Failing the Board Exam: Dental Hygienist Reflects on Tougher Road Taken

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Two summers ago, I was preparing to retake my clinical board exam. I had already failed the exam in Great Falls, Montana, and was preparing to drive to Boise, Idaho, to retake the exam. I had never been to Boise. I had never been to or even seen another dental hygiene school. Failure in Boise would have meant that I would need to complete another semester of schooling before the board examiners would let me test again.

A lot was on the line for me, including my confidence and self-esteem. Thankfully, my perseverance, all of the extra hours of practice, and my belief in myself carried me through, and I passed the exam in Boise with flying colors.

My fall and rise took place in summer 2019. Since receiving my license to practice in Montana, I have had many experiences in my young career. I worked in community health and now am employed by two private practices in my new hometown and temp for an agency as my schedule allows. Like the rest of you, I experienced and survived the 2020 pandemic. Now that we have slowed down and I have almost two years of “real world” dental hygiene experience under my belt, I have time to reflect on 2019.

Road Not Taken

Failing the exam will make you feel like your world is forever changed. It has. You either let that failure sink your dreams and take you down with it, or you let it turn you into a more courageous, skillful captain of your life. It is like Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken,” where the traveler has the chance to take the safe and easy route, but in the end, is grateful that they picked the less rough and rugged route.

Do not give up your dream to be a dental hygienist. It is easy to give up and much more difficult to keep moving forward, but I believe if you give up, you will feel worse as a quitter than you would as a failure. Try and try again.

If you have failed any of your board exams, I want you to know that “The Road Not Taken” was worth it. I would do it all over again to have this career as a dental hygienist. I feel blessed and lucky every day to get to go to work. I have the privilege of filling my days with so many kind and extraordinary patients who share with me their stories and trust me with their care. I get to work with and meet other talented and passionate dental professionals who share common interests and loves with me. My paychecks give me the freedom to travel and treat myself and offer security.

I have confidence and a strong belief that I can accomplish and do anything because I persevered and kept walking down “The Road Not Taken.” Love yourself enough to give yourself these gifts.

Hurdling Financial Obstacles

Financially I no longer regret the money I had to invest in retesting. Know that even though you may begin your dental hygiene career with debt from your unexpected expenses, you will catch back up, and one day the extra money you invested in yourself and your career will pay for itself.

I had to be disciplined with my paychecks for a few months, but such is life. Use this opportunity to practice budgeting and when your debt is paid off, continue putting that amount into something fun, like a vacation fund or savings for a down payment on a new car. Burdens seem to have a lovely way of shapeshifting into opportunities if we only chose to adjust our perspective.

Failure is Not a Solo Journey

Many of my classmates failed their board exams, including the clinical, written anesthesia, and clinical anesthesia exams. 92% of students who take the required National Board Dental Hygiene Examination (NBDHE) pass, which means that, on average, eight out of 100 students fail the exam per year.1 The pass rate for the Commission on Dental Competency Assessments (CDCA) is even lower at 89%.2  Keep these statistics in mind and remember that you are not alone if you too have failed one of your exams.

After publishing my first article about my exam failure, many students, hygienists, and even their family members reached out to me and shared their stories or asked for advice. It helped me not to feel so alone in my experience, and neither are you. Take the time to reach out to others if you crave support and people who understand. Find comfort in knowing that you can meet travel companions on “The Road Not Taken” if you need them. I shared my tips for passing the exam in my previous article, but I also found many other stories online and on YouTube.

Failure Doesn’t Lower Your Worth

When I came home from Boise after finally passing the clinical exam, I got my license and began the job search. I was asked to interview at a periodontist’s office, and I was thrilled. I had a sit-down interview and a working interview where I completed two quads of SRP on two patients. I felt like I killed it … until the doctor asked me why I was looking for my first job so late when I had graduated months ago in May. I answered him honestly, telling him that I had failed my clinical exam in May and had to retest in Boise in August. His response? “That’s concerning.”

Do you ever have an experience where you aren’t sure what to say, and then days, weeks, or sometimes even years later, you wish you had spoken up? This interview was one of those moments for me. If I could go back to that moment in time, I would inform that doctor that, as a matter of fact, my failure wasn’t, isn’t, and will never be concerning.

If you fail or have failed, please do not ever let someone make you feel like less than because of your failure. Here is why:

  1. Failing the board exam was rough. As I mentioned in my first article, I also had a devastating breakup shortly after failing the exam. I was so depressed, scared, and unsure about my future. I feel I have more empathy now for people who might have insecurities similar to what I experienced. I don’t belittle or shrug off others’ struggles because, though they may look small on the outside, I know how gargantuan they are inside.
  2. After I failed the exam, I knew I couldn’t lay in my room and be miserable all summer. I began formulating a new plan that very night. I discussed options with my instructors and classmates, and I looked up the WREB testing locations nearest to Montana. I learned to problem solve and look to the future. I learned to hustle and do what I needed to do, even though I was embarrassed by my failure and didn’t want to be back in the school clinic. I did what needed to be done to be successful.
  3. I spent the months before my retake busting out SRPs. The skill needed to pass the second exam was the same skill necessary to pass the first time, so I know I had the clinical strength to be a strong hygienist when I left that retake exam. I knew I had earned my place in the field. A friend of mine even pointed out that the extra practice may have given me an edge at my first job. To me, extra practice is like extra cheese on your pizza ─ it never hurts!

I honestly have grown in ways that I couldn’t have imagined, thanks to failing that stinkin’ exam. Now that I’m working and happy in my career, it really doesn’t matter anymore. The embarrassment carried a lesson, the heartache carried a lesson, and the tough work and time I had to invest both carried lessons. Don’t be ashamed of yourself, and don’t let anyone else make you feel lesser than. “The Road Less Taken” is an adventure worth being proud of.

I appreciate the support and gratitude expressed to me in the last two years and since sharing my story with the readers of Today’s RDH. Continue reaching out and supporting each other. Believe in the wonderful life you will have waiting at the end of the rough and rugged routes you choose to take.

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  1. NBDHE Dental Hygiene Board Exam Question Bank. (2021). Board Vitals. Retrieved from
  2. Licensure Pass Rates. (2018, August 30). University of New England Office of Institutional Research. Retrieved from