Six tips to shadowing success

Maybe you became interested in dentistry because your favorite holiday was your six-month check up. Maybe you skipped the Superman comics and saw your dentist as your super hero instead. Maybe your parents are dentists or you have a family friend that inspired you. Regardless of how you became interested in the dental field, getting into dental school starts with a passion of dentistry. Shadowing a dentist is not only a near universal requirement of dental school admission, but also a way to prove your passion and expand your unilateral vision of what the day-to-day life of a dentist looks like. Here are six steps to shadowing success.

Step 1- Finding a dentist to shadow may be the most intimidating part of beginning your shadowing career. Finding a dentist other than your own to shadow is important as it helps establish a new, professional relationship. Finding a new dentist will also help you realize how different offices may operate. Begin looking online at general dentistry offices in your area. Instead of sending an impersonal email, call the office and ask to speak to the dentist or the office manager. Many predental students find that when they speak to the office manager or dentist in the office directly, rather than through email, they have a much higher success rate!

Step 2- Realize that when you apply to dental school, you are applying to a school that will prepare you to become a general dentist! Regardless of whether you can only see yourself being an orthodontist or oral surgeon, the four-year program you are applying for will result in a degree to practice general dentistry. Therefore, admissions offices at many schools recommend that the bulk of your shadowing hours be at a general dentist’s office. There’s nothing wrong with also spending some time shadowing your local specialist. Just make sure you have enough hours at a general practice to understand that aspect of dentistry.

Step 3- Acting professionally will not only help you land a shadowing spot, but will also help you keep it! Always keep in mind that you are a guest in a place of business. Take note of office policies such as introducing yourself to each patient. Keep in mind that if the patient doesn’t want you to be in the room, you may be asked to wait outside the room. Don’t take anything too personally and keep your professional demeanor, as doing so will make patients more accepting of your presence.

Step 4- Dressing for success will also help improve your perception by patients in the office. When an office agrees for you to shadow, be sure to ask what they would like you to wear. While scrubs are common in the dental office and an easy go-to, some offices might prefer that you wear business casual or even their office’s lab coat or polo when you’re in the office.

Step 5- Taking a step back might be difficult at first, as eager predentals cannot wait to see their first extraction, crown prep and root canal. However, realize that patients may become anxious with too many people crowding around them. You also do not want to get into the doctor’s way! By taking a step back, you will learn so much more about dentistry: chair side manner, how the assistant and doctor work together, as well as how the office operates and communicates as a whole. There will be plenty of time to learn procedures in dental school so take this opportunity to learn useful personal skills.

Step 6- Varying your dental shadowing between many offices is a great way to see how many offices operate. While you may fall in love with the single-doctor practice model, perhaps you haven’t considered the full benefits of a multi-doctor practice. Shadowing in other practice models, as well as in different specialties, will help you to see the essence of dentistry.

Whether you are trying to figure out if dentistry is right for you or whether you are trying to ramp up your predental resume, shadowing is a great first step. Take advantage of all of the information that your dentist is willing to teach you and ask questions! This is a great time to not only figure out if dentistry is for you, but also build relationships, keeping in mind that many dental schools ask for a letter of recommendation from a practicing dentist. Want to learn more about shadowing? Check out ASDA resources, including a comprehensive shadowing guide and a shadowing log to keep track of hours spend building your predental smarts.

~Craig McKenzie, predental

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Craig McKenzie

Craig McKenzie is a third-year student at the University of Pennsylvania, pursuing degrees in dental medicine and higher education. He joined ASDA in 2014 as a predental member and has served in several chapter, district and national roles. He previously served as the district 3 trustee and currently serves as national president. Craig advocates for dental students on the Coalition for Modernizing Dental Licensure, the ADA’s Council on Dental Education and Licensure, and also serves on ASDA's Council on Advocacy.

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  1. Some great points here. Shadowing is a very important part of your way to becoming a dentist – so it’s important to use your time shadowing wisely. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Great tips! I agree above that shadowing is important. It’s a cornerstone to real life learning and experiences. Keep it up!

  3. If you’re interested in dentistry, you’ll want to shadow a professional. This can help you determine if the field is truly for you. Plus, you can gain valuable tips on how to act with patients once you do become a dentist.

  4. I like that mentioned to dress for success. I think that if my orthodontist was dressed as a professional I might be a little more comfortable when getting an operation. Would you want to go to a dangerous looking person to operate in your mouth?

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