When did you decide to pursue veterinary medicine?
Unlike a lot of my classmates, I didn’t decide on a veterinary career until I was halfway through high school. Realizing that veterinary medicine was where all my interests came together was a slow process of discovering exactly why each of my hobbies appealed to me. It only “clicked” when I ended up having to bring my dog, Dragon, who we’d only had for about six months, in for patellar ligament surgery, and I became interested in reading more about what was going on with her; I eventually started volunteering at a local small animal practice and found that there were certain aspects of the profession that really drew me in, and that the profession called to certain qualities in myself that I’d been developing through my other hobbies, although I hadn’t realized it until then. I loved writing because it allowed me to improvise and create; I loved studio art because of technical difficulty and fine motor work; I read detective novels because I loved problem-solving and discovery; I enjoyed doing theater performances and model Congress because I loved teamwork, communication, discussion, and partnership. I thought it was pretty amazing that my interests that seemed pretty diverse had common threads that intersected in veterinary medicine. Once I was working on my undergraduate degree, I saw these transferable skills come up again and again as I was drawn to and tried new things – partner dance, research, and teaching. So, it was really an evolutionary process. In the end, I think this was really important for me, finding that everything I loved doing somehow fit inside and could contribute to this profession, because it helped me realize that my reasons for being here are multi-faceted but still cohesive.
What did you do to prepare for veterinary school?
Because I didn’t have any veterinary experience, I started volunteering at a private practice. I kept doing a lot of the hobbies that I had done throughout high school, and because of that, I probably didn't have as many veterinary experience hours from my high school days to put on my eventual vet school application, but I still think it was worth it to continue exploring my other interests prior to undergrad. Because I didn't have all that much experience with veterinary medicine during high school, my application for undergrad really focused on the reasons I felt that it would be a good fit for me and where I wanted to go with my education in the future.
Summer and winter breaks during undergrad were really where I got the bulk of my experience in preparation for applying to vet school, and I tried a lot of different things to try and get out of my comfort zone (which, when I started undergrad, consisted exclusively of small animals and just a few exotics). I spent a summer at the Cornell Teaching and Research Center vaccinating and treating sheep and cows, learning about herd health, and also pitching a lot of hay and baling wool, and riding around in the pickup truck. I spent a winter break at a veterinary oncology specialty practice and I don't think I touched a single animal, but I learned so much from talking with the vets. They would have little presentations prepared for me some mornings on genetics or immunology, and one of the vets made me a chart about different chemotherapy options. It definitely helped me realize that the quality of an experience is not measured by the amount of time you spend doing assistant or tech jobs. It all contributes to helping you really understand what the profession is about, both the ups and downs, and whether you’re prepared to be a part of it.
What advice to you have for high school students who are interested in becoming a vet?
First of all, get a variety of veterinary experiences, even if you think you won’t like some of them. If you’ve never worked with large animals, or maybe you were in a dairy barn once and you hated the smell—try it again. Every practice is different, so you might find that what you didn't like about a previous experience had more to do with the way you were treated than the actual medicine or the lifestyle. If nothing else, it will give you a more concrete reason for saying, “I’m a small animal person.” You’ll be able to pinpoint the aspects that are really important to you about a certain specialty.
On the flip side, you might think that you want to be an oncologist, but if you’ve never worked in that setting before, you may find that it really isn’t at all what you want to do. There’s a huge difference between the idealized setting, the theory of wanting to focus on a certain area of the profession, and real practice.
I also think it’s important to work at different places, even if they’re similar in specialty. It’s definitely important to build a lasting relationship with a veterinarian, which is why a lot of people recommend sticking to a practice over a number of years, but it doesn’t always work out where the first clinic you volunteer at is the one that ends up giving you the most responsibility and room to grow and learn. Don’t be afraid to leave if you feel like it isn’t a good fit for you.
Ultimately, exposing yourself to different specialties and different practices will help expose you to the different pitfalls in veterinary medicine, and it’s very important that you’re able to understand and willing to tackle the difficulties that come along with the profession, from euthanasia to doctor-client communication. And if you feel you do understand these aspects, make sure that comes across in your applications. Tell the admissions committee what you did, but also why it was important that you did it, and what it taught you. Draw out those connections really clearly—not because they can’t connect the dots them for themselves, but because it’ll show them that you’ve thought long and hard about what it all means.
A lot of the preparation for veterinary school comes during undergrad, where you figure out how to really study properly and how to handle a more independent lifestyle. Having hands-on experience is really important, but vet school is a lot of studying, too. Time management is very important, and a big pitfall is to assume that this doesn’t apply to you because you’ve always been able to coast through school or cram for exams at the last minute. It will get harder and harder to do this, and if it isn’t impossible for you to cram for exams during vet school and still do well, think about it this way – you need to retain this information for your career. Grades are important, but it’s no longer about memorizing a whole bunch of information without really understanding it, dumping it down on an exam, and then forgetting it so that you can move on to the next topic. Everything is connected, and the more you can retain and reinforce the knowledge that you have, the better equipped you’ll be for this job that you actually want to be able to do—and do well—someday!
My last piece of advice is not to lose sight of the things that you love doing, simply because you also love veterinary medicine. There’s a good chance that it all fits together, and maybe you haven’t figured out exactly how. Your passions make sense! Figure out the skills that make you good at your hobbies, and think about how those skills will also make you a good doctor. It’ll look much stronger on an application to give a quick example of how you’ve shown teamwork or communication or compassion in the past (and it doesn’t have to be animal-related!), instead of just listing these traits. Ultimately, you want to show vet schools not only how much you want to be a vet, but also why they should want you in the field in the future. So show them how you’ve come to understand the profession, but don’t lose the individuality of who you are, and the skills that make you unique.