Last Updated: Nov 13, 2015
Most of us picture veterinarians as the people who diagnose and treat medical conditions for our pets. And they do that, certainly. But there’s a lot more to it. Few fields offer the breadth of opportunities that veterinary medicine affords.
Did you know that veterinarians can provide care for farm animals, racehorses, and exotic animals? Or investigate animal behavior, food production, diseases, and injuries? Veterinarians provide better health and well-being for animals and the humans who care for them alike.
If you want to join this exciting, rewarding field, you probably already know that you need more than just a love of animals. But what exactly does becoming a veterinarian entail? And what will your college years be like? Read on to find out.
So . . . what am I getting myself into?
From starting your freshman year to finishing veterinary school, it takes about eight years to become a veterinarian. Although a bachelor’s degree is not required to get into veterinary school, nearly 90% of accepted veterinary students have one. The rest apply a year early and complete only three years of undergraduate education. All veterinarians must complete an accredited four-year program that leads to a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (D.V.M. or V.M.D.) and acquire a license to practice.
What program or major should I choose?
Look for a college that offers a pre-veterinary program or curriculum. This customized pathway will give you access to undergraduate courses that all veterinary schools require and professional advisors who can help you prepare for and transition to veterinary school. Think of your pre-health advisor as a coach who provides encouragement, tips, and perspective. Visit them during office hours with your prepared questions, and don’t wait until your senior year to get acquainted!
Because pre-vet is not a standalone major at most colleges and universities (just like pre-med, pre-law, etc.), be prepared to declare an academic major. Most pre-vet students choose biology. After all, the biology curriculum encompasses the required pre-veterinary courses and allows students to explore the science of living organisms in depth. Although there are definite advantages to majoring in biology, don’t be afraid to consider other fields.
What courses will I take?
College-level math and science courses form the foundation of veterinary medicine and will help you become an excellent problem solver and decision maker. But those aren’t the only skills you’ll need. Taking business courses is a great way to gain management tools for operating a private clinic or laboratory. Veterinarians must also be able to communicate with clients and colleagues. English, public speaking, humanities, and social science courses will help you build these social and emotional skills.
In your first semester of college, take a math course to reinforce your analytical skills. Get started in your general chemistry sequence and take an introductory biology course. In future semesters, you will take organic chemistry, biochemistry, physics, and upper-level courses like genetics, microbiology, and nutrition. Excelling in these courses can demonstrate your commitment, interest, and preparedness for graduate studies. Veterinary schools look favorably on students who take a balanced but rigorous course load of 15–18 credits each semester and maintain a high grade point average (3.5 and above).
To get an insider’s advantage, start to explore the websites of your dream veterinary schools. Better yet, order a copy of the Veterinary Medical School Admission Requirements to find a snapshot of all 29 accredited colleges of veterinary medicine. Their official lists of the prerequisite course work required for different schools are wonderful resources, even if you haven’t decided on a major yet.
What experience do I need?
About 50% of a veterinary school applicant’s qualifications are based on academics. So what makes up the other half? To start, there is no such thing as too much practice from internships, job shadowing, or volunteer work. A pre-vet club is another great way to gain experience and get to know other students in your program. Chances are your similar interests will lead to great camaraderie and friendship.
Many successful pre-veterinary students contribute to clubs and service activities that don’t necessarily relate to animal care too. Focus on quality over quantity and spend time on the projects you are most passionate about. Play a sport, join a club, or apply for a job, and always find a way to make time for your hobbies. Veterinary schools prefer students who are busy but manage their time well.
With all of these activities, it is easy to forget the details (especially by the time you’re actually applying to veterinary programs). Stay organized. Record notes every time you add to your experience by keeping a journal or rough résumé. Write down each organization’s name, your position and responsibilities, the dates you participated, and the number of hours spent. This time capsule will also provide incredible inspiration for your veterinary school personal statement.
When do I apply to veterinary school?
Unless you’re applying early, you will apply to veterinary school the summer after your junior year of college. The application window usually opens in May and closes in October. Pre-veterinary students are also required to take standardized tests—the GRE, MCAT, or Biology GRE—after completing pre-veterinary course work. Throughout your journey, keep in touch with professors and mentors outside of class, as they care deeply about your success. If they feel they know you well, they may be willing to write you a strong letter of recommendation for your veterinary school application.
In 2012, there were 2,900 first-year positions for 6,500 veterinary school applicants. With fewer than half of applicants accepted, even the most competitive students are wise to keep parallel paths open in case they are not admitted the first time they apply.
Now that you know what lies ahead, it’s the perfect time to start talking to people who work as veterinarians. Even volunteering a few hours at an animal shelter or clinic can help you picture what it will be like to work with animals (and their humans) as a career. It is important to discover aspects of veterinary careers that you love, and equally important to identify those that you don’t. Much like caring for a beloved animal, becoming a veterinarian requires knowledge, hard work, a financial commitment, and time. Get ready for a challenging and fulfilling career!