Gaining Dental Experience as a Predental Student

After grades and DAT scores, dental experience is one of the most important areas of the application. Volunteering, working or shadowing in a dental practice allows an applicant to determine if dentistry is truly the right profession and demonstrates to dental schools that the applicant has made an informed choice. Yet applicants are often unsure of what type of experience, how much experience they need and how to find a dentist to shadow or clinic to volunteer in. Here are my responses to questions I am commonly asked about dental experiences:

  • How many hours do I need? Some schools state only that dental experience is “recommended” while others require a specific number of hours.  The recommended or required hours range from no minimum to 100 hours or more. Some schools have specific recommendations for hours spent job shadowing versus volunteering in a dental office; others combine the two categories. Therefore, it is very important that you check the requirements at the specific schools you are interested in, but a general guide is to aim for 100 hours of volunteering and job shadowing combined. The ADEA Official Guide to Dental Schools lists the recommendations or requirements for each schools, or you can go to the school’s websites.
  • What is the difference between job shadowing and volunteering? With job shadowing, you are spending your time observing the dentist. The purpose is for you to learn what a dentist does on a daily basis. You will be watching, listening and asking questions. As a volunteer in a dental office, some of your time may be spent engaged in tasks that do not require interaction with the dentist. You may be setting up or cleaning up rooms, checking in patients and helping with administrative tasks. Sometimes shadowing and volunteering overlap. You may spend some of your time as a volunteer observing the dentist, or you may be asked to do some tasks while you are shadowing.
  • Where should I volunteer or shadow? Make sure you include a general dentistry office in your volunteer or shadowing experiences. In addition, shadow several specialists. Also, vary the settings you work in. Try to visit solo practices, group practices and a low-cost community dental clinic, for example.
  • How do I find a place to shadow or volunteer? Ask any dentist you have contact with if you can spend a day (or more) observing in his or her office. If you belong to a pre-dental club, ask other members of the club where they have gained experience. You can also “cold call” dentist’s offices. Call or e-mail offices in your area, politely explain that you are a predental student seeking to learn more about the profession and would like to know if the office has opportunities for shadowing or volunteering. This may require some persistence, but it can also yield good results. Some dental schools sponsor mobile dental clinics or temporary dental clinics to treat uninsured patients. If you are near a dental school, check to see if these opportunities exist.
  • What about paid work? Paid work in a dental office is a great way to gain dental experience, although positions may be difficult to find. A volunteer position may turn into a paid position, and even a front desk job will allow you to learn the workings of a dental office, and perhaps slip back to watch the dentists during quiet times.

Whichever route you take to getting your experience, start early.  Squeezing your experiences into the few months before the application looks more like resume padding than a true interest in the dental profession. Also, if you shadow or volunteer with a dentist on an ongoing basis, you may receive a letter of recommendation from him or her, and you the earlier you start, the better the dentist will know you before they write the letter.

Need the help of an advisor experienced with dental school applications? Contact Dr. Eaton at (626) 768-2154 or for a free 20-minute phone consultation.

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