If you’re not sure how to shadow a dentist, then you need to find out because shadowing a dentist is one of the best dental school extracurriculars to have on your dental school application. But aside from that, it is also useful to prepare you for a career in dentistry, as it gives you an up-close, unvarnished look at what dentists do every day. Like knowing how to ask to shadow a doctor, knowing how to ask to shadow a dentist is important because you want to do it the right way to ensure your request is accepted.

This article will take you through why shadowing a dentist is important to your application and future career and what steps you can take to be certain your shadowing request is approved.

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Article Contents
12 min read

Why Shadowing a Dentist Is So Important Choosing Who to Shadow How Should I Ask to Shadow a Dentist? How Should I Prepare for Shadowing? What Should I Do When Shadowing? Conclusion FAQs

Why Shadowing a Dentist Is So Important

When you shadow a dentist, you observe how they work, interact with patients, perform different procedures, and run their practice. You can also take the opportunity to ask the dentist why they decided to become a dentist, learn about specific terminology and operating procedures, and prepare yourself in some way to interact with patients.

It can also help you with other aspects of your application, as the relationships you build with your dentist or dentists (some dental schools require that you shadow up to 3 different dentists) can lead to inspiration for your dental school personal statements, or, more directly, they can be the writers of your dental school letters of recommendation.

Want to learn how to write the perfect dental school personal statement? Watch this video:

Some other reasons that shadowing is so important include the fact that it is an introductory step into the world of dentistry, and it does not require you to have any knowledge of the profession beforehand, which is what makes shadowing one of the easier aspects of applying to dental school. But it does not mean you should approach it with a laissez-faire attitude.

You should go into shadowing not as a passive observer, but as someone who takes notes, keeps a log, thinks of questions to ask, and actively interacts with your dentist when it is appropriate to do so. In some ways, shadowing a dentist borrows from the master-apprentice relationship. However, shadowing is not as in-depth and does not take as long, even though you do learn a lot.

But perhaps the most important reason to shadow a dentist is that dental schools in Canada and the US recommend (some require) that you perform at least 100 hours of shadowing to apply. Some schools require shadowing experience and have even higher criteria for how many hours you must perform, so it is something you should know when thinking about where to apply.

Choosing Who to Shadow

Your first impulse in thinking about who to shadow may be to ask your personal family dentist. It makes sense, in a lot of ways. You already have an established relationship and familiarity, and you can simply ask them in person or through email. If your personal dentist agrees, then you can create a schedule with them and find out when and how long they will let you shadow them.

If they turn you down for whatever reason, you can ask them if they can refer someone else who might have the time and interest to be shadowed. There are no hard criteria for who you should not ask to shadow, but you can use other resources first before you start to cold call all the dentists in your area to ask them, which is something you should do if none of these other sources comes through.

1. Pre-Dental Societies and Associations

These organizations are excellent resources for you to find a dentist to shadow. Not only are they goldmines for information on how to become a dentist, but they can also help you find dentists who are willing to be shadowed, especially those dentists who regularly participate in their activities or give presentations to pre-dental students.

You can find a list of pre-dental societies on the American Student Dental Association website that you can reach out to, but choose those that are preferably close to you or in your state. If you attend an event where a professional dentist will be in attendance, and they give out their contact information for anyone to ask to shadow them, take the opening.

2. Dental School Advisor

If you have hired and are working with a dental school advisor, you can also ask them if they know of any shadowing opportunities. A dental school advisor is useful in many different ways, from helping you think of what to write for your dental school application experiences to explaining everything you need to know about the AADSAS dental school application.

They can also help you find a dentist to shadow, as they will have various contacts within the profession that you can use. This network can be a valuable resource, along with everything else a dental school advisor can help you with, such as giving you info on dental school acceptance rates. You should also ask them for help with how to reach out to a dentist, which we will touch on a little later.

3. Dental Schools

Dental schools are some of the best places to find a dentist to shadow due to the number of people you can ask. You can contact the school directly and explain that you are a pre-dental student who is looking for shadowing experience. If the school does not provide you with any resources or does not get back to you, you can look up individual professors or instructors who are also practicing dentists and then contact them directly.

You can also look through the school’s alumni association to find dentists who have graduated and are now practicing dentists. This way is also more effective since you can learn a little more about the dentist and whether or not their interests, experience, background, and specialization are similar to yours, making them a better fit for you than someone you don’t know a lot about.

4. Internet

If none of these other options pan out, you can also look for dentists in your area online and contact them directly. This is something you can even do as your first option if it seems easier than waiting for others to help you (dental school advisors, pre-dental societies) and if you want to get started right away.

It also shows a lot of initiative to undertake this task yourself and organize a list of names that you can contact. You can reach out in many ways, from calling and emailing to going into their office if they are nearby. It is possible that you will get a lot of rejections, but the fact that there are so many dentists in a city or town means you have a lot of options.

How Should I Ask to Shadow a Dentist?

You should not feel intimidated or nervous about asking dentists to shadow them. It is a common thing and similar to how you would ask them, or anyone else, for a letter of recommendation or something similar. But you also want to remember to be respectful, transparent, and flexible when asking, as it could help improve your chances.

The three main ways you can ask to shadow a dentist are by telephone, email, or in person. Regardless of how you choose to contact and ask to shadow them, you should keep your call, email, or meeting to an appropriate length and mention a few things about yourself (your education, current studies, where you are going to apply).

Your call, email, or meeting should not consist of you asking to shadow them right away. That would be rude and selfish. Then again, you do not want to go on for too long and digress. Aside from talking about yourself a little, you should also mention how you found them and what led you to ask them, such as whether you were referred to them by another colleague, got their name from a pre-dental association or school, or found them online and saw that they were well regarded by their patients.

You can also mention how long you would like to shadow them and give a timeline, as well as how many hours you want to shadow them and which days of the week you would prefer. Whatever schedule you mention is subject to change and may not be convenient for the dentist you want to shadow.

If they agree to be shadowed, but offer a different timeline or schedule, you should be flexible and meet their requirements, rather than saying you will not be able to modify your schedule. There may be some compromises you have to make to be able to adapt to their schedule, but you should not let an opportunity slip away due to scheduling conflicts.

Sample Email

Dear Dr. Jonathan Friedman,

My name is Robyn Schultz, and I am a second-year pre-dental student at the University of Toronto. I am currently preparing my application to the Faculty of Dentistry, of which you are an alumnus (the alumni association also recommended you to me), and wanted to ask whether you would be amenable to being shadowed. If yes, then may I suggest starting in September and continuing on until the end of November? I am, of course, willing to change this timeline if it is inconvenient for you.

I am trying to reach about 150 hours of shadowing time and would like to observe you at your office for three days a week, which you can choose based on your schedule or preference. I am usually free on weekends and only have classes three days of the week: Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday. I also work part-time at the school as a library assistant from Wednesday to Friday, but I have no problem reducing my hours if necessary to accommodate your schedule.

If you would like to suggest another start and end date or are only able to offer fewer days per week, then that would not be a problem for me. I am aware that the University of Toronto Faculty of Dentistry does not have any shadowing requirements to apply, but I am interested in the learning opportunities that shadowing can offer and hope that you will be able to accommodate me.

Please let me know if there is anything more you’d like to know about me, or if you have any questions. I am grateful for your time and consideration and look forward to hearing for you, regardless of the response.


Robyn Schultz

How Should I Prepare for Shadowing?

If a dentist responds affirmatively to your request and you have both agreed on your schedule, then there are a few things you should do before you begin shadowing. Many of these preparatory steps are easy to do, such as figuring out what to wear and what questions you should ask.

1. Review HIPPA Protocols

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) is a law in the United States that protects any and all “individually identifiable health information” from unauthorized use or viewing and levies penalties against any individual or entity that violates a patient’s privacy and security.

The three main aspects of a patient’s history that are covered by HIPPA are:

  • A patient’s identity (including their name, address, date of birth, or any other identifying information)
  • A patient’s medical condition and treatment prescribed by a medical professional
  • A patient’s health insurance information and how they have paid for treatment

This is important to know because you will come into direct contact with patients and be privy to some of this information.

Hearing and seeing some of this identifying information is not considered a HIPPA violation, especially if a patient consents to you being there, but you should avoid recording any of it in your notes or in an audio recording. Keeping a record of any of this information could get you into serious trouble. Avoid using full names and instead use initials or not mention names at all to be safe.

2. Dress Appropriately

It is possible, depending on the dentist you are shadowing, that they will ask you to come dressed in a certain way, whether it be professionally (no shorts, t-shirts, or other casual clothes), or in scrubs like them. If the dentist does not make any explicit mention of what you should wear, you should ask them and dress accordingly.

3. Create a Log

Maintaining a log will help you keep track of your hours and create a record that you can show to dental school admissions committees. You must record your hours because there will be no other record of how many hours you shadowed since your dentist will only confirm these hours in a letter and not keep track of them for you. Your log should include the date, time spent shadowing, name of the dentist, and a space for you to write comments about anything interesting that happened that day, while also remembering not to mention anything that would break HIPPA protocols.

4. Establish Do’s and Don’ts

You should ask your dentist what boundaries you should observe when you begin shadowing and how to avoid breaching them. If they mention them without being asked, you should note and memorize those boundaries so that you don’t cross them accidentally. One obvious boundary is that you should never perform any of the duties of a dentist or interfere in any way with a dentist performing their duties.

5. Come up with a List of Questions

You can do this in advance, or you can come up with questions on the spot if you have them. You can use a list of commonly asked dental school interview questions and answers to get ideas. For example, "Why do you want to be a dentist?" is a question you should certainly ask yourself, but you can also ask the dentist you are shadowing why they chose this profession. You may also want ask them what they did to prepare for dental school manual dexterity questions or about things they won’t teach you in dental school, such as how to run a business, how to be an attractive employer, how to manage patients, or what they like and don’t like about the profession. This can give you a well-rounded view of being a dentist that can help you decide whether you want to go through with dental school.

What Should I Do When Shadowing?

On your first day of shadowing and on every subsequent day, you should remain respectful of your doctor, their patients, and their employees, but also try to be active in asking questions, taking notes, and being observant, in general. You can do this in a lot of ways, but you should think of how you would react if you were in the patient’s position and remember to maintain their privacy.

1. Take Notes

This is not a requirement of shadowing, but it is for your own benefit to remark on things that stand out to you about how a dentist performs their duties. This can be anything from how they greet and interact with their patients, or procedures that seem interesting to you, so that you can find out more about these aspects on your own. You can also write down questions you think of to ask your dentist later, as asking them in the moment would interfere with their work.

2. Be Helpful

Of course, you will have nothing to do with treating and diagnosing patients, but there are other ways you can be helpful to your dentist and their staff by taking on menial tasks that are a staple of any office, if they agree to you doing so, such as clean-up after a patient leaves or helping to organize the office. They may say no, but the fact that you asked at all reflects well on you.

3. Say “Thank you!”

After you’ve completed your shadowing sessions, you should make an effort to thank the dentist and their staff both in person and in writing. You can write a short thank you note and deliver it to them personally, along with a little gift that is personal and appropriate, perhaps based on a conversation you had with the dentist about something they love.


Figuring out how to shadow a dentist is one of the many things you have to do to prepare for dental school. Fortunately, it is probably one of the easiest things to cross off your list since it requires only a small amount of effort to ask a dentist to shadow them. With that said, you should not approach the actual shadowing as an easy task. You must still be attentive, well prepared, and professional while shadowing and make sure you don't interfere with any of the dentist’s duties. You should also make notes and ask pointed questions of your dentist when you can. They will be an important and valuable resource for your future studies, and you should treat them as such.


1. Why should I shadow a dentist?

Shadowing a dentist is a great way to learn about the profession before you go to dental school while also giving you a worthwhile extracurricular to impress dental school admissions committees with. It can also help you answer any questions you have about being a dentist. Moreover, it represents an opportunity to build a relationship with a dentist so that you can later ask for a letter of recommendation.

2. Do I need to shadow a dentist?

Whether you need to shadow a dentist or not depends on the dental school you are applying to. For example, the University of Toronto Faculty of Dentistry does not require that you shadow a dentist, but the Dental College of Georgia asks students to have at least 300 shadowing hours from 2 to 3 different dentists. Even if your preferred school does not make it a requirement, there are so many benefits of shadowing that you should do it anyway.

3. Why do dental schools ask for shadowing hours?

Dental schools ask for shadowing hours because they want to see how much you’ve engaged with the profession before going to dental school. They want to see how you’ve prepared for this rewarding, but challenging, career and want to make sure you know everything involved in being a dentist.

4. How do I get the most out of my shadowing time?

Most importantly, pay attention! The purpose of shadowing is to learn from the experts. You can take an active part in your shadowing time by taking notes; being respectful of the dentist, their patients, and staff; and engaging with them in an appropriate way. You should be professional and well prepared without taking up too much of the dentist’s time and attention.

5. What if the dentist and I don’t get along?

Even though they agree to be shadowed, you may discover after you start shadowing that you and the dentist do not have good chemistry, or simply do not get along. Rather than continuing with them, you should consider finding someone else to shadow since having an antagonistic or unfriendly relationship with a dentist will detract from the entire experience. If you decide that your dentist is not the right fit, you should tell them respectfully and start looking for other candidates.

6. What’s the difference between volunteering and shadowing?

Volunteering and shadowing are very different. When you volunteer, you have a prescribed role and set of duties that you must perform, but when you shadow, you are only observing a person in their role as a dentist. While you may volunteer to perform certain duties when you shadow, it is not the basis for your time there, and you should only do it when the opportunity arises.

7. How many hours should I shadow a dentist?

A school may ask for a certain number of hours, but if they do not, dental school admissions consulting experts recommend you aim for anywhere between 100 and 150 hours if you are doing it for your own experience and education, rather than to fulfill a dental school requirement.

8. How should I ask a dentist to shadow them?

Respectfully. Remember that they are allowing you into their office and practice, where they treat and help patients with their oral health; therefore, you must be respectful of both their profession and patients. You can write a short email introducing yourself, propose a schedule while also saying that you can work around their schedule, and suggest that you are flexible when it comes to scheduling.

To your success,

Your friends at BeMo

BeMo Academic Consulting

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