10 Tips for Surviving the 1st Year of Dental School

Let me start by saying congratulations on getting your offer for dental school! You have worked so hard to get to this point and I appreciate the difficulty of having to study so hard to get the grades, nail the UCAT exam and ace your interview to get an offer, so well done! You’ve made it!

Getting into dental school isn’t the end but the beginning to an exciting, challenging and yet rewarding journey – and it’s important for you to continue working hard to master all the skills required to become a dentist.

As I have just completed my first year of dental school (well not exactly completed due to Covid-19), I thought I’d write this blog post to share 10 tips and help you survive your first year of dental school:

1. Time Management

Time management is the most important lesson I learned during my first year of dental school. It’s something we all know is important yet we struggle to do it properly. For me, dental school began with relatively easy lectures, some of which I wouldn’t even consider proper lectures as they were based on things such as social media but things quickly picked up and by November, I had over ten lectures to catch up with! Not good, right? The worst part was that I had my semester 1 exams in the first and second week of December and we still had new content being taught a week before exams.

In dental school, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and get to a point where you may feel like you’re drowning in a sea of work. This can easily take away all the joy of dental school and turn your university life into hell – well not literally, but you can easily get stressed out if you don’t manage your time properly and balance studies with personal life. With this in mind, make sure you have your own personal system in place and manage your time properly right from the start. This is crucial to stay on top of your studies so you can enjoy the social life aspect of university whilst achieving good grades.

2. Be Organised

Being organised is a huge component of life and success. It’s crucial for you to have an effective strategy, plan ahead and be aware of your schedule for the following week. As part of the 4D curriculum at Dundee Dental School, you’ll have access to a module guidance document which breaks down the aim and objectives of every lecture and clinical activity, so be sure to download this document from the start of the year and use it to plan things ahead. You’ll also find key dates such as assignment deadlines on this document to help you plan and stay organised. This also applies to other universities, but you would need to double check with your own dental school. As a general rule of thumb, by being organised, you’d know exactly what lecture has been taught and whether you have your notes completed for that specific lecture. If you revise with flashcards like me, you’d also know which lectures you need to make flashcards for and which ones are still outstanding.

Top Tip: Make sure to write down all the key dates such as assignments, homework and group presentations on your calendar and set reminders for these so you know they’re coming up soon.

3. Know your anatomy!

Anatomy is probably going to be your biggest challenge in first year because there are so many terms that you need to remember. It’s like learning a foreign language so break the words down to help you understand the word rather than just memorising. Consistency is key for remembering all of your anatomy. I’d say speak to a couple of your friends to form an “anatomy revision group” and get together at least once a week to go over selected topics together. For your anatomy revision, there are lots of 3D apps you can download and use to help you get a realistic feel for the topic and revise the content.

4. Find your personal studying strategy quickly

Study smart, not hard! As a biomedical science graduate, it took me two years to finally find the right strategy. Before finding this strategy, there were days that I would spend 14 hours studying and there was one thing that kept me going – ‘the fear of not getting into dental school’. In the first and second year of my biomedical science degree, I spent so much time studying and then forgetting things which didn’t help at all. The worst thing as a student is to revise something so much and then forget them when you need to know them for your exam – this can easily happen when the content you need to learn is vast i.e. in dental school. The strategy I use is ‘active recall, spaced repetition’ which works really well for me and helps me stay on top of things and remember things without having to study as much as I used to! So my advice is to find your own strategy quickly, ideally in the first year of dental school as second year will get more difficult (at least from what I have heard from the years above).

There is often a lot of overlap between lectures so try and consolidate the content and relate them to clinical practice as final exams usually challenge you to apply the knowledge you have gathered from lectures into clinical practice. Remember that what works for others may not necessarily work for you, so focus on a strategy that works best for you.

5. Do something other than dentistry

During the candidate selection process, most dental schools look at whether a person does any extracurricular activities. This is taken quite seriously as dentistry comes with a lot of challenges and you would need to have an interest in something other than dentistry so you can balance your time between dentistry and your extracurricular. Whether you enjoy playing sports, painting, drawing or doing photography, it’s important you spend a little of your day doing something that is not dentistry. This is something pretty much everyone in the dental field emphasises on as it keeps your interests for dentistry going and helps you alleviate stress. Dental students face a variety of challenges during their training i.e. practicing dentistry through indirect vision and you can easily get disheartened and put off if you are continuously challenged without taking any time off doing something else that you enjoy. Personally, I almost always took Friday evenings and Saturdays to enjoy activities outside of dentistry such as going to the gym, playing sports with friends, going out for dinner with friends or doing photography. This helped me recharge and left me ready to take on the next week with a fresh mindset.

6. Get to know your peers & years above!

Dental school is tough but you’re not alone. If something is quite difficult for you, it’s probably difficult for others too. There are lots of ways to make dealing with tough times a little easier and one of them is by getting to know your peers and doing things together. This could be going to the library to catch up with notes, revising your anatomy, preparing for your OSCE (objective structured clinical examination) and many more. Since you’ll be in first year and probably used to a different style of teaching or curriculum, it’s very likely that at some point you’ll think “do I really need to know all of this stuff?”. Well, the answer is, you probably need to know them at some point in dental school, but it could be that you’re being introduced to the topic briefly and don’t need to know absolutely everything. This is where having a few friends from the years above will help! Remember that the years above have been through what you’re currently going through so speak to them to find out about their strategy and experience with exams.

7. Keep healthy

Healthy body, healthy mind! Studying dentistry can often be stressful and it’s important to have healthy habits to improve mood and reduce stress. There’s tons of studies proving the link between exercising and how you feel mentally. And whilst joining a gym or exercise club is sometimes not feasible on a student budget, it might not cost you a thing nowadays. You can even hit two birds with one stone by joining a sports club at university. This will help you get your mind off dentistry and enjoy something else whilst also keeping you physically and mentally fit. Keeping healthy is particularly important around exam times as it helps you recharge your mind and stay productive during your revision sessions and with the right strategy, you’ll ace those exams like they’re nothing.

8. Always be professional

Professionalism is one of the biggest things most dental schools emphasise on. Studying dentistry is not like any other degree as it’s a professional qualification and you’re expected to act like a professional, especially around patients. As a future healthcare provider, your professional network starts right from your first day of dental school and you never really know how important the connections you make will become later on down the line. With this in mind, always strive to make a good impression.

There are several characteristics expected of a professional person, and more specifically, a dentist. As a professional, you’ll need to be honest, fair, trustworthy, law-binding and of a good character – and being professional right from the start will give you a head start in your dental training and career. This will not only help you survive dental school but become a successful and caring dentist.

9. Use your time effectively

The Pareto Principle, otherwise known as the 80-20 rule suggests that 80% of results come from 20% of the effort we put in. This principle is all about how to spend less time studying but be more productive.

We all know how it feels to be inefficient. Spending many hours “studying” without getting much productive work done can be incredibly frustrating, and is a drain on time and energy. The key to successfully applying the Pareto Principle is by making the most of the 20% of your time that will produce 80% of your results – and there are a few things that you can do to maximise your productivity:

  • Use the Pomodoro Technique
  • Minimise distractions
  • Choose the right space
  • Be clear about what you want to achieve (i.e. when setting your Pomodoro time)

10. Ask for help early

If you don’t understand something, don’t be afraid to ask for help and clarification – this doesn’t just apply to academic work but on general wellbeing, if you feel like things are getting a little bit too much. Every dental school has a designated councillor or adviser of studies who can discuss your concerns and get help. You can also get help from your peers or family depending on what it is that you need help with.

Written by:

Hello everyone! I’m Aryan, a first-year BDS Dentistry student, a BSc Biomedical Science graduate and a professional photographer. This is my first year living in Dundee and Scotland so I'm new to the area. I thought that blogging at university would be an amazing idea to share my second university experience! Apart from university, I also blog about my photography which you can find at https://www.ad-media.uk/ :)

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