Dental School 2023: The Student Perspective

By Dakota Santo

It’s easy for the practicing dentist to forget what the application process for dental school was like. Dakota Santo is a pre-dental student who was kind enough to share his experiences pursuing a career in dentistry. We wish him the best in his pursuits and thank him for the reminder of how much dedication this profession requires from the very beginning.

Dakota Santo

I decided to apply to dental school on a wing and a prayer, and I quickly learned I wasn’t ready. I had taken the DAT, scored an average of an 18, with a weak science GPA to back it up. I only applied to seven schools, but unfortunately I was rejected from each one. I believe this was a good thing because I’ve grown a lot individually these past few years. I recognize now that I was not mentally prepared for dental school. I did not do enough self-reflection into what I needed to do to make myself a stronger and more well-rounded applicant. This led me to explore other options that would help strengthen my application.

Months after I graduated from Temple in May 2021, I got accepted at Rutgers University to pursue a Masters in Biomedical Sciences. This program required me to complete 30 credits in upper level biology courses and provides pre-dental students the opportunity to get an automatic interview at Rutgers School of Dental Medicine (RSDM). Additionally, this program also offers students the chance to take first-year RSDM courses. I was able to take two first year RSDM courses: Dental Histology and Oral Immunology. This experience not only broadened my knowledge for material covered on the DAT, but also gave me insight into the level of rigor of a first-year dental student. While these courses were challenging, I was able to conquer them and score fairly well.

This gave me a lot of confidence and reassurance that I am on the right path. I’m proud to say that I completed my masters this past December with a 3.74 cumulative GPA and will graduate with a concentration in Oral Biology. I was able to succeed in this program primarily due to changing my study habits, by incorporating more active learning into my everyday practice. Since completing my Masters, I have been studying for the DAT again, six days a week, for the past two months. Despite the monotony, it is rewarding in that it’s an opportunity to learn and expand upon my prior scientific knowledge.

The pressure to do well on the DAT is felt by every pre-dental student. However, after living with two dental students during my last semester at Rutgers, I now recognize that the DAT is really a microcosm of the workload felt every week by dental students. At first this seemed daunting, but I remind myself that this is a snapshot of my life. One aspect of dental school that I know I will already love is the preclinical side. During the summer of 2022, I was one of ten Masters students that had the privilege of taking a new course being offered by faculty at RSDM called “Fundamental of Pre-Clinical Dental Skills.” This course allowed pre-dental students to get exposure to various preclinical activities, such as drilling into a Learn-A-Prep, waxing a tooth, and writing my name backwards on a strip of wax. I loved every day I spent at RSDM trying out these different preclinical tasks that were expected of D1 students. I was already intrigued by what dentistry had to offer, but this experience was the cherry on top.

During the summer of 2021, I took a job as a dental assistant in a busy general practice. It was here where I really learned how a dental office functions on a day-to-day basis. I was introduced to four-handed dentistry, sterilizing instruments, cleaning operating rooms, and communicating with patients. I was always interested in what dentistry had to offer and even shadowed some offices in the Southcentral PA area, but working as a dental assistant was first-hand exposure into the life of a dentist. One thing that really stood out to me was the trust that patients develop with their dentist. This is so important and easy to lose sight of when studying for the DAT or even the NBDE. It’s critical to remember why this profession is unique and how it can positively impact those in our community.

The path to being a dentist can be competitive, tedious, and very stressful at times, but a glimpse into the positive impact a dentist has amongst members of his/her own community is remarkable. I know there will be challenges along my path to becoming a dentist, but I look forward to emulating the trust, skill, and kindness that my own dentist showed each and every day. As Jim Valvano said, “I always have to think about what’s important in life to me are these three things: where you started, where you are, and where you’re going to be.”