How to overcome fear and conquer the dental school application

During my time in undergrad, my biggest obstacle was fear — fear that even if I tried hard, I still might not achieve what I wanted. For a while, this fear prevented me from giving serious thought to what I wanted to do after graduation. In my first two years of undergrad at McMaster University in Canada, I focused on taking courses I loved. Suddenly, it was my third year, and I realized I needed a plan. I started asking people questions about their careers. I talked to doctors, physician’s assistants, physiotherapists and finally a dentist. Luckily for me, I found a dentist who was very passionate about his work, and he made a great pitch on behalf of dentistry. That’s when dentistry crossed my radar.

My grades were good overall, but the prerequisites for dental school such as organic chemistry, general chemistry, etc., were the most challenging subjects for me. I was afraid of doing poorly in these classes. I thought that if I didn’t put in my 100%, then the grade I got would not reflect my intelligence. I soon realized that there are some situations in life that do require my full effort and the results might still be below my expectations, and that’s OK. I also realized that if I had planned my schedule ahead of time, I could have taken these courses over the summer or online to dedicate sufficient time for them. The lesson I learned was that I needed to put in my full effort and plan ahead, regardless of how smart I am — and that ego is often fueled by fear!

That same concept applied to the DAT. The Canadian DAT is only offered twice a year, and during the busiest times of the semester, so if you did not plan your study schedule, you did not do well. This took me a couple tries and several hundred dollars. I tried not to be dejected with having to retake the DAT and told myself that retaking it doesn’t mean I am a “failure.” Ironically, even though I am Indo-Canadian, I come from a family who never put any academic pressure on me, mostly because I did that to myself without their help. So, I worked hard to change that narrative. Being patient with myself allowed me to focus on studying and made preparing for the DAT a more positive experience. It eventually gave me a score that got me into school. The moral here is to be gentle with yourself and try not to let “failure” prevent you from working hard.

One thing I think set me apart on my application was my school and community involvement. I was involved purely because it made me happy, but I suggest that every predental find a cause they’re passionate about or a place where they can help. These opportunities help show admissions committees who you really are. I spent some of my time working at an aviary and, believe me, no one works at an aviary cleaning up bird droppings unless they are passionate about it!

In addition, since I was always involved, I was able to gather a lot of incredible experiences and skills even before I decided to pursue dentistry. I took part in various leadership roles that taught me how to work well in groups. Juggling a lot of responsibilities taught me how to be efficient with my studying and increased the speed at which I grasp material. Above all, it exposed me to a magnitude of people, cultures and traditions that gave me the world view I possess today. I believe your goals will be as small as your previous experiences. You have to see big things to dream about big things. Seeking out experiences like these gave me a head start, but it is never too late to start getting involved. Don’t let the fear inexperience paralyze you from taking your first steps. Start by doing things that make you happy.

As you’re preparing for the dental school application process, do not be intimidated by thoughts of rejection and self-doubt. “What if I don’t get in?” “I don’t think I am competitive enough” — stop! You are scared, and it’s normal, but don’t let it paralyze you. Constant negative thinking will not help your chances of getting into school; instead, they will make you doubt your true potential.

Start this journey by doing one thing that makes you happy. The positive momentum from there on will eventually lead you in the right direction. And if you fall, get back up and keep trying. More than intelligence, I believe resilience is the key to success in applying to dental school and otherwise. One bad grade, one failure on a test or one setback in life is not the weak point in your application. Not taking advantage of that fear and not making changes are the weaknesses. In fact, I’m now in my third year of dental school, and I still have a couple failures under my belt, but those “failures” have changed my life for the better. So, get up, get started, work hard and focus on what you can control!

~Shalini Namathirtham, Roseman ’23, ASDA Council on Communications Associate

Shalini Namathirtham

Shalini Namathirtham is a D3 student at Roseman University College of Dental Medicine. She currently serves as the national communications associate for ASDA and is her chapter's immediate past communications chair.

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