January 2012, the scoring system for the National Board Dental Exam took a turn from providing a numeric score to becoming a pass/fail exam. The Joint Commission on National Dental Examinations (JCNDE) explains that “The examinations were designed to differentiate between passing and failing candidates, not to distinguish between fine gradations of passing candidates. There is no evidence that there is a significant difference between candidates who receive scores of 89, 90 or 91. The use of National Board scores for any purpose other than as part of the licensure process has not been validated.”
This brought a lot of uncertainties and unknowns to internationally trained dentists aiming for a advanced standing program. It used to be that NBDE I score was one of the primary deciding factors for applicants, so we all studied hard to get as high of a score as you could and if you get a high enough score, it seemed to be guaranteed that you would get accepted somewhere that year. Now if it is just pass/fail, how would schools decide on who to accept? What should candidates just graduating in their home countries without a fancy resume do to impress the schools? And what about the competition between candidates with and without a score?
Many questions arose and they are still up in the air. Everyone seems to feel a bit anxious about the unknowns around it.Those with extensive research experience, work experience or with a masters degree seem to be dealing better with the idea, but many applicants that don’t have work experience or other fancy things in their CV, that previously would have aimed at getting attention by a high score now feel stuck. ‘What am I supposed to do?’, ‘What are schools looking for anyways?’, ‘I don’t know how to improve my CV, I’m on a visa here so I can’t even work!’ are common and understandable concerns coming from this group.
UCLA responded by including a written test in the NBDE I format in the interview. New York University initially decided to make DAT a requirement for those candidates without a numeric score.
Eliminating NBDE I scores from the decision factor inevitably leads to more weight being put on other factors. Programs never did solely look at scores to select candidates; yes it played a rather big role but it was still just one part of the application. There were always applicants with relatively low board scores getting accepted over those with higher scores, some because of a killer CV, but not always. So the reality is that, they just lost one of the many factors they used to evaluate candidates, but all the other factors – GPA, TOEFL, CV, Personal Statement, Recommendation Letters, interviews, bench tests – they are still there. It’s not that much different.
Then what should applicants do to prepare themselves?
There is no one answer to this question, everything matters. Aim for a higher TOEFL score, you can repeat the TOEFL as many times as you want. Getting a WES report might help if your ECE is low, you might need it for USC anyways, get the evaluation done and see if you get a better GPA conversion. Put extra effort into your CV and Personal Statement, the importance of them are often overlooked. I will be writing about this in a separate blog post, but really you can never excessively revise them. Double check with those who are writing you recommendation letters and make sure they are giving you strong content. Give them a copy of your CV and a short list of what you would like them to focus on on your recommendation letter, and ask if they could do that for you.
In a sense by taking away the scores, you are now spared from the need to improve your board scores; now you just need to study enough to pass. This is still not easy, but aiming to pass it is definitely easier than aiming for an extremely high score.
There are always 2 sides to the coin, and you can either worry and complain about it or see what you can do to maximize your chances.