Reflecting on dental hygiene school: Tips about school I wish I could have told myself – RDH Magazine

Kara Vavrosky
Hygiene school. Some may read those words and remember the tears shed and their overwhelmed and stressed feelings. Others may remember the wonderful times, friends they made, and the joy of hard work turning into success. For me, it’s a combination of all of the above. For those students just beginning their journey through hygiene school, I’d like to share some words of encouragement and tell you some things that, looking back, I wish I could have told myself as a new student.
The dental hygiene program is vigorous. In my first week of hygiene school I spent more time staring at my books and all of the assignments I had to complete than actually sitting down and doing them. I was overwhelmed and didn’t even know where to start. I’m somewhat of a perfectionist and when something needs to get done, I want it done yesterday. Patience was something I had to learn very quickly.
The first week was also when I became organized. For example, each week I made an assignment sheet of what I needed to do that week and when assignments were due, including homework and exams; then I prioritized them. Procrastination wasn’t an option. That’s my first bit of advice – get organized and don’t procrastinate.
I thought I was a pretty tough cookie and could handle quite a bit when the going got tougher. However, at about week three, I found myself in the student lounge crying. Some of you may never experience this, but I sure did. The stress had gotten to me. I was questioning my choice and my abilities. I questioned if I could even make it through the program or whether I should just quit. Thanks to some second-year classmates and a few truly invested instructors, I was “talked off the ledge.” They reminded me of my fascination with dentistry and how badly I wanted to be a dental hygienist, and they assured me I wasn’t alone in feeling the stress.
This brings me to my next point. Everyone who has earned their degree as a dental hygienist made it through school with effort and hard work, and you can too! As the weeks and months go by, you’ll find your routine and it will become easier. Find a mentor, whether it be a teacher or an older student, ask questions, and take in all the tips and tricks from this person that you can.
As the weeks and months went by, I questioned why my instructors made us do certain things. How many times am I going to have to write a paper on a research study and pick it apart for validity? Why in the world do I have seven pages to fill out for each patient I see in clinic? What is up with all of these clinical competencies and requirements each term? And for the love of teeth, why can’t I get a straight answer when I ask a question instead of being told to go look it up and find my own answer?
Though I didn’t understand at the time, looking back now I realize why my instructors had students do each and every one of these things. These activities were all in preparation for making me the best hygienist I could be. I’ve needed to be able to read research and gauge its validity throughout my entire career. When I see patients in private practice, I don’t have to think twice when giving a gingival description or describing a lesion. Bitewings, injections, and other competencies also became second nature.
And the most frustrating of them all, not getting a straight answer, was to teach me that even if I didn’t know something-because no one can know everything-I’m perfectly capable of finding my own answer. My instructors enforced critical thinking, which is not only absolutely necessary as a dental hygienist, but is a valuable life trait.
Some other things I wish I could have told myself are not to just cram and memorize information for a test, but to give myself time to study and really learn the information. This makes studying for and taking boards that much easier.
Don’t compare yourself to other classmates. Hygiene school is not a race. Just because so-and-so has open contacts on radiographs every time doesn’t mean that you will also be able to take perfect radiographs every time without practice. Your instructors are there to help you learn, so take advantage of them while you can because they are valuable resources. If you just can’t seem to adapt the instrument on the distal of tooth 15, find an instructor and spend time to learn technique. Pick their brains because they are full of wonderful tricks. Further, don’t get frustrated when your instructors correct you. If you learn how to take constructive criticism, you will excel. This was tough for me to learn, but once I did, everything changed.
Again, dental hygiene is a vigorous program, and it’s like that for a reason. I couldn’t see it during school, but afterward I am actually thankful for everything my teachers and the program put me through. You get out of hygiene school what you put into it. I encourage you to really apply yourself and enjoy the ride! RDH
Kara Vavrosky, RDH, runs the popular Facebook page, Dental Hygiene with Kara RDH, and is also the founder of, a question and answer platform for dental hygienists. Kara serves on the Clinical Advisory Board of GoodMouth, a toothbrush subscription service, and the Advisory Board of Support Clean Dentistry, an initiative to raise awareness of cleanliness in the dental office. Kara currently works for a one-doctor, family-oriented practice in Portland, Oregon.


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