Getting into Dental School Notes taken from MPW Guide - Getting into Dental School by John Handley Published by Trotman and Company Ltd HOW WILL YOU KNOW WHETHER DENTISTRY IS FOR YOU? When considering your application for a dental school place the admissions tutor will be looking, amongst other things, for extensive work experience in dental practice. The earlier your interest becomes manifest the better, preferably before GCSE’s, but it comes later with some people. This is an obvious way of discovering how you feel about the profession and putting the matter to the test. Spending at least a week in close observation of a dentist in general practice is not only a minimal dental school admission requirement; it is a chance for you to see what is involved. Some dentists may give you the chance to assist and to avoid having you look conspicuous may let you work wearing a white coat. You may even get the chance to work in the role of chairside assistant. Whatever the nature of the opportunity this is your chance to see the practise of dentistry at first hand. On a recent General Dental Council survey over two-thirds of dental students had gained experience of this sort before gaining admission to dental school. Learning by observation You can learn a great deal by paying close attention to what the dentist is doing and saying during your work experience programme: For example, how does the dentist deal with a new client? There could be questions and study of the patient’s dental history. Take note of the inevitable examination of the teeth and surrounding tissue. What conclusions are drawn? Is there a problem with the patient’s bite? What about gum disease? This is the most common cause of tooth loss. Plaque contains millions of bacteria, this irritates the gums causing bleeding. If these warning signs are ignored, teeth can become loose as the supporting bone structure weakens. X-rays can be taken to reveal any areas of decay not obviously detectable. Note that dentists are unique in that they are the only health care professionals who take and interpret their own radiographs. What sorts of technical restorative procedures is the dentist called upon to decide between? You will observe the administration of local anaesthetic to reduce discomfort. How does the dentist handle the patient’s natural anxiety? What type of restorative work do you see? Restorations can be fillings, inlays and crowns of the replacement of a gap by fitting a bridge. Are there any tricky diagnoses that face the dentist? Does a referral to a dental hospital have to be made? If so, why was this necessary? Orthodontics is a possible example concerned, as it is, with the relationship between the teeth and the jaw. Some dentists can specialise in correcting mildly crowded teeth, more complex cases are referred to a consultant at a dental hospital. How does the dentist deal with children or those who are obviously nervous? Is the dentist giving advice about diet and oral hygiene to the child’s parent? How is this being done? For example, children love fizzy drinks which contain sugar and are potentially harmful, how can the dentist get the message across of limiting food consumption containing sugar in the interests of maintaining a balanced diet without appearing a ‘spoil sport’? After all one of the reasons for having good dental health is so that you can enjoy your food. How well is the teamwork between dentist and dental nurse responding to the daily pressures? Is the working relationship truly ‘four-handed’? Are you able to see the work of the dental hygienist? Is it apparent to you that the dentist is the leader of the dental team? What do you think of the appearance of the dental practice? Is there a welcoming atmosphere in the waiting room? Is the reception area bright, cheerful and clean? Is the receptionist a friendly and polite person who is able to put people at their ease? Is there a colourful dental product display which would encourage patients to purchase? Does it look like a thriving business? These and many other aspects of the work will come under your scrutiny. If there is anything you do not understand in what you have observed, you should be prepared to ask. Dentists are very willing to help and are generally supportive. Your written UCAS application form will, with advantage, contain references to what you have observed. TRY KEEPING A LOG TO RECORD WHAT YOU HAVE SEEN AND BEEN TOLD. Your practical experience will almost certainly be subject to questioning at your selection interview with the admissions tutor. The need for varied experience Many admissions tutors will see one week observing in a general practice as a minimum requirement. They would like to see evidence of longer-term commitment and interest and one way of showing this is to have additional experience. This could be with other local dental practitioners. One way to do this is to ask your local dentist to give you another contact or better still to recommend you to someone he or she knows. You may try volunteering to work in a dental hospital, if there is one near where you live, or if not, the local general hospital. This can lead to assisting in a dental laboratory and seeing different aspects of the medical world. The important point is to get experience which is patient orientated. Some sixth formers have managed to visit a dental laboratory and seen for themselves how casts of teeth are made from impressions. Others are able to arrange a visit to the Community Dental Service and see how children are treated. Even a very brief piece of experience adds to the variety in your UCAS application. Some applicants have been known to spend some time with their local doctor. Experience of this nature, seeing the total range of medical service is relevant because you begin to see how important good dental health is and its relationship to the work of the GP. Experience of this nature will often prove to be a good talking point at interview because the tutors like to see that you have strong motivation and this kind of varied experience is a good indicator. What is gained? First of all you will find that dentists can be very helpful to you in explaining what they are doing. Some of them will probably tell you about their own experience as dental students, what it was like, what stands out in their memory. All of this will be useful and should be stored away in your memory for later, when you go for an interview. There is, however, a more important point. You are not doing this just to please the admissions tutors, important though that is, you are gaining this experience to test your own interest and motivation. This is vital, for make no mistake, you are going to need to be very disciplined and determined to reach your goal of becoming a registered dentist with the General Dental Council. You have to keep in focus the fact that you are taking on a five-year course which is very intensive and requires total commitment. WHAT MAKES A GOOD DENTIST? I think you have to be a confident, happy, outgoing, sensible person as you will be meeting many people over time who have to put their trust in you. Dental student. It is a good idea to ask, ‘What makes a good dentist?’ early on in your enquiries, because if you recognise the qualities and skills that go to make a successful dentist, you can begin to apply the same criteria to yourself. The important point is that you do not want to set out on a course that is very demanding in many different ways, unless you are sure that the goal at the end of all your studies is going to be right for YOU. If you ask dentists what are the personal skills and attitudes needed for dentistry you will get a variety of answers. The reason for this is that it is a job which requires a combination of qualities. Some dentists will emphasise the manual dexterity that is needed, others the scientific knowledge, the patience required, the good communication skills or the ability to work as part of a team. Some will mention the organisational ability and business acumen that is increasingly important. Dentistry requires all of these things, but there is a common thread running through it all and that is the ability to get on with people. In general practice, where the majority of dentists begin their careers, you are dealing with the general public and it is very important for the dentist to be a caring person who adopts a professional attitude, taking an interest in the whole person. This is not easy to do because the method of remuneration encourages experienced dentists to work quickly. There is, therefore, a danger of not making enough time to see the patient for what he or she is: a person who has come to you for help and advice. A good dentist will avoid being over-booked. It is not an easy thing to manage but the correct balance will mean that one of the great enjoyments of dentistry, meeting interesting people, is not lost. SUMMARY OF SKILLS AND QUALITIES NEEDED People Being able to get along with people and like them, although this can be hard sometimes! A pleasing manner and a sense of humour is a great help. This is important because unless you are happy meeting people for the first time and seeing old customers again, you will find the job stressful and dealing with patients becomes hard work. Manual Skill Good manual dexterity or as one dentist put it ‘a creative pair of hands’. This is a skill which can be acquired but remember you are going to do intricate work ‘inside the mouth’ so it is as well not to be naturally clumsy! Communicating An ability to explain things and reassure the patient. Do you find it easy to communicate your thoughts and feelings to people? If you do you are likely to find dental work satisfying, if not it will become an ordeal for all concerned. Problem solving Do you enjoy problem solving? The work can be unpredictable and you need to think the problem through. This is where your scientific interest and knowledge can come to the fore. Sometimes you could come across a problem that needs to be referred to a hospital, knowing when to do this calls for your professional judgement. This is one reason why dentistry can prove mentally stimulating. Patience Patience, it is said, is a virtue; this is certainly true of dentistry where some treatments are of necessity longer-term eg periodontal disease, or where detailed work is required in making, for example, prostheses. Caring A sympathetic and caring attitude, particularly to patients who are experiencing discomfort or dental pain is very important. Professional resilience How mentally tough are you? Dentistry is a job where you do need to have the resilience to get on with a job which is acknowledged by all dentists to be stressful at times. Patients who are in pain can be frightened and aggressive people. They can be uncompromising in their attitudes and make unreasonable demands. The treatment can cause discomfort, to say the least, and this is stressful. It is difficult for you to know how you will react to situations like this but at least you should be aware of what can happen. Are you someone who can keep cool under pressure? Enthusiasm Are you enjoying your science subjects? Have you notice how your interest in subjects can develop as your knowledge increases. An attitude which says that you want to go on learning, even after you qualify, is particularly valuable. This is because there is a continuing post graduate dental education and training programme that will keep you abreast of all the latest developments. Organising skill Very few people entering dental school think about dentistry as a business, but it is just that. You may start as an associate but eventually you may aspire to buying your own practice. This will require either you to be a good organiser yourself or join up with someone who is. It has been estimated that it currently costs £70.00 per hour to run the average surgery. So you do need to be an effective manager in order to get a decent return on your investment. Physically fit Last, but not least, the work can be physically demanding. You may have to work two or three evenings a week. At times it may be your turn to give emergency cover. You should note that dentistry demands concentration and stamina. Are you in good health? How have you rated yourself on the above factors? With applications for dental school increasing sharply over the last three years, particularly from women, admissions tutors will be looking for signs that you have some or all of the above qualities. However, it is even more important for you to be satisfied in your own mind that you possess the above qualities. It is your life as a successful dentist that is at stake. WHAT THE ADMISSIONS TUTORS SEEK Admissions tutors try to get the best students they can for their course. That’s putting it at its most basic. They are also acting in the best interests of the dental profession. They know that the competition is increasing, applications are on an upward trend, and that the biggest hurdle faced by aspiring students is entry into a dental school. Once this obstacle is overcome there is, given the undoubted ability of those able enough to get the entry grades needed, every chance that with due diligence and lots of hard work the student will in due course enter the profession. However, it is important to emphasise again that motivation is the key factor in selection. It is in the last analysis more important even that A levels (or their equivalent). Therefore, the admissions tutors are looking at the total impression conveyed by the candidate on the UCAS form. This will include not only academic predictions and headteachers’ report but also extra-curricular interests as well as the extremely important supporting practical experience and references. In the final analysis the tutors know that they are exercising a big responsibility. Upon their decisions the shape of the dental profession will largely depend. ACADEMIC AND PERSONAL QUALITIES ON THE UCAS FORM Good dentistry requires a combination of qualities. It is crucial to understand that the admissions tutor is looking at the total effect of the UCAS application. There are four factors which are of overriding importance to the dental schools and they are: ACADEMIC – is there a good spread of GCSE’s, this after all is the only factual academic evidence on the form. The tutor is hoping to see mostly A’s and B’s, very few C’s! Is there a prediction of good A levels (or their equivalent), in short is there evidence of good academic ability? KNOWING ABOUT DENTISTRY – You are about to sign up for at least a five-year course leading to professional status. The admissions tutor will expect you to know something about your chosen subject. Have you work shadowed a dentist or had any other relevant work experience? Have you been to a dental hospital or even talked to your GP? PRACTICAL ABILITY – This is one profession where you are going to need to be skilful with your hands. The admissions tutors will look to see if there is any evidence of practical skill, it could be of an artistic kind, a craft skill or perhaps modelling. GOOD AT MIXING WITH PEOPLE – This may be listed last but, in the minds of dental admissions tutors, it is certainly not least. If you want to enter a major health care profession you are going to have to deal with people. The tutors do not want to recruit into the profession people who will find it difficult to communicate or ‘get on with people’. They will look for strong evidence of an outgoing people orientated personality. The importance of the application possessing breadth Admissions tutors in dental schools are faced with large numbers of candidates who are well qualified academically. To separate these applications additional criteria have to be brought into play. This is why they attach a great deal of importance to extra-curricular achievements, work experience and the headteacher’s report. The reason for the importance attached to extra-curricular achievements is not hard to find. It is based upon the not unreasonable assumption that to have gained distinction in any kind of worthwhile hobby or activity demands concentration and determination – qualities that are essential to complete a dentistry course. An important quality needed by dentists is manual dexterity. Is there any evidence on the UCAS form of craft skills or hobbies such as pottery, engraving, restoring things, or creative art? Does the applicant play a musical instrument? To do well in creative art, making things in three-dimensional shapes is often good evidence of co- ordination of eye and hand. These are the kinds of clues looked upon favourable by dental admissions tutors. Many artists do well in dentistry: indeed, A level art is a specific area of expertise respected by many dental admissions tutors. This is why some admissions tutors favour a third A level in a non-science subject, to bring breadth into the application. THE IMPORTANCE OF THE PERSONAL STATEMENT ON THE UCAS FORM This is section 10, the last part of the form but certainly the most important and influential. Most of the UCAS form is a factual summary of what you have achieved but here you have your first chance to give expression, clarity and style to your application and hence bid for a place at dental school. Begin by photocopying Section 10 of the form and practise writing your answer. There is no objection to getting the personal statement typed – not only do most admissions tutors prefer it, it may be wise to do so if your writing is hard to read! There is also the point that you can usually get more words in the space by typing your answer but be careful, brevity can often produce a better, more directed answer. Research shows that it is a good idea to structure your response. Consider using paragraphed sub- headings in order to gain clarity for the busy admissions tutor. It has the effect of giving the reader a frame of reference, oh, yes I see what this person has done. Make sure that the following points are covered in your personal statement: Why do you want to be a dental surgeon? There are many possible reasons and this is where your individuality will show. Mention any advice resulting from dental or medical contacts, careers fairs or visits to local dental practices, dental hospitals or dental technician laboratories. Outline your practical experience. Give prominence to the diverse nature of it, the time spent with a dentist in general practice, maybe more than one so that you have seen a large as well as a smaller practice etc. Mention any interesting cases. Perhaps you have worked as a volunteer at your local hospital? Make sure that your application shows how you get on with people. How did you get on with the dentists, the nurses, dental hygienists, receptionists and the patients? Did you have the chance to help? Were there any examples of teamwork? Give an indication of your career direction. Even if it is tentative at this stage, show that you have thought about the possibilities of general practice, the community dental service, or the work in hospitals etc. Any special achievements or responsibilities. This can be connected with dentistry, science or with an outside interest. Practical skill using your hands in an artistic or craft sense will be particularly valuable for a career in dentistry. List activities and interests of a social, cultural or sporting kind. Here is your chance to reveal more about yourself as an individual. The example of a Section 10 statement below shows in a practical way how the above advice might look. Note the use of sub-headings and the layout making use of the space on the form and thereby making it easier for the tutor to follow and take in at a glance the main points. 10 PERSONAL STATEMENT (An example) My interest in dentistry started at an early age through my visits to the dentist. I was intrigued by the equipment, the cleanliness and the care shown to me. This interest has grown over the years. I know that this is the career I want to pursue. During my work experience two things stood out. First, I noted that dentists needed to have an easy manner so that patients could feel relaxed. Secondly, dentists have to possess good manual dexterity. These are qualities that I feel I am fortunate in possessing. The former through acting and directing in school plays, an activity I really enjoy, and my practical ability is illustrated through pewter art which I took up about three years ago – a skill that requires patience and technique. WORK EXPERIENCE 2002 Attended the two-day course at the University of Liverpool Dental School. Spent one week observing the Community Dental Service, which includes the School Dental Service and attending to handicapped patients. Three days spent with an orthodontist seeing a more specialised aspect of dentistry. 2003 One week with a general dental practitioner in West Wirral, observed what happens in a small practice. Visited the dental departments of my local dental school. Visited a larger dental practice in South Wirral with modern equipment. Spent some time with the hygienist. One day spent at a technician’s ‘lab’ gaining ‘hands on experience’ with biting plates, dentures and gum shields. INTERESTS AND RESPONSIBLITIES Qualified Red Cross first aider; regular blood donor; school prefect. Music: Principal trumpet in school band and orchestra. Have taught trumpet to younger members of the school band, ages ranging from 7 upwards. I’m working towards Grade 8 on the trumpet. Drama: Have played prominent parts in both school and house plays and enjoyed myself immensely. I like the teamwork involved and coping with backstage tension. Sport: Enjoy keeping myself fit. Reached competitive standard in karate winning individual and team awards in my discipline for the NW regions. I also enjoy playing basketball, especially during the winter months.