Before starting dental school I remember wondering what a typical day looks like for a dental student. Obviously it varies from school to school, but the general course load is pretty similar. What I share here though is a typical day for a first year student at Midwestern University in Arizona.
Our first year is mostly basic science courses. We take the NBDE Part One during our first and only summer break. I’ve heard that our second year will be more demanding. Yuck.
The first year really hasn’t been too bad though if I’m honest. I had less time during undergrad. I was taking only science courses, volunteering, and working at a lab on campus.
Time outside class is yours
In dental school you can be as involved as you want to be. Some programs may require you to volunteer (we are required to do 4 hours by spring). Any extracurricular activities are usually up to you.
You could graduate from dental school having done nothing extra outside of class and you will still be a dentist. Because of this, dental school itself has been a little less time consuming than when I was an undergrad.
I am not sure whether I will specialize or not, so I have been involved on campus. I have also worked hard to keep my grades high. Your involvement on campus will depend on what you plan to do after school.
The general schedule
Mondays are usually simulation (SIM) clinic days. Class starts around 8 AM usually and we have two hours of oral health sciences. Attendance is mandatory. At 10 AM we go to the SIM clinic where they quiz us on the material from that morning.
We spend the next two hours working on projects in SIM until lunch. After that we have an hour for lunch, but many of us return early to continue working. Finally we spend four more hours in SIM and then finish the day at 4pm with a group huddle. Our bench instructors ask us questions, we share something we learned, and then discuss things we may be confused about. Some students stay beyond this time to practice or to finish up projects they may be behind on.
Tuesday through Thursday we usually have between eight and twelve basic science lectures. The number is less important than you think. Eight lectures comes out to about 400 minutes of material (50 minutes x 8 lectures) which can either mean less material and a great week to relax, or more dense material which is more difficult to master and comprehend.
A more typical week consists of 12 lectures which comes out to 600 minutes of material. I normally average around 10-15 hours of studying outside of class each week. Some weeks more and others less.
Achieving a B would probably require between five and ten hours outside of class for most exams. It is as true in dental school as it was during undergrad that getting an A often takes significantly more time than getting a B does.
How many hours should you study?
As I said earlier, we have between eight and twelve basic science lectures per week. Usually the number is closer to twelve—four lectures on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. We also have weekly lectures on preventive dental medicine, personal finance, and ethics. Every few weeks there is an integrated health course that combines us with students from other health professions to better understand each other’s roles as health care providers.
Fridays are hit or miss. Usually the day that is reserved so that first year students can do clinical rotations. Because we rotate as groups, the groups that are not rotating that day have a free day to study or relax. We actually have a lot of time off our first year!
If you are shooting for high grades then you will burn through the free days with studying pretty easily. You may spend 10-15 hours studying for BASI, 2-4 hours studying for oral health sciences, and a couple of hours of your own free time in SIM each week on top of the hours you spend in class.
You don’t even have to go to class!
Many schools do not make attendance mandatory for basic science courses. Our school is one of those schools. Only about 50 people attend the lectures regularly. That is 50 people from the combined classes of dentistry and optometry which works out to around 200 total students. I attend lectures regularly. It works for me, it may not for you.
Many students in class feel that they do better learning on their own. They know their study style better than I do so I won’t argue. For me though, attending class makes a big difference. It means that when I study on the weekend I am making a 2nd, sometimes even a 3rd pass over the material. I know my tendency towards procrastination. Because lectures are posted one day after the lecture actually occurs, I know that I would get behind if I did not go to class.
Why I go to class
One of the biggest advantages of going to class is that you keep your head in the game. You know what to expect because you were there in person. You know that no one else is putting more into the class than you are. It is a confidence booster to know that no one else knows something that you don’t.
Beyond this, I feel more connected to the material when I am physically present. I also feel that it is good practice for our second year when all of the classes are mandatory. It is also good to display the highest level of professionalism I can by being present for lecture.
Why am I working so hard to justify going to class? Because the (really big) downside to attending class is that it costs you 8-12 hours of your week. More if you drive a long way to school every day like I do. You have to wake up and go to class, you have to sit through lectures you may not pay attention to, and you may feel like it is a complete waste of time. You will have to decide whether that is worth it to you or not.
How much time does it take?
Between the lectures I attend and my time spent out of class, I estimate that my average week is probably somewhere around 40-45 hours of class and study time per week. I spend around 12 in basic science lectures, six in SIM clinic, ~5 in dental courses, and a couple of hours for other courses. On top of that, 10-15 hours studying basic sciences, a couple of hours in SIM to practice hand skills, and 2-4 hours studying dental course material.
Some weeks you may do more, like the week I spent 30 hours studying biochemistry. Other weeks you may do less, though I doubt I ever spent less than 40 hours in class or studying in a given week.
I don’t know what to expect for our second year, but I believe it will probably be more like 50-60 hours per week. I will have definitely write about it next year when I know for sure. In the meantime, know that there is time for fun and socializing during dental school.
Your education is a full-time job, and you will have to put even more time into extracurriculars, research, volunteering, leadership, and externships if you want to specialize. If you are just planning to be a general dentist then dental school really isn’t bad at all, even if you work hard for high marks.