While you’ve always been a good student, you think you really shine outside the classroom. You’re a doer and certainly aren’t afraid of getting your hands a little dirty. The good news is this mindset is exactly what it takes to excel in your intended career—veterinary medicine.
You know you have what it takes to become a vet, but you also realize there’s a lot of hard work involved every step along the way. This means you need to make the most of the time you have left before it’s time to submit your veterinary school applications. You want to make sure you do everything you can to make yourself a competitive applicant.
Though schools are looking for students who have strong academic metrics, they also want to see that you have a substantial amount of veterinary work experience. A lot of the animal-related items on your resume might not technically fulfill this criteria. Before we go any further, it’s important to understand what sets veterinary experience apart.
Animal experience vs. veterinary experience
While it’s important to round out your veterinary school applications with plenty of meaningful experiences, you should recognize the difference between animal experience and veterinary experience. We asked Dr. Brad Singleton, owner of South Park Animal Hospital, to offer some clarification.
“Animal experience mostly refers to being around animals in a non-medical fashion, such as the experience you would gain from working at dog kennels, horse stables, and the like,” Dr. Singleton explains. He adds that his own pre-vet animal experience included working at a nature center
"It would involve evaluation by a veterinarian, determining a diagnosis, and prescribing treatment."
Veterinary experiences, on the other hand, must take place under the supervision of a veterinarian. “It would involve evaluation by a veterinarian, determining a diagnosis, and prescribing treatment,” Dr. Singleton says.
Most vet schools prioritize veterinary experience over animal experience, so make sure to gain plenty of the former. Programs may or may not specify how many hours they expect from applicants. Even those that don’t set strict requirements tend to have general expectations. If you’re unclear about a particular program’s recommendations, reach out to the admissions department for further information.
5 Steps to gathering meaningful veterinary work experience
Now you know that accumulating veterinary work experience is crucial for all pre-vet students. But how do you proceed if you’ve never tackled this requirement? Keep reading to learn some helpful hints about how to get started.
1. Think about a variety of options
Most pre-vet students think about working in a clinic with a small animal vet to gain experience, but keep in mind there are many other options. Some veterinarians work with research animals, others inspect food production facilities, and still more work with exotic animals at zoos and aquariums.
It’s usually a good idea to keep an open mind for veterinary work experience. Schools like to see applicants who have been exposed to multiple careers in veterinary medicine. Dr. Singleton actually thinks his unique resume helped him gain acceptance to vet school.
"I spent time in a microbiological lab working with salmonella in aquatic turtles—I feel this differentiated me in a couple of ways."
“I spent time in a microbiological lab working with salmonella in aquatic turtles—I feel this differentiated me in a couple of ways,” he explains. “I was working with a non-traditional species, and I was working in academic research.”
That said, there’s nothing wrong with gaining experience in a small animal clinic. You still stand to learn a lot. And there are other things you can do to set yourself apart if you’re worried your application won’t be distinct enough.
“Consider additional certifications available,” Dr. Singleton suggests. One option he recommends is the Fear Free Certification Program.
2. Use your network to find opportunities
If you’re still in college, start working with your pre-vet advisor to find opportunities. They will likely have running lists of internships as well as clinics that regularly allow students to shadow veterinarians. Participating in your school’s pre-vet club is another great way to find available positions. These clubs regularly participate in networking events and other experiences.
One of the most notable events you’d be wise to add your calendar is the American Pre-Veterinary Medical Association (APVMA) Symposium. This annual event boasts labs and seminars, plus the opportunity to meet representatives from different schools. It’s a great way to build your professional network and learn about opportunities that can prepare you for vet school.
You can also make use of connections you build during animal experiences. Dr. Singleton says working at nonprofits can introduce you to other meaningful roles.
“Volunteering at the (hypothetical) beagle rescue may open doors at the local shelter through one volunteer, and possibly lead to getting a job at a vet clinic through another volunteer,” he explains.
Lastly, you can even reach out to your personal veterinarian to ask if they would consider taking you on as a shadow student. They may even refer you to other veterinarians they know.
3. Ask, and be prepared
You can only do so much preliminary legwork before it’s time to inquire. Some animal clinics and hospitals make this easy by letting interested students apply for internships or shadowing programs online, but you may need to reach out directly.
"Don’t be afraid to ask an organization what is available."
“Rarely will you find a centralized, comprehensive list of all places that can offer you experience,” Dr. Singleton points out. “Don’t be afraid to ask an organization what is available.”
Before reaching out, make sure you have a plan. You should explain your intention to go to veterinary school and why you’re interested in working with the vet you’re contacting. Be prepared to share a resume and answer some questions about your intended career path. They may not ask, but it’s better to be prepared.
You should also know that you may face some obstacles. Perhaps another pre-vet student scored the internship you wanted. Or maybe the veterinarian you wanted to shadow isn’t able to accommodate you.
“Don’t be dissuaded if someone turns you down,” Dr. Singleton offers. “Just sell yourself even harder the next time.” He also reminds not to accept volunteer positions at for-profit businesses. While employment and shadowing are acceptable, unpaid work is illegal.
4. Take it all in
Once you secure a position, make sure to learn as much as you can by asking plenty of questions. You should do your best to be flexible as well.
Dr. Singleton was fortunate enough to participate in some wildlife releases, which required evening and weekend work. “I had to sacrifice some personal time, but was able to gain invaluable experiences in return,” he recalls.
It’s also a good idea to take notes along the way. As you continue gaining veterinary experience, you want to make sure you’re keeping track of hours and noting what you encountered. Keeping a log will make it easier to write your application essays and give you some talking points for vet school interviews.
“Document dates, times, specific events, others involved, and what was learned or the focus of the project,” Dr. Singleton recommends.
"Document dates, times, specific events, others involved, and what was learned or the focus of the project."
5. Stay in touch
Be sure to formally thank any veterinarians who allow you to work alongside them to express your gratitude, but also to maintain your connection. You may want to get in touch again to request they write a letter of evaluation for your applications. Most veterinary medicine programs actually require at least one letter be written by a veterinarian.
Put your best foot forward
You can see that gaining veterinary work experience isn’t as difficult as you might have initially thought. There are always other options available if one of your choices doesn’t pan out, and it’s a good idea to seek multiple experiences anyway. You’ll quickly learn whether veterinary medicine is the right career path for you.
Perhaps you’re feeling even more excited about becoming a veterinarian. Before you can start practicing, you’ll need to obtain your DVM at a program that helps you develop all the requisite skills. A subpar education won’t cut it.
Make sure you know what separates a great school from a good one by reading our article, “6 Things the Top Veterinary Schools Have in Common.”
Ready to start your veterinary school journey?Learn More