As you can imagine (given the focus of my educational consulting practice), I speak to many students each year who have a strong interest in going into the field of veterinary medicine after college. Many are inspired by the work that they see their own vets doing and others want to do everything that they can to help animals in need – both of which are wonderful reasons for considering the field as a potential career down the road.
Where I need to caution and counsel these passionate students, however, is in the difference between their dream of being a veterinarian and what the reality of becoming one actually entails. Often, the two are entirely separate ideas.
First, let’s examine the requirements to become a veterinarian:
Students must first complete a four-year Bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university. There is no official “pre-veterinary” major (just like there is no pre-medical or pre-law major), though most students will major in one of the biological sciences. Some schools will also offer pre-veterinary “tracks” through their science programs, but the most important thing that students must do (regardless of major) is take the appropriate number of biology, chemistry, physics, genetics, and math courses – all of which are requirements for admission to veterinary school. During your junior year of college, you’ll also need to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and in some cases the Biology GRE as well. (Some schools will accept the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) in place of the GRE; you’ll have to check with the individual vet schools to see which ones will do so.)
It’s also vital that prospective veterinarians obtain as much hands-on experience as they can during high school and their undergraduate years if they want the best chance of being accepted into veterinary school later. Because vet schools don’t allow students to specialize in areas like small or large animal or surgery in their first semesters, it’s advantageous if you can gain a lot of large animal experience prior to applying. This is because the majority of students have easy access to small animals like dogs and cats in their everyday lives but our suburban society doesn’t allow those same students a great deal of access to horses, cattle, sheep, and pigs. Being comfortable around large animals and livestock is a learned skill and students who acquire it prior to vet school can have an advantage.
It’s also worth noting that you’ll need every advantage you can get to gain admission to vet school these days: In 2010, less than half of the veterinary school applicants were admitted in the U.S. In fact, at noted veterinary school Michigan State University, the acceptance rate was just under 13 percent in 2010. (Want to see the full report of U.S. Veterinary School Statistics from 2009-2010?)
You might also have heard about students who go to off-shore veterinary schools in the Caribbean or in other far-flung locations as “easier” options to get into than those schools here in the United States. While they can seem like ideal options for your career aspirations, be cautious in your research, as many are not accredited by the Council on Education of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and your credentials might not be recognized here when you graduate. (In order to practice as a licensed vet, you need to pass the North American Veterinary Licensing Exam, so it’s crucial that you attend a vet school that will set you up with all of the tools you’ll need in order to do so.)
Finally, if you’re a passionate equestrian and hope to pursue your veterinary career while advancing in your riding, you’ll need to bear in mind the type of academic and extracurricular time that will be required of you if you wish to succeed in your goal of becoming a vet. Each science course you take as an undergraduate will have two to four hours of lab that will be held in addition to your three or four weekly lectures and you’ll need to achieve top grades in order to make yourself into the best possible candidate for vet school. In addition, the time you spend volunteering at the local vet clinic or animal hospital will also cut into your saddle time. Once vet school begins, you’ll need to study twice as hard and spend additional hours observing and honing your skills in the veterinary hospital – and as a practicing vet, you’ll likely spend a lot of evenings and weekends on call with your practice, so scheduling yourself to attend clinics and horse shows in a competitive capacity as opposed to a professional one will be more than a little challenging.
The purpose of this blog entry isn’t to persuade you to change your mind about pursuing a career as a veterinarian, students. As horse (and animal) owners, we all know the vital importance of having a good veterinarian who can help us address the medical needs of our beloved animals. (I work with two different vets for my horse for so long now that both are practically members of my extended family.) But there is also a clear distinction between the way that we want things to be and the way they really are. That’s the point of this entry – if you’re planning to enter this challenging field, it’s important to do so with a realistic expectation of what will be asked of you and what sacrifices you need to make. (Veterinary school costs – on average – as much as $84,000 per year – if you’re going to make a four-year commitment to an education that costs that much, you’d better know that it’s the right path for you to be on!)
Becoming a vet can be the most rewarding and educational experiences of your life and we need as many qualified and passionate vets out there as possible. Could this be you one day?
(And if you need assistance to find the undergraduate experience that will help you find your way to your veterinary career, contact me.)