Monday, August 11, 2008

So your kid wants to go to vet school

Lately, I've run into a lot of parents who have children aiming to get into vet school. These conversations always lead to the same question- "Do you have any advice?" Oh boy, do I!
Before I start, here's a quick overview of what makes up a vet school application. The first part of the app that schools pay attention to are the "numbers"- undergrad GPA, GRE score, and number of hours of animal experience and veterinary experience. These numbers provide a quick objective filter to weed out applicants who are weak academically or who lack sufficient experience. Next, they examine the subjective portions of the application- the personal statement, letters of recommendation, and the types of animal/veterinary experiences you have. Last, if they like your subjective portions, most schools now invite you for an interview in which they see how well you interact in person. Creating a strong application can start with childhood and high school experiences, so a parent can really influence his or her child's odds of getting in. So, here it is, my patented Guide to Preparing Your Child for Vet School!
First, keep in mind that vet schools care little about what you do academically before undergrad. The VMCAS application asks about honors received in high school, but there are certainly no questions about high school GPA or class rank. Obviously having a decent high school GPA helps your child get into a good college, but a poor performance in high school won't keep them out of vet school.
Next, while vet schools don't care about academics before undergrad, they do count animal experiences obtained before undergrad. Try to help your child get experiences with all sorts of animals, and look for more interesting things than just volunteering in an animal shelter (which nearly every vet school applicant has done). Some options include:
  • Training a dog for therapy work, obedience, or agility
  • Working at a wildlife rehab facility or with a licensed wildlife rehabilitator
  • Horseback riding lessons
  • Anything that gets them close to farm animals (4H/FFA, hanging out at a relative's ranch or dairy, volunteering with a farm animal sanctuary, or working with a therapeutic horseback riding program)
  • Showing any sort of animal (whether conformation-type showing, like dogs, or competition-type showing, like horses)
Veterinary experience hours are essential for a strong application. Even a relatively poor undergrad GPA (around the 3.0 range) can be overshadowed by a large number of hours spent in a vet clinic and a good recommendation from a vet. Most vet students started out by volunteering in a clinic or working as a kennel hand before moving into more hands-on work. This is fine! The important part of veterinary experience is learning how a clinic works and what a vet is responsible for, not necessarily learning how to draw blood or give shots. Because at least one letter of recommendation needs to come from a vet, early experiences in a vet clinic can help begin a relationship with a vet who will know your child well when it comes time to ask for a letter.
Frustratingly, vet schools are starting to demand students that not only have extensive animal and veterinary experience, but also are well-rounded and have extensive experience in things not related to animals at all. Schools want to see that applicants have explored areas outside of veterinary medicine before deciding that vet med was the right career choice. It can start to feel really hard to fit it all in, but it is possible. Don't force your child to focus only on animal-related activities or studies if he/she seems interested in the vet med path, since it may make them a weaker candidate in the end. I tend to suggest that pre-vet students not take a pre-vet major in undergrad, but choose something more broad (like biology) or not even science-related (like music). It's definitely possible to major in something not science-related and still get all your pre-requisites in. And besides, if you get into vet school, you'll be immersed in this stuff the rest of your life. Why not take your undergrad years to explore nordic literature, pottery, or political science?
Last, because most schools are moving towards requiring applicants to interview, encourage your child to participate in anything that will improve communication skills. Speech, debate, drama, or Toastmasters are all good options. Being a receptionist in a vet clinic can kill two birds with one stone!
I hope this little guide helps some parents out there seeking advice for helping their children achieve their goal. Good luck to all of you!

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