As the former Associate Dean of a major dental school in the northeast, we ran, on average, two manikins (prosthodontics & endodontics) exams, two patient exams – replaced by manikins during COVID – and two make-up exams annually. In addition, I have been an examiner for three organizations which has provided a lot of insights on how to best prepare for your licensing exam.
Today, I will share my top ten tips to prepare for the exam, so let's jump in!
Step One: Determine the Location you Will Practice In
The first step in a journey is to determine the destination. Where is it that you want to practice? If you don't know, allow me to make a recommendation:
"Practice where you are needed, not where you want to be"! – Dr. MJ Hanlon
What do I mean by this? There are a LOT of areas in this country that have low access to dental providers. For example, in the northeast where I live, the entire state of Vermont has under 400 dentists. It is an AMAZING state full of beauty, mountains, and lakes. An outdoor wonderland with skiing in the winter and lakes to boat on in the summer. However, they have an actual shortage of professionals. If you choose an area to practice where you are needed, while it may not be close to a major city, there is usually one within an hour or two of your location. Using this as a philosophy will allow you to pay off your student loans in a shorter amount of time and enable you to be a genuine part of the community, supporting community members with plenty of opportunities to develop leadership skills and personal relationships.
Once you determine where you will go, investigate the rules and regulations of that state to decide what type of exams they accept and what the expectations on performance are. Once you know which exam company you will go with, you can choose the company that gives it. There has been consolidation recently in the exam space. There used to be five exam companies, but currently, there are only three: SRTA, CDCA (WREB and CITA have joined with CDCA), and CRDTS. Clicking the links will guide you to each website for more information about the type of exams they give. Your school will most likely have one of them providing the exam for you or your fellow students.
Step Two: Preparation is Everything!
As for everything in life, you must prepare. The MOST crucial exam of your entire academic career will be your dental or dental hygiene licensing exam. Please do not take it lightly. Your school knows approximately six-nine months in advance when the exams will be at your school, and an announcement will be made. Put the date in your calendar and take these steps to lay out a practice plan to be prepared:
Set up a practice schedule that starts three months in advance – (or earlier if you want to be prepared!)
- Whatever you feel will best suit your needs, to be fully prepared.
- You should know what state you will be relocating to before taking your exam. Be sure you have checked your state's state rules and regulations to determine if the live patient exam is mandatory or if the manikin exam is accepted.
Once you know what exam you will take, research the exam on their website to determine the requirements – links are above!
- Download the candidate manual and review it thoroughly to have all the parameters you will be scored on.
- Determine what procedures you will need to perform for the exam.
Plan your weekly practice time into your schedule.
When you graduate, you will have a goal schedule of production you or the practice owner will want you to meet.
- This is very similar. Determine the procedures you will need to perform and do one of those procedures per session or week. Try to stick to only those procedures as it will be distracting and unproductive for improvement if you skip around.
- Determine the amount of inventory you will need of manikin teeth. Or, if you are fortunate to have the Simodont Dental Trainer at your school, schedule time on the trainer to do the procedure repetitively. One of the nice things about practicing on the Simodont is hitting the reset button and starting over. There is no cost added, and you can practice infinitely!
- If your exam uses Kilgore Teeth, you can click on that link to order extra inventory.
- If your exam uses Acadental Teeth, you can click that link to order extra inventory.
- Order your teeth and stick to the plan!
Step Three: Practice, Practice, Practice!
Life happens, and things come up. However, if you want to pass on the first go-around, you must discipline yourself to stick to your plan. If you don't, you will run short on time and begin to stress. Remember, stress releases cortisol. Cortisol increases your blood sugar to provide more energy to the brain to function. That is the good news. The bad news is that when you increase stress, cortisol release also curbs functions that would be non-essential during an actual "fight or flight" situation.
It will alter your immune system responses (making you more susceptible to getting sick or catching the flu everyone is getting), it suppresses your digestive system slowing down metabolism (weight gain) and increases your heart rate and blood pressure. Long-term stress will have a significant impact on the functioning of your body and how you respond. So, prevent the stress before it happens by sticking to your plan, practicing, and being ready for exam day. You will be so glad you did!
Step Four: Stay Organized.
When you practice, create your checklist of items you want to be sure to have on hand for exam day.
When we do a repetitive action, like driving, our mind can wander, and we think of things that we want/need for our next session. Write them down and add them to your list. This will help you to have everything you need on exam day. If you have a long practice session planned, bring snacks to hold you over and keep yourself fueled. A checklist might include the following:
- Paper supplies
- Restorative, endodontic, prosthodontic, or periodontal supplies specific to your practice schedule.
Food: snacks or a meal if you will be there all day and plenty of water.
Keep your area clean to stay organized and don't lose things. Bring your candidate manual to make notes in the margins of items you want to remember. Creating a process flow of how to do the procedure on the day of the exam allows you to check in your mind if you have done everything. The last thing you want is to get a deduction because you forgot something you knew!
Step Five: Seek feedback on your work from faculty and trusted friends.
If you are not sure about something, ASK. One of my biggest questions to students around exam time is, "Why didn't you ask me for feedback"? The most common response is, "I know you are busy, Dr. Hanlon." We are all busy, but it takes no time to provide guidance and feedback to students. Heck, that's why we are there! We want to advise you on the profession we so dearly love to give you what we know to make it easier on you! Do not be afraid to ask. Better to know than not know!
Step Six: Learn Stress Reduction Techniques and Practice Them
I was very fortunate to work with Dr. Christina Pastan, an endodontist that created the first Wellness Program at a dental school in the country. Now, dental schools everywhere have incorporated her techniques and courses into their curriculum due to the improved level of performance they are seeing from incorporating these principles to reduce the innate stress of the dental education program. Please consider taking some of these stress reduction techniques into your daily routine.
Your body will thank you, believe me! While it seems far away, someday, you will be sixty, and your body will be in better shape due to your effort.
Start your day with exercise. While it may be tempting to stay in bed, starting your day with exercise puts you on the right path for the rest of the day. You then won't have to stress adding it when you get busy.
Meditate for five-ten minutes. At the very least, close your eyes and slow your breathing.
- Amazingly, the benefits of increased oxygen on your body include increased brain function, helping you feel energized, and allowing you to concentrate and stay focused.
- Practice gratitude daily. Use your breathing exercises to count your blessings on the in-stroke. Try to get to 20/session. Your body will be happy, but you have set your soul up to accept more blessings for being thankful for what you have.
Reframe your thoughts and keep them positive.
Thoughts become things, so when you start to go down a negative path, pull yourself out and have a positive thought or mantra you can call upon to keep you steady on your path. Here's the one I use: I am whole, perfect, strong, powerful, loving, harmonious, healthy, and happy. Using "I am" to begin a sentence tells the Universe that you want to create something. I read this in some book a long time ago, so I did not create it, but you can use it as I do!
Take time to relax and end your day, not in front of your phone or television. Do something that makes you happy at the end of the day. That way, you end your day on a positive note.
Step Six: One Month from Exam Day Planning
Stress among your classmates is going to start building. If necessary, detach as much as possible to avoid getting caught up in the drama and increase your stress. Set out a final plan for improvement and practice a month before. You have been practicing now for about eight weeks, only four more. Plan around exams and clinic responsibilities. All of these can take you away from your plan, so be sure you make it up someplace else if you must cancel some time. And, remember to visit Dr. Pastan’s website for great meditations, yoga and other stress reduction techniques.
Step Seven: One Week from Exam Day Planning
By now, you should be in good shape. You have been practicing. You have been getting feedback. Use this time to keep your skills sharp. You can start timing yourself this week to see how long it takes for you to each procedure. Make sure you can do it within the allotted time. You will have plenty of time, but better to know this week that you can take more time or that you must speed up. Not knowing will only increase your stress level the day of the exam. What is your plan to deal with an emergency with your patient if you do the live patient exam? Create a backup plan so that you know what options you have.
Read your candidate manual front to back AGAIN so that you are aware of the contents. You may want to print a new copy with a checklist on one of the empty pages laid out all your steps. Create the final checklist for the exam day, so you know what to bring with you.
Step Eight: Day Before the Exam Day Planning
If you have the luxury of taking today off, do so. Take a drive. Go someplace relaxing to read a book.
Do something special for yourself like getting a massage—anything relaxing since you are all prepared. Your supplies are packed. You are ready. Today is for you. Keep these tips in mind to be at your best tomorrow:
- Eat healthy foods, so you don't have any digestive problems.
- Drink lots and lots of water.
- Today would be a great day to have a glass of wine at lunch or mid-afternoon. Try not to drink too much today or overeat. You will be thankful tomorrow not to have a blinding headache and be able to perform your best.
- Get a good night's sleep. It may be hard to sleep, but there is nothing to be stressed about if you have done the preparation. Remember, it is just an exam, and you have done these procedures a million times.
Step Nine: Day of the Exam
Get up earlier than normal to double-check that you have everything packed, or even better, pack the night before you go. Arrive at your exam about a half-hour to an hour ahead to have plenty of time to set up for your first procedure. Try to keep headphones in with relaxing music or favorite music to pump yourself for competition. The only person you need to worry about today is you. You have this! You've done the work, and you have prepared. Stay focused – keep your blinders on, and don't get sucked into someone else's drama. You can't help someone who didn't prepare ahead of time as you did. During today keep these items in mind:
- Follow the directions for all paperwork submissions. EVERYTHING you need is in the candidate manual. Just follow it step by step. Today is NOT the day you read the manual! I can't tell you the number of times as an examiner a student asked me something, and I knew they hadn't read the manual as it was clearly outlined there!
- Do not start until you have permission to start! Do not give anesthesia until it has been approved. Every step is one of approval. Not following the guidelines may result in failure.
- Stay focused during your exam and keep your area organized. A disorganized area creates disorganization in mind and contributes to decreased performance. Organize your instruments and supplies according to the steps you will take.
- Make sure your manual checklist is open for that procedure to easily lookup and refer to when needed.
- Are you feeling increased stress? Take five minutes to walk around the clinic and breathe deeply or go outside the clinic for fresh air or a bite to eat.
- You will not be able to have water in the clinic or your cell phone. Use the time to take a break and recover for a minute. You'll be glad you did.
- Reflect: how did it go? Is there anything you learned that you want to do differently for tomorrow?
- Day two is still ahead, so be sure to follow the steps in #8 to be at your best so you can rinse and repeat tomorrow!
Step Ten: Celebrate Your Success!
The exam is over. You have submitted all the paperwork, cleaned your operatory, and are ready to go home. What will you do? Celebrate, of course! Plan for this as it is a huge milestone you have accomplished. Even fifty years later, most of us can remember the day of our licensing exam. Most times, it is because of a horror story that occurred. You, like me, did not have any horror stories to share because you prepared! Now, you are ready to finish your requirements and run into May and graduation.
Your journey through dental school is concluding. Whether going on to a residency or joining a practice, your life is about to begin! Enjoy this moment and relish your accomplishments. Not everyone gets through dental school, but you did. Congratulations, and we wish you the best on the next part of your journey!