After working with candidates for so many years on their dental school application, including a statement of purpose and CV, it still never fails to amaze me how much I see a lack of focus in people’s personal statements and CVs. The result, of course, the dental school applicants come across highly forgettable and uninteresting to their respective programs.
What do I mean by lack of focus though? I mean that people don’t think about an overarching dental school application theme that is threaded throughout their entire application as a candidate for the process.
What mistakes do most applicants make?
Many dental applicants on sitting down to write up a personal statement will start from the beginning of their life, specifically answering the question: “Why I became a dentist?” Often, they begin by recalling some story about how they were inspired by going to the dentist as a child or from an uncle or family member who was a dentist which inspired them to follow in the same path. They might even discuss some interest in art as a child and try to make the connection of why that inspired them to go into dentistry. Next, they will discuss everything that came after that, for adolescence, in any dental interactions they had, graduating from high school, then their experience in college taking classes on biology, perhaps deciding to go either the pre-medical or pre-dental route or perhaps discussing any dental-related internship they got involved in, or their work as a dental assistant throughout college.
Finally they lend back at the present moment, where they’re sitting now after taking the DAT, with an interest in pursuing dental school. Their last argument will be something like, “Please accept me I’m very passionate and interested in dentistry.”
What’s the problem with following the crowd for dental school applicants?
Well if you can’t see it already, the main problem is that it’s what everyone else is doing! There are certain things in life where it is smart to copy what others are doing around you. For instance, trying to grow your own food and raise your own livestock so that you can eat instead of just going to the grocery store, is an unwise thing to do in most cases. Better to just copy what everyone else is doing and spend your energy on more important things, right? Or instead of walking to work 10 miles across town, better to follow the crowd and take the subway or use a car. That will certainly use up last time and allow you to have some energy when you actually get to work or get home from work. These are clear examples of when it’s the right thing to do is to follow the crowd: the pros clearly outweighing any cons.
Following the crowd is a really stupid thing to do when it comes to creating your dental school application. If everyone has the same sounding statement of purpose, this makes it much harder for the dental program you’re interested in to see you standing out from amongst the crowd.
How do I know this? Well simply because I used to process applications and read through personal statements on a regular basis when I worked at a prominent engineering-focused, southern California university. I was a part of numerous selection committees, various departments on campus, but we had to make tough decisions about which students we should select for a few very competitive programs.
This is a grueling time of year for us. We had hundreds of applicants trying to apply for only about 40 seats. It took over 3 weeks for each of us to go through all the applications and statements of purpose for each candidate, slowly filtering based on our minimum requirements and categorizing them into highly qualified, qualified and least qualified.
What I can tell you is that the candidates who put the least amount of effort into the statement of purpose, had the hardest time convincing us to give them an interview, even if everything else about their application was solid. You see, if candidates have fantastic test scores, grades, and experience, then they can get away with a boring or poorly written personal statement. They’ll likely be chosen for an interview anyway.
But if the candidates will fall into that middle category, the average: these candidates have a really tough time trying to stand out from amongst themselves, because it’s a really large pool – most people fit into the average. For these candidates, since most everything else was the same in terms of scores and experience, the way we would choose who to interview is based on how impressed we were with their story. And a boring story meant you were put into the boring pile and probably not be called unless we started getting a little desperate.
Okay so boring personal statements can lead to no dental school interviews. What can I do to make sure mine isn’t boring?
Great, now you’re asking the right question. The first thing is just to make sure that you try to avoid some of the common pitfalls that most candidates incorporate into their personal statements. Here’s a few:
- Assume that you always need to answer the question of why you became a dentist, especially with a common and unextraordinary reason
- Write out the contents of your CV, experience by experience, in a paragraph form on your statement of purpose, until you hit the word count limit
- Include way too many details but relatively mundane topics and events
- Don’t have a really good hook at the beginning of your personal statement that grabs your reader’s attention and keeps them interested in reading the rest of your paper
- Introduce new topics and information in the last paragraph instead of making a case on why you should be considered
- Start or end your statement of purpose with a generic and relatively unrelated inspirational quotes by historical figure that may or may not have actually said that
Okay so I promise to avoid those mistakes, but what should I do instead?
In short, make sure to choose a theme!
So now let’s get into what a theme is and how you can develop one for your personal statement.
An application theme is a recurring focus that you continue to highlight and spread throughout your entire application. By this I mean not just your personal statement or SOP but also your CV, your supplemental essay questions, and hopefully your volunteer and work experience that you’ve chosen throughout your career.
When candidates fail to introduce and emphasize a theme throughout their application documents, dental programs begin to go through multiple applications and find that the majority of them are filled with random, very common, disconnected experiences and comments that do not provide very much insight into who these candidates are.
What are some example themes that dental candidates might have as a part of their dental school application?
Which of the following themes for dental school applicants:
- Undergraduate and even graduate school focus on dental/medical biotech research
- Emphasis throughout entire life on community service and improvement of people’s lives in a medically-oriented fashion
- A clearly demonstrable passion for working with kids, expressed through specific pediatric experiences
- An individual who has injured multiple personal challenges and obstacles that would hinder most other individuals preventing them from succeeding in the way that they already have. (Note of choosing this theme: It’s harder to pull off for most candidates, and this requires strong level of specifics to justify the theme)
Okay, so how do I choose a theme for my dental school application?
Good question, but not an easy one. This is probably the hardest part of what it takes to write a really incredible personal statement. The answer will strongly depend on each person’s unique experience: personally, definitely, and professionally.
Good themes often take the form of a passion you have related to dentistry. This could range from an interest in a particular specialty, or an interest in serving a particular community or population. (Think pediatrics or geriatrics for instance)
A completely different way a theme can be expressed is through the overcoming of certain personal obstacles in your life that may have prevented others from getting to where you have gotten.
Finally, I’m more loosely to find a theme that could take the form of painting the picture that you are an overachiever and have succeeded at everything you’ve done in life. I’m weary of encouraging people to go this route however because most people don’t realize how common it is for dental school candidates to try to justify this in their dental school application. More importantly, many candidates think they are over-achievers when in fact they’re just average in comparison to their competition.
Beyond what I’ve mentioned, there could be other things that you find within yourself and within your experience that may be worthy of including and expressing in your statement of purpose. The important thing is that there is some continuity and consistency throughout your life, academic, and professional experience, thus far, that continues to add to your overarching theme.
An easy example would be a candidate whose grandfather was an endodontist, her father was an endodontist, and her high school part time job was working in an endodontic office. Along with that, and with no surprise, she clearly expresses an interest in one day becoming an endodontist. Endodontics would be her theme, pure and simple.
Most of the time however, finding a theme is not as easy as this. Oftentimes, dental school candidates really need to do a fair amount of self evaluation and soul-searching to really determine or sometimes manufacture (when nothing is presenting itself) unbelievable and we’ll fitted theme for that particular candidate.
It all sounds great, but I feel stuck, what should I do?
This is the part of the article where I let you know that we’re happy to be here for you as a resource. Our experts dental school application editors have worked with hundreds of candidates to help them find the perfect thing for their application, and we’d be happy to help you too.
You may consider signing up for a free consultation session where we were review your current documents and provide feedback about where they stand as is and how we can work to improve them.
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