It only took a few childhood interactions with pets to help you realize you wanted to become a veterinarian. You just have a natural way with animals. Even when you encountered a domestic creature that had a reputation for being standoffish, you were always able to forge a connection.
Now that you’re older, you know it’s time to start making your plan for how to become a veterinarian. You’re wondering what steps you need to take in order to achieve your career goal.
Starting down your veterinary medicine path is less daunting than you might think. You just need to know what lies ahead to make sure you’re prepared for each step. Keep reading to learn more about how to become a veterinarian like you’ve always dreamed.
How to become a veterinarian in 8 steps
Use this as your guide to help you plan your path to becoming a veterinarian. The road ahead is a challenging one, but being prepared and knowing what to expect can help you reach the finish line and begin your rewarding veterinary career.
1. Focus on course prerequisites during college
Not every veterinary medical school insists students complete a four-year undergraduate education, but they typically do require specific courses and a minimum number of credits. It’s helpful to get some assistance from a counselor when trying to figure out which courses to prioritize.
“Together, the counselor and the student can research the required courses for admission to the veterinary schools for which the student is considering,” explains Dr. Danel Grimmett, Veterinarian at Sunset Veterinary Clinic.
"Students should also look into joining a pre-vet club or organization at their undergraduate university."
It’s a good idea to be involved in extracurricular activities as well. “Students should also look into joining a pre-vet club or organization at their undergraduate university,” Dr. Grimmett says. “These types of clubs offer support and education regarding preparing for veterinary school.”
2. Gain as much experience as possible
You’ll want to start acquiring hands-on experience working with animals as soon as possible. Most schools expect applicants to have several hundred hours of animal experience, and some specify the bulk of it should be under the supervision of a veterinarian. Internships and job shadowing are a few good options, and the more variety the better.
“People who are considering the veterinary profession should do all they can to get as many different types of experience prior to the application process,” advises Dr. Lori Pasternak, Veterinarian and co-founder of Helping Hands Affordable Veterinary Surgery & Dental Care.
"People who are considering the veterinary profession should do all they can to get as many different types of experience prior to the application process."
Gathering a diverse range of experiences is obviously important for building your resume, but it’s also a good way to find out if you’re truly committed to veterinary medicine. “You must love animals, of course, but a love of science, service, teamwork, and compassionate care are equally required,” Dr. Pasternak says. “Only a few of your patients will be cute puppies and kittens — the majority will be pets who are sick, scared, or in pain and cannot describe how they are feeling.”
3. Apply to veterinary programs
You’ll be in good shape once you complete your bachelor’s degree if you focused on performing well in your course prerequisites and gaining plenty of animal experience. Dr. Pasternak says you’ll even have a leg up on completing an additional vet school application requirement.
“Another benefit to getting hands-on experience is working with veterinarians who can write you a glowing recommendation for veterinary school,” she says.
"Another benefit to getting hands-on experience is working with veterinarians who can write you a glowing recommendation for veterinary school."
Set aside plenty of time to work on writing your application essays, taking the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), and completing any additional materials required by individual programs. Though every program is different and may adjust how they evaluate candidates over time, Dr. Grimmett says most schools she was interested in weighed her application, GRE scores, GPA, and letters of recommendation equally.
Most students apply to veterinary programs using the Veterinary Medical College Application Service (VMCAS), which conveniently packages all of your materials. This allows you to easily distribute your application to multiple schools at the same time.
If you’re lucky enough to gain acceptance to more than one program, you’ll need to think carefully about which one best fits your needs. Dr. Pasternak notes that a lot of programs don’t focus enough on clinical and communication skills, so be sure to investigate by talking to students and graduates at various schools.
4. Obtain your DVM
A typical doctor of veterinary medicine (DVM) program curriculum spans four years. You’ll likely spend your first two years completing coursework in classes and labs. Programs usually start with basic science classes, then move toward focusing more on biological systems like neurology.
School curriculums vary, but it’s common to start gaining practical experience outside of labs and lecture halls during your third year. This was the case for Dr. Grimmett. “The third year was more clinically focused, still with significant classroom time,” she explains. You’ll spend your final year of veterinary medical school completing clinical rotations to gain practical, hands-on experience working with patients.
5. Study for and pass the NAVLE
The North American Veterinary Licensing Examination (NAVLE) is the most important test you’ll take on the road to becoming a veterinarian, because you must earn a passing score in order to practice. You’ll want to devise a study strategy to ensure you’re prepared because cramming won’t cut it. “Use the four years to actually learn and understand,” Dr. Grimmett advises. “Don’t just study for the test.”
“Don’t just study for the test.”
You can sit the exam in the fall or spring of your senior year. Note that you need to be within 10 months of graduating, although some states specify within eight, to take the test. Though some students like to wait until the spring to allow more time for preparation, many prefer to take the NAVLE during the fall. This way they have the option to retake it in the spring if they aren’t satisfied with their results.
On the day of the exam, try to stay calm and focused. Students who have spent their time absorbing material and building their skills stand a good chance of performing well. “One must just prepare as best they can and go in believing in themselves,” Dr. Grimmett suggests.
6. Complete any additional requirements
You may need to complete additional steps depending on where you want to practice. Make sure to contact the correct provincial regulatory body in Canada or state regulatory board in the US to find out which specific requirements you need to meet.
You may be responsible for additional examinations, forms, and fees. US students who attended an international school may need to obtain certification through the Educational Commission for Foreign Veterinary Graduates (ECFVG). But requirements vary, so it’s best to check with the appropriate regulatory body.
7. Pursue further training if desired
Veterinary school graduates are able to begin practicing immediately after graduating and obtaining their license. Some prefer to pursue internships to gain more practical training. DVMs can also complete a residency that will enable them to receive board certification in a specialty field.
“The veterinary profession is quickly becoming more specialized,” Dr. Pasternak says. She adds that she has mixed feelings about it, particularly because many pet owners cannot afford services from board-certified veterinarians.
"The veterinary profession is quickly becoming more specialized."
Veterinarians may actually find they gain more by starting to practice right away. “I believe there is more value to learning by simply jumping in and doing, as my associates and I did,” Dr. Pasternak says. “It takes guts and a certain amount of confidence, but it advances learning.”
8. Begin your veterinary career
Once you’ve completed all the above requirements and obtained any specialty training of interest, you’re ready to assume your role as a veterinarian. This doesn’t mean you should hold off on searching for jobs until you have your diploma. “Don’t wait until the last month of your senior year to begin your job search,” Dr. Grimmett warns.
You can start your search by utilizing job boards designed specifically for veterinary professionals. It’s also wise to inquire about positions within specific organizations, reach out to the veterinarians you know personally, or even seek help from a recruiter.
Your job-hunting tactics might vary depending on what type of veterinary career you’re pursuing, but you should also keep an open mind. “One of the great things about being a veterinarian is the ability to be able to practice in such a wide-ranging field,” Dr. Grimmett notes.
"One of the great things about being a veterinarian is the ability to be able to practice in such a wide-ranging field."
Start your veterinary journey
You now know about the major milestones every animal doctor has to go through. Having a better sense of how to become a veterinarian can help you determine whether it’s the right career for you.
Perhaps this guide has you feeling more certain about your intended career path. If that’s the case, you might want to start thinking more seriously about applying to veterinary medicine programs. Learn more about all the necessary application materials by heading to our article, “The Vet School Requirements Aspiring Animal Doctors Need to Know About.”
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