by Samantha Helgeson

The Canadian dental education system: “defeating, political, and nearly impossible.”

Graduating from MacEwan University with a Physical Sciences degree, majoring in chemistry and physics while minoring in genetic biology, Markian Kolonsky began what became an arduous quest to obtain entrance to a Canadian dental institution.

It had been a dream, a dream that had started when he was 12 years old, and one that soon became an impossibility. Although Kolonsky’s undergraduate score was 3.92/4 and he scored within the 97 percentile on the Dental Aptitude Test (DAT), there were only 29 spots available for entrance at the University of Alberta at the time.

There are ten dental schools in Canada and each prioritizes its limited number of seats for its provincial residents. In 2020 the University of Alberta offered 26 seats for Alberta residents, three for out-of-province students and two for international students, and had 337 applications. The University of British Columbia offered six seats for both out-of-province and international students and had 380 applications. If a student is denied entrance in their own province, the chances of getting into another dental school within Canada are slim, as the grades and DAT scores for out-of-province students required are typically higher than the in-province students.

Not only are seats extremely limited, but getting accepted into dental school is highly competitive. The University of Alberta’s acceptance requirements (like other Canadian dental institutions) look at students’ overall grade point average (OGPA), DAT scores, and interview scores, with each weighted at 50%, 25%, and 25%. A dentistry applicant in Canada can only get an interview for a potential seat if they first pass the GPA and DAT requirements.

“The first year I applied to the University of Alberta and got the interview I wasn’t expecting to get in, but going forward I did follow-up with them,” Kolonsky explains, “We had an interview, and we talked, and I said ‘Hey, this is my grade point average, this is my DAT score, this was my interview score, where can I improve?’”

Kolonsky was directed to re-write the DAT or increase his GPA to increase the likelihood of getting accepted into one of the universities he applied to.

“I even took an entire year off of work just to go back to university to get a 4.00 GPA. Even then, I didn’t get accepted,” states Kolonsky.

He applied to the University of Alberta three times and managed to get an interview each time. However, each time he was denied entrance.

“I think the biggest hurdle in Canada is that each province prioritizes its own citizens, and that’s very discouraging because if you’re from Alberta, and they have one of the lowest amounts of seats available of all dental schools…it’s a pretty low admission rate. That really limits you to your own province,” Kolonsky states, “I think one of the biggest things is that if the schools would not have that prioritization or favouritism to their own citizens, their own residents of their own province, that would definitely help. And, I mean, ideally, having more seats available would also help more qualified people gain admissions.”

With no other options, Kolonsky was forced to look at attending school internationally. He decided to apply to the University of Sydney in Australia. He applied once, was interviewed, and was accepted. His dentistry journey officially began in 2018.

In comparison to Canadian dental requirements, the University of Sydney was only looking at the OGPA to grant applicants an interview. Once an interview was secured, the application requirements depended on DAT scores and interview scores, with each weighted evenly.

“And to me, that makes sense because the interview is standardized. Everyone is getting asked the same questions at that same time, and the DAT is also a standardized exam, where, in my opinion, GPA isn’t really a good reflection because it isn’t standardized,” says Kolonsky, “Personally, I think [the interview] should be considered one of the highest components in admissions into dental school because as a medical professional, it very important that you can listen to your patients’ needs and effectively communicate.”

Like Kolonsky, many Canadians who want to pursue dentistry but cannot be accepted into a Canadian institution have considered studying abroad.

“Based on how the system is set up in Canada, I find that it is very difficult to gain admissions, even if you are more than enough qualified, which is forcing a lot of people in Canada to go study abroad,” Kolonsky explains, “In my first year of university we got to know the class, and we did a poll to see where everyone was from, as a demographic within the class, and it was interesting that over half the class in my year was Canadian… I find it interesting that so many Canadians are forced, or need, to go abroad to get their dream education.”

Although Kolonsky had finally secured a seat in dentistry, studying as an international student came with its own set of challenges.

Studying abroad: “The number one challenge is the financial aspect.”

As of 2020, tuition fees for the University of Sydney as an international dental student are, for the first year, $82 000. Tuition is subject to an annual increase each year of study. Dentistry students must also purchase the specific equipment and supplies for their course. The tuition costs do not include the cost of living as a student in a different country.

“It’s been quite a challenge financially to go abroad. If I were to have gone to a Canadian institution, I could have walked into any financial institution and got a line of credit for school, no problem; I wouldn’t need a co-signer because I live in Canada. But to go abroad, I [needed] a co-signer, and that makes sense because they need to secure their financial interest,” Kolonsky expresses, “It’s quite a substantial cost just to be abroad. The government doesn’t really help. I can apply for Alberta student loans, but they don’t cover all of your tuition, let alone your living expenses. And that’s why you have to go to a financial institution and get extra money.”

Getting a line of credit for studying abroad was another challenge.

“I come from a middle-class family. And to cover a $400 000 line of credit, which is pretty typical for someone to study abroad in Australia at least, I wasn’t able to get that because my parents weren’t in a financial position to co-sign for me,” discloses Kolonsky, “The only person who could co-sign for me is my grandmother, and she’s a retired pensioner. Realistically, the only form of collateral she had was her own home, and she used that as collateral and signed it over in order for me to get a loan.”

Unfortunately, Kolonsky was only able to obtain half of the amount that was needed for the four years of school. He had also been told that the loan could be extended, but by the end of 2019, when the loan was almost depleted, the financial lender discontinued their international student loan program.

“The number one challenge [with studying abroad] would be the financial aspect. And it wouldn’t be trying to get financing from the government; it would be trying to get financing from an institution. If you have no one to co-sign for you, it would be pretty much impossible to get a loan,” asserts Kolonsky, “The biggest thing, in hindsight, was making sure that I was completely funded for the entire four years, hence why I had to go start a Go Fund Me to finish.”

Dentistry as a career: “Where you study doesn’t matter; it’s all about the journey at the end of the day.”

Markian nonetheless has an optimistic take on the future of dentistry.

“Where you study does not matter. It’s all about the journey at the end of the day— it doesn’t matter how long or where you have to go to make your dream happen. It is just unfortunate with the vast challenges to get admission into our own country, and financing is another hurdle to consider while deciding to go abroad,” Kolonsky states, “I think ideally the financial aspect is easiest if you get into a Canadian institution. If you have no one to co-sign for you, then I think you should try to get into a Canadian institution because the government funds alone will not be able to cover you [internationally]. If you do have someone that is able to help you financially, I think going abroad is a wonderful opportunity to pursue your education. There is inherent value in going and living somewhere else in the world. You get to see a different culture, a different perspective, you get to see things from another side of the coin. I think that I’ve really grown and matured as a person doing something like [this].”

Markian stated that if anyone considering dental school had any questions about the process or had concerns about dental schooling in Canada or going abroad, then he would be more than happy to chat. He can be reached at: Mkol5956@uni.Sydney.edu.au

Markian’s Go Fund Me can be found at: https://www.gofundme.com/f/su2j9-markians-5-year-toothache?qid=330aba122c87c9326a1380d92958e9bb