Are you a foreign trained dentist interested in obtaining a DDS and settling down in the States? Great, this post is for you.
One of the most common questions I get is ‘how do I improve my chances of getting a US dental school acceptance?’
For starters, here is a list of activities you can get involved in, at any stage of your career, to help become a well-rounded candidate. To address the elephant in the room, schools are not looking for someone with a perfect 4.0 GPA. In fact, academic scores are just that- a score- a single number. After a while, they stop being impressive, and you need more than that to demonstrate your passion for dentistry and community.
What is your ‘why’?
Find a cause close to your heart, and volunteer at a center that supports that cause. It doesn’t have to be dentistry related, it need not even be healthcare related, it only has to be a cause you believe in.
For example, one of my favorite places to volunteer as a dental student at Manipal University was ASARE- a home for children and young adults with developmental disabilities. This was a center offering recreational activities along with vocational training to its residents. Often, I would spend my Sundays taking residents for walks, exercising with them and listening together to music.
This activity never felt like ‘work’ or ‘volunteering’, I was just having a lot of fun!
Book recommendation: Find your Why by Simon Sinek
Fast forward to my year of internship when I became President of the Student Council. As President, I witnessed the unique opportunity of having my ideas heard. When I thought of organizing a community dental clinic benefiting the children and young adults at ASARE, our Council and I got a lot of encouragement from our dental school faculty. We organized 4 such successful dental clinics that year. Residents got much needed dental exams, cleanings and fillings, and more involved cases were referred back to the dental school. On the other hand, dental students got the ability to hone their interpersonal and leadership skills and were able to learn how to build rapport with patients. It was a fulfilling experience all around.
Ultimately, this opportunity became a major conversation point at dental school interviews when I moved to the US. Faculty enjoy speaking to aspiring students who go out of their way to connect the dots and initiate a project that means something to them.
Ask yourself: What are you passionate about? What can you initiate on someone else’s behalf? How involved are you in the community?
Say yes to opportunities that come your way. While at Manipal University, a senior started a non-profit called the Oral Cancer Organization. When he asked for help in conducting Oral Cancer screening clinics, I was quick to say yes!
Oral Cancer is the most common type of cancer observed in the South Asian population. This is because of the high incidence of tobacco chewers and it being a habit that is culturally predominant. As dental students, we would see advanced cases of cancer amongst our patients only too often.
Together, our team created pamphlets and posters to raise awareness about this important health concern and distributed them in the towns around our University. We also conducted clinics offering free cancer screening to more than 500 employees of the transportation department in our University. Consequently, we used the results of the screening to observe the prevalence of Oral Cancer in a subset of our community and learned about the steps we can take to prevent this issue from growing.
Although not originally the intention, saying yes to the opportunity, opened doors to an academic paper for us to work on as a team. This ultimately went on my resume and became a fond memory of collaboration and teamwork.
Being President of the Student Council led to a year of drastic personal growth. Being in student government, at any position, teaches you important skills in people management, communication and leadership.
I am going to do something untraditional here, and mention something that is often not acknowledged. As a member of student government, several opportunities will become available to you simply because you are in a position of leadership and responsibility. People will often think of involving you first, because it lends credibility to their projects. This is why it is crucial to be as involved in organized dentistry and student government as much as possible.
Being involved in a ton of projects is not easy- it requires hard work, long nights and managing time well. However, if you are like me, you will thrive in such a dynamic, learning environment. After a rigorous selection process, I was picked to be member of a team to go to Ladakh to offer comprehensive dental care to children and adults that faced reduced access to dental services. This project, Amchi, was hosted by my school in collaboration with EDSA- European Dental Student Association. It became an opportunity to meet dental students from different countries and understand how dentistry is practiced there
My role in this endeavor was of contacting sponsors and collecting funding, and in setting up inventory and organizing clinics once we were there. It was tough work that became my initial foray into running a small business. Later on, this work inspired me to lay the foundation for the New Dentist Business Study Club, a teaching non-profit, a few years after moving to the US, and my current passion project!
Travel for conferences
Participate in national conferences and be active in presenting papers or posters, wherever you go. Many schools offer you a stipend for representing the University at a national conference. Make use of this opportunity and meet dental students and faculty from all over the country. Placing first or second in a paper presentation is not the crucial aspect here. Watching others present and looking at a diverse set of academic papers, will open your mind up to new ideas.
You may find yourself thinking critically about different aspects of dentistry, and be influenced to work on a new academic paper.
Work on building genuine relationships with your colleagues and faculty at dental school. They are the same people who are going to help you later on; with a letter of recommendation, proof-reading your statement of purpose, or advice about getting into a US dental school.
You want someone deeply invested in your professional success to write you an absolute glowing letter of recommendation.
Your application has 5 minutes when it reaches a school- letters of recommendation and statement of purpose are often the first things that any faculty member reads. Make it count. Know that it all starts with building authentic relationships, first.
Networking outside of dental school
Spend time working with the community outside of your dental school; becomes friends with students in other disciplines, if you can.
We often fail to realize that students in other disciplines will be our colleagues in the near future. We can learn a lot from them! Inter-professional learning can be critical in problem-solving on a grand scale.
Many of my friends participated in entrepreneur competitions where they worked with students from different schools to put forth business ideas that could potentially change and impact our respective industries. Even if you don’t win at such competitions, the experience is in itself amazing. It provides a platform to improve your public speaking skills, while also building lifelong friendships.
Although academic scores are important, they are not the most important thing. It is more important to work on developing a well-rounded personality and getting into the mindset of a positive, growth minded individual.
We don’t need more book smart doctors! We need more compassionate people (who happen to be doctors) who will do a lot of good for the betterment of the community. People who will inspire and motivate staff and patients, be involved in academia, and maintain a work-life balance.
You don’t have to aspire to be everything. Be a few things and do them very, very well. Read books, travel, and remember to laugh and enjoy with your friends and family.
This is a marathon, not a sprint. Take care of yourself, carve out plenty of time for sleep and relaxation. If you’re not having fun every minute of the day, will the ‘end’ be even worth it?
Study material and timing
Use your 4th year and internship year to collect all study materials and begin preparing for the INBDE board examination and TOEFL. Results of the TOEFL are valid for only a certain period of time (about 2 years) so it may be best to give the test as late as possible. Use most of your internship year to focus on your boards, practice with past papers, and build a study group with other students to compare notes with. In the US, you are tested on full body anatomy unlike India or other countries. Keep that in mind when preparing.
You will need enough time if you want to pass on your first attempt.
Involve yourself in research papers early. Speak to faculty in your school who have a ton of published papers under their name. Ask them what they are working on and tell them you are interested in helping out. It is okay to tell them you are working on building your resume and would be willing to put in several hours to make your work in an academic paper count as an author. Professors are always looking for help in data collection so most of them will be happy to help. On the other hand, if you have ideas of your own, talk to your favorite faculty and make that happen for you!
Do you have more questions? Leave them as a comment, I will be happy to answer them.
#keeplearning and all the best!