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

How to Decide to Which Dental Schools to Apply

Posted by Elyse Estra on April 21, 2021

Choosing a dental school can be quite the daunting task. It’s where you’ll spend the next four years of your life, so it’s important to find a program that challenges you yet makes you incredibly happy. 

Now the question is, how do you find that school? Well, the answer is different for everyone. As a predental student, you need to decide what you’re looking for in a program, including what you’re willing to compromise on and what is non-negotiable. In the beginning, it is perfectly okay to not know what you’re looking for. You can apply to as broad a range of schools as you would like, but remember, the application process is a time, financial and emotional investment. The schools where you’re invited to interview will give you a better idea of not only whether you’re a good fit for their school, but if their school is a good fit for you.

The following is meant to serve as a guide of some factors to consider while applying to dental school. This list is certainly not comprehensive, so tailor it to your needs and priorities.



At most schools, the first two years are spent in didactic and preclinical coursework. You’ll take classes in the basic biomedical and dental sciences and begin developing your hand skills in preclinical simulation laboratories. During years three and four of dental school, you will transition to mostly clinical coursework, where you interact with your own set of patients. However, in recent years many schools have tried to get away from this concept that the curriculum is divided in this manner, preferring that clinical and didactic are spread throughout the four years.

Each school operates on their own timeline, with unique requirements, rotations and curricula. Some things to consider:

  • What is the basic biomedical science coursework like?
    • Do dental students take classes alongside other health professions students?
    • Is there opportunity to interact with medical, nursing or pharmacy students in an interprofessional setting?
  • How are courses delivered?
    • Are classes traditionally lecture-based, or is there opportunity to engage in a “flipped-classroom” model, such as team-based learning or problem-based learning? (In flipped-classroom settings, students prepare outside of class, and come to school ready to work as a team through cases and faculty questions.)
  • Is the curriculum pass/fail, or are there letter grades?
    • This sets the overall tone for the school’s student body. From my experience interviewing, I noticed schools operating on pass/fail curricula seemed more collaborative, with students sharing notes and study materials with their classmates. At schools with grades and class rankings, there is greater opportunity to stand out from your peers, but it may add a competitive element to your overall dental school experience.
    • It should also be taken into consideration that schools with pass/fail feel there are different ways that students can stand out and be just as competitive as students attending schools who administer letter grades.

  • When do students see their first patients?
    • At some schools, students start seeing patients as early as their first year, while at other schools, students don’t start seeing patients until their third year. 

Program Size

Dental schools can range in size from about 40 to about 400 students, depending on where you go. What you choose is truly your preference! At smaller schools, you will get to know your classmates quite well and form a tight-knit community, while at larger schools you will have the opportunity to form larger social circles and learn from peers of diverse backgrounds and upbringings. 

One thing that is important to note, though, is the school’s faculty-to-student ratio. Independent of whether you’re at a small or large school, you want to have the opportunity to learn from and interact with your faculty. 


Although free time is quite limited during dental school, at the end of the day you’ll be calling this place your home away from home for the next four years. It’s important for your physical and mental health to be happy in your new location. Do you want to be close to home, or travel across the country and live somewhere completely new?  

Location will also affect your clinical training; it dictates your patient pool. If you’re in an urban setting, you’re more likely to see lower-income patients from the surrounding city. At more suburban or rural schools, patients may be driving further distances for their dental care.


Dental school is an investment in your future. Public schools tend to be significantly less expensive than private schools. If cost is a major factor, look into public state schools throughout the country. Even if you may be paying out-of-state tuition your first year, some states allow you to declare residency after your first year and qualify for in-state tuition for the next three years. Some public schools also offer regional tuition to students from neighboring states. It should be noted, some public schools may be more competitive for students applying from out-of-state.

Am I a Competitive Applicant?

Finally, ask yourself if you are a competitive applicant for the school. It is important to select a range of “safety”, “goal” and “reach” schools for you to apply. You want to challenge yourself as an applicant, but you need to be realistic with yourself. How does your Dental Admission Test score and GPA compare to current students? Have you completed all of the prerequisite requirements? How many shadowing hours do you have?

With that being said, don’t let cutoff grades or other specific requirements stop you from applying to a school you really like. Schools look at your application holistically, and admissions faculty realize there are no perfect applicants. Everyone has their weaknesses! Being able to address and overcome those weaknesses is what schools are looking for in their prospective students. 

At the end of the day, the application process is quite unpredictable; you never know what will happen. So keep an open mind and a positive attitude throughout the process. And remember, the purpose of dental school is to become a competent general dentist. You’ll achieve that goal at any school. 

Best of luck! I hope you find it to be quite rewarding. 

About Elyse Estra :

Elyse Estra_headshot

Elyse Estra  
Third-year Dental Student 
University of Connecticut School of Dental Medicine

Elyse Estra is a third-year dental student at the University of Connecticut School of Dental Medicine. Her interests include equitable and affordable health care access, the relationship between oral health and overall health and curricula advances in dental education. In her spare time, she enjoys cooking (and eating) delicious vegetarian meals, petting animals and spending time with family.