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dental students celebrating at their white coat ceremony

8 Tips for First-Year Dental Students

Who better to give advice on your first year of dental school than a current student who just went through it?

minute read

Written by SDM Comms on July 18, 2023

Written by Clare Houliston (DDS '26). Edited and inspired by Jillian Desmond (DDS '25).Clare-WCC

Meet Clare Houliston, a rising second-year student at the University of Colorado School of Dental Medicine (CU SDM). Houliston was inspired to pursue dentistry by her countless visits to the dentist as a child in Albuquerque, New Mexico; her passion to serve others; and her older sister who is now a practicing dentist. Although school takes up most of her time, she has spent the past year traveling, snowboarding, picking up pickleball and getting to see more of her new home state. 

Now that she's finished her first year at the SDM, she's come up with the following advice for incoming students as they begin their dental education this fall.


Embrace change.

Starting dental school is a big change, no matter who you are, where you come from and what experiences you've had. When you start, your academic life, social life, personal life, friendships and relationships will all undergo some type of change or adjustment. It is just a matter of getting into a groove and into the new daily lifestyle! 

Change can be hard, but dental school is four years long so go with the (new) flow! Those who truly support you will have your back through all seasons of the journey.

Clare-sisterClare Houliston (right) with her sister Lauren Houliston, DMD, (left) at the CU SDM white coat ceremony in 2022. 


If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Don't be afraid of trying new things or exploring different options, but don’t feel pressure to abandon what works for you. When I first got to dental school, they drilled (pun intended) into our heads that the way you studied in the past will not work anymore and you have to try new things. Though this may be true for some cases, what you did in the past is what got you into dental school in the first place, so you must be doing something right. 

Now that I am a year in, there is still no perfect way to study. No class is the same, and I prepare differently for every single course. For some, I do what I used to in undergrad, and for others, I have completely new methods. There really is no “formula” for studying; do what works for YOU.


Prioritize sleep.

A good night’s sleep not only helps keep my mental and physical health in check, it also helps me perform better in school with exams, lab work and other assignments. 

I have personally found that sometimes going to bed at a reasonable hour and studying in the morning was more beneficial than staying up late to cram. A full seven to nine hours is not always possible, but it is still very important! 


Take time for...

A break, yourself, or even a nap (my personal fav!). 

I used to get down on myself for any sort of break or personal time when I had things to do. The reality is that there will always be something you need to do, but most of the time, taking a break will make you more productive later. 

I think about this quote from my classmate a lot now: "I will remember watching the Nuggets win the NBA championships, but I will not remember how I did on the exam the next day." 

Clare-RockiesA group of students from the DDS Class of 2026 attend a Colorado Rockies baseball game together. 


You CAN do it all, but don't feel like you have to.

Your amount of involvement does not define where you stand in school. 

Getting involved on campus has many options and levels to it. There are so many clubs and organizations, positions you can hold, school events, intramural activities and get-togethers happening all the time. If you have good time management, you can do all of these things. But just because some people do this, does not mean you have to. 


Work in intervals.

Clare Houliston (right) practices taking impressions and mounting casts using a face bow in the Intro to Clinical Dentistry Lab with fellow students Brittany Meola (left) and Marissa Vigil (center).

If something does not make sense, do not get worked up. Revisit it later; it may click then. 

Whether it is studying or practicing in the lab, long intervals do not work for me, personally. I notice much more progress when I step away for a while and come back later. I notice much more progress when I do things in shorter intervals and come back later when my mind is fresh. Getting frustrated over schoolwork doesn't help you learn. 


Take it one day at a time.

Deal with your to-do list each day (or each week) instead of worrying about things too far in future. Trust me, just looking one week ahead you will find plenty of work to do, to catch up on or practice. 

There are some exams and projects you need to plan further in advance, but taking most things one day or one week at a time is a great way to approach your workload and your calendar. It will help make school more manageable. 


Do not compare yourself.

I always remind myself that if I am putting in all I got, I am doing well. 

This is something you will hear over and over in dental school, but it truly is very important. Comparison has its highs and lows, but all that matters is that you are doing your personal best. 



Dear DDS Class of 2027: 

The next four years will be challenging, but they will also be incredibly rewarding. You will hone your skills and make lifelong friends. Your experiences will help to define the professional you will become when you graduate.

Welcome to the CU School of Dental Medicine! 


Clare-JillianClare Houliston (right), with her "big" Jillian Desmond (left), at their white coat ceremony in 2022.


Topics: Students