Dental School Interviews Manual Dexterity: The Complete Guide

Advice & Insight From Dentistry Interview Specialists

Introduction To Dental School Manual Dexterity

“The 10,000-hours rule says that if you look at any kind of cognitively complex field, from playing chess to being a neurosurgeon, we see this incredibly consistent pattern that you cannot be good at that unless you practice for 10,000 hours”- Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell

One of the main distinguishing features of a dental school interview is the assessment of hand skills, tactile perception with fine motor skills and manual dexterity. The degree itself is vocational in nature and therefore, regardless of whether the dental school programme is pre-clinical or integrated clinical in nature, early introduction to practical clinical dentistry alongside teaching of the academic theory is a fundamental component of the curriculum. Whilst manual dexterity is an important pre-requisite to entry to dental school, there is some leniency in the sense that assessors are not expecting perfection. They are aware that the nature of the hands-on clinical proficiency required is very much a learned skill (as illustrated by the rule of 10, 000 hours), which can be developed and improved over the course of the degree through routine application and practice- in a dental school applicant, the assessment of manual dexterity is to gauge potential and an interest for developing clinical skills; a suitable baseline of capability for fine, precise, calculated and coordinated movement and an appreciation of the importance and need for tenacity and perseverance when developing and enhancing clinical skills (as well as to assess how well one can apply theoretical concepts into practice and troubleshoot or critically reflect when applying practical skills for a more successful or refined attempt upon repetition). 

How Is Manual Dexterity Assessed In Dental School Interviews?

Manual dexterity can be assessed in a number of different ways and will vary between each dental institute:

  1. Verbal discussion

    In some cases, the assessor (either in a panel or at a specific station in the multiple mini interview format) will directly ask the candidate how they have demonstrated or employed the use of fine motor hand skills in their own lives (whether it be through playing an instrument, painting or various other practical activities which require attention to detail, careful considered movements and a marriage of an active cognitive thought process to the execution of a subsequent coordinated physical movement). The question may be asked based on points mentioned on a pre-interview form or introduced as an impromptu discussion and in these cases, having a keen or ready insight to oneself and how one’s past-times can be demonstrative of tactile proficiency as well as being able to communicate this understanding and relate it to the demands of clinical dentistry works in the applicant’s favour.

  2. Presentation of Evidence for Manual Dexterity (+ Discussion)

    Alternatively, applicants may be asked to show what they have brought to illustrate manual dexterity and this is often coupled with a discussion regarding the practical element of the dental undergraduate training programme. Common examples of evidence in this capacity include intricate model replicas (such as piece by piece fine detail model aeroplanes), cross stitch or embroidery, lippan art or artwork of various different media, origami, electric circuits or woodwork etc. The evidence could be from extra-curricular activities or from a practical skills based school subject such as Design Technology (Resistant Materials, Textiles, Electronics etc.) If applicants find the actual item may be too large to bring to interview, they can always include a series of pictures in the form of a portfolio to present and discuss with the assessor.

  3. Active Demonstration of Manual Dexterity

    The third means of assessing a candidate’s manual dexterity is through a practical exercise conducted at the time of interview itself and this is the most common means of assessment in a multiple mini interview format. Examples of such exercises include threading a needle with sewing thread, bending a malleable wire into a specific shape, wire control exercise, building a small structure with Lego or transferring beads from one small container to another using tweezers or a fine instrument. During the exercise, the assessor is likely to either:
  • Simply observe how the applicant approaches the task and follow up with a short succeeding analysis to evaluate how effectively candidates are able to reflect and exhibit self-awareness when undertaking a practical task (what went well, what did not go well, what would they do differently if they were to repeat the task) or
  • Questions may be asked simultaneously while the applicant is undertaking the task (either to walk through the logical steps being taken in approaching the task and assess how systematic and calculated an applicant is in their approach or to see how the applicant performs under the pressure of undertaking a motor skill whilst maintaining effective communication).
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How To Approach Manual Dexterity Tasks In Dentistry Interviews: The 4 Cs of Manual Dexterity

Calculation – Ensure that you offer a calculated, planned approach rather than rushing into the task. This is best accomplished by:

  • Taking 30 seconds to review the instructions provided before commencing the task
  • Ensuring that you have a good understanding of the end target/requirement

Composure – Stay calm and always remember – if you are finding the task challenging, so are other applicants. More important than completing the task successfully, is demonstrating composure and calmness akin to a qualified dentist and this is what interviewers will be monitoring closely.
Co-ordination – Manual Dexterity tasks often test hand-eye co-ordination; ensure that you practice a wide range of manual dexterity tasks prior to your dentistry interviews.
Communication – Approximately one-third of manual dexterity stations will have another participant/actor in the room. In these stations, it is advised to communicate your actions/steps taken to better demonstrate your structured approach.

Dentistry Manual Dexterity: Example Station

Using the pair of scissors and single sheet of plain paper provided, cut out replicas of the shapes shown below. Please note, you are not permitted to cut or write on the example shape sheet.

Key Tip: This task requires precision, a skill that is imperative in complex surgical procedures as well as an awareness of limited resources given the number of shapes required and only one single piece of paper. Excellent candidates will note the presence of a pen/pencil in this station (which will not be mentioned in the instructions!) and will use the example sheet as a template (placing the plain piece of paper over the example shapes and redrawing each of the shapes) before cutting out the re-drawn shapes from the paper provided.
Authored by: Pooja Patel BDS, King’s College London Dental Institute (2011-2016)

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Dental School Interviews Manual Dexterity: ​The Complete Guide

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