But first, let’s answer the question about what a bench test is.
Dental bench tests are like lifting weights at the gym, but instead of working out your biceps, you’re flexing your technical skills and clinical competency. It’s a practical exam where dental students have to show they can perform specific clinical procedures before they’re allowed to work on real patients. Just like you need to lift weights correctly to avoid injury, students must follow the proper procedures to ensure they don’t mess up someone’s mouth. So, think of dental bench tests as a workout for your dental skills!
Why do schools evaluate international dentists through a bench test?
When it comes to international dentists applying to Caapid, dental schools generally assume that these applicants have solid clinical skills due to their years of experience. However, the bench test serves as a reaffirmation of those skills and is an opportunity to showcase that you were well-trained from the start. Keep in mind that while the bench test is important, it’s not the only factor that schools consider in their decision-making process. So, make sure also to highlight your other strengths and experiences when applying.
Covid saw schools opting for virtual bench tests, and even occasionally dropping the bench test for a clinical assessment test instead. But we’ve observed that, like most other aspects of admissions that are recovering after the pandemic, bench tests are also returning to onsite and are happening within schools. We believe that there is a future for hybrid clinical assessment (online + in person) in the future.
Is excelling in the bench test critical to securing admission?
If I had to be honest, I’d say that your bench test is a dealbreaker when it comes to admissions. Between Nourah and I, we’ve reviewed at least 500 applications to date. Most international applicants fall victim to either of two issues when pitching their profile –
- Resumes that aren’t differentiated, OR
- Experiences that a foreign admissions committees can’t relate with
About half of the applicant pool falls into either one of these themes. They either have similar GPAs, TOEFL scores, INBDE results, and home-country experiences, or they mention proficiency in community initiatives and clinical rotations that an American admissions committee member can’t appreciate.
The Bench test, apart from the in-person interviews, then becomes the only tool available to schools to witness firsthand how you are different from the pack and how your hand skills are as meritorious as your profile claims them to be.
Excelling in the bench test is an affirmation to the school that invites you to –
- Your practical skills aren’t rusted
- You have invested effort to learn American treatment protocols
- You are comfortable working with indirect vision, rubber dams, and what is considered standard-of-care in the US
- You show promise in your ability to treat patients and generate income for your school
- Your dexterity is on par with your intellectual capability
Before going into full depth, let us give you the meat and potatoes on how to prepare for the bench test.
Step 1 – Represent your best self in your applications – Get a competitive GPA, scoring above 100 on the TOEFL, pass your INBDE, and pack in your clinical and community service experiences in your profile
Step 2 – Don’t wait! As soon as you’ve submitted your CAAPID Application, start preparing for your bench test. Do this in parallel with your interview preparation. The more marinated you are in training, the better you will make an impression on the actual test.
Step 3 – Unlearn and Learn. While you might have already performed tons of procedures on patients in your home country, you will need to learn the nuances that an American dentist notices. The easy access to technology, high liability for failed procedures, and strict protocols is something you’ll have to adapt to.
Step 4 – Timed tests. Simulating the actual high-intensity exercise that happens in a bench test is really important. While most international dentists are clinically adept and brush up their skills with a course, they lose their nerve on the actual test due to pressure.
Step 5 – Earn evaluations. Once you are confident that your clinical skills are ingrained into muscle memory, and you have learned each procedure to the tee, send pictures of your preparations to someone who has crossed the bench test already and get their opinions.
The important question. How do you prepare for your bench test?
Dr. Nourah, the founder of Caapid Simplified, received ten interview invitations from schools in 2019. Note that this was pre-pandemic. Most of those schools had an in-person bench test in addition to the interview. She had to face the toughest bench test amongst most programs – at SIU.
Southern Illinois Universities’ (SIU’s) bench test is 8 hours long and covers 6 different procedures, from cavity preps to removable partial denture preparations. She not only finished on time but aced her test. These are the ways in which she prepared. We understand that there isn’t a one size fits all approach here –
- On-site training
- At home training
- Peer evaluation
- Online courses
Let’s take a deeper dive into each of the options that Nourah used so that you could do them too –
- At home training
Since Nourah and I are into yoga, I’m going to use the yoga analogy to explain this approach. Bench tests, like fitness, are the best when you train at home. When you work out at home, you have the freedom to create your own schedule, customize your routine, and avoid the distractions and anxieties that come from peer pressure. Similarly, when you prepare for the bench test at home, you can take your time, tailor your preparation to the specific needs of the schools you are applying to, and can avoid the pressure and intimidation that comes from peering eyes.
Here are some tips to keep in mind as you develop your at-home training curriculum –
- Block Time. You need to prep when you are empty stomach and immediately after a workout. You need to practice at a time when your adrenaline makes up for your glycogen.
- Customize your training. First, make a list of schools you’ve applied to and list the bench test procedures that they typically test students in. Practice in the decreasing order of difficulty.
- Test permutations. You might be working with one type of typodont, mannequin, or tooth. Switch it up every day during training. Your burr pressure should change intuitively based on the tooth you use
- Double down on weaknesses. Don’t procrastinate in practicing those long RPD procedures because they’re tough and boring. Do them more at the start of your training periods and more often.
If you are wondering how to set up your own personal lab in your garage or study room, here is a video that will help you –
- Hands-on courses
This is a practical exam. Therefore practical training is naturally important. While the criteria for evaluation are pretty well established for each preparation, the evaluation perceptions might be subjective on their level of training. An artist can see imperfections that the untrained eye can’t see. That’s the reason hands-on courses have become so useful. You can get a seasoned professional to both instruct and evaluate your bench test preparations.
Dr. Nourah herself received training at Stevenson’s Dental Solutions back in 2019. Her key dilemma was between the courses offered by Dr. Stevenson and Dr. Duggan, both of whom offer training programs in California, and she eventually chose the former after resonating with his teaching style and optimism.
While many options exist, make sure you choose a program that suits you based on these criteria –
- Price & Affordability: The cost of courses varies depending on the duration and content and can be anywhere from $500 to $5,000. We think affordability is mostly based on how much ROI you seek or how outdated you are with the American way of performing general dental procedures. Remember to ask for payment plans and cash discounts, both of which Nourah used
- Duration: Some courses are designed to be completed in a single day, while others may require a longer time commitment (generally up to 12 days).
- Specific Instructions: Some courses may focus on specific aspects of dentistry, such as fixed prosthodontics, operative dentistry, or restorations of amalgam and composite preparations. It is important to consider whether the program covers the areas you need to improve.
- Organization: Most dentists will be biassed to the schools they’ve trained at or the patient population they are most familiar with. By opting for a specific program, you are opting to be trained in their style of executing a procedure. Sometimes, dental schools themselves offer programs like the one at UOP. We highly recommend this if you’ve applied to those schools.
Here are the different courses available that you can opt from –
- The University of Pittsburgh offers a 3-day bench test course in the second half of the year. In 2021 it happened in October, and in 2022 it happened in August. We couldn’t find the registration link for each year, but it looks like the program costs $2,895 inclusive of all armamentarium in 2021
- The University of Oklahoma offers a 5-day program for $3.995 at their university, and it is pretty compelling as they are using their course as a way to woo potential students. They have one of the lowest stated expectations from a TOEFL score of just 79
- Dr. Duggan’s Course for International Dentists: In his 12-day, Duggan offers training on the following topics. He also has a 5-day version and specific training for the WREB
Class II Amalgam Prep Maxillary Premolar
Class II Amalgam Prep /Maxillary M / Mandibular P&M
Class II composite Preparations and Max & Mand
Occlusal & Axial Reduction Posterior Gold
Axial Reduction of the Proximal Area Preps
Ceramometal Crowns, PFM for Anterior, Posterior
Class III Composite Preparations & Full Ceramic Crown
Gold & Ceramic Onlays / Modify exam preps to pass
- Dr. Stevensons offers both a 7 and 10-day bench preparation course. Known for his flamboyance and extempore personality, his class gets packed every time, mostly with woman applicants who come through referrals. He has secured a certification to offer CE credits and a certification as part of his program. Nourah trained under him when she first applied in 2019
- Dr. Shalini Thasma offers training out of her own clinic in Texas for different durations between 2 and 6 days. She is definitely a favorite among Indian and Pakistani applicants and is more affordable (ranging from $1,900 to $4,200 based on the number of days)
- The University of Buffalo offers a bench test course for International dentists only once a year (most recently in March). The training extends over 4 days covering the following –
Amalgams – Class II amalgam restoration using various forms of matrix bands and a focus on using sectional matrices
Composites – Class II composite restoration
Crowns – Anterior Tooth Preparation for Metal-ceramic Crown (PFM)
Mock Tests and Additional practice with supervision
- Rutgers University offers a bench test preparatory course for $6,295 and 5 days in July. There is a huge upfront deposit of $3000 and a penalty for cancellation of $500, considering they are limited to only 12 students. They cover the following in their course –
Operative dentistry and Fixed Prosthodontics exercises on a mannequin
Amalgam and composite preparations
Crowns – Temporary restoration on a posterior tooth with porcelain and metal and an anterior tooth for a full ceramic crown.
Bridge: temporary restoration for a 3-unit bridge.
Analyze and survey diagnostic models.
Designing RPD (removable partial dentures)
- Our favorite New York University (NYU) offered its version of a bench test course for $2,295 in 2017 and years prior. We aren’t sure if they’re still continuing the program with their new preceptorship program in place. We would recommend checking directly with the school.
3. Peer evaluation
Between 2017 and 2019, Nourah shadowed multiple dentists on the east coast. Dr. Ali at Wellesley Dental Group became her mentor and good friend. He encouraged her to send him images of her preparations on iMessage and provide feedback on what she could improve on. She sent at least 5 prep videos each day in the days before her bench test and attributes his constructive criticism as a major factor to her success in CU’s bench test.
Peer evaluation provides valuable feedback on your clinical skills and techniques. It is essential to seek opinions from an American dentist who has been practicing for at least a decade as they better understand the cultural and professional context in which the bench tests are administered. International dentists may lack familiarity with American dental practices and standards, which could limit the usefulness of their evaluations. Make sure to provide an evaluation framework to your peer mentor so that their feedback remains objective and measurable.
If you need Nourah’s expert eyes evaluation and sharing feedback with you, then check out the bench prep evaluation program for international dentists.
4. Online courses
After completing Stevenson’s course in person at LA, Nourah returned to practice at home for the next three months leading up to the actual bench test dates. As a refresher, she often reviewed the bench prep videos that she received recorded while training. She would compare these videos with her current prep and a benchmark to score herself accurately and notice progress.
While there are many paid options out there to receive videos on how you could prepare for your bench test, we would recommend using just free resources from these two youtube channels.
- Caapid Simplified’s free Youtube videos for Bench tests
- Alternative video repository on US bench preparations
There are a few perks to using an online course, and if you are already familiar with using resources like Coursera or Khan Academy, you probably can skip reading this section
- Ability to repeatedly watch and develop both visual and auditory memory
- Ability to observe preparation from multiple angles, simultaneously
- Ability to witness the preparation in the first-person point-of-view (this kinda depends on where the coach has placed their camera, but most videos are shot from the top)
- Ability to get constant and daily feedback that’s personalized (this is, of course, not comparable with the holistic feedback you receive in person)
The biggest drawback you experience when picking up an online course is that you aren’t able to simulate the real bench test effectively, and like any other training in life, what builds or breaks you in a marathon can never be learned on a treadmill.
Why is Dr. Nourah credible to speak on the subject?
Nourah won Quintessence Award for Restorative Dentistry in 2023, which means she was the best at restorative dentistry at Southern Illinois University. Her professors at SIU grumbled that they “had lost yet another general dentist to orthodontics” when she eventually received admission from UIC for residency.
Nourah believes that her training for the bench test was what propelled her in school. SIU has twice the caseload as other schools like Colorado University or the University of Michigan. Despite the higher patient flow, Nourah finished her case requirements 6 months in advance of graduation. Even the clinic closures due to Covid didn’t stop her. You can either see her success as an exception or try to emulate it by preparing well for your bench.