As part of an ongoing evolution in dental school admissions, the American Dental Educational Association (ADEA) has been one of the champions of a concept known as holistic review of dental school applicants.
The ADEA defines holistic review on its website as "a flexible, individualized applicant assessment tool" that provides admissions committees "a balanced means of considering candidates' personal experiences, attributes, and academic credentials, along with qualities and characteristics that would prove valuable in both dental school and the oral health profession."
According to the ADEA, 43 of the 65 dental schools are committed to holistic admissions. In working with 38 of these schools, the association noted that all but one have shown dramatic changes in the diversity of the class and have had a wider variety of applicants admitted.
Holistic review "uses multiple criteria to assess applicant qualifications," according to the ADEA website. These criteria are both traditional and nontraditional and include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Standardized test scores
- Grade point average (GPA)
- Linguistic or cultural experience (or both)
- Demonstrated commitment to community service
- Specific career interests, such as plans to practice in underserved communities
- Life experiences, such as personal, familial, or other challenges overcome
In most recent years, dental schools receive more than 12,000 applications for 5,700 first-year slots, according to Richard Valachovic, DMD, MPH, president and CEO of the ADEA.
"If you just looked at grades, you could get a great class just based on that, but that's not what we are looking for," he said. "Schools want to enroll a more diverse student body. All students will benefit from an environment and curriculum that include diverse perspectives and backgrounds."
The end result of the focus on GPA and test results meant dental schools often admitted candidates who were good test takers, Dr. Valachovic noted.
"The concept of holistic admissions is to take into account other factors in addition to the quantitative measures that exist in a more balanced way -- so someone's background, their life experiences, their personal characteristics -- to marry those with the traditional quantitative measures," he said.
A holistic admissions process is important, Dr. Valachovic noted, because being a good caregiver means more than doing well on tests.
"In dentistry, as in other health professions, we are trying to identify and matriculate students who are going to be good caregivers. Being a good caregiver means much more than doing well in courses or on tests, " he said. However, "this doesn't minimize the importance of having students that are competent to undergo the rigor of the dental school program," he added.
Among the benefits of a holistic admissions process are an increased diversity in student population and an increased, or unchanged, incoming GPA.
"We know that since we have gone to holistic admissions, the diversity [of dental students] has increased and the incoming GPA remained unchanged or increased," Dr. Valachovic said.
Just as important, in a September 2014 report by the Urban Universities of Health, 93% of dental schools participating in the study were found to be using holistic admissions, higher than any other health profession. Of the schools in the study who evaluated admissions outcomes, 100% of responding dental schools reported graduation rates that were unchanged or increased. In addition, 84% of these schools reported that the average number of attempts for students to pass required licensing exams remained the same or improved.
"So it's a win-win if you do it right," he said.