Quick Guide for Success: Operative

Operative is one of the first clinically relevant courses you will take in dental school (hallelujah)! Although it is offered early in your dental school career, operative is undoubtedly one of the most important courses you will take. Not only will you be required to perform restorative procedures during your board licensure exam, but operative is often referred to as the “bread and butter” of dentistry. In essence, this is what you will be doing, everyday, for the rest of your life!

Your operative course will typically entail both a lecture and sim-lab component, in which you will learn how to prepare (drill) and restore (fill) teeth. Continue reading for my top 5 tips to ace operative!

1. Prepare for Sim-Lab

Truthfully, this tip is something I struggled with during my D1 year. You will inevitably be pinched for time, BUT preparing for sim-lab is worth staying up a little late or waking up a little early. You should prepare for every single sim-lab session by reviewing the prep dimensions and restoration procedures ahead of time. See my “Operative Quick Guide” below for more information. If you can arrive early to set up your tray and manikin, you will be ahead of the game!

2. Tackle Indirect Vision

Another confession: I avoided indirect vision for way too long! Indirect vision is utilized when you cannot directly see the area you are treating. Instead, you will use the mouth mirror to direct your movements. Initially, using indirect vision is challenging! It feels unnatural, and you will likely feel very uncoordinated! While it’s tempting to manipulate the manikin or contort your body to avoid using indirection vision, do not dodge the opportunity to develop this skill. If you avoid implementing indirect vision, you are only delaying the inevitable! It’s best to develop this skill in sim-lab before treating patients in clinic.

3. Purchase loupes

Be sure to check out my Quick Guide for Purchasing Loupes! When should you purchase loupes? You should be comfortable with your loupes in time for your first operative practical. So, you should have them in-hand roughly two weeks prior to your first operative practical. Why this benchmark? Because your professors will use their loupes to grade you! You should be analyzing your work at the same level of magnification that it’s being graded at. Remember, it may take nearly a month to receive your loupes once ordered. Ask your sales rep for more information on lead times.

4. Save money 

As you develop your hand-skills during D1 and D2 years, you will need to purchase additional manikin teeth. However, it’s an understatement to say that dental school is expensive…and manikin teeth add up! One savvy tip to save money is to purchase extra manikin teeth from upperclassmen (especially graduating seniors). Many seniors have no use for manikin teeth anymore, and will either donate the teeth for free, or charge you a nominal price. The teeth at my school increased in price each year, so try to stock up early!

5. Understand your Grade

Your operative grade is comprised of both the lecture component (exams) and the sim-lab component (practicals). You should carefully examine the course syllabus to identify exactly what portion of your grade each component is assigned, then allocate your efforts accordingly. For example, if the lecture component comprises 30% of your final grade and the sim-lab component comprises 70% of your final grade, you should focus your efforts more heavily on sim-lab. 

This advice sounds simplistic, but dental students are notorious for being over-achievers! However, you will take ~49 credits your D1 year. There is simply not enough time in the day to study in the same manner as undergrad. Rather than working harder, you must learn to work smarter. Tackle your courses in a strategic manner to maximize your time.

What additional tips do you have to ace operative? Comment below!


For a competitive edge in sim-lab, download my Operative Quick Guide below. This comprehensive guide includes: caries classification, bur selection, ideal prep dimensions, and composite resin restorative procedures. Be sure to cross-reference your faculty’s guidelines as well (individual practitioners may differ).


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