Expediting the Dental School Application Process

Dr. Richard ValachovicIn this month’s letter, ADEA President and CEO Dr. Rick Valachovic considers the evolution of ADEA’s centralized application service and where the application process stands today.

In 1972, I applied to dental school. I was one of many young people whose interest in pursuing a dental career created an unprecedented surge in the number of dental school applicants—from about 9,000 at the start of the decade to a peak of almost 16,000 in 1975, before falling back to roughly 10,000 by 1980.

In 1979, 6,301 students enrolled in dental school, the highest number on record. Today, about 12,000 individuals apply to dental school each year, and with the addition of 10 new schools and the expansion of class sizes over the last 20 years, institutional enrollments have increased about 50%. With 6,122 first-time, first-year enrollees in 2017, enrollments may soon exceed their historical peak.

1972 was also the year that ADEA, then the American Association of Dental Schools (AADS), launched its centralized application service for predoctoral programs—AADSAS®—freeing participating schools from much of the up-front work that goes into the admissions process. Centralizing the application process was a bold step, and we can be proud that dentistry was one of the first health professions to take it. Applications were printed on paper, filled out by hand and mailed to AADSAS. The service photocopied the forms and distributed them to dental schools. That process was in still in effect when I arrived at ADEA in 1997, and I knew it was time for a change.

Later in 1997, we engaged George Haddad of Liaison International, a Boston-based tech firm that is now a leader in online application services. Outsourcing some of the more cumbersome tasks streamlined operations at ADEA, but George and his team had their work cut out for them. “At first, we continued to print the applications and send them to schools every week,” George recalls. “We had stacks of paper applications.”

In the early years, we used a hybrid process that integrated floppy disks (remember those?). Applicants filled out their applications on paper and ADEA sent the information to a data entry firm to transcribe. Meanwhile, ADEA staff collected transcripts and verified coursework and credits. Because schools still wanted to read the applications on paper, Liaison International was printing and mailing reams of paper as late as the 2010–2011 application cycle.

It quickly became apparent that moving AADSAS to the web was the right solution. To accomplish this, Liaison International developed a secure platform that ultimately allowed us to move the entire application process online and into the 21st century. ADEA was the first health professions association to launch a web-based application service, a pioneering move that other associations have since emulated.

Since 2012, the pace of progress has been dizzying. Applicants submit all information online, including letters of recommendation. DAT scores are automatically reported to the service. Paper has been entirely eliminated from the process—schools now log in to the service to access applications electronically. In 2013, ADEA reached another milestone: becoming the first health professions association to boast that all of its U.S. schools participated in its predoctoral application service. Over the years, we introduced three more application services: ADEA PASS®, for advanced education programs; ADEA CAAPID®, for programs designed for dentists with degrees earned outside the United States or Canada; and ADEA DHCAS®, for dental hygiene programs.

When I spoke recently with George, he confirmed that ADEA was among the first health professions organizations to outsource the management and operations of the application process and the technology needed to run the service. Turning this function over to his firm has reduced our Association’s costs by saving space and eliminating the need to hire and train seasonal staff. Meanwhile, the most important outcome of this transformative change is that we’ve improved the experience for applicants. Applicants now have a “one-stop shop” where they can access information and complete the entire application process.

The application’s content has also been modernized. We changed how we ask about race and ethnicity, introduced socioeconomic-status variables and provided schools the opportunity to ask questions that are not part of the standard application. We’ve also encouraged the use of new interviewing techniques, such as the multiple mini interviews, which allow schools to evaluate skills such as critical thinking, ethical decision-making and effective communication.

All of this provides ample evidence that ADEA’s application services are up-to-date and have kept pace with today’s ever-changing times. In fact, we’ve been ahead of the curve, leading the way for many of our sister associations. But putting aside whatever pride we may feel in these accomplishments, it’s fair to ask, “Why does this matter? How does it advance our mission?”

I think George sums it up well when he says, “Centralized application services allow associations to market their professions as a whole, so recruitment happens on a national level, eliminating redundancy while preserving the uniqueness of each school’s admissions process. The platform gets all the schools around the table. They share best practices and create requirements for the profession.”

I couldn’t agree more, and the results are evident in the changes we’re seeing in admissions practices and the applicant pool. The widespread adoption of holistic admissions, particularly by dental schools, allows applicants to “tell their stories” and articulate why they have what it takes to be a caring, competent health care professional. While admission to dental school remains extremely competitive, we are seeing a wider range of grade point averages and DAT scores, suggesting that schools are more willing to consider a broader range of attributes when evaluating applicants.

One of the most interesting trends has been the rise in the number of re-applicants, those who apply to dental school for a second or third time. These individuals typically work hard to gain additional education and experience to achieve their goals. They now represent one-third of our applicant pool, demonstrating just how attractive a dental career remains.

The increased presence of women in our incoming classes is another striking example of how things have changed since I applied to dental school. In 1972, women accounted for 14% of the applicant pool. Mirroring other economic and social trends during this period, women now account for 51% of dental school applicants.

ADEA has also invested considerable effort in attracting underrepresented students to the profession. One important ADEA priority is the Summer Health Professions Education Program, an academic enrichment program for educationally and socioeconomically disadvantaged students seeking to enter dentistry or another health profession. In addition, to promote diversity and ensure that all students have the opportunity to present a complete picture of their qualifications during the admissions process, we are working across our membership to help train faculty and staff in the use of holistic review, consistent with federal case law. Most recently, we established an ADEA Centralized Application Service Working Group to analyze trends and give us a better sense of our applicants and enrollees. We still have a long way to go in creating a dental workforce that truly reflects our nation’s diversity, but I am optimistic that our investments will pay off.

This year, we introduced a “soft launch” of the application, which allowed applicants to prepare their applications three weeks before the site opened for submissions. More than half of anticipated applicants took advantage of this head start, and George was not surprised in the least that this student population is first out of the gate. “Dental students are among the first to apply,” he told me. “They are very diligent.”

So, what’s next? I don’t have any pronouncements to make, but rest assured, as technology advances and social norms and expectations shift, ADEA will continue to embrace change. Our operational goal is to always be able to say, “We are actively simplifying the process of applying to dental school,” with all signs appearing to indicate that our motivated pool of applicants will continue to “seize the moment.”


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