The Dental Admission Test: Not Just an Entry Test

  • by Zeynep Barakat, DMD, FAGD, DMD, FAGD
  • Apr 19, 2017, 15:13 PM
Does anyone remember the Dental Admission Test, aka, the DATs? For the nondentists, it is exactly as it reads: an admission test that must be passed successfully to enter dental school. Yes, I know I should have blocked it out of my memory once I saw that I had passed, but I thought about it recently. 

The other day, I found myself — mouse in hand — staring at a two-dimensional screen but manipulating a three-dimensional tooth model. For those of you familiar with CAD/CAM, you know what I am talking about. Rotating, smoothing and shaping these “models” of virtual teeth and their future restorations is not exactly easy. I wanted to reach in through the screen and simply handle the models with my own hands. And that’s when I remembered the last time I had those thoughts: when I was sitting in front of a computer screen taking those dreaded DATs. 

The test included a section that examined a student’s understanding of spatial objects, and the skill required the test taker to think in three-dimensional ways. That section is called “perceptual ability.” At the time, I’ll admit to sharing stories with friends about that section, and if anyone is familiar with triathlons, it’s much like the swimming portion of a triathlon — you just get through it and move on to the next sections. Some of us weren’t thrilled about that part. In fact, some of my friends didn’t see the connection with dentistry at all. 

Seventeen years after taking the test, I think it was smart to include that section in the test. The entire field of dentistry is based on acquiring and developing perceptual ability. It sometimes seems as if we deal with much more than three dimensions and don’t necessarily see them most of the time. Negotiating a root canal or extracting teeth are examples of “imagining” multidimensional anatomy, if such a thing is possible. In fact, even giving a routine injection demands imagining where tiny cylindrical nerves are located within a mass of bone layered with tissues. 

Entry requirements to dental school might have changed since my time. During dental school, I was actively involved in the predental arm of the American Student Dental Association (ASDA) and had been a resource for predental students at my alma mater. It was so gratifying to mentor students who are grumpy about the tests and subjects they are taking to enter dental school. I was basically telling them that they weren’t a waste of time. That they actually do relate to the profession in one way or another and more so, with the evolving technology within the profession. If there’s a student out there who barely passed the perceptual ability part of the DAT, you bet you’ll be tested on that endlessly on the first day of clinical dentistry. From mentally folding cubes on one screen to mentally milling a crown on another almost two decades later, my perceptual ability is still being tested. 
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