Dental school is a rigorous four years of intensive education. You can easily expect to have at least two to three times more work and class time than you had during a standard semester of college. I will do my best to summarize an average schedule and set of experiences, but keep in mind that life at each dental school is unique as each has a slightly different approach to dental education.
At the very broad level, dental school is broken down into two years of classroom coursework and pre-clinical labs and two years of (mostly) clinical experiences. The first year of dental school is typically composed of basic science courses including gross anatomy, medical physiology, microbiology & immunology, cell biology, along with some introduction to dental courses like intro to operative dentistry with some pre-clinical work, oral microbiology, dental anatomy, intro to oral radiology, and maybe periodontology. You will likely have a class in ethics and an overview class that gives you an introduction to all the basics of dentistry. Pre-clinical work during the first year will typically involve waxing teeth and basic cavity preparations and fillings on plastic teeth.
At most schools, first year students are paired up with a second year "big brother" or "big sister" mentor who will answer questions and help out the first year on occasion. The first year also usually begins with a week of orientation providing students with information on their schedule for the year, tours of the facilities, and an introduction to faculty members. Some schools slowly integrate students into the rigors of dental school by starting them off with a lighter schedule during the first month of school and then gradually increasing the work-load. Other schools may throw students into the thick of things by beginning the semester with a course like gross anatomy to get students accustomed to the new work-load immediately. Also note that at some dental schools, students will take the majority of their basic science/medical courses with medical students and/or other graduate students, while at other schools dental students do not take courses with students in other programs. The summer after the first year is typically the only summer that students have entirely free, although some schools do hold classes and a handful require students to take the first part of the NBDE during this first summer.
It is very important that students start off on the right foot. It is incredibly easy to get behind in dental school given the large number of classes and workload. DONT FALL BEHIND - it is really difficult to catch up so stay on top of your assignments and reading. Here are a few tips for surviving the first year of dental school: * After a month or two you will start to see people skipping class - don't let yourself follow this group. Unless you absolutely need the extra time to study for an upcoming exam, go to your classes - you are paying an arm and a leg for your education so get the most out of your money and learn from the experienced professionals. * Do your best to make friends quickly and join study groups to better prepare for your tests. * Some professors use power point presentations that you can download to your computer and then they test primarily from course lectures. Other classes are more textbook intensive. Find out what your professors tests are like and study accordingly. * Also, upperclassmen are usually allowed to pass down old tests, so make sure you get your hands on these before any exams. They are really helpful to review and you will often find that professors repeat a handful of questions from previous years. * In my opinion, it is worth investing in a pair of dental loupes. They really do help in both the pre-clinical and clincal settings and if you plan to get a pair, you might as well get them during your first year so you learn how to use them. * My last tip is to always find time to enjoy yourself. Dental school can be extremely stressful and you may find yourself pulling quite a few all-nighters. Whatever you do - exercise, hang out with friends, go out to social events put on by your class or the school - really enjoy those breaks when you get them.
Second year continues with some of the basic science courses like pathology and pharmacology, but brings in more dental specific classes and more lab and preclinical work. Prosthodontics, anesthesiology, oral radiology, periodontology, pediatric dentistry, intro to endodontics, intro to orthodontics, treatment planning, and similar classes can be expected during the second year. Some schools also introduce students to the clinical setting during this year as well - sometimes assisting, sometimes doing perio work or taking radiographs. The summer following the second year or during the spring of the second year is when most schools have their students take the NBDE exam and schools typically have their students take classes or begin clinical work during most of the second summer. Keep in mind that if you plan on specializing, you will want to score above a 90 on the NBDE part I. Because part II isn't taken until the last year of school, specialty programs look only at your scores from part I and your grades when considering students.
Third year dental students see a significant drop in the amount of course work, but continue classes in endodontics, oral/maxillofacial surgery, orthodontics, and other more advance classes. The majority of the time for third year students is spent in the clinic working on patients. Students are assigned a variety of patients so that each student has the opportunity to see a variety of cases with different needs. Students will typically continue to work with some of the same patients for the entire last two years of school and the students are responsible for all treatment in addition to making appointments and following up with patients. Students have certain clinical requirements to fulfill to graduate - each dental school has a specific number of satisfactory procedures to be completed in the various dental disciplines prior to graduation. There is usually no full summer break following the third year, although students are usually given about 2 weeks off during the summer.
During the final year of dental school, students continue with a small handful of courses and spend most of their time working with patients to complete their clinical requirements by the spring so they can graduate and take their state or regional licensing exam. Sometime during or just before the final year of dental school, students are also required to take part II of the NBDE. After graduation about 20% go on to specialty programs, another good chunk of students will decide to do a one year general residency, and the rest will apply for their state license and finally start earning some money. Most of those who start working right after school will typically work as an associate or in a large dental clinic for a few years to gain experience and money before opening or purchasing a private practice.
For more information on the different sub specialties of dentistry that you will be studying during your dental school career, check out the following information pages:
Yes, although the dress code varies from school to school. At most schools dental students are allowed to wear casual attire to class, but must look somewhat professional - no shorts, no t-shirts, no flip-flops, no hats. Jeans or khaki's and a nice shirt or sweater will work just fine, or you could wear scrubs. In the clinic, the dress code is usually much more strict. Dental students can usually either wear professional attire (i.e., dress shoes, shirt and tie for guys, skirt or slacks for women) or they can opt to wear scrubs. Most students tend to mix it up, but most often wear scrubs given the option. You will for sure want at least one pair of scrubs for gross anatomy during your first year.
Do dental schools try to "weed out" students during the first year / do a lot of students fail dental school?
Not really, although some students do leave or fail out during the first year. At most schools, professors carefully track the grades of students and meet with students who are struggling to make passing grades. It is in the school's best interest to graduate as many of its students as possible. Plus students are carefully selected during the admission process based on grades and other experiences to ensure that students have both the interest and ability to handle the stress.
How often do students have exams?
This is again specific to each school and each class, but during the first two years of dental school, students should expect frequent tests because of the number of classes they will be taking - at least one per week, but don't be surprised to have weeks where you have three to four tests plus quizzes and papers due.
Is there time to do anything other than study during dental school?
Of course - you can still have a life outside of dental school, but you are limited. Dental school will be a lot more work than undergrad and take more time than working a 40-hour a week job. Between classes and finding time to study, you will often find yourself doing dental school related work for a good 60 hours a week. Most people still find plenty of time to workout, go out on weekends, hang out with friends or family, or be involved in student government. I definitely recommend finding something else to do just so you can get away from dentistry for a little bit each week. However, I would not recommend trying to handle a job during dental school unless you can snag an easy work-study position. You'll want to use your free time for something you enjoy.