If at first you don’t succeed…are A-level results the be all and end all?

Emma ArjemandfarFollowing a tense and highly unusual A-Level results day this week we chat to final year dental student Emma Arjemandfar and newly-qualified dentist Yewande Oduwole about their journey into dentistry and how the direct route is not always the only route.

Emma shares her journey with us first

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 now 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, breath 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. 

Not the ‘be all’ and ‘end all’

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, something like that) 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 form was not an option I would entertain. That feeling of being left out wasn’t something I wanted to consider and so I went to university in 2009 and had a great time. 

Heading to sunnier climates

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 and 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 few years. 

It’s now or never

A few years into a graduate job in IT recruitment, the excitement of pushing sales and chasing commission wore off and 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 as they didn’t usually consider A-Level retakes, others were more open to the idea and eventually I learnt about the access to medicine programmes. A one year equivalent to A-Levels for adult learners, another route into dentistry

Putting in the hours

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/week course and worked alternate evenings in the dental lab painting crowns in A3 under a magnifying glass. While they were firing I had 40 minutes to look over notes. The cycle continued. 

I applied to four BDS programmes, got a late interview mid March for Manchester Dental School and rejections from all the others. This was disheartening and to top it off I needed all distinctions on the access programme to gain entry. I had already missed the grade on one module so even if I was 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 as 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.  

Back to the GCSEs

Whilst waiting for the interview outcome I realised that my maths GCSE from 2007 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.

You’ve got the offer…but

To my surprise I got an offer on the five-year BDS! I was devastated though, the offer was there and yet I had already failed on the grade conditionsAfter contacting the dental school there was nothing that could be done. So 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, I thought.  

On my lunch break I found the old interview invite email from Manchester and made one last attempt. I just 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 and therefore, it is highly unlikely that we will be able to 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 busiest decade yet

The six-year programme was new to me and six years meant graduating aged 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. 

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 aged 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 in between your ‘10 years’ as the rest usually figures itself out.

Don’t give up at the first hurdle (or second or third!)
For help and advice along the way you can find me on Instagram @thedental.diaries / Emma Arjemandfar.

Next up we hear from Yewande Oduwole

During my time at sixth form I decided to do the international baccalaureate diploma as opposed to traditional A-Levels. This consisted of six subjects chemistry, biology, psychology, maths, German and English. It was quite a lot to juggle at once! Despite this, I was a very eager student and was up for the challenge. I had my heart set on dentistry and knew that I needed to get a ‘six’ in chemistry, biology and psychology (equivalent to three As) in order to secure my place at dental school. At the time I had two offers, I just needed to get the grades. 

Results day

However, when results day arrived I was absolutely devastated to discover that I had missed my grade by 1%. I was heartbroken to say the least, it felt like my dreams of becoming a dentist had shattered right before my eyes. After digging deep into my pockets, I paid the prices needed to get my paper remarked but still nothing changed. I remember welling up on the spot and tears began to pour down my eyes. I felt numb, despondent and ultimately discouraged. Negative thoughts began to consume my mind. I was convinced that I was a failure. My mind was scrambled, I didn’t want to speak to anyone and had no idea what to do.

In the end, after eventually speaking to family and friends, I decided to take a year out to redo the exams, get some more work experience and try again. Taking a year out whilst all of your friends go off to university is not easy at all. I had to swallow a lot of pride and stay focused on the end goal. I put all of my energy into ensuring that I got the best grades possible, I didn’t want the same thing to happen again. Luckily, I ended up getting another offer from Peninsula Dental School (University of Plymouth), which is where I ended up studying for five years and now I can proudly say that I am finally a qualified dentist. 

Yewande Oduwole

Embracing the journey

My journey was not the most traditional route to dentistry. But looking back I wouldn’t change a single thing and I am actually very grateful that I went through it. It has genuinely shaped me into the person I am today and allowed the birth of my Youtube channel. Where I have been able to help many others that have found themselves in similar situations. 

If you want to find out more about my story you can watch my latest video on Youtube.

My advice during this time would be to keep trying and never give up at the first sign of failure. Embrace it as it allows you to grow. It doesn’t matter how you get there, if dentistry is your passion then you can reach your end goal.

Some practical steps to take

  1. Call universities to see whether they have any spaces, you may be surprised. Due to COVID there may be more spaces than anticipated this year
  2. Consider retaking or taking a gap year, it is not as bad as it sounds!)It can help you reflect and grow as a person
  3. Graduate entry may also be a viable option. There are so many other degrees such as biomedical science, dental materials and dental hygiene that can help as a stepping stone into dentistry.

Whatever you decide to do, put your mind to it and you will get there. If anyone needs someone to talk to about their options you can find me on instagram at @dr.yewandedental.


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