Should you go to dental school?

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by Sarah Chouman, DDS Candidate

Sarah Chouman is a born-and-raised New Yorker and a dental student at NYU School of Dentistry. During her adolescence, she noticed the popular culture of smoking (anything) and its impact on dental health, which led her to pursue dentistry. She assists at a dental clinic while pursuing her Doctor of Dental Surgery degree at NYU. You can follow her dental school adventures on Instagram.

Hello, aspiring dentists! If you’re reading this, you’re probably asking yourself if going to dental school is #WORTHIT.

“What does it take to get in?”

“How stressful is it?” (Spoiler Alert: Very.)

“And do I really want to be a broke college student all over again?”

Let’s clear up some of your ambiguity.

This guest post is from Sarah Chouman, a student at NYU School of Dentistry. You can find her dentistry adventures on Instagram HERE.

How I knew dental school was right for me

It’s definitely not for everyone, but dental school may be for you.

Some people grow up excited to see the dentist (rare, but true!) and they decide they want to be a dentist at just 10 years old. Other people, like myself, take more time before devoting themselves to a longer academic career.

I didn’t know I wanted to be a dentist until my junior year of college. I did know that whatever I chose as a career, I wanted to make people happy. I shadowed a few different health professionals from MD to PA to RN until someone suggested I shadow their dentist.

Everyone who walked out of that office had a smile on their face. And that’s what did it for me.

A smile is the first thing you notice and the last thing you remember. If you want to create something beautiful and healthy that ultimately translates into someone’s overall happiness, dental school is for you.

Pros and Cons of Going to Dental School

Going to dental school and your subsequent career as a dentist have several benefits, like:

  • Financial stability (eventually)
  • Building lifelong relationships with your patients
  • Contributing to people’s health and happiness
  • Working in a highly respected profession
  • The upsides and freedom of self-employment
  • The ability to set your own hours after starting a practice

But what about the negatives? Weighing pros and cons is important when making this type of commitment.

Potential downsides of going to dental school might be:

  • A massive amount of student debt (more on that below)
  • Studying while the rest of your friends and relatives are getting married and starting families
  • A huge amount of startup money to begin your practice (sometimes close to $500K)
  • Not having much flexibility to move once you start your practice
  • Doing a repetitive, physically challenging job for the rest of your adult life
  • A lack of employment benefits unless you provide them yourself, as a self-employed individual

How should I prepare for dental school?

The first thing you should do is figure out where you want to go. Maybe you want to stay close to family, or maybe your dream dental school is half way across the country.

Keep in mind that wherever you end up, you’re most likely going to practice there as well.

Most of your connections are made in school and your current environment, so it can be difficult to move to another state and start all over.

Everyone has to take certain science courses to help prepare them for dental school, but specific requirements can vary from school to school. That can mean taking an extra biology class or shadowing a dentist for a certain number of hours.

Something I found helpful is reaching out to admissions counselors and asking them about what you can work on to become a better candidate for their school.

Showing your interest and forming this connection can also give you a leg-up in the application process if you get invited for an interview!

Common Dental School Questions

Q: What is the best major for dental school?

A: The best major for dental school is the best major for YOU. Your college experience should be based on exploring what you love to learn about. Whether you’re a science buff or an art-history enthusiast, do what feels right to you.

The people in admissions will appreciate that you took this time to grow as an individual, not someone you think you should be to impress them.

That being said, many people who go to dental school choose an undergraduate major in the sciences, like biology and chemistry. It’s also a good idea to take courses in the social sciences, such as psychology, as your career will involve a ton of one-on-one communication with patients.

Q: What are the requirements for getting in?

A: Here are the basics for anyone who wants to get into dental school:

  • Shadow a dentist
  • Take all the necessary science and non-science pre-requisite classes indicated by your school of choice (here’s what the ADA recommends for most dental schools)
  • Get at least 3 letters of recommendation from your professors (I recommend 2 science, 1 non-science). An additional letter from your dentist is a huge plus!
  • Take the DAT (Dental Admissions Test)
  • Study hard and hope for the best!

Q: Do I need a specific GPA?

A: The one thing I tell anyone applying to dental school not to do is go on Student Doctor Network. There is nothing more discouraging than comparing yourself to others.

Everyone is on their own journey, which is completely separate and distinct from yours. If someone on SDN says they got into their top dental school with a 3.5 GPA, someone else with the same GPA may not even get an interview.

Your dental school application should be unique, because you are unique! The activities you enjoy, the topics you care about, and how you spend your free time makes up *insert name here*.

Getting into dental school is not based solely on GPA, it is a holistic process. Be confident and proud of your own accomplishments. That is what will set you apart from the crowd.

Q: How long is dental school?

A: Dental school is typically four years. However, there are some accelerated programs that are three years long.

There are also some schools that have affiliate programs with undergraduate colleges. In this case, you complete your undergraduate education in 3 years. If you do well enough academically, you’ll be invited for an interview to the affiliate dental school.

After you graduate from dental school and take all the exams required to become a licensed practitioner, you are officially a general dentist.

There is one caveat; in some states, you are not allowed to practice until you complete a one-year general practice residency (GPD). If you want to go into a specialty instead, such as orthodontics or periodontics, those residencies are typically another three years after dental school.

Q: How much does dental school cost?

A: It’s expensive. And it’s not going to get any cheaper. The average dental student graduates with about $300,000 worth of debt. If you live in an expensive city like New York, it may be even higher. If you decide to go into a specialty, it will be much higher.

You have to really, really love dentistry if you are willing to put yourself in that kind of debt. No one wants to wake up to work everyday to pay off hundreds of thousands of dollars of loans for a job they don’t even enjoy. It’s a recipe for disaster.

Student Loan Hero gives a more detailed breakdown of the average costs you may incur as a dentist (plus what you might expect to make once you start). They estimate it will take about eight years out of dental school to make back what you owe for attending.

Take the time to reach out to a dentist or someone already in dental school about their experiences. Shadow as much as you can and ask a lot of questions. This is a huge commitment and an even bigger financial investment. Make sure this is right for you!

There are some student loan forgiveness programs for dentists, but they often require you to move to a rural area and work for much less than you might otherwise.

Q: How hard is dental school?

A: People see dentists more often than they see their primary care physicians. This means that we are often the first to recognize something that may seem problematic. We not only learn about teeth and oral health, but also about physiology and overall health and how to recognize and prevent conditions early on.

The rigorous coursework combined with all the different dental and surgical procedures we learn in lab makes dental school challenging.

One thing that helps me is studying with a group of my friends. We bounce information off each other, create mnemonics, and help each other understand different concepts (we also cry together…but I digress).

Being with your friends makes you realize that you’re not in this alone. You’re surrounded by people that want to help you and you will all make it through together.

Pictured below: Me, trying to breathe and practice self-care when everything I’ve read for months has to do with teeth.

Q: Can you go to dental school with a dental hygiene degree?

Believe it or not, getting an undergrad degree in dental hygiene isn’t a great idea for most people. The problem tends to be that you’ll repeat a lot of course content between college and dental school, but in your undergraduate major, you won’t have enough time to take the additional courses a dental school would often require.

If you want to be a dental hygienist, major in dental hygiene. If you’d rather be a dentist, focus on science, social sciences, and electives that you’d enjoy, then go through the specific dental science in your post-graduate program.

Key Takeaways: Should you go to dental school?

It comes down to one thing: commitment. If you are absolutely committed to this field, everything else is secondary.

You will think of loans as a financial investment rather than a financial burden. You will do well in school not because you have to get high grades, but because you want to learn.

Depending on how much you are willing to commit yourself, your road to DDS or DMD will be gratifying and fulfilling.

Good luck on your journey!

Want to connect with Sarah? Find her on Instagram at @doctor.soos.