The beginning of a new and exciting chapter of life. Starting at dental school. It is awesome.
Those of you reading this who are aiming to pursue dentistry have all of this to look forward to, and, those who may have already been through their first year (recently or a long time ago) can compare notes with me and just reminisce.
To get to this stage, you’ve already done so much hard work. It has been one heck of a journey already, and it’s about to get a whole lot better. You had to compete with so many other very strong candidates but you were chosen – very well deserved.
You’ve reached this point after lots of hard work and dedication. You have had to rely on comfort and support from your family and friends – and the truth is you will continue to rely on those close to you to survive dental school too. This won’t change.
It will, of course, be slightly different at each dental school – so this post is based on my own experiences as a dental fresher at Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry (in Whitechapel, East London).
You come to dental school only to be introduced to a whole new environment with unfamiliar places and faces. Being an eternal optimist, I always think about things with a positive outlook, so, I saw the start of dental school as an opportunity to start on a new slate and build a happy life for myself (not that my life was miserable before, far from that actually).
For most, starting at dental school is the first real taste of adulthood, which means you are now properly independent. You can choose to do what you want: what you have to eat, when you go to sleep, what you do in your free time, who you hang out with, when you study etc. The independence forces you to become organised, to create new habits for yourself and be the architect of your happiness.
It’s an incredibly exciting period in your life, so it is totally normal for you to be feeling a mix of emotions: excitement, fear, happiness, anxiety. We all feel this way before the start – myself included.
University is a big step up from school/college in many ways. It takes a while to adapt to the new lifestyle and we all adapt at our own pace. You will surprise yourself with how you change through the process – changes that need to be made for your own survival.
You have to be careful with how you spend your money – it is easy to overspend (especially in the first few weeks/months, also commonly known as ‘Freshers’). Budgeting is important and this skill you begin to develop will be with you throughout your adult life. Most of you will rely on Student Finance from the government to support you financially – both with the extortionate tuition fees and also with your maintenance allowance (living expenses). There will be times when you are surviving on next to nothing, with your overdraft maxed out and an empty fridge – it is almost a rite of passage for any student to go through these tough times. The bank of mum and dad will hopefully be there to help get you through it when you need an injection of money to your account.
You no longer have regular homework or teachers spoon feeding you all the knowledge you need to pass exams. The majority of the formal teaching in your first year will be delivered in the form of lectures. Lectures are basically when all the dental students in your year are gathered in a large seated auditorium to listen to someone talk about a given topic. Since a lot of the modules you are taught in the first year are not strictly focussed on dentistry, you are lectured mostly by research scientists who are working at your university. Lectures are not a great way to learn, it is a very old-fashioned style that remains as part of the foundations of university teaching. So you will need to cover the lecture notes again in your own time and listen back to them at your own pace to be able to absorb the information and make your own simple notes.
The first year of dental school is the same at all institutes in that it is considered part of your ‘Pre-Clinical’ training. It may be disappointing to some of you reading this, but the truth is that you won’t be doing much dentistry. Before you can enter a clinic or even the clinical skills labs, you will need to have a firm foundation in the basic clinical sciences. You will be taught about pharmacology, neurophysiology, biochemistry, professionalism, systems physiology. As a dentist, you are considered as a healthcare professional, a clinician and therefore it is important is to have a basic working knowledge of the basis of human physiology, which makes these modules necessary teaching. Everyone, including myself, will have many moments where you get frustrated at all the silly things you have to learn for first-year exams – that is a reality of BDS1. I don’t recommend it, but if you want to, you can think of BDS1 as a hurdle you have to jump in order to get to the exciting dentistry of the course from BDS2 onwards.
Most, if not all UK dental schools will have some form of clinical dentistry introduction in the first year. For me at Barts and The London, this involved the occasional sessions on the clinic to get familiar with the clinical environment, learn how to set up a dental bay and do a basic examination (on your clinical partners). I loved these sessions, for an obvious reason! It got me excited because you actually feel like a proper dental student, getting to put on your tunic and spend time in the clinics instead of the lecture theatre.
For me at Barts and The London, there were well over a hundred lectures in first-year and that means there were over one hundred lectures that needed to be covered in revision before the end-of-year exams. Fortunately, they were kind enough to give us an extended revision break before our exams begun – I think I had about 6 weeks off uni (including the Easter break) to prepare myself for exams and also spend some time to unwind. The exams are not easy, but if you prepare for them well and plan your revision cleverly then it is totally manageable. In addition to the written exams (that consisted of many multiple-choice answer questions and a few short written answer questions), we also had an OSCE. OSCE = Objective Structured Clinical Examinations. These OSCEs were relatively straightforward, only examining simple practical tasks such as setting up a dental bay, demonstrating a finger rest, having a role play discussion with a patient about their sugar consumption etc.
If you are interested in seeing the main learning modules for BDS1, here they are:
- Basic Clinical Sciences (BCS)
- Oral Biology
- Dental Materials
- Head and Neck Anatomy
- Oral Cavity Anatomy
- Oral Cavity (Immunology and Pathology)
- Systems Physiology
- Integrated Clinical Practice (CP)
- Population Health and Evidence-Based Dentistry (PH&EBD)
- Professionalism, Teamwork and Social Responsibility (PTSR)
At Barts and The London, we are all allocated to specific tutor groups of between 8-10 students. We are told which group we are in right at the start of year one, and we remain in the exact same group throughout the course (i.e. for five years). Within each group, we are assigned a clinical partner who will be our assistant for the whole course (you either get along well naturally, or you learn to get along well). I’m very lucky to have a great tutor group – we all get on so well and bounce off each other. You will be with your group a lot, and not just for teaching seminars and clinics, but you also have to do your group presentations together for the SBLs (scenario-based learning).
Some dental schools offer an accelerated four-year course, but to qualify for entry onto this graduate course, you have to have done a different scientific degree previously (e.g. Biology/Biochemistry/Chemistry/Biomedical Science/Dental Materials etc). I am not on one of these accelerated courses myself, despite having completed a degree in Biomedical Sciences before – so I cannot write much about this. However, the first year of this course is likely to be a lot more intense (because the first two years of the five year course are crammed into one).
You might be surprised to know that there will be lots of mature students (i.e. students who have done a degree before) on the course. This makes for a great variety in the cohort, including: direct school leavers, gap-year students, graduate students and even some individuals who may be older who have done different careers beforehand. The reason why the variety of student backgrounds is a good thing is that you will all have different skills and levels of experience in life – this should cause you to work well together and learn from each other. I certainly learn a lot and am inspired by the younger dental students, and I’d like to think they learn from me too.
In the first year, you have the option to live in halls of university residence, or to live in your own home. You’ll be glad to know there’s a great mix, with many students commuting each day from their family homes and of course plenty of dental students living in halls. I was a commuter and had to travel into uni on the London Underground every day – it was fine and I got used to the journey.
Take from this what you will, but here are my opinions and advice for year one:
DON’T WORK TOO HARD Don’t stress at all about the actual course. Don’t beat yourself up about not knowing everything or having beautiful hand-written coloured notes on every topic lectured. Not only will you remember very little of what you are taught in the first year, but the reality is that a lot of the science you learn will not be needed to be a good dentist. You won’t need to be able to recall the details of the Krebs Cycle, be able to draw out glucose in the molecular form or know the pathway for cerebrospinal fluid passing through the brain. Have a general understanding of everything and remember them for the sake of the exams, but then feel free to delete those memories, or at least archive them to the darkest closets in the back of your brain.
HAVE FUN, LOTS OF IT You will never get this special year back. You’re a young adult and you have to enjoy yourself. Do what you love, choose to go out instead of staying in, be social. The memories you make in the first year will be stories you and your friends can look back on in the future and relive. ‘Freshers’ is such a fun period – get involved! Every dental school in the UK has a Dental Society that organises loads of social events for the dental school – I’d definitely encourage you to go to many of these dental socials as you can in the first year, especially the Dental Ball that your school hosts annually.
MAKE MISTAKES You will make lots of silly decisions. Everyone else will too. Don’t think too much about the consequences (but don’t be too foolish) – you learn from mistakes you make. Mistakes come in all different forms: drinking way too much alcohol and doing something you regret/can’t remember, having a one-night stand, spending too much money or undercooking chicken.
EXPLORE YOUR SURROUNDINGS Whichever dental school you go to, it will be situated in (or close to) a big city. There will be plenty of places in the city to explore, including bars, clubs, restaurants, markets, parks, sporting arenas, museums and music venues. Do not let yourself get stuck in a dental school bubble where you end up spending all of your time in the university campus. Get out there and explore – especially if you’ve moved away from home to live in a new City. You will be spending five years in your new surroundings, so you might as well get to know the place a bit.
SAY “YES!” This year is the beginning of a new chapter. You will be spending more time at university than most other students (who are on three-/ four- year courses). The first year is the ideal time to get involved with anything that interests you. Go to the Freshers’ Fair and sign up for any clubs/sports/societies that interest you. Try something new – for me, I decided to choose a new sport: Lacrosse (was one of the best decisions I made at Imperial College). You regret the opportunities you didn’t take more than the ones you did.
BE CLEVER WITH YOUR LEARNING This may seem like a contradiction, given I just told you that you don’t need to worry about learning and remembering everything. Well, that’s not completely the case. There is quite a lot of information you get taught in year one that is definitely worth learning properly and remembering. My advice would be to focus your attention on the learning outcomes that your lecturers should always be highlighted at the start of their presentations (and in their lecture slides) and also the dentally-related material, such as the Head and Neck Anatomy (including the cranial nerves, muscles of mastication, skeletal bones etc) or the basics of dental materials. Often your lecturers will give you blatant hints about what is worth remembering for the exams (be clever and take these hints). When they write the exam papers, they will try to focus the questions around the key topics you need for dentistry.
ESTABLISH YOUR FRIENDSHIP GROUPS This is not something you will be able to control too much, it just happens over time organically. Remember that we are defined by the people we choose to hang out with. Surround yourself with people who you can trust, who you have similarities with, people who make you laugh and you will have a great year. Many of the friendships you begin to create from Freshers will be with your for a lifetime – these are the people you will be inviting to your wedding, the people you go on holidays with and your future colleagues. We naturally gravitate to people who are similar to us – so just let nature do its thing. Friends are the most valuable assets you can have at dental school – these people will be your study buddies during exam season, they will bring you a cup of coffee to that 9am lecture which you are about to fall asleep in, they will lend you their tunic when you forget yours at home, they will explore dodgy looking cafes with you whilst on the hunt for a cheap local lunch spot, they will spend an hour on the phone with you after midnight when you’ve broken up with your boy-/girl- friend, they will leave the club early to take you home after you’ve drunk too much and get kicked out, and they will celebrate with you when you all pass exams. Choose your friends wisely. It is actually interesting to think about this because you are likely to make close friendships with some people from totally different backgrounds to you, who live in completely different parts of the country! Another thing to realise and accept is that we change with time and we lose close friendships – don’t be surprised if some of the people you spent every single day within the first-semester end up not being one of your close friends, the opposite applies too!
HANG OUT WITH NON-DENTAL STUDENTS It is easy to get comfortable in a ‘dental bubble’ where you only spend time with other dental students. It is definitely worth opening yourself up to spending time with students from other courses. If you’re living in university halls of residence, you are more likely to be able to develop these friendships. Aside from living together in halls, the other common way to make close non-dental friends is to get involved in sports/clubs/societies. So as I advised already, just say “yes!” – Sign up for the hockey team, join the drama society or go to the evening salsa dancing sessions – do what takes your fancy and you will meet awesome people.
KEEP IN TOUCH WITH SCHOOL FRIENDS After school/college, you will drift apart from many of your closest friends. You will all go your separate ways; some will go into full-time employment, some will go off on a gap-year and most will probably go off to study at different universities. Such is this life that we, unfortunately, lose touch with those who were our closest friends. Everyone gets locked-in to their own life that they can become ‘too busy’ to hang-out. Eventually, you drift so far apart that you hardly know what’s going on in your old friends’ lives. My advice here is to try and avoid this happening to you, but don’t be surprised if you realise it starting to happen with some people. Why not be the proactive one – be the person to make sure you keep in touch and still see/speak to each other when you can. Even if you just send them a text to check in, call to wish them a happy birthday or book train tickets to go spend a weekend with them! Try to avoid using the “I’m just too busy” excuse – because you have to make time for those who are important in your life.
LEARN ABOUT YOURSELF You are still figuring yourself out as a first-year student at the university. There is probably a lot that you will be learning about yourself as time goes by. It’s difficult to explain what I mean, but basically, you will be experiencing lots of things and through this process will start to figure out what works for you, and what doesn’t. One example will be figuring out what your learning style is – when it comes to revision. You might already have a good idea about this from school/college, but it differs for everyone. Are you a visual learner who needs to see pictures, do you make hand-written notes or do you prefer to type them up on a computer and have digital notes, do you remember things better if you make colourful notes with lots of highlighting, do you work better alone or with friends, do you work better in the morning or at night, do you work better after having a meal/exercising etc. You can consider the first year to be like a guinea pig year where you try different styles and then identify what works for you – then you can move on with the course and your life with the good stuff, leaving behind any ineffective tactics etc. So to do this well, keep an open mind! If you have always studied alone, why not try to get together with a group of friends and see how well you can study as a group – it may be great or it may be a big distraction for you. You won’t know if you don’t try.
FIND MENTOR(S) There are different ways that you can go about getting mentors. Mentors come in all shapes and sizes, and they can be found anywhere, often when you least expect to find them. When I say ‘mentor’, I am not being too specific, deliberately so: it could be a senior student or a tutor. It could even be the dentist you did your work experience with or even a dental student at a different university altogether – who knows. Ideally, if you can get to know a few of the senior dental students at your school and make some friends in the other year groups (i.e. years 2/3/4/5) then you will have someone you can get a heads up from, get revision notes from, get advice from and just another person to hang out with. At the start of the year, i.e. in Freshers, you will most likely be assigned a “Mummy/Daddy” or a Mentor (these are senior students) – there are welfare schemes like this at all universities you will benefit from. But you can also just naturally gain mentors without ever really trying to, simply by getting to know senior students – there will be plenty of opportunities for this to happen (e.g. at dental socials)! I’d encourage you to catch up with whomever your mentor(s) are whenever you want to and find out what they can help you with. It’s always great to be able to text someone and ask what their advice etc. Even if you just go to grab a cheeky Nandos together.
GET INTO GOOD HABITS, EARLY Once you have taken time to settle into the new environment, and have survived the Freshers Period then it is time to get into some simple habits that work for your schedule. It is a good idea to try to set aside just a couple of hours a week, at least to sit down and go through the lecture notes from the weeks gone by, so that you can keep on top of the study material and not let it overwhelm you. For example, you could try to squeeze in two hours on a Sunday afternoon where you sit down with your laptop/notes etc and work. This will help you when the revision season starts because you will be familiar with the lecture content at least, so it will make your revision run more smoothly.
There’s that famous old line: ‘Work Hard, Play Hard”
It is the best advice for year one. Enjoy it.
Never think of your time at dental school as a means to get to your desired destination: becoming a qualified dentist. You have to enjoy the journey; all the ups and downs of dental school make it a special roller coaster. It isn’t easy, but it’s worth it 100%.
Don’t try to fit in, be true to yourself. Do what you enjoy, be open with your emotions. Keep an open mind and accept that you will go through many tough times, making lots of mistakes along the way.
Dentistry can sometimes be a lonely profession, but dental school is definitely not a lonely place. You will come out with some amazing experiences and make some lifelong friends. Who knows, you may even date a fellow dental student – and may even end up married to one of your classmates!
Thanks for reading – I hope this post has got you even more excited to start! Wishing you the best time at dental school.
Smile. Be kind. Be grateful.