1. Make sure you actually want to be a veterinarian.
I know this sounds crazy and patronizing, but hear me out. I know you know that veterinary medicine is more than playing with puppies and kittens and frolicking with foals in the sunshine. You already know that there is poop and blood and explosive anal glands. There are surgeries at ass-o’-clock in the morning after fourteen hours at the vet hospital. You know these things.
Let me tell you some other things that you might not know:
I am in my fourth year at a very awesome veterinary college. My classmates are accomplished, clever, driven individuals. This year, more than one classmate has pulled me aside and spoken (in a hushed tone) something like,
“If I’d known what it was really like, I wouldn’t have gone to vet school.”
That’s pretty powerful, eh? I consider myself quite fortunate to still love this world after this clinical year. Vet school is a potently formative adventure that will change you. It will bring out qualities (not all of them positive) that you never knew you possessed. Go talk to some vets. Ask them to candidly describe the worst parts of their education and profession as well as the best.
2. Assess your education.
Maybe you are in middle school and planning out your path as you volunteer at the local horseback riding summer camp. Perhaps you’re in college, getting your shit together. Or possibly you’re an attorney or a salesperson, considering a career change. Okay! All of those situations are excellent. Now take a look at the school you’ve already completed, and compare it with what you’ll need to get in to vet school.
This book exists: Veterinary Medical School Admission Requirements
However, the Internet is your buddy. Make a spreadsheet of all the vet schools you’d want to attend (which by itself is a thing to consider. Would you move across the country? Would you go to school in the UK or the Caribbean?), and fill in the particular education prerequisites for each school. Each school’s website will (somewhere) provide this information. Many (not all) vet schools require an undergraduate degree, and they all have unique course requirements.
Some require microbiology, some require nutrition, some require public speaking, and some require physiology. Most require a baseline number of English, biology, chemistry, and physics credits. If you have any questions about whether a course qualifies, or if you can substitute one course for another, e-mail the particular vet school’s admissions office directly to ask. Save the e-mail response. Do not believe the pre-vet advisor at your college on these matters, no matter how wonderful or experienced she is.
My pre-vet advisor told me the comparative literature class I took during my first year of college would count towards the English prerequisite requirement. Did it? No! Why? Because it had a “CLT” instead of an “ENG” prefix on my transcript. Did I argue about this? Yes! Did I still have to take another English class during my senior year? Yes!
Also, my pre-vet advisor told my buddy (who was a year ahead of me in college) that her advanced introductory chemistry course would count for two semesters of chemistry in vet school’s eyes. This was not in fact the case, and said buddy had to take another chemistry course during her last semester. Surprise!
If you’re just starting or already in college, do your best to not take, you know, five rigorous science prerequisites all at the same time. Be kind to your future self in your course planning.
If you’re going back to school to complete those prerequisites, don’t fret. I think you’ll be a better/more content student now that you’ve spent some time not as a student. School is actually awesome in some ways, and you’ll probably appreciate them.
On grades: I’m not going to tell you about how much they matter, because you already know they do. But don’t shortchange yourself – don’t game the system and take “easy” classes so you can have that 4.0. It’s not worth wasting the chance to challenge your brain.
3. Go check out the VMCAS website. Just do it. It will be less intimidating once you’re familiar with it. It’s like the common app but for vet schools.
4. On that note, many vet schools have supplemental applications. Also, some of them operate entirely independently of VMCAS. Guess what? That information goes on your spreadsheet as well!
While you’re perusing the websites of the different vet colleges, take note of their GRE requirements. Note those down on your spreadsheet. During the year-ish before you apply to vet school, you’ll want to take the GREs.
Do not panic.
As for studying, go get a book or two and practice. Practice test-taking skills (yes, taking a test well is a skill) and familiarize yourself with the process of methodically working through questions.
Learn as many vocabulary words as you can. Also, practice your basic math.
Seriously, do not panic. You can re-take the GREs if you’re really unhappy with your scores.
6. Acquire a diverse stable of experiences.
Okay, you’ve heard about the nebulous “experience” requirements for applicants. My advice to you on this point is this: go out and do things with animals. Lots of things. Doesn’t have to be veterinary things (though it’s good if some of them are veterinary things). Here are some suggestions:
Volunteer at a shelter (duh)
Volunteer at a local (large or small animal) vet practice
Work at a big multi-doctor ambulatory practice or specialty vet clinic
Volunteer at your local high-quality-high-volume-spay-neuter clinic
Work for a riding stable
Work for a dairy
Work as a groom for a fancy, show horse stable
Help your neighbor milk her goats, shave her alpacas, or collect her chicken eggs
Work with the lab animals at your (or a local) college or university
Work for an organic farm
Work for an aquarium
Work for a veterinary acupuncturist or chiropractor
Volunteer with a service dog organization
Work for a groomer
Think about building your network with each experience. How can these skills I’m gaining/people I’m meeting lead to a new adventure? Show up on time, work hard, and have good things to say about your colleagues. I’m pretty sure I networked my way into vet school:
I grew up riding horses, so when I was in college I pursued and landed a job as a groom with an Olympic jumper rider. That was an awesome experience. The next summer, I worked for the practice that did her veterinary work. That was also an awesome experience, and yielded some fantastic recommendations from very well respected and accomplished veterinarians.
7. Recommendations: Choose wisely.
I’m sure you’ve heard the following general advice about recommendations – ask the person if they’d be willing to write an excellent letter recommending you for (whatever).
This is absolutely true.
For applying to vet school (probably for applying for anything), your best letters will be written by people who feel like they can’t say enough good things about you. You don’t want someone who vaguely knows you and thinks you’re okay to write you a letter. Also, I think it’s better to have fewer letters that are fantastic than many that are mediocre.
8. Practice your interview skills!
Ooohhhh you guys so when I was interviewing at this one vet school, they kept us all in a small, low-ceilinged room for the afternoon and extracted us one by one for interviews. It was highly stressful, as you might imagine.
I was wearing a pantsuit that was mostly comfortable, so I didn’t suspect anything was amiss during my interview. Imagine my surprise when I visited the restroom afterwards, and discovered that my fly had been open the entire time. Awesome.
I had remembered my friend Kim’s excellent advice as I was getting dressed that morning – namely, if your bra and your underwear match, it makes you feel like a million bucks. So the underwear that my interviewers saw for the better part of an hour was a lacy brown thong. Hooray!
So, maybe don’t do that.
Just like test taking, interviewing is a skill. If you get some interviews, you definitely want to bring your A-game. Penelope Trunk has some excellent interviewing advice on her blog. Practice! It will get a little easier with practice. And don’t let it freak you out if it seems like an interviewer is deliberately trying to stress you – she probably is.