Here are a few boxes to check before starting on your path to veterinary school and joining this profession.
It’s a phrase that many of us have uttered to our parents at some point during our childhood. It’s an all too common response to the age-old question that children get asked as they age — what do you want to be when you grow up?
I want to be a veterinarian. I want to work with animals and play with puppies all day long.
It’s a noble cause and, from an unbiased standpoint, I personally think it’s one of the best jobs in the world. I don’t believe there is any other option in medicine where you can go straight from extracting a tooth into a semi-complex abdominal surgery and then finish your day working up a complicated medicine case. The challenges of the veterinary world are exciting and novel — often changing on an hour to hour basis.
The path to veterinary school is different for everybody, and in my graduating class, there were people who used to be realtors, writers, veterinary technicians, and many other things. Some of us carried the dream of being a veterinarian throughout our childhood and into adulthood, but certainly not everybody.
So, how do you do it?
Becoming a veterinarian is a different path now than it used to be. Some things have changed and others haven’t. We will break down the requirements to get into veterinary school into a few broad categories to make it easier to plan. Now, I have never sat on an admissions committee for a veterinary school, but this information is rooted in my own experience of applying as well as discussions with admissions counselors and classmates along the way.
Experience, as with all professions, is a major factor in applying and being accepted into a veterinary school. Many veterinary schools are looking for hands-on animal experience as well as hands-off experience. The hands-on experience is self-explanatory. It is best to get yourself into a veterinary clinic to shadow and also to ideally learn valuable handling and technical skills. I’ve mentioned in other articles, that I began shadowing in a veterinary clinic when I was in 6th grade. Subsequently, I began working in the kennels and then eventually as a technician’s assistant where I learned restraint, blood draws, IV catheter placement, etc. I was able to amass quite the list of experience hours through this work, and I believe that it went a long way towards my being accepted into veterinary school. I focused heavily on small animal experience because that was my interest, but large animal experience is equally warranted. I simply shadowed for a few days during the summer with an equine veterinarian to try to check this box. During my application cycle, schools were looking for about 1,000 hours of experience directly related to animal care and a similar amount of more hands-off experience.
This latter category is a bit more abstract and can be satisfied with a variety of jobs. The hands-off experience is meant to ensure that you already possess, or were able to develop, the critical-thinking and problem-solving mindsets that are required in the veterinary world. Experiences can include volunteering for the wildlife rehabilitation centers or volunteering for education workshops at your local aquarium for example — these jobs do not always directly relate to veterinary medicine, but still provide exposure. Beyond that, laboratory experience is quite favorable on an application. I personally worked in an undergraduate research position for three of the four years of my undergraduate education. This allowed me some insight into the scientific process and also helped bolster my savings to prepare for veterinary school. I worked in a lab that studied insect parasites and despite being somewhat unrelated to the veterinary world directly, I believe the experience was quite valuable towards my application.
Experience is immensely important and is likely to be a top decision-maker on your application; however, and maybe a bit unfortunately, grades are still immensely important. Gone are the days when you absolutely need a 4.0 GPA in order to even consider applying for veterinary school, but it still ranks highly in the application process. I think striving to maintain a 3.5 GPA (in U.S. based universities) is your best bet.
Now, I mention this point not to discourage anybody from applying, I just believe that it is always important to have the whole picture of what schools are looking for. That being said, schools are more and more striving to take applications as a whole. For instance, somebody that has to work a full-time job and maintains a 3.5 GPA will likely be viewed differently than somebody who did not work during undergrad and maintained the same GPA. If you have explanations about achieving a lower GPA than you wanted, it is important to mention it either in the application or as part of your cover letter. In fact, some schools’ applications had a section dedicated specifically to this.
Strong cover letter and application
This seems self-explanatory, but a cover letter can make or break your application. Regardless of how perfect you appear on paper, if you don’t have a nicely formatted application, free from typos and incorrect information, then you may lose your chance at acceptance.
At some point during my application, I read that the cover letter accounts for somewhere between 5%-10% of the application (Unfortunately, I can’t find this source again). Now, in hindsight, that seems like a very arbitrary figure. Nevertheless, a cover letter gives you an opportunity to differentiate yourself from the hundreds or thousands of others that are applying for the same seat as you. This is your shot to tell your story and explain why you deserve this seat more than anybody else. Use it wisely, and make sure that what you submit emphasizes your goals and desires well.
Finally, the bullet point that everybody felt coming. You can’t be exclusively involved in school and veterinary experience. Schools also want to see that you’re an active member of society despite your heavy course load in school and your accumulation of thousands of hours of veterinary experience. Fortunately, extracurricular activities are ubiquitous and can encompass anything and everything under the sun.
For example, on my application, I used my study abroad experience to help differentiate me from other applicants as well as my involvement in chartering a leadership fraternity on campus. Everybody’s extracurricular involvement will differ, but it’s important to have it. I found that it was helpful to keep a document on my computer during undergrad where I could write down various volunteer experiences and other extracurriculars that I was involved with. This gave me an easy reference at the time of the application. Now, I was fortunate in knowing that veterinary school was my end goal, but this advice serves in applying for any position, not just veterinary school.
Veterinary school is one of the most competitive graduate programs to get accepted into in the United States. These four broad categories are the most important, in my experience, towards a strong application that will maximize your chances in a pool of hundreds or thousands of applicants. While this article focuses on veterinary school in particular, these categories span multiple fields and will be important to consider in any area of interest. I hope this is helpful, thanks for reading.