Thanks for sharing your story, Ms. Dobson!
Sarah Dobson is a VT alumna who is currently studying as a dental student at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Adams School of Dentistry. She graduated from Virginia Tech in 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in Clinical Neuroscience and spent a year working as an AmeriCorps VISTA, assisting those living with Substance Use Disorder (SUD) before entering dental school.
What led to your interest in dentistry?
As a kid, I always enjoyed going to the dentist (as weird as it sounds!). I loved how my dentist was able to create a comfortable atmosphere for everyone, even those who were nervous or scared of the dentist. I also had braces in 7th grade and was fascinated by how the orthodontist was able to move my teeth. When I got to high school, I did an afterschool program at my local dental school that allowed me to experience dentistry for the first time. I had a blast learning about the tools, common procedures, and what life in dental school was like for students.
What did you major in and what inspired you to choose this/these areas of study?
I majored in Clinical Neuroscience. I chose this major because not only is the content extremely interesting, I knew that I would be very well prepared for dental school. The course offerings are similar to that of a health professions school program and some are even taught by faculty who have taught/currently teach at medical schools. I was able to complete all the necessary prerequisites and was challenged at the same time. I also enjoyed the many group projects and case studies we observed as this is similar to the work that will be done on a healthcare team.
What activities did you participate in as an undergrad that shaped your preparation for dental school?
I was heavily involved in the VT ASDA Pre-Dental Club. This experience allowed me to hold multiple leadership positions, network with others in the field, and learn more about dentistry! As a club, we also got to travel to American Student Dental Association conferences as pre-dental students, meeting other pre-dental and dental students across the country. There were many community service opportunities through the club, as well. We participated in MOM/RAM projects across the state. These are days of dental service where dental professionals provide free services to those in need. Not only was it great to give back, but we also were able to get hands-on clinical experience as well.
In addition to my involvement in the pre-dental club, I completed 2 summer enrichment programs that heavily influenced my journey to dentistry. The first was the Summer Health Professions Education Program. I completed this program at the end of my freshman year at Howard University. This was my first time taking dental school level courses and learning about healthcare disparities. Another program I also participated in and recommend is VCU’s Summer Academic Enrichment Program. I completed this program after my third year at Tech, just before applying. This program stressed the importance of working closely with other health professionals as a dentist and being able to treat the whole patient, not just problems in the mouth.
Finally, I was able to graduate from VT a year early and spent what would’ve been my senior year as an AmeriCorps VISTA. I was located at the Virginia Department of Social Services Headquarters in Richmond and spent the year on the governor’s task force to assist those living with Substance Use Disorder (SUD). I highly recommend this program for anyone who is interested in giving back while also growing personally and professionally during their gap year!
Do you feel that you were prepared for dental school interview(s)? What preparation advice would you give?
Before applying, I participated in the HPEC Committee Letter process which included an interview. This was great practice before the application cycle. Also, I utilized the HPA mock interview services as well. These experiences allowed me to feel ready for interviews.
The biggest thing with interview prep, in my opinion, is practice! Make sure that you are able to get feedback from others, as well. It is also a good idea to have a general idea of scenarios or topics that you can use to respond to commonly asked questions. Student Doctor Network has an interview section for each school that highlights questions that tend to pop up in their interviews. That said, I don’t recommend memorizing exactly what to say. You definitely still want the interview to feel genuine and flow naturally.
Finally, don’t forget to have a few questions that you can ask the interviewer at the end of the interview about themselves or the school. This is a great way to show that you’re interested.
What do you enjoy most about dentistry?
There are a variety of things I enjoy about dentistry, from the positive work-life balance to the plethora of career paths and options for specializing within dentistry. What I think I enjoy most is the level of impact and interaction with patients you have as a dentist. Dentistry is a very intimate field that requires a lot of trust between doctor and patient. I like the idea of being able to gain a patient’s trust. Also, I like that in dentistry you can see your vision and your work come to life. It is amazing to see a patient enter the office with a smile they might not be as confident in and within a few appointments be able to have a healthy, bright smile.
How many schools did you apply to and what criteria or resources did you use to select these schools?
I applied to 8 schools. I used the ADEA Dental Explorer Guide and ASDA’s Getting Into Dental School Guide to help me research schools. After determining the 4 criteria that were very important to me (diversity, cost, clinical experience, community service opportunities), I used the guides to determine which schools performed best in those categories. From there, I decided that I would only apply to schools that I would 100% attend if for some reason I was only accepted into that school. This narrowed my list down to 8, all on the east coast.
Another great resource when determining where to apply is current dental students that attend that school. A lot of dental students are active on social media and willing to answer questions about their school. Don’t be shy and use them as a resource to get insight into a school from a student’s perspective before you apply!
What made the dental school you chose the right fit for you?
1) Early clinical exposure – UNC is unique in that we first see patients at the end of our first year. This is pretty early compared to other schools. I wanted to ensure that I would have a clinical experience that would prepare me to begin working right away (without feeling the need to do a residency before if I didn’t want to).
2) Variety of opportunities – UNC has all of the core dental specialties represented. This is great because I am not 100% sure of what I want to do but can easily shadow in the specialty clinics to learn more about what each has to offer. Additionally, UNC has many great research opportunities. UNC is home to the #2 school of public health, UNC Gillings. I am interested in public health and will be able to collaborate with students and professors at the public health school during my career. Furthermore, there are a ton of service opportunities offered. From global mission trips to student-run clinics within the Triangle, I will have no issues getting involved in dental service during my time at UNC.
3)Cost – Being a public, state school, UNC is one of the cheapest dental schools in the country. Additionally, they allow out-of-state residents like myself the opportunity to obtain in-state residency after the first year. This, along with a scholarship offer, made UNC my most financially wise choice.
Did you have to change any of your study habits when you entered dental school?
The biggest difference between undergrad and dental school is not so much the difficulty of the content but the pace of the material. Many of the courses I had seen in some capacity at VT (Anatomy & Physiology, Microbiology, Biochemistry, etc.) but the tests are closer together and there is less time to study. However, the content is less memorizing and more connecting concepts to what we will see in practice. Therefore, the biggest change I had to make was to start studying earlier. Whereas in undergrad, there often is a lot of time to review and get acquainted with the material, in dental school, there is often only 1 – 2 weeks between exams. With this, I learned quickly that life is easier when you study a little each day or the first day you receive the material vs. waiting until the weekend before the exam.
What advice do you have for applicants considering a career in dentistry?
1) Explore the field! Whether this is through shadowing, summer enrichment programs/internships, or dental assisting, make an effort to learn as much as you can about dentistry and all that it has to offer. Not only will this increase your knowledge, but it will also allow you to ensure that dentistry is the perfect fit for you.
2) Stay organized. There are a lot of moving parts in the dental application process. It is super helpful to have a binder or notebook that you can log shadowing, volunteer, and experience hours. Also, it’s never too early to start thinking about who you’d want to write your letters of recommendation or to work on your personal statement. Finally, be mindful of dates and deadlines in terms of applying as well as prerequisites needed because this tends to vary by school.
3) Trust the process! Know that everyone’s journey will be different and you shouldn’t compare yourself to others. Just trust that you will end up where you’re supposed to be, as cliché as it sounds. Run your own race and control what you can control, and the rest will fall into place.
What kind of financial aid did you need to pay for dental school?
Like most dental students, I am relying on loans to pay for my dental school and living expenses (rent, food, travel, etc.). I received a scholarship from my school, as well. Additionally, for completing a year of service with AmeriCorps, I was given an education award that I was able to get matched by my school.
There are outside scholarships that cover tuition and fees as well as monthly living stipends for dental students in exchange for years of service as a dentist either in the military or in a medically underserved area of the United States. These 2 programs are called the Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP) and the National Health Service Corps (NHSC) Scholarship Program, respectively. I recommend looking into either of those if you’re interested in serving in those fields.
What helps you manage your stress and stay motivated?
I enjoy working out, especially after a long week of exams! Also, I’ve been lucky enough to have a tight-knit group of classmates that support and look out for each other. We often find ourselves unwinding together on the weekends. Also, I like creating posts and interacting with pre-dental/pre-health students on my dental Instagram page (@sarahsmilesdds).