If at first you don’t succeed…

Emma Louise describes her journey into the dental profession and why students shouldn’t give up on their dreams.

Getting your A-Level results during a global pandemic? Not ideal.  

At the best of times, results days are stressful and full of every emotion under the sun. You may not have got the grades you hoped or worked for; don’t worry a lot can change in a few days.

With clearing and appeals there are things you can do to try and alter the outlook. It’s important not to dwell on those negative feelings, instead recognise them but try to take action quickly. 

On the other hand, you may have achieved the grades you needed. Breathe a sigh of relief – but then comes the ‘It’s real!’ moment.

That’s what I felt, but not in 2009 when I opened my A-level results with all my friends, it was six years later when I finally received that email to say I was in! Then I wasn’t, then I was again…sounds confusing.

It was, but let me talk you through the process. It might make you think twice about giving up. 


More than 10 years have passed since I opened my A-Level results envelope. I would have to go back and check for the actual grades because I threw them away.

They were underwhelming to say the least (think along the lines of two Us and a D).

I couldn’t tell you why, but it is clear I wasn’t working hard at sixth form. I convinced myself I wasn’t smart enough and that I didn’t want to continue education.  

But I did have a BTEC in sports science and with that I applied to university, filtering out courses that would accept my credentials because starting over at sixth from was not an option I would entertain.

That feeling of being left out wasn’t something I wanted to consider. So I went to university in 2009 and had a great time. 

University experience

In my second year, 2010 I took advantage of a study abroad programme and transferred to San Diego State University, California where my extended family live.

The credits I needed to complete in order to transfer back were minimal.

I spent my days learning to surf with the university programme (believe it or not this was one of the official credits I used to transfer back) making friends from all over the world, getting a tan and driving on the wrong side of the road.

Before I knew it I was in my final year of university doing my dissertation and on track for a 2:2.

I always had dentistry in the back of my mind and knew I would struggle if I didn’t start to put in the work.

My amazing tutor, Jon Tan pushed me. My final research project: ‘The effects of maintaining mother tongue in bilingual learners’ received a first.

I graduated in 2012 with a first class BA (Hons) and forgot about dentistry for a while. 

Discovering a route to dentistry

A few years into a graduate job in IT recruitment, the excitement of pushing sales and chasing commission wore off. I realised if I didn’t try now it would never happen.

But I didn’t know where to start. I scoured the depths of the internet and didn’t find much.

The access to information and other students/dental professionals on social media was not as it is today.

I struggled to find anybody in a similar position.  

I started by picking up the phone and asking universities directly: ‘What do I actually need to do to get into dentistry, considering my background.’

Some suggested other degree programmes. They didn’t usually consider A-level retakes.

Others were more open to the idea. Eventually I learnt about the access to medicine programmes.

A one year equivalent to A-levels for adult learners, another route into dentistry! 

Working at a dental lab

Whilst living in Leeds, the closest was at The Manchester College.

At the time I had quit my job in recruitment and started working in a dental laboratory.

I didn’t want to give up the job to start the access programme. It was the only dental related position I’d ever had.

I commuted to Manchester for the three-day-a-week course and worked alternate evenings in the dental lab painting crowns in A3 under a magnifying glass.

While they were firing, I would have 40 minutes to look over notes. The cycle continued. 

 I applied to four BDS programmes. A late interview mid March for Manchester Dental School followed and rejections from all the others.

I was disheartened. To top it off I needed all distinctions on the access programme to gain entry.

I already missed the grade on one module. So even if successful at interview, I would not get the place.

Maybe it was that thought process that made the interview more relaxing. I didn’t feel too much pressure because, regardless of the outcome, I’d missed the grades.

The interview day came, everyone was lovely. I had a wander around Manchester and went home.  

Chasing grades

Whilst waiting for the interview outcome I realised that my maths GCSE from 2017 was at grade C not the required B (ever told a white lie to your parents that much you start to believe it? That is what had happened!).

I called around every secondary school asking to take the exam as an external candidate. One laughed down the phone at me: ‘You do know it’s March now?’

Many calls later, one a few hours away said yes.

I ordered an AQA maths book from Amazon and went back to converting fractions for a few weeks and scraped the B.  

An offer

To my surprise I got an offer on the five-year BDS!

I was devastated though. The offer was there and yet I already failed on the grade conditions.

After contacting the dental school there was nothing they could do.

I finished my access course, got an NHS admin job for the summer, moved back in with my parents and got back in touch with my old employer in recruitment, tail between my legs.

At least I had tried.  

Dentistry with a foundation year 

On my lunch break I found the old interview invite email from Manchester and made one last attempt.

I called to ‘Check if anything had changed.’

Looking back, I don’t even know what that meant or what I was actually asking for. The next day this email arrived: ‘It is most disappointing that you did not achieve distinctions in all your level three chemistry credits. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that we can confirm your place on the five-year programme.

‘However, we would be prepared to seriously consider you for the six-year BDS programme (dentistry with a foundation year).’

The six-year programme was new to me and six years meant graduating at 30. It felt ancient at the time.

My family encouraged me to go for it and I did.

If you had told me in September 2020, 10 years after wanting to do dentistry I’d be entering my final year, I would never have believed you. 

Everything ‘figures itself out’

Having worked in other sectors before dental school I really do appreciate the dental field.

You can’t compare the interaction with patients and satisfaction from your first patient ‘thank you’ to anything else. 

So, 10 years, 14 jobs, nine house moves and lots of support from my amazing parents and brother I finally feel like I’m at the finish line.

I definitely wouldn’t have passed my maths GCSE retake at 24, let alone the BDS exams if it wasn’t for those three.

But if I can get to my final year in a decade, you definitely can try again next year!

Just don’t forget to try and enjoy everything between your 10 years. The rest usually figures itself out.

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