Shadowing and Volunteering

Shadowing a dentist

Dental students are expected to spend time shadowing a general dentist. According to ADEA’s guide, shadowing a dentist means “going to a dentist’s or dental specialist’s office to observe procedures, learn terminology and techniques, observe different practice environments and ask the dental professional questions about his or her journey to practicing dentistry.” It is different from volunteering or direct patient care because it can give a better perspective on the everyday activities of a practicing dentist. Also shadowing a parent who is a dentist or having clinical exposure during high school is not considered enough clinical experience.

When you are shadowing, it is best to have worked with several dentists rather than just one; whether they are general dentists or specialists, it is important to have worked with more than just one dentist. Also, most schools are looking for about 100 hours of shadowing at least.

How to find a dentist to shadow?

It is best to ask your own dentist about it first since most of the time they will not tell you no, if he/she cannot help then ask him/her to check if any of his/her dentist colleagues is willing to provide this opportunity for you.
You could probably join or contact a pre-dental club in one of the colleges in your area to contact a dentist about shadowing.
You can call the dentists and clinics in your area and ask them if there is any available opportunity for shadowing. You can also check private companies who provide pre-dental shadowing experiences.


Volunteering can be done in a clinical setting such as a hospital or hospice, but it can also be done with organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, the Humane Society, or any other organization (on-campus or off-campus) that you are passionate about. Dental schools are looking for students that show off commitment and involvement and leadership in the community.

If attempting to volunteer at a local hospital or clinic, it is important to be mindful of deadlines and requirements. Most hospitals and clinics have a specific time-window each year during which they accept and train potential volunteers. Further, most require volunteers to pass background checks and have up-to-date immunizations and tuberculosis testing. It is your responsibility to research deadlines and requirements when seeking out volunteering opportunities. Volunteering and paid clinical experiences to add value to your dental school application.

Volunteer and paid clinical experiences are both valuable to your dental school application. It is suggested that students choose the experience that provides the greatest opportunity for them to observe dental care in action and get an understanding of the dental profession. Being a paid dental assistant (DA), registered dental assistant (RDA), x-ray technician, and/or dental hygienist, are all considered valuable on your application, but they are not enough shadowing experience by themselves.

When to start shadowing?

It is recommended that you begin your experience early, your freshman year of college, or as early as you decide that you want to be a dentist is both appropriate times to start. You can only spend 4 hours per week shadowing, volunteering, or working in a dental setting, the length of your exposure to the dentistry in action and how consistently you have been doing it are more important than when you started. If you were unsure about what healthcare field you wanted to go into and have shadowed at a medical office, hospital, or pharmacy in addition to clinical dentistry, you may put that in your application as well. This will show that you have gone through the process of eliminating other fields and have found something special in dentistry.

1) Volunteering at a Hospital: You should choose a hospital setting where you can shadow general practice residents in hospital dentistry, interact with patients, and contribute by assisting in different ways. Busy county hospitals offer more opportunities for pre-dental students to get involved, observe, and learn than private community hospitals in suburban areas or settings in which you are just interacting with administrators and filing paperwork. Please note that non-dental volunteer work in a hospital setting can also show interest in healthcare and compassion towards the ill, but most of your clinical experiences should be related to dentistry.

2) Volunteering at a Local Dental School Clinic: In these settings, you will have an opportunity to meet dental students and faculty members who may have insight into the admissions process and could guide you.  Like the hospital setting, if you are planning on working in a clinic, it would be more beneficial for you to work where you are shadowing dentists or dental students, rather than mostly being involved in doing the paperwork.

3) Working at a Free Dental Clinic: Free clinics that cater to the underserved tend to offer pre-dental students more opportunities for involvement than private outpatient clinics in affluent neighborhoods. In addition, sometimes through free clinics, you will have the opportunity to become involved in health fairs or other community-based health initiatives that could further enhance your application, enable you to gain community service experience.

4) Dental interpreter: If you speak another language (especially Spanish), there may be opportunities for you to serve as an interpreter for dentists or oral surgeons in hospitals or community dental care settings that have a large population of non-English speaking patients. This is a good opportunity to be involved directly in the care of patients. As an interpreter, you have the opportunity to serve as a liaison between the dentist and patient as you help take a patient’s history or provide information to the patient in their native tongue.

5) Pre-dental courses and seminars: Some dental schools offer courses for pre-dental students that allow you to explore the manual and technical aspects of dentistry and learn more about working with your hands as a dentist.  The Basic Dental Principles Course at UCLA, the UCLA Waxing course, the Impression Day Seminar at UCSF and the UCSF ASDA Life as a Dental Student Workshop are examples of such courses. Other schools may offer similar courses which will give you the chance to make casts, work on tooth models, etc.  These experiences are quite unique and add to your application while giving you the opportunity to learn more about dentistry.

There are some important points about the clinical experience:

Community vs. Private Practice Dentistry Experience: It is good to have experience working in a dental school clinic or with the faculty and/or students on community outreach dental efforts as well as working in a private practice setting. This way, you can show that you have seen different aspects of dental care and you understand the profession well.

Identify a Dentist Letter Writer Early: When you get involved in clinical experience, identify a dentist who you could approach for a letter of recommendation when you are getting ready to apply. Interact with this individual and make sure they get to know you and see your commitment. Spend a lot of time working with them to show them your passion.

Clinical Experience with Family Members: It is good to mention parents or relatives who are dentists and if you have had clinical experience with them, but it should not be the only clinical experience that you have had. You can mention your interest in the field may have started by seeing what they do and also it may show that you are familiar with the lifestyle of dentists. Admissions committees do not look favorably at clinical experiences with a parent or a relative who is a dentist if that is the only exposure you have to the field.

Working with Underserved Clinics: While it is not essential to work in a clinical setting that caters to the underserved, we have found that students tend to get the most out of these experiences. They are able to be more involved, they have the chance to learn more about the social issues surrounding dental healthcare, they gain a more mature understanding of the profession, and they demonstrate their compassion for the less fortunate. If you are working with an underserved clinic, you are gaining clinical experience and also serving the community as well.

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