From High School to Vet School

Question: I am a rising high school senior looking into the career of a vet and I was wondering how does the whole process work?

The road to a veterinary career can be a rough one: classes are challenging, vet-school admission is cut-throat competitive, and costs are high. But for those who are dedicated to reaching this goal, the rewards are significant. My neighbor, for instance, who is also doctor to my two cats, had wanted to be a vet since she was 5-years-old.  And, now, she’s had her own practice for nearly two decades. I’m sure she’d tell you that there’s no job she’d find more gratifying. So how might YOU get where SHE is?

There are three main routes to a veterinary career.

Route # 1: The most common route is to elect pre-vet classes as an undergraduate, and you can do this at practically any college in the country, except for those that are so specialized (e.g., art schools, music schools) that they don’t offer science courses. “Pre-vet” is only rarely a major. So aspiring veterinarians usually major in anything they want and then also take the recommended pre-vet curriculum, which is almost identical to the pre-med curriculum that aspiring physicians follow. (I’ll get to the “almost” part in a minute.) A pre-vet curriculum is top-heavy with sciences (biology, chemistry, biochemistry, physics as well as math). It also includes electives in social science and English. Many pre-vet students opt to major in a science because then they can fulfill their major requirements and pre-vet requirements with the same classes. But some students have an interest in a completely different area (e.g., foreign language, art history, economics), and vet school admission officials can actually be pleased when they see applications that include in-depth experience in a non-science field. When making admission decisions, they will look most closely at the candidate’s performance in the pre-vet classes, but they do appreciate the well-rounded student who has in-depth knowledge of other areas, too.

As you start to choose your college, you should look on Web sites to see what opportunities are available for pre-vet undergraduates. These will probably range from a one-size-fits-all “pre-health” advisor (who will help you to select classes and make sure you’re on track with required testing before you apply to vet school) to an advisor who works specifically with pre-vet students and who can direct you to research and internship opportunities right on campus. For instance, you can read about the University of New Hampshire’s extensive pre-vet program here: https://colsa.unh.edu/mcbs/prevet

Although I told you above that an actual pre-veterinary major is rare, there are still some colleges that offer it. For instance, the University of Massachusetts has a pre-vet major that students can apply to enter after successfully completing related introductory classes. See: https://www.vasci.umass.edu/undergraduate/pre-veterinary-science-major  However, the vast majority of future vets do not major in pre-vet but instead elect a science or other field.

Route #2: If you think that your interests lie in treating large animals (especially horses and cows) or any farm animals (e.g., chickens) then you might want to consider enrolling in the School of Agriculture (or a program with a similar name) at a university. Smaller colleges can offer pre-vet programs that work well for students who are planning to treat dogs or cats (or gerbils!) but if your aims lie elsewhere, then you should research opportunities at a bigger school, such as the program in New Hampshire, noted above, or this one at Clemson University in South Carolina, where a bachelor’s degree in “Animal and Veterinary Science” is also available: http://www.clemson.edu/degrees/animal-and-veterinary-sciences

Larger universities typically offer majors in “Agricultural Science” or “Animal Science” and even “Poultry and Avian Science,” “Equine Science,” “Wildlife Technology,” etc. which can be wise choices for future vets who expect to treat animals other than household pets. Students aiming for an agricultural, zoo animal, or wildlife veterinary practice can often find pertinent classes at a university that are not commonly available at smaller colleges. Although such classes are not requirements for vet school admission, they can supplement the usual vet prerequisites and help an applicant to stand out at decision time. So that’s why I mentioned, above, that a pre-vet curriculum is “almost” like a pre-med curriculum, but you probably won’t find a standard pre-med student opting for “Dairy Cattle Disease Seminar” or “Amphibians Conservation and Ecology.” 😉

Route #3: A very small percentage of aspiring vets get a jump start on their career by enrolling in a “direct-entry” veterinary program. These few-and-far-between opportunities allow outstanding, focused high school seniors to transition right from their undergraduate school to vet school without reapplying. Direct-entry students also often earn their veterinary degree in fewer that the traditional eight years.  For example, Purdue University’s Veterinary Scholars Program “is designed to recruit highly qualified high school students to our DVM Program by offering the opportunity for early admission. Students who are accepted into the Veterinary Scholars Program are guaranteed a position in the DVM program if they successfully complete the required pre-veterinary courses and maintain the academic standards of the Veterinary Scholars Program.  Most Veterinary Scholars will be able to complete the required courses over a 3-year period and enter the DVM program in their fourth year of college.”

Successful applicants to direct-entry programs usually need top grades and SAT/ACT scores as well as a demonstrated commitment to the veterinary profession as evidenced by their volunteer work, paid work, research projects, summer studies, etc.

Similarly, students who are aiming to be accepted into a veterinary graduate program after college must also demonstrate their passion for the profession through their research, extracurricular activities, summer jobs, etc. Because admission to vet school is SO competitive, students with strong transcripts and test scores alone are unlikely to get good news.

But, before you take another step, I urge you to talk to practicing veterinarians to find out more about what they really do and what they like about their jobs … or don’t. You may find that a local vet will allow you to “shadow” him or her to see first-hand what goes on behind closed examining-room and even operating-room doors. It can be fun to fantasize about helping sick puppies and kittens to feel better, but veterinary medicine is a very demanding profession– one that is often frustrating or sad, that requires tons of energy and long hours and dealing with reluctant “patients,” as well with as with owners who may be harder to handle than their animals are! 😮

For more information on reaching your goal, check out “Veterinary School Admission 101” on the The American Veterinary Medical Association Web site at

https://www.avma.org/public/Careers/Pages/vet-school-admission-101.aspx

(posted 7/21/2017)