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It is imperative that you begin your dental school interview prep as soon as possible. One useful way of preparing for this important step in the application process is to review sample questions and expert analysis. This will help you understand what makes for an ideal answer, and how you can build such ideal answers using your own ideas and insights. Here are 5 of the most difficult dental school interview questions (panel/traditional and multiple mini interview), each followed by expert responses and commentary.

Dental School Interview Question #1

Prompt: 

What is the one detail in your application you would like us to overlook?

Discussion: 

This question asks you to face head-on and talk about something you’d probably like to avoid discussing, if possible. It might also be thought of as a limitation question (e.g., “What is your greatest limitation?”), or a question about your challenges (e.g., “Tell us about a time you failed”), and, as such, may be something you’re understandably hesitant to address. No one likes to talk about their weaker spots, particularly in a high-stakes, high-stress situation like an interview! However, it's best to own up to the low grade, or the gap in extracurriculars, or whatever that weak-spot might be, by re-framing it with a growth mindset. Think of this question as an opportunity to show how you have developed grit and determination to overcome academic disappointment, or to focus attention on the transferable skills you’ve developed from your experiences. As long as you are able to learn from the experience, no loss, misstep, or set-back is truly a failure.

The responses to a question like this will be highly individualized, but let’s walk through the process with a few examples, which can help you work on this in the context of your own life and experiences.

Strategy: Accentuate the Positive 

 The best way to tackle this question is to have a response prepared ahead of time; you may not get this specific question, but this kind of question is extremely common. While preparing for your interview, look through your application materials critically to identify the lower-than-desired grades, or the lack of experience with patient interaction, or the place where you fell short of developing the skills you were expected to acquire. Whatever that low-point might be, ask yourself, how did this happen? What were the circumstances surrounding that low Calculus mark? What were you doing other than developing your extra-curriculars? We aren’t suggesting you make excuses – quite the opposite, you need to learn to own your mistakes or missteps. Instead, consider the ways such experiences helped bring you to where you are today. What did you learn? How have you grown? Why are you a better person now for having gone through such an experience?

Then, prepare your response. You shouldn’t be memorizing a script, but you do want to establish some plot points, so that your narrative is smooth and reflective. First, you’ll want to provide the context of the experience. Remember though, offer only the necessary information so the interviewers understand the circumstance. For instance, “I really struggled with first-year Calculus. I was at the top of my high school class and assumed I could continue with the same skills and approach I once used to the same effect. Sadly, this wasn’t the case.” Enough said. The interviewers now understand the context of the situation.

It’s time to move on to consider the strategies you used to overcome the difficulty you faced. “Once I realized that my high school skill set and time management strategies would not be sufficient for university Calculus (and other courses), I used a number of strategies to get back on track. I adopted a time management system, attended peer tutoring sessions, and tackled the curriculum with a do-or-die attitude. In fact, the peer support I received was so helpful I now volunteer and help out first-years in a similar predicament.” Show how you took ownership of your issue and how the experience has influenced your behaviour or choices now.

The third, and arguably the most important, step is to discuss what you have learned. This should not simply be what you learned about the strategies to overcome your issue, but what you learned about yourself, the way you learn, the way you manage conflict and disappointment, and so on. So here, we might say, “I’m grateful I had this difficulty early in my undergraduate career, because I learned how to overcome academic adversity by accessing external resources and building internal resources like resiliency.” You can then add some details to your response. Critical to this approach is the lack of recourse to excuses. What has been stated so far is quite simple, but incredibly important: I entered a situation with some unfortunate assumptions, and these assumptions led me to make bad choices in how I structured my time and approach to coursework. I realized where I was slipping, made some different choices, and learned a lot about myself in the process. Now, I’m able to help others who go through this common undergrad experience.

Finally, let’s apply this learning to the dental profession. “After going through this experience, I now know that I’m able to dig deep and firm my own resolve, and I know when to reach out to more knowledgeable others for support if I need it. This self-knowledge will be beneficial moving forward, as I work to keep up with the quickly changing technologies and procedures central to a career in dentistry. I know that I can never simply rest on what I already know and assume that will be sufficient. Rather, I need to actively explore such advances and seek out those with specialized knowledge, so that I can always serve my patients as effectively as possible.”

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Dental School Interview Question #2

Prompt: 

You are a dentist with a patient who has come to see you because of moderate dental pain. After examination you cannot determine the cause of the pain and suggest an X-ray. The patient believes X-rays are harmful and refuses. In fact, you have no X-rays in the patient’s file to consult as she has never consented to X-rays in the several years you have been caring for her. What do you do?

Discussion: 

The issue here is that the patient is expressing her right to make an autonomous decision about her oral health care. However, you, as her dentist, cannot make a clear diagnosis without more information about the underlying cause of the pain. There may be some contention between you. The patient believes X-rays are harmful, but you know they are necessary to make an accurate diagnosis and develop a treatment plan.

Expert Answer:

It is important to remain non-judgmental and empathetic to the patient’s concerns. A private conversation is necessary, so I will ask the dental technician to give us a few minutes alone. Sitting so we can see each other, I will ask the patient what her concerns about X-rays are. I will ask if she has a condition I’m unaware of that contraindicates the use of radiation, or if she is pregnant or nursing. I will ask when her last X-ray was outside of dental care. I will ask if she feels the dental pain she is experiencing justifies further exploration by means other than an oral examination.

I will follow up these questions with a discussion of the risks and benefits of dental x-rays, as well as inform my patient of the guidelines provided by the American and Canadian Dental Associations. Both of these associations do suggest limiting exposure to X-rays to every 24 to 36 months, and since my patient has not had dental X-rays within that timeframe, frequency is not a concern, based on the best research and evidence we currently have. In addition, I may discuss the ALARA protocol (As Low As Reasonably Achievable), which is the principle of radiation safety where the least amount of radiation necessary is used. I must advise my patient that there is a very small potential risk of cancer with exposure to radiation, though we will take care to cover all exposed areas of her body with a lead apron. The benefit of the X-ray is the ability to develop a treatment plan without resorting to invasive measures to diagnose the area of concern. Depending on her responses to what I’ve said so far, I may also let my patient know that a single X-ray exposes us to a mere fraction of the total environmental radiation we are exposed to in a year.

When I am sure my patient is aware of the potential risks and benefits, I will ask her what course of action she would like to take. In other words, I will ask for her informed consent and demonstrate my willingness to respect her own bodily autonomy.

If my patient agrees to the X-ray, I will be certain to ask her again whether she is pregnant or nursing, cover her with a lead apron, and inform her of exactly how many X-rays are necessary and why.

If my patient tells me she will live with the pain, that any exposure to radiation is too much exposure, then I must honour her autonomy. However, I will provide her guidelines for the care of the area of concern as well as a list of symptoms to watch for. In addition, I will ask her to schedule a follow-up appointment within a few days. If the symptoms disappear, then there is no need for a follow-up unless the patient feels it is necessary. I will advise my patient that if the symptoms continue or worsen, then she must keep the follow-up appointment, and I will perform a clinical examination. We will re-evaluate the potential risks and benefits of an X-ray in order to develop a treatment plan. I will provide her any written literature I may have on X-ray safety, ensuring she has access to the best scientific evidence and consensus, in case she would like to reconsider in the future.

In summary, my patient was apprehensive about her exposure to dental X-rays as a method to diagnose and develop a treatment plan for the dental pain she was experiencing. In order to honour patient autonomy, we discussed the potential risks and benefits of the X-rays, leaving the decision to her informed consent. As the pain she was experiencing was not debilitating, nor did I see any great cause for concern upon examination, I did not make any further recommendations with respect to the X-rays. Rather, I provided the patient with suggestions for follow-up.

Concluding Reflections: 

On top of how the situation is handled (respecting the patient’s autonomy), there are a few other things of note in this response. First, appropriate terminology is utilized throughout, demonstrating knowledge of key concepts in the field – informed consent, evidence-based practice, patient autonomy, and the like.

As well, note that there are some statements that indicate not just what is said, but how the conversation took place. Little details like ensuring a private, one-on-one conversation, or sitting in such a way that doctor and patient are at eye-level to one another, help the interviewer “see” the interviewee in that role. Such details demonstrate that you know that this is likely a sensitive issue, and that you must be conscious of your own behaviour when working with patients. If you don’t offer such descriptive elements, the interviewer can fill in those gaps with just about anything, and that’s not what you want. Maintain control of your narrative by using careful description to “show” the interviewer how you will act in such a scenario.

Dental School Interview Question #3

Prompt:

You are a dentist expecting a patient you haven’t seen in a few years. This low-income individual does not have dental insurance and makes appointments only when significant treatment is needed. The last time you saw them, they were unable to pay for their dental services. What do you do?

Discussion:

The complexity of this situation is a matter of a dentist’s provision of care duty and the potential that a patient will be unable to pay the dentist for a treatment. This scenario puts the dentist in an ethical dilemma and suggests a conflict of interest, as she wants to provide the best treatment for her patient, but also needs to manage the costs associated with running a practice and providing the treatment. Even in places with universal health care, dental costs are generally not covered by the government, and patients rely either on insurance benefits provided by their employer and/or pay dental fees out of pocket.

Expert Answer:

As the dentist in this scenario, my primary concern is for the well-being of my patient, but I must also be certain to provide equitable care to all my patients and make decisions that allow for the viability of my practice.

I would greet my patient in a friendly, open, empathetic manner without judgment for not maintaining regular appointments, and without assuming the patient will be unable to pay for their treatment, despite our previous experience. It has been awhile since I last saw the patient, and any number of things may have changed in that time.

After consulting with the patient and doing an initial oral examination, it may be that I determine that a regular cleaning and perhaps X-rays for preventative measures are all that is required. In that case, my office will continue with treatment if time allows, or have another appointment scheduled in the near future.

If, however, the consultation and initial oral examination reveal significant decay, I will inform the patient that extensive work is required and offer a variety of treatment options. I will ask the patient if they have insurance coverage in order to offset the cost. If the patient informs me that none of the treatment plans are financially manageable for them, even with a payment plan, my office will contact social service agencies to determine if my patient qualifies for government funding at some level. I can also suggest my patient contact a nearby dental school for treatment, as patients are often seen at low-or-no cost as part of dental student training. If none of these options offer a solution for my patient in a timely manner, I will provide the most suitable and cost-effective treatment to resolve the most immediate issue(s) without charge. Throughout our entire interaction, I will be certain that the patient is treated with the same respect, care, and empathy by my entire staff as every other patient we treat.

There are two levels of prevention necessary in this scenario. The first is for the patient’s own oral healthcare. The patient must be educated that regular dental cleanings and topical fluoride, as well as daily brushing and flossing, are mandatory for maintaining oral health. This will ultimately reduce, if not eliminate, the necessity of such drastic interventions. In addition, I will provide my patient with the names and addresses of free or reduced-cost dental clinics, and encourage them to make regular appointments.

Finally, as part of my own social responsibility and to do justice to the code of ethics, I will volunteer my time and expertise at free clinics on a regular basis. In addition, I will advocate for low-income earners and the precariously employed by lobbying all levels of government for better access to dental healthcare funding.

Dental School Interview Question #4

Prompt:

What issues do the elderly face in terms of oral health care?

Discussion:

This is a question that asks not only for your knowledge about the oral healthcare of a growing segment of the population, as we are experiencing a “greying” of our population, but also asks you to consider how as future dentist you would address their special needs.

Expert Answer:

The elderly face many obstacles to both preventative oral health care and treatment of dental conditions. These include dealing with ageism, financial obstacles, mobility obstacles, cognitive limitations, communication and issues of consent, and complications with treatment due to medications and medical conditions, to name only some. In addition, the face of dental care for the aging population is changing. In the past, much of dental care for this segment of the population involved taking care of dentures; however, as life expectancy increases and as a result of a lifetime of good oral healthcare, many people are retaining most of their teeth until the end of life. This asks dentists to be educated on the illnesses and conditions, including the effects of significant health episodes, elderly patients may face in order to understand the implications on oral health and dental treatment.

Changes in insurance coverage affect the elderly. While many people relied on their dental benefits as employees, this coverage often ends in retirement, especially as pensions become less common. Dental care may be seen as a discretionary expense, until the patient experiences pain and discomfort. As a dentist, there are a number of things I can do to support my patients as they transition from employment to retirement. My administrative team can make suggestions for forward planning to avoid a gap in care by asking questions about the patient’s plan for insurance coverage after retirement. The technical team can remind the patient of the importance of preventative care, as well as the link between oral and systemic concerns. Finally, as the patient ages and if cognitive issues become apparent, my team will support the patient and their family by liaising with insurance providers on their behalf.

An additional issue the elderly may face involves physical limitations and mobility. Common conditions such as arthritis may make the simple act of holding a toothbrush difficult and flossing impossible. As an individual ages, driving restrictions may come into play, making the autonomous act of taking oneself to the dentist—a task that involves co-ordination, planning, and expense—more difficult. In addition, maneuvering in and out of a chair, sitting up, and lying down are movements that may require physical support and a helping hand, and could diminish the confidence and cause embarrassment for the aging. Again, my team and I have a responsibility to provide tools and strategies to ease any discomfort involved in daily oral hygiene, such as wide-handled toothbrushes. My team will be certain to be patient, supportive, and unobtrusive in offering physical help as our patients move about the office space. In addition, depending on the community where I practice, I can co-ordinate shuttle transportation for my patients who are unable to arrange their own transportation. Finally, I will connect with nursing homes and retirement facilities to attend to the needs of those who are not mobile or are without insurance as part of my code of ethics.

The team, everyone in the practice from the administrative staff, to technicians, hygienists and myself, must be aware of the vulnerability and fluctuating autonomy of the elderly. We must all be trained and aware not to treat the elderly as children, but to support them on an individual basis, reassessing needs and abilities of the whole person on each visit to offer the most empathetic, professional care that addresses the connection between oral health and physical well-being.

Dental School Interview Question #5

Prompt:

You are a dentist who has been in practice for a number of years but are starting to feel a sense of isolation. You feel it’s difficult to establish close personal relationships as you sense nobody wants to see you or come back to see you, because either they come in pain or you cause them pain. What do you do?

Discussion: 

The pressing issue here is a dentist’s own well-being, as dentists are prone to occupational stress that can lead to burn-out, depression, and other challenges to mental wellness. As oral health professionals, a dentist cares for their patients and runs a professional practice that is a healthy work environment for the team. Although they may strive to maintain a sense of comradery with the administrative and technical team, and show care and compassion for their patients’ “whole person,” isolation in the workplace and a sense of “carrying it all alone” can weigh heavily over time. Research suggests that dentistry is a stressful profession, and evidence suggests that a significant proportion of dentists report anxiety, depression, physical pain, or headaches on a regular basis.

Expert Answer:

I may have noticed that my experience of being stressed has been magnifying, and that it may be manifesting as feelings of isolation. My concern is that my sense of isolation is a precursor to something more serious, namely burn-out or depression. It is likely I have numerous stressors including an existing dentistry school debt, start-up debt, practice management and patient care concerns. My vocation involves helping others, and so I may be embarrassed that I might need professional help myself. However, in order to maintain my standard of professional care and to ensure my personal relationships remain positive and healthy, it is my responsibility to care for myself.

I will need to find resources to help me understand this isolation and to develop an action plan to inhibit more serious mental health concerns. First, I will reflect on both my personal and professional life to try to determine the causes of stress. For the sake of this scenario, let’s assume my personal life is stable and a source of comfort. By way of honest inventory, I come to understand that I’m also experiencing a loss of self-confidence and exhaustion.

By reaching out to the Canadian or American Dental Associations, I can access support groups, stress management workshops, and counselling to begin to understand the source of my feelings, and to put into effect any number of measures to balance my life. In the short term, daily exercise and a healthy diet can help reduce stress and improve my mood. Such changes have been shown to help mitigate such feelings, and making positive changes like this in my own life will not only help me manage my mental health, it will help me be at my best for my patients.

In the workplace, I might vary the hours I see patients, offering convenient evening or weekend appointments so I can walk my child to school, or have lunch with a friend in order to lessen the feeling of routine. As I grow my practice, paying special attention to hiring team members with whom I have an easy rapport can help us all build our tolerance to stress. I will try to ensure we build a strong core team, and I will schedule regular teambuilding activities several times each year, so that we are able to come together and forge strong collegial bonds. While my primary concern in this scenario is my own well-being, a strong support system within the workplace will benefit all of us.

To build confidence and professional acuity, I might consider teaching positions at dental schools, or leadership positions within professional organizations. Hosting research reading groups with other oral health professionals would give us all an opportunity to share experience and support continuous learning.

I may have been so intent on providing exceptional care to my patients and loved ones that I forgot to care for myself. With these measures in place, and with the support of mental health professionals and purposeful attention to my own health and well-being, I will be able to mitigate the unavoidable stressors inherent in a dental practice.

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