Guest Blog with Mowlni Uthayakumaran: The Reality of Dental School

It's been a little time, but I'd like to introduce my latest guest blog by Mowlni Uthayakumaran, who recently qualified from the University of Sheffield, Class of 2021. She talks about her top 8 tips when surviving 5 years of dental school...

Mowlni, newly qualified dentist from Sheffield University

On A-level results day every student waits in anticipation for UCAS to update their offer for Dental School. Once the offer has been updated, the excitement to start feels unreal until ‘reality vs expectations’ hits in September.

Throughout my first undergraduate degree in Dental Materials at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), I was rearing to kick start my journey to becoming a dentist. I was fortunate to have been offered a place at the University of Sheffield in 2016, and as a recent BDS graduate I would’ve wished to have been given a full insight into Dental School prior to starting. I was only informed about the competitiveness to seeing patients, having a fun elective, and that it was a lot of work, but all degrees are relatively heavy with content. The difference with undergoing a Vocational Degree is that you WILL BE carrying forward majority of the knowledge learnt during the 5 years and make the most out of the £9k tuition fees (I remember my lecturer emphasising that point on the first day of term). She also mentioned we would need to be disciplined with our nights out and ensure we are on time for clinics every morning!

DISCLAIMER: I was an average achieving dental student. I hope to cover my experience (or the reality) throughout Dental School and tips to get through the 5 years!


I remember starting Dental School believing I had adequate manual dexterity as I had been playing a musical instrument called the Veena for over 15 years which requires a lot of technically intricate skills. However, I learnt quickly carrying out restorations, direct or indirect are all a form of art. 

Understanding morphology of the tooth, principles of caries removal, and cavity preparation designs was essential. It is not just ‘drilling a hole in the tooth and filling it’. I remember struggling to place rubber dam on manikin head teeth (this is much easier on a patient) and spent an entire session attempting this, my cavity preparations being too wide for an amalgam filling, meant I would not have the chance to practice filling with amalgam. 

I remember at the end of one session a tutor telling me to reconsider my life options as dentistry may not be for me. That made me lose complete faith in myself. If at that point I had chosen to give up, I would have regretted that decision. I began to not enjoy dentistry, and this was only hindering my progress. At that point I told myself, believing in myself was the only option. I had to get through and give 2nd year practical skills a fair chance. Therefore, I learnt to listen more, took on board advise to carve bar soaps and draw out teeth in my spare time to understand morphology and imagine cavity preparations. I watched several YouTube videos and tutorials provided by the Dental School to understand the best ways to place a rubber dam. 

When it came to the end of course exam for restorations, I found using composite a lot easier and my placement of rubber dam was more efficient, and I passed my exam. In NHS Dental practices, amalgam is a commonly used material and the fear of using amalgam was something I had carried forward. With practice on Outreach, guidance given, learning to carve on bar soaps, and believing that I’d made it so far for a reason helped and I am now comfortable using amalgam as well. 

In summary, having faith in your potential and reassuring yourself that you can achieve the bigger picture (seeing patients was my vision) is the first key to success. Learn your own strengths (for me this was communication which is half of dentistry) that you can apply to practice and using that to help you believe in yourself and see the bigger picture.


Having Asian parents, I grew up having my achievements compared to the next child, and naturally I started doing that to myself. However, one thing we’ve all hopefully learnt over high school is ‘you will get out what you put in’, or as I like to put it ‘A+T+T+I+T+U+D+E = 100’

Taking a positive approach to dentistry aids with progress regardless of the stresses that you may face. In my 3rd year, when I started learning crown and bridge preparations, I struggled to understand angulation of burs and the best way to create chamfer margins on palatal surfaces was a concept I got wrong. Throughout that course, I could see a lot of my friends around me had picked up the skills and were breezing through it, but I was steps behind them and rushing to get to their point. However, in that rush, I was not progressing because I didn’t get the basics right. When I stopped looking at how much the next person had achieved, I naturally felt an improvement and learnt to understand the preparations visually by looking at drawings and understanding dimensions. I took my time to learn the best way to position myself and the burs used to create margins. The more practice I had, the better I was. 

Therefore, the only person you should be competing with, or comparing yourself to, is you.


Failing exams is unfortunate but not uncommon. Most dental students have failed one exam or another and it DOES NOT MAKE YOU A BAD DENTIST!

If you do fail an exam, take it with a pinch of salt and learn how to improve. Take a moment to think what went wrong and how those mistakes may be rectified or avoided in the future. Throughout school and QMUL, I had a method of using past papers as my main source of revision and selectively revising topics, but in Dental School, those past papers were not available, and you had to cover the ENTIRE module. I realised over time, the best method of revision for me was understanding by rewatching lectures and taking in what was taught and then actively recalling information. Therefore, I wrote questions for myself from lectures and answer them. 

For other students, this may be in the form of revision cards, or spider diagrams. Even condensing the information into tables and visually learning the information can also help. With anatomy, not just learning from books but using interactive online resources, or using skulls helped. Adapting and learning what is best for you is why you fail and learn to move forward from it.


I was considered a ‘mature’ student, even though I was 21 when I started dentistry. This made me feel out of place when I started, however, once you start talking to individuals within the course in the first term, you naturally find friends you can relate to and trust over time. I even forgot at times that I was older than the majority of students in my course. 

As I’ve mentioned before, when it comes to revision, it is essential to understand and learn the content. Finding a good group of friends within your course is important. This group of friends is who you will be going through the experience with for the next 5 years, therefore supporting one another, thriving of each other, and sharing resources will also benefit you individually. Discussing topics in groups of 2 – 3 (to maintain focus) or forming power points on a topic and teaching one another is a form of active recall.


GDC Standards for the Dental Team, principle 7 is all about maintaining, developing, and working within your professional knowledge and skills. As a Dental Student, coming into 5th year and transitioning to Dental Foundation year, the one factor that Dental School are looking for to graduate you is to know you are a ‘safe beginner’. 

With COVID, this was a struggle for Dental Schools to assess because students had lost almost 6 months of clinical teaching. Dentistry has taken several precautions, including fallow times between patients, differentiating between aerosol and non-aerosol procedures, donning and doffing with PPE as part of rigorous safety measures. Dental practices have adapted to the new normal and this in turn restricted the clinical experience gained overall. 

I entered my final year feeling the pressure of needing to be competent at all my skills, but reality of it was that I needed to assess when I was struggling to carry out a clinical task independently and ask for help immediately. Otherwise, I would be putting my patient at risk of losing faith in me for having continued. I felt on edge entering my final year due to my lack of experience, but I also benefited from the one-to-one clinical experience I had with tutors over my final year and honing my diagnostic skills. Allowing tutors to challenge your thoughts should not be taken as patronising but to ensure your knowledge was in check. As a dentist, and in practice, team meetings are in place to discuss patient treatments, or how to improve and progress as a team. Therefore, asking for help only aids with progress and mitigates any accidents. 

Furthermore, being an anxious individual, I was constantly doubting myself and doubting graduating Dental School. It caused me to lack self-confidence. Speaking to my friends, and personal tutor about the anxiety helped me express my feelings and understand the stem of the anxiety. Writing positive thoughts to myself and keeping myself busy (which I will discuss in the next section) was beneficial to stop myself from pondering about my insecurities and move forward. Mental Health amongst Dental students has become a growing issue, and several universities have started acting upon this, therefore, asking for help when you start feeling a change in yourself is essential to help you accept and move forward.


From 9am tutorials and lectures to 5pm clinics, it is easy to lose yourself and feel like you are being swallowed by the degree. It is important to do something outside of dentistry that allows time for yourself. For me, that was baking, home workouts, dancing for shows, playing the Veena and being able to allocate time to see Sheffield with course mates or flat mates. 

This all comes as part of the package and allocating some time every day for yourself and/ or with your friends will keep you occupied. The downtime will be motivation to get your work completed and find a balance between work and for yourself and not resent Dentistry. Furthermore, being part of a Society, and carrying out voluntary work boosts your Portfolio!


In final year, you will be faced with several deadlines and SJT exam preparations. Throughout dental school, planning for patients is also essential. At the start of every academic year, I found it useful to purchase a day-by-day diary in which I wrote out my clinical and lecture timetable. Beside the clinical time, I would write the ID of the patient I was to see and the treatment to carrying out. Therefore, I could revise the clinical treatments, when necessary, prior to seeing the patient. Furthermore, prior to COVID, I checked my pigeonhole daily for any patient cancellations for me to check and rebook patients or be on time or clinics to see if there were any late DNAs (did not attend) and get ‘early dibs’ on emergency patients or extra patients. Having all deadlines written allowed me to allocate time and prioritise accordingly. Having a spreadsheet of the numbers of treatments I had completed and what patients required helped me assess the patients I wanted to take on for treatment to achieve my targets.

Furthermore, living out was an adjustment. I was used to living at home in London, the busy Tube life, and my mum having cooked for me daily. Therefore, I had less to worry about in terms of being organised with the way I was living. Living out was a great experience and enabled me to have the independence I required to grow. I learnt to manage time and be able to cook and ensure my room was as clean as my home (this was scheduled into my diary weekly). The only downside was not seeing my family as and when I wished to as I did when living in London.


Dental school was a roller coaster; nevertheless, the past 5 years have been rewarded with the achievement of gaining my BDS. Unfortunately, we didn’t have our graduation due to COVID, but we had a Dr badge collection day at our local park which was fun. It was lovely to see everyone’s relieved faces. 

The past 5 years have enabled personal progression, learning about myself, my strengths, and how to continue to improve. Dentistry is a career requiring life-long learning. There are constant technological advancements, new materials being researched and becoming available, minimally invasive dentistry conquering the cosmetic world and we will never know everything (even as a qualified dentist, hence CPD is essential as a dentist. The 5 years at Dental School is crucial for you to see your own development and progression and allow yourself to make mistakes and prosper. 

These are 5 years you will never get back, hence embrace it!

Thanks Mowlni for your post! If you have any questions for her, please leave them in the comments below. Please get in touch if you wanted to post a guest blog!

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