hours in a dental clinic in your hometown?
The point I am making is that you have many years of life to set you apart from other applicants. Use those years wisely, and extract the best possible narrative from them that you can. You also have one of the most important characteristics of a successful application covered—you are unique. With some schools receiving more than 3,000 applications each year, it is essential that you stand out from the rest of the crowd.
But how are you unique?
There are many ways to stand out. Exceptional academics, a ridiculously high DAT score, or through extra-curricular activities (also called ECs) will set you apart. Although the ideal applicant is a triple threat (high DAT, exceptional GPA, great ECs), the vast majority are not.
Younger applicants seeking an interview must do everything they can to set themselves apart from their peers. As recent graduates, this is typically more difficult for them as they have roughly the same amount of experience and similar academics as other recent graduates. This is where nontraditional dental students have an important advantage. You are different just by virtue of being an older applicant. That alone makes you memorable, and if you play your cards right it can be a huge advantage!
Were your grades less than stellar?
Of course there is no replacement for a great GPA, but don’t let this keep you from your dream. Take me for instance; I graduated with a 3.27 cumulative GPA and nearly 160 credit hours. Still, while averaging a 3.7 GPA from a full load of science courses, I only managed a 3.35 cGPA at the time of application. I applied to 18 schools and received 9 interview offers and ultimately 5 acceptances. Don’t let a low GPA keep you from putting your best foot forward!
Find other ways to set yourself apart in addition to playing up your age and experience. Get involved with research, volunteer a lot, pursue your favorite hobby, start a club, do something that makes you memorable! If you are my age or older, you may remember a Navy commercial from the late 90s which asked, “If your life was a book, would anyone want to read it?”. Does anyone want to read your personal statement?
Do you have a colorful history?
One downside to being a nontraditional dental applicant is that more life has simply, well… happened. Therefore, you are more likely than younger applicants to have something questionable in your background. Obviously there are some things you simply can not bounce back from. But having a few bumps and bruises on your background check is not necessarily a deal breaker.
Personally, I had a misdemeanor traffic citation for driving without insurance. My home state passed a law mandating that the police pull over uninsured motorists and impound their vehicle on sight. When I applied to school I was not even aware I had received a misdemeanor charge for this, and was shocked to see it on my Certiphi background check! I called the schools I was accepted to and explained what had happened (it’s a long story). Everyone I spoke with laughed it off and thanked me for telling them before Certiphi did.
Own up to your past
Because I displayed absolute remorse for my offense, and because I did everything in my power to rectify the situation and ensure that it never happened again, the courts and the dental schools were very gracious with me. I underlined remorse because it isn’t enough to simply distance yourself from your past.
You must be genuinely penitent for your transgressions, and you must demonstrate that you have done everything in your power to ensure that it never happens again. Saying sorry is often not enough, you should be prepared to demonstrate sorrow with actions intended to prevent a repeat offense.
All of that said however, you will hopefully have put some years between your application and your mistakes. A recent graduate with an underage drinking charge will have a more difficult time proving that they have learned their lesson than an older nontraditional dental applicant with a decade of trouble-free living between them and any charges.
When one considers that nearly 40% of males in the United States have been arrested by the age of 23, it is essential that applicants understand the importance of repentance, but also remember that a lot of people have their own skeletons in the closet.
Have you overcome unique challenges?
Another disadvantage unique to nontraditional applicants comes from those same things I played up as strengths earlier in this article. With time and experience people meet soul mates, children are born, divorces happen, parents age, family members become chronically ill or die, and the list goes on.
It is important to realize that dental schools look at you as an investment. They want to be sure that you are not confronted with challenges which may preclude you from successfully completing their program. Be aware of your liabilities and turn them into your strengths.
For example, if you mention in your personal statement that you have an ailing mother who is unable to care for herself, and that you have taken on the role of caretaker, then this may raise some red flags.
On the face of it, you are a generous, kind-hearted person, and any school should feel reasonably confident that you truly care about the welfare of others. But the admissions committee may also wonder how you plan to balance the needs of an ailing parent with your studies.
Something positive on your personal statement can easily become a liability to the more pragmatic among us. Understand that the interview is often the time when concerns such as these are addressed. It is your job to allay the interviewer’s concerns by reminding them gently that you have been caring for your ailing mother for many years, and that you have managed to maintain a stellar GPA. Or you could tell them about how you rocked the DAT while building homes for impoverished citizens of Ecuador.
Ignore common misconceptions about nontraditional dental students
I have read far too many forum threads and blog posts insisting that nontraditional dental school applicants face an uphill battle. It simply isn’t true and we should let that myth die. Nontraditional dental applicants bring many important qualities to a dental school class and they are uniquely able to connect with interviewers, administrators, staff, and educators who are likely closer in age to the applicant than they are to recent college graduates.
I had many deep and meaningful conversations with my interviewers that I could not have had ten years ago. I was able to more accurately describe my personality, my strengths and weaknesses, and my experience than I could have done when I was fresh out of college. Most importantly perhaps, I know for sure that dentistry is what I want to do.
I have had the opportunity to try out several career paths, to learn about myself, to experiment a bit, and to conclude that I will become a dentist. This is an incredibly valuable and hidden advantage to being an older applicant. But it’s an advantage that is not at all lost on older interviewers and deans who are more prone to questioning the motivations of younger applicants.
You have many advantages as a nontraditional dental school applicant. Be aware of them, and use them wisely! Play them up in your personal statement and during your interviews. I was once a nontraditional applicant, and in just one and a half months I will be a D1 at Midwestern Arizona. If I could do it, so can you!