My memory of final year is a little fuzzy. I can remember drinking coffee. Lots of coffee. I remember the dreaded DF1 interviews that consumed us all, and the stress leading up to finals exams. Was it as bad as I thought it would be? Not even close.

Dental finals exams are just like any summative exam you had during your dental school studies. The difficulty of your 2nd year summative exams are the same as finals, in my opinion. The difference is the mindset and the cost of failure. It’s all relative. Failing finals may have much more costly implications, such as giving up your DF1 job, or simply not being able to graduate with your best friends.

The key to success is preparation. This should start months in advance.

There are DF1 interview resources around, and covering these would be beyond the scope of this article. The one big bit of advice I would like to share is to practice in groups of 3 or 4, as this will give you the best preparation possible.

In the 1960s and 70’s, a very interesting experiment was conducted by a psychologist Professor Walter Mischel known as The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment. In this experiment, a child was offered the choice between an immediate reward such as a marshmallow or a cookie, or TWICE the reward (so 2 cookies, for example) if the child waited while the tester returned after a period of 15 minutes. Essentially, this experiment was testing whether the child was able to defer gratification for a greater reward. What is fascinating about this experiment is that they followed up the children for years and found that those children that waited for the tester to return and therefore defer their gratification, ended up more successful (the parameters for success were SAT results, BMI, educational attainment and other life measures). So how is this relevant to the DF1 interviews? Well, when they looked closely at the experiment, they also studied the behaviour of the children WHILE they were waiting for the tester to return. Those children who succeeded in waiting 15 minutes were the ones that managed to distract themselves. They kept themselves occupied, they were counting, drawing with their fingers, deep in thought, eyes closed. The children that caved in and could not wait were the ones that stared at the reward. They simply focussed on the marshmallow and nothing else. In a similar vein, the marshmallow is your DF1 interview. It is so, so easy to let these interviews consume your every thought. One can easily become obsessed with these interviews, and forget about everything else in their busy life as a dental student. I argue that this is damaging, and that there is a such thing as over preparing. Certainly, we found that there is a huge element of luck in these interviews (which scenarios you get, who is marking you, who went before you). By over preparing, it is easy to confuse yourself and come across unorganised when answering questions.

All that knowledge!!
All that knowledge!!

For your summative exams, you have to respect how serious they are, but at the same time not lose sight of the fact that you have come this far in dental school, and you can certainly get through this last hurdle.

Do whatever you did for your other exams. Revise however you did for them. This time, you just have to be smarter about what content you cover in your revision. Make sure you have a good understanding of what type of questions and topics are covered in your finals exams. Do you have access to past papers? Have you covered new content in your final year syllabus that is likely to be examined on?

During finals, it may be tempting to read your first year notes on the cranial nerves, anatomy of the muscle fibres, histology of the lungs etc. but you have to really ask yourself, is this smart revision? Surely using those hours to understand the NICE guidelines for wisdom teeth removal, the histology of oral cancer and the management of trauma are more pertinent? (Depends on which dental school you’re at though).

It is important to understand how your finals exams work at your dental school. Some schools have seen and unseen cases, and these need careful thought and planning. Other dental schools may have purely ‘slide based questions’ which will require a different approach altogether. Know your exams.

At the end of our 4th year, I set up a study club of 5 keen dental students in my year. We met once a week and bounced ideas, presentations and revision notes off each other. This was such a key part in our success for both DF1 interviews and for finals exams. I would recommend a study club to everyone. It’s also nice to learn as a group now and again, as opposed to the isolation we can sometimes experience when revising alone. Remember, an idea is only useful if you act on it. Text some of your colleagues now, and ask them if their keen to be part of a weekly study club. It may be your most fruitful action towards passing finals.

Lastly, final year can get depressing due to the perceived volume of work and stress. At these times, you need to draw motivation from somewhere. This may sound lame, but if it wasn’t for the occasional pep-talk phone call to some of my best friends, I don’t think I would have done so well. As humans, sometimes we just need someone we trust to say ‘hey, you’ll be fine, I have faith in you!’

Oh, and don’t forget to have fun. This is your last year as a dental student. You may not realise it now, but you are going to miss it so much. Remember, at the end of the day, it’s just teeth!

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