As an eager pre-dental student, I found excitement in practicing for interview questions. I knew that one of the most frequently asked interview question was, “If you could describe yourself in one word, what would it be?” I would look at myself in the mirror, pretending I was looking at the interviewer in the face and answer the question with ease.
“I would describe myself as happy.”
I would then flash my effortless smile to myself with confidence.
This was a no brainer question for me because it was a recurrent compliment I would receive from my peers throughout my life. I had mastered the skill of looking at the bright side of all situations and learned to keep smiling through the pain no matter how bad life got. No one could ever catch me without a smile on my face. I took great pride in this and made it my thing. Little did I know that this quality of mine would be challenged remarkably over the next few years.
I became interested in dentistry from my very first dental appointment as a child. I know it sounds silly that a child could become intrigued with a profession at such a young age, but I guess you can say I was different. I thought I would grow out of my love for dentistry once I got older but it only grew. The more I learned about the profession the more I realized it merged the things I loved the most; art, science, and people. I tried searching for other professions but something kept bringing me back to my first love.
When I entered high school, it became more clear that this was the career for me. Like any other high school student, I was facing internal adolescent battles, mine being self-esteem. I attended a predominantly white school that tested my self-esteem every day. I had self-confidence issues ranging from my looks to my brain. I was not the type of girl guys wanted to ask out or take to school dances and that was absolutely earth shaking to my adolescent self. But my parents always reminded me to just focus on school and not worry what people thought of me. They were right, but I always saw myself as a pretty mediocre student. I graduated Magna Cum Laude, but I always believed it was from my worth ethic, not my intelligence.
I was nowhere close to a genius. I was reminded every time my intelligence was doubted in my advanced courses. I will always remember a distinct interaction I had with my classmate in our AP biology course.
While working on yet another group assignment, me and three other students collaborated over questions due at the end of class. We came across one question that my group was stumped on. It was a question I surprisingly felt pretty confident in. I decided to voice my explanation to the group, something I did not normally do. I distinctly remember them staring at me blanked faced while I explained my answer choice to them. It was then followed by an awkward silence and a sharp break of eye contact. They all dismissed everything I had said and blatantly choose another answer on the worksheet.
That day enraged me. I felt that anger rushed throughout my entire body. I felt it set a fire beneath me; a fire that has pushed me to where I am now. That day I vowed I would never give up on becoming a dentist. I had to show the world what I was capable of. I had to show them I was intelligent and so much more than what they assumed. But most importantly I had to show myself how exceptional I really was.
Looking back now, applying to colleges was definitely a foreshadow to my soon to come battle of applying to dental school. I hated standardized tests with a passion and my ACT/SAT scores reflected my feelings. Nonetheless, I was granted admission with a scholarship to my top school; the illustrious Hampton University. My older sister was attending Hampton and I got to witness her growth from attending an HBCU.
Hampton was the standard of excellence and the best decision I have made in my life thus far. The HBCU experience is a different kind of experience that not only provides you with a great education but allows you to dig within yourself to find your black magic. Hampton University made me into the woman I am today, and I owe them the world for that.
No matter how rough the road gets, no matter how far off you stray, do not give up on your dream.
– Erin Howard
College was by far the best four years of my life. I made it a point to enjoy my HBCU experience even as a biology major. Many of my peers saw college as a golden ticket to go buck wild because they were finally liberated from their parents. Some grew out of it after freshmen year, while others got immersed in it. Unfortunately, college fun often comes with interest and if you accumulate too much of it you will find yourself paying it off past the allotted four years. There is a balance you can place in college to have a great time while still being studious. Find your balance, set goals, and learn to say no.
College is the most crucial time to dive deep into what you have set as your career path. If you have set dentistry as your desired career path, I advise making it a goal your freshmen year to write down your ideal path for the next four years. Set goals for each year and hold yourself accountable. The application process is very tedious and requires ample preparation on the student’s end. I did not learn the details of the application cycle until my first summer program at UCLA through the Summer Medical Dental Education Program, now known as SHPEP; Summer Health Professions Education Program. This is a highly recommended program for all pre-health professionals. It is offered to currently enrolled freshmen and sophomores with a minimum 2.5 GPA. You can visit their website at http://www.shpep.org for more information.
To help ensure you are ready to apply in time for enrollment after graduation, ADEA has provided an excellent year by year breakdown for what should be accomplished each year. They also offer numerous resources for common questions regarding the basic structure of the dental school curriculum, list of dental schools with their statistics and requirements, the financing of dental school as well as dental career options.
The most crucial application detail to pay attention to that varies between schools are the course prerequisites. It is hard to know what schools you will be interested in so early on in your college career but try your best to research some schools you may be interested in. Write down your top three and the prerequisites they require. Many times one or two of these required courses may not be a part of your curriculum at your University. It is your responsibility to ensure that you take these courses even if it is not a part of your graduation requirements. These are very concrete requirements and you can easily find yourself not able to apply to your desired school over a course you neglected to take. Additionally, pay close attention to the schools that do not accept credits from online courses and 2-year colleges. This can also put you in a bind if you decide to take courses outside of your 4-year institution. To learn more be sure to visit https://www.adea.org. Know their website inside-out, many pre-dental questions can be easily answered here.
If I could do it all over again I would make sure I studied the application cycle more. I was unaware of how crucial the timeline was. As stated before I did not know much about the application cycle until the summer of my sophomore year at SMDEP. Learning it this late in the game put me in a bind that caused the rest of my journey to become stressful. Preparing a good foundation full of goals and tasks will make the experience so much better.
By the time Junior approached, I was in the midst of the hardest year of my undergraduate career. I was battling organic chemistry and my upper-level biology courses. Time flew by and before I knew it, it was time for me to apply to dental school.
June 1st is the golden day that marks the start of every application cycle. It will be said over and over again throughout your pre-dental journey to apply early! It sounds like it would be an easy accomplishment but if your ducks are not in a row it can become a stressful situation fast. As a pre-dental student, I failed to follow the ADEA timeline. I found myself studying for DATs, doing research, shadowing and scrambling to put together my application. Stressed was not even the word I was feeling, I was in full panic mode. I could not believe I had let everything creep up on me so quickly.
As I said before, I am a good student. I did well in my courses and thought of myself as an organized person, but that month of June I was put in an element I had never been in before. Studying for the DATs itself is already a demanding task and should be treated as a full-time job. Ideally, the set up for studying for this test should be uninterrupted studying for six to seven hours a day for no longer than three months. There is a lot of information covered on this test and it can get overwhelming fast.
I’ll never forget my first day of studying. I looked through my Kaplan book and instantly started crying with anxiety. There were so many questions and words I did not know. There were subjects I have not learned yet and the PAT section just looked like mission impossible. I started to bounce from study materials in the hope that I would find something for me. I did Kaplan, Crack the DAT and finally DAT Bootcamp. I bounced through them all. I constantly changed my study plan when I felt like I was getting nowhere, or someone had suggested another program that sounded better.
After constantly pushing my test date back, I finally took it. I went into the testing site shaking like a chihuahua. The Prometric moderator was truly concerned for me. She held my hands and told me to take a deep breath. I knew by the way she was looking at me that I was not ready for this exam, but I just wanted it to all be over. I proceeded to walk in and prayed for a miracle. That miracle was not granted to me. I felt defeated throughout the whole test. I would run out of time and have to quickly click through while barely reading the questions. Once I submitted my test, I silently cried as I waited for my scores.
This failure became a pivotal moment in my journey to dental school. I had never felt so defeated in my life. I did not know how it felt to work so hard for something and flat out fail until that day.
It took me a while to pick myself back up after that defeat. After many pep talks of support and prayer, my resilience remerged and allowed myself to find the strength to plan out my next few steps. Since I had taken my DATs in August I was considered late in the cycle. I contacted the three schools I applied to, Tufts being one of them. I had created a great relationship with the admissions at Tufts when they visited my school during my sophomore year. I felt comfortable talking to them. They always made me feel exceptional, even with my failures. They took the time to listen to all my problems and always provide a solution. They suggested I either retake the DATs by January of my senior year or reapply next cycle.
As you can see the DATs is a big component to your application. Although the admissions take a holistic approach to reviewing applicants, there is still a minimum that needs to be reached to be considered.
Entering senior year, I was unhappy. My friends, professors, and mentors all knew I was studying for the DATs and I was not ready for the questions to come. I was too embarrassed to share my status. I avoided the conversation at all costs. My eyes turned green with envy as others started to receive acceptance into professional schools. I would often think, why do some things come so easily for others and I have to work so hard. It made me feel bitter and upset. I dealt with my emotions by attempting to study again to take the DATs in January and hopefully be offered a late acceptance. As I got deeper into my senior year courses and obligations, my DAT studying was becoming inconsistent and I quickly realized I would have to take a year off and try again next cycle.
Graduation time is an exciting experience. No matter where you are at in life, the accomplishment of graduating college is a big one. I was proud of myself and my classmates. It was a long time coming and it was finally here. My fear of being judged for not getting into school was diminishing. I started to realize many of my classmates were in the same boat as me or even worse. I was blessed to be graduating and decided to do what I do best and look at the bright side of things and smile with my degree in my hands.
It was a beautiful time, and to make it even sweeter I was offered a job as a Surgical Assistant in an Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery office in my dream city, Washington D.C. Although I would be studying for the DATs while working a full-time job, I had a plan set before me and I was motivated to knock the DATs out of my life forever. I was finally back to feeling like myself again. I was happy despite my failures. Life was good and I felt blessed. Maybe God wanted me to take a break from school, maybe this is what I needed. I continued to smile as I entered the next chapter of my life.
DATs take two. Following my new DAT guide put me in a better mindset, but I was still exhausted and tired of studying. I got to understand first hand why admissions always say do your best to take the DATs once! Cause the second go around is harder. I had to dig deep to keep going. Luckily I had a great support system and a God that reminded me I was not alone in this.
To master the DAT, I would suggest using Ari’s Study guide. Follow by it as closely as possible and stay organized. Having a guide helps determine when you will be ready to take the test and alleviate the anxiety of the amount of material that needs to be covered. The biggest tip I can provide for you is to do lots of practice questions! There are only so many ways they can ask you about a subject. It is more beneficial to dissect and understand a handful of practice questions from a topic than to sit down for 2 hours to understand and master every detail of the topic that may not even be tested on. This is a concept I did not understand my first go around and it made a tremendous difference.
Now that I am knee deep into professional school, I am grateful for how the DAT has conditioned me to study. It made it easier to transition to being a professional student. Right now as a first year dental student, I am in class from 9am to 4pm (sometimes later). After school I come home, eat dinner and study until it is time for bed. It sounds really depressing but once I accepted that this is the life I choose and being a student is my job it got better and easier to find the motivation and stamina to keep going.
It is the same during those three months of studying for the DATs. If you are able to study for the DATs without a job, treat each day as if studying for the DAT is your job. If you decide to work while studying for the DATs as I did… well, let us just say coffee will be your friend for the next three months and it is definitely possible!
Days leading up to my test, life hit hard. My personal life crept up on me during the worst of times but I was determined for it not to affect my test. This test was my future and I wanted to protect it at all costs. But of course I am human, I feel emotions no matter how much I shut them out. I took my test with my brain half full of knowledge and half full of gloom. The results again reflected this. I looked at my score once again with the same feeling, the same knot in my throat and the same silent tears as before. I felt my dreams crush that day and I crushed with them.
My smile was lost for a long time. I was convinced I had chosen the wrong path. I felt I had just wasted my whole life on this career I was in over my head for. Gosh, how could I have not seen this sooner? I became numb to the world, living through the motions. I went to work, came home to barely eat and slept until the next day. I was clinically depressed. I don’t like revisiting this time in my life but I think it is important to share because this process will take a major toll on you if you let it. You can be the most life-loving, optimistic person like I am and it can still find a way to break you down if you let it.
I had a great support system and if it was not for them I would not be where I am today. They pushed me to follow up with schools despite the score I felt was uncompetitive. As I reached out to schools I received silence or a soft rejection like “Take your test again and then we will talk.” Rejection hurts and if you hear it enough you’ll start to believe it. I did. This score was starting to feel like it was a stamped failure on my forehead whenever I spoke with admissions. It made me start to believe that I was not equipped for dental school. I started to believe what people thought of me in High School. Then during one of my lowest days, I received an email from Tufts University School of Dental Medicine. I had received my first interview.
My smile came back that day, but It was not because there was a chance I would be going to dental school. That email told me that dentistry is for me, no matter where the interview placed me, or life took me. Someone saw what I felt within my heart for dentistry. They looked past the statistics and saw my passion. From there five other dental schools saw it too.
You may have noticed that I did not mention any of my scores or GPA throughout my story. I did this with a purpose. I want those who are reading this to understand that this process is beyond the numbers and statistics. You and your passion for dentistry far outweigh that and will take you further than you know. Never doubt the value that is already within you. Believe that you are worth more than what is on a piece of paper. Any school, person or statistic that makes you think otherwise is not meant to be a part of your story.
If you take anything away from my story, I want it to be that if you have a passion for anything at all, something you cannot go a day without thinking about, do not give up. No matter how rough the road gets, no matter how far off you stray, do not give up on your dream. Treat every set back as a set up for something better. Take every rejection as a realignment to where you are meant to be. Endure every storm with the excitement for the rainbow. Stay patient for your time. Embrace the climb and get ready for the view.
Dr. Erin Howard, MD
Erin Howard is a current dental student at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine. She received my BS Degree in Biology in 2017 at Hampton University. She is a nontraditional student and serves as a mentor for dental school applicants