PHHP Pathways: Dental school. How a B.H.S. prepared Ilana Sacks for a career in dentistry  

By Katarina Fiorentino Klatzkow

Ilana Sacks chose the University of Florida College of Public Health and Health Professions as the springboard to launch her career in dentistry.   

During her undergraduate studies at PHHP, Sacks, who received her Bachelor of Health Science in 2023, participated in a variety of research, professional and service projects that solidified her dedication to the dental profession. She served as the service coordinator for the DDS, UF’s pre-dental honor society and as a delegate for the health care showcase. In addition to her involvement with a variety of pre-dental clubs at UF, Sacks was a member of PHHP’s LEAP program, a mentorship initiative that connects pre-health students.  

She volunteered for a variety of community service-related projects and was a member of PSO, a preprofessional service organization for students interested in pursuing a career in health care. Sacks held leadership positions in UF’s U Matter, We Care, a campus mental health and wellness program to help students succeed in their collegiate endeavors. Outside of her leadership and service experiences, Sacks also worked as a dental assistant with her family dentist and as a research assistant in the UF College of Dentistry, where she conducted research that was published in the American Journal of Dentistry relating to burning mouth syndrome in patients hospitalized for COVID-19. Additionally, she volunteered and assisted at mobile dental clinics and FreeD.O.M. clinic, which provides free dental services to underserved populations that otherwise would not receive care. These practical experiences in the field of dentistry have informed her long-term goals of making dental care more accessible and affordable. 

Now a first-year dental student at the University of Pennsylvania, Sacks shares how a background in health science has prepared her for her training to become a practicing dental professional. 

Why Dentistry?

Question: What inspired you to pursue a career in dentistry and where do you see yourself in 10 years?  

Answer: I have always known from a young age that I wanted to do dentistry, which is not necessarily the norm for most people that are interested in this profession. I grew up wanting to help people and both of my parents are in the health care field. Ultimately, I just wanted to do something that I felt was rewarding for myself and other people. As a child I ended up seeing the dentist a lot, to have baby teeth pulled, orthodontics for a cross bite, and braces. For my cross bite, every night I would have to turn a key, and I would see my tooth move. As I got older, pursuing dentistry was a matter of knowing that I wanted to go in the direction of health care, wanting to help people, but also that I liked the fact that I could physically see the results of what I was doing, similar to turning the key on that appliance every night. And hopefully, I’m helping my patients to feel better about themselves, and I’m helping them build their confidence as well. Once I started shadowing and working, I was really able to see the impact dentists make on patients. The oral cavity is the entrance to the whole body, and oral health makes such a big difference to a person’s overall systemic health.  

In the next 10 years, I plan to graduate from dental school, and after that, I am most likely going to specialize. My interests lie in orthodontics or pediatric dentistry because I assisted in a pediatric office for the last few years on breaks from school. This really opened my eyes to see how dentistry worked through a pandemic. I like working with kids and patients with disabilities, and I want to make dental care more accessible and affordable for people too. My ultimate goal after residency is to have my own practice.  

The Application Process

Q: What is the process like to apply for dental school?  

A: Applying to dental school is a similar process to applying for medical school. It’s different in some of the prerequisites you take in undergrad, and instead of the MCAT, which is the exam used for admissions to medical school, you take the Dental Admission Test (DAT) to apply to dental schools. You complete the application through the AADSAS, which is the Associated American Dental Schools Application Service. First, you populate biographical information, and then the application has a section about your academics: what classes you took, your major, where you went to school, your GPA. You add your test scores, extracurriculars, etc. Then, you add your personal statement and letters of recommendation, which usually come from professors or dentistry practitioners. I also had a letter from my research supervisor as well. Following that, you add the schools you are applying to and many will have their own supplemental questions or applications. After that, interviews depend on the school, some are in-person and others on Zoom. I think visiting schools also makes a big difference to get an idea of student life, the faculty and the atmosphere. Finally, there is decision day, which usually occurs mid-December, and you can keep getting interviews and hearing from schools up to the start of the cycle you applied for. In trying to determine where I would attend dental school, I looked at class size, cost, location of the school, board pass rates, residency matches, dual degree opportunities such as with an M.B.A. or M.P.H., and then specific programs of interest tailored to what I wanted from my dental school education.  


Q: Why did you choose PHHP to help you achieve your dream of becoming a dentist and how do you think your background in health science, as opposed to say a hard science degree such as chemistry or physics, can help a student in their journey to becoming a dentist?  

A: I’ve always been working toward getting into dental school, and I came into UF knowing that I wanted to do something that would help prepare me with the best education to get to where I wanted to be. I didn’t actually know about the Bachelor of Health Science program until Preview. After learning about the program, I decided that I wanted to pursue health science, because I felt like it was going to prepare me more for my field. I could still take all of the prerequisites needed for dental school, like biology, chemistry, physics, etc., while also obtaining a better background in patient care. I can say from what I am currently learning in dental school and interacting with patients, I’ve definitely seen how my background in health science has benefitted me.  

In my undergraduate studies I took many courses on disease and disability, and now working with patients, I’m interacting with people from so many different backgrounds. I think it’s really important that you learn about and are able to apply this knowledge of disease and disability clinically, and also to remember to look at treatment from a public health perspective. For example, in dental school, one of the big public health topics we’ll talk about is fluoride in water. And in my classes at PHHP, we would discuss this topic too. Learning about things like that and seeing how it can be applied to my future career was really helpful for me.  

Tips for Future Dentists!

Q: What advice do you have for current PHHP students who are thinking about or planning to apply to dental school? 


  • Journal your experiences throughout undergrad. I’ve always heard people say to journal your experiences and write your thoughts down, such as when you’re shadowing or volunteering, so it’s easier to write your dental school application when that time comes. For me, I would take pictures at events and that would help bring me back. And if I had an interaction with a patient that maybe I would want to talk about in my personal statement, I would jot thoughts down on a notes page. As you’re going along, think about how everything you’re doing is really impacting your future goals.
  • Submit your application early and talk to current students. The soft opening of the application cycle is really important, especially because you want to submit your application early. The earlier you submit it, the earlier you’ll be called or able to do interviews. Also, talk with current students at schools you want to go to, because you can learn a lot from hearing about their experiences.  
  • Ensure dentistry is what you want to do! There are so many people that get to medical school and are so focused on wanting to do medicine, but then realize it’s not what they really want to do. The biggest thing is shadowing and seeing the different aspects of dentistry, and making sure you would be happy doing any of those things, especially because you must do general dentistry before you can specialize. Make sure you know 100% that this is what you want to do, because it’s a very long journey. You want to be sure you are truly happy with your choice of career!  
  • Make the most of your free time. I think a huge thing is trying to take advantage of the time that you have and the little free time you get. For me, that’s working out, running, listening to music, and spending time with friends and family. Try to make the most of the time you have! 
  • Do what you are passionate about! I think that was something I was able to express very well in personal statements and interviews. People can tell if you are, for example, doing research for the sake of doing research, or if you did an activity because you were genuinely passionate about it. For me, I was being able to talk about DDS, UF’s pre-dental honor society, which was a club that really impacted me, as well as my passion for mental health and my work with U Matter, We Care. Do things you are truly passionate about, not just what you think will look good on an application.  


For information regarding the path to becoming a dentist and applying to dental school, please check out these resources: