Case Western Reserve University’s two newest classes of School of Dental Medicine students will have the chance to don their trademark white coats in two separate ceremonies today.

The ceremonies—postponed for last year’s incoming class due to the COVID-19 pandemic—mark “the transition of coming into a new phase of life, because once you’ve donned the white coat, even as a student, your life completely changes,” said Kristin Williams, assistant dean for admissions and student affairs and director of diversity, equity and inclusion at the School of Dental Medicine.

The ceremonies for the dental school’s Classes of 2024 and 2025 will take place separately, requiring attendees to adhere to the most recent COVID-19 protocols on campus. Friends and family will be able to watch from viewing rooms. Masks must be worn.

Dreaming of having that white coat draped over your shoulders someday? We spoke with Williams to learn five insights that might help you get there.

1. Dental school is highly competitive.

From an admissions standpoint, dental school is really competitive and I don’t think people really realize how competitive it is when they first start out. The old adage of “all they wanted to be was a physician and then they couldn’t make it in med school, so they went to dental school” is really not true. It’s much more competitive; we have fewer schools across the nation in the first place and Case [Western Reserve] has one of the highest average incoming GPAs and we have one of the highest incoming DAT score averages, our general admissions tests.

It is very important to prep for not only the interview, which a lot of people are so worried about. That’s the least of your worries. Make sure that GPA is up, you’ve got to make sure your DAT score is high—that’s the way to make yourself competitive, and I think people just don’t realize that.

2. Dentistry has a strong link to medicine.

The other thing I think [people] really don’t realize is how medically involved we are and how much medicine your dentists are actually learning. I went to Case [Western Reserve] as well, and I laugh all the time because the one course that almost did not make me become a dentist was gross anatomy. At the time we actually had cadavers and we did the full dissection from head to toe. It wasn’t so much the medical pieces, as much as the actual doing. 

And now we are even more involved; we don’t necessarily have the full cut of the cadaver, but we definitely still have the full-systems learning. We are still learning GI systems and what affect all these systems have on the mouth. The mouth is one of the first places that we can see a lot of changes for medical conditions.

Fortunately, the dentist really does know a lot more about the drugs that you’re taking, the conditions that you have, or maybe that the pre-diagnosed conditions. We start seeing changes in the mouth.

3. Precision is key for dentists.

It’s tiring and I don’t think people realize how much after-hour time is put in. We are very detailed people. Before you start working on your patients, you work on preclinicals, but you are working in units of millimeters in difference of passing and failing. And I just don’t think people realize how detailed we are actually expected to be and even those that are not typically detailed become [detailed] by the time they’re done. Hand skills are obviously very much a part of what we’re going to do for our lives. A large part of our training is hand skills and that high eye-hand coordination and being able to detect the smallest of differences without the measurement—just in vision. I think people don’t realize how precise we really need to be.

4. There are many opportunities in the dental field.

I don’t think people recognize how many opportunities there are as a dentist. People usually think of the dentists they go to. I’ve been in private practice for 20+ years. But there’s so many other ways that you can work besides private practice. Nowadays, corporate dentistry is a huge thing, so there are corporations where you are doing none of the front desk, you aren’t worrying about any of the overhead. You don’t have any of the business sense that you have to deal with, and you can still practice dentistry.

But then many of the underserved populations attend community health centers and many times, dentists are in there, whether it be chair-side dentists, on the boards of these places or the directors of health. We are in all kinds of different business positions as well, we are researchers. We’ve had a few engineers that actually have come from dental school.

You will see the intersection with materials, so we have many researchers who are practicing dentists, but they also are very interested in improving all the materials that we have been using. Dentistry isn’t just fill-and-drill.

5. Dentists come from a variety of academic backgrounds.

I was not pre-med; I was not pre-science. I was a marketing and accounting major with a chemistry minor. I really enjoy the idea that I did that because I came in with a different skill set of communication skills with my patients. I came in automatically thinking of overhead and thinking of how to effectively and efficiently run practices. It’s just a different kind of mindset, but you don’t have to be pre-med or pre-health to go to dental school. We have had concert pianists, we have artists. We have some artists who just do beautiful work, I mean their color always matches in their crowns and everything’s just precise.

That old adage of you have to be a biology major is not true either. Dentistry definitely covers a lot of other skills.