Tips From Current D.D.S. and Dental Hygiene Students

Deciding Where to Apply

Posted by Brian Chang on May 24, 2021

If you only retain one thing from this article, it should be that when deciding whether to apply to a certain school, ask yourself if you would attend that school if it was the only one that accepted you. Turning down an acceptance to reapply elsewhere can easily be a red flag!


Factors to Consider When Choosing a Dental School

The two predominant factors that many prospective applicants use when deciding where to attend dental school are cost and location. Unless there is a very compelling reason to choose another school, most applicants default to wanting to attend their cheapest possible option, which is usually their in-state public school. Unlike how high school seniors may have chosen where to attend college, very few applicants would choose a dental school based on wanting to get away from their parents or explore a new area. For dental school, often applicants more carefully consider what their best return on investment would be—and many times, it would be their financially best option.

Other factors applicants might consider include the type of grading system at the dental school (letter grade versus Pass/Fail), the existence of a class-ranking system, whether the school is more clinically or research-oriented or the quality of facilities. After an interview, they may consider whether they were able to get along with the faculty and students. However, these factors usually come secondary to cost and location. Most applicants would ultimately choose their cheapest possible option, knowing they will thank themselves for making that decision when loan repayment begins.

Why Is Cost a Huge Deal?

After you factor in student loan interest, certain schools can cost several hundreds of thousands of dollars more overall than others to attend. Many prospective dental students say they do not begin to feel the gravity of the cost factor until after they have their acceptances in front of them. People who only have very expensive options may contemplate declining their acceptances to reapply to less expensive schools, but doing so can be a red flag to admissions committees at any school in subsequent application cycles. This is frequently learned the hard way. The proper approach is to decide prior to applying how much you are willing to pay for your dental education.

Does going to a more expensive school result in getting better opportunities following graduation? Not necessarily. At the end of the day, all schools are held accountable for meeting minimum educational requirements dictated by the Commission on Dental Accreditation, and all schools ultimately award you with the same D.D.S./D.M.D. degree. If you are interested in specializing or pursuing research or an academic career path, then going to a school with a more prestigious name could help to a certain extent. However, when dental practices make hiring decisions, your experiences and activities that set you apart from others are what get you the job—not the name of your school. When you work in a practice, your income is based on your individual production and collections, not the name of your school.

Figuring Out Cost of Attendance

When figuring out how much it costs to attend a school, it is not as simple as taking the first-year tuition and fees and then multiplying it by four. Sometimes the first year might have multiple one-time charges, such as for purchasing instruments and supplies. At a select few public schools, it is possible to apply for change-in-residency and start paying in-state tuition after the first year. For some people, a private school can be similar in cost or cheaper overall if they could live at home and save on living expenses versus having to rent an apartment to attend their in-state public school. Finally, cost of living in the area and lifestyle choices could have an impact on the amount of living expenses accrued.

Sometimes, a mistake applicants make is assuming that all schools other than their in-state public school are of nearly equal cost. This is not always the case. When you are considering the cost difference between private schools and out-of-state public schools, it can still be over $10,000 per year. In addition, out-of-state tuition for a public school may not save you money compared to attending a private school.

Most importantly, figure out your cost of attendance and decide whether that amount is reasonable to you before applying to a school. Do not wait until the school becomes your only acceptance to begin having second thoughts. At that time, it is too late.

Application Strategy

For applicants, the choice can be between applying broadly versus applying to a few schools with the intent to reapply, if necessary. Sometimes advisors advise applicants to apply broadly to a number of schools, but this advice should be taken with a grain of salt. Applying broadly does help optimize your chances for getting an acceptance somewhere; however, it is even more important to think carefully about only applying to schools you are willing to attend. Some people may prefer to reapply to a certain school they really want to attend, rather than be accepted the first time around at school they are not particularly excited to attend. There are circumstances in which this course of action makes sense.

One drawback of the “apply broadly” advice is it sometimes pushes people to apply to schools they are not particularly interested in attending. They may apply to certain schools based on where an advisor or friend recommends without carefully considering their level of interest in the school. In the end, if they get accepted only to schools they are not excited about, it’s too late to decide to reapply elsewhere. Their choices can become either attend a school they were accepted to or be prepared to pursue a different career path.

If people have second thoughts about attending the schools to which they were accepted, usually the reason is finances. This can be a valid argument; however, there are certain cases where one may not need to worry about this. For example, if somebody has a decent GPA and Dental Admission Test (DAT) score, and they are able to work in a well-paid job if a gap year becomes necessary, then it could be a sound idea to apply to only more financially favorable schools and reapply, if necessary. On the other hand, if somebody has lower GPA and DAT scores, they do not have as much leverage to be picky. If they need to pursue a master’s or post-baccalaureate program to help improve their application for more desirable schools, this strategy is not inexpensive. If they need to improve their DAT scores, they need to consider the likelihood of subsequent attempts yielding significant improvement, especially if they had already taken the test multiple times and were unsuccessful in achieving competitive scores.

Whether or not applying to a few schools with the intent of reapplying, is a feasible plan depends on the individual’s situation. This decision should be made based on how realistic of a candidate they are for their desired schools, and whether they have a solid plan for a gap year and a plan for reapplying, if necessary. If improvements are necessary to become a more attractive candidate at their desired school, the costs and feasibility of making those improvements should also be considered.


Common Mistakes

  • Applying to certain schools simply due to state of residence. Sometimes people may feel that they ought to include on their application list at least every school within their state of residence and/or in neighboring states. If you cannot see yourself attending a certain school within your state, especially if it is a private school to which you are unwilling to tolerate the cost of attendance, don’t apply there.
  • Adding schools to the application list for the sake of having the average of 10 to 12 schools. Just because most people are applying to 10 to 12 schools does not mean you have to. Every cycle, there are people who apply to over 15 schools, but there are also people who apply to only one school. There are plenty of people who do fine with applying to fewer schools, and sometimes, people may rather reapply to get into the school they really wanted.
  • Not considering the cost of attendance before applying. Make sure you carefully research the cost of attending each school, and that you are willing to pay the price to attend each school before you apply there. More often than not, people feel that while dentistry is a great career, there is a cap to what return on investment they are willing to tolerate in pursuing this career path. Think very carefully about whether this statement describes you, as many people initially claim that they are willing to attend anywhere.
  • Not researching school requirements before applying. Generally, schools are very transparent about any requirements that must be met prior to applying. These may include minimum GPA and DAT scores, specifications for who must write letters of reference, etc. A select few schools may not accept international students or may only accept residents of their own states. Checking to make sure you meet these requirements is one of the easiest ways to avoid wasting money on certain application fees. If you do not meet all the requirements, your application becomes among the first discarded. There are no application fee refunds for applying to a school in error. Make sure that if a school has granted you an exception that you have it in writing in case you have a dispute.
  • Not assessing the likelihood of being accepted by an out-of-state public school. Some public schools may be out-of-state friendly, while other schools may strongly favor their own in-state residents. If a public school strongly favors their own in-state residents, then you need to be a very competitive out-of-state applicant to have a realistic chance of acceptance. On the other hand, sometimes out-of-state applicants may see there are not many out-of-state seats and, therefore, not bother applying, hence allowing less competition for those who do decide to try. There are a few public schools that allow out-of-state students to apply for in-state tuition after the first year, and while those schools may not have a high out-of-state applicant acceptance rate, some applicants may decide it is worth paying the application fee for a chance to get significant tuition savings if they were to attend somewhere other than their in-state public school.

About Brian Chang:

Brian Chang

Brian Chang 
Second-year Dental Student 
Case Western Reserve University School of Dental Medicine

Brian Chang is a second-year dental student at Case Western Reserve University School of Dental Medicine who admits he has certainly made some of the mistakes discussed in this article. He now enjoys advising predental students on dental school admissions. His advice stems from reflecting on what he wishes he had known and done differently during his application cycle.