What do you have to do to become a vet?
Becoming a veterinary surgeon is a rewarding career that allows lifelong learning, the opportunity to specialise into an area that interests you and an above-average income. It is also challenging, demanding and can be a lifestyle choice as much as it is a job. This article will explore the different stages that a student will experience on the pathway to graduating as a veterinary surgeon.
This sounds obvious but it is an essential first step. Being a vet is about caring for animals, learning about the diseases that affect them and curing these diseases. It also involves advising on ways to prevent these diseases in the first place. Working with household animals can be as much about a relationship with the owner as with the pet. Skills in empathy and the ability to build a relationship with other people will be essential. When working with farmers, vets will need to win their respect and trust and must also ensure that their treatment and animal husbandry advice makes economic sense. Many vets end up in private practice and find themselves managing a business as well as working as a veterinarian. These vets will need to be proficient in accounting and human resource management.
Working as a veterinary surgeon is a lifestyle choice as well as a career. Just like doctors, vets must be available to provide 24-hour care to their patients. It is important to understand this and ensure that this is something you are comfortable with when deciding to embark on this field of study.
With the above in mind, work experience is essential. This is a requisite part of a university application in any case, so if you are serious about getting into Vet School you will need to find some. Try to get a lot of varied work experience – shadowing a vet (or, probably more likely, a veterinary nurse) at a practice is one type you could find but also try to work on a farm or with bigger animals. Many students are quite young when they decide that they would like to study veterinary medicine and start getting work experience from about the age of 14 onwards. One veterinary student cleaned out a kennels every Saturday between the age of 14 and leaving school. She learnt a lot and was able to use this work to demonstrate her commitment to the profession in her application. Visiting an abattoir might be distressing for someone with an interest in caring for animals; however it is in those animals’ interests that a vet observes their condition and advises on appropriate procedure for their slaughter – this would be another place a student could try to obtain work experience.
It is important to be reflective during your work experience. Think about how you feel about the animals, whether you are comfortable handling them, how you cope with bodily fluids and the very unglamorous side of the job, such as helping with calving in a cold muddy field at 3am. Be attentive and ask questions, both practical questions to help you better understand what you are observing and questions about any concerns you have about veterinary practice in general. It is useful for students to keep a journal or blog of their work experience to remind them later on what they have learnt and how they felt about it.
Once you have decided that you would like to be a vet, you will need to apply to university. Prospective vets can only apply to four institutions of a possible eight in the UK so do your research to confirm which ones are right for you. The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) accredits courses in the UK to ensure that all graduates will be of an appropriate and consistent standard so there is little difference between course content across institutions. Your decision on where to study as a prospective vet, then, will depend on other factors such as teaching style, location and course entry requirements.
Visit the websites for all eight, read the prospectuses and attend Open Days if possible to learn more. On an Open Day you will be able to speak to Admissions Tutors and, often, current students who are a valuable source of information about a course. It is also an opportunity to get to know a city better and see if you can imagine yourself living there for the next five or so years.
You have only 4,000 characters to convince an admissions tutor that you are worthy of a place on their course. Applying to read Veterinary Medicine is unusual because not only do you need to demonstrate you interest in the subject, you are also applying for your future job. You need to show that you are able to succeed on the course and also that you have the skills required to practice as a veterinary surgeon in the future.
Work experience is the best way to show that you have the requisite skills. It is important not to simply list the experience you have conducted but to comment reflectively on each placement. Tell the admissions tutors what you observed, why you found it interesting, whether there was anything remarkable/surprising/upsetting about it and how it has strengthened your desire to be a vet. If you have a blog detailing your experiences provide the web address.
Your predicted grades and performance at GCSE will be a good indicator of your academic prowess but you could also include some details of this in your personal statement. Perhaps by explaining what you have learnt at A level that you have particularly enjoyed and why or by mentioning some of your extra reading.
Consider which qualities are important to be a vet and use examples to show an admissions tutor that you have these qualities. Often your extra-curricular activities will be helpful here. If you are an accomplished musician the associated manual dexterity will help you perform surgery deftly; if you volunteered on a hospital children’s ward you can explain about your compassion and empathy. Your performance on the football team shows commitment (to training) and teamwork, if you captained the team you can use this to illustrate leadership. Always make sure that you relate whatever you say in your personal statement back to the course or the career. Every statement needs to work hard for you to show a university that you are capable of success as an undergraduate and as a vet.
Students whose applications have impressed admissions tutors are invited to interview, the final hurdle in the application process. This is your last and perhaps best opportunity to demonstrate your suitability for the course. It is important to prepare well and plan answers for common questions asking why you would like to be a vet or why you have chosen that particular university. It is also very likely that you will be asked about the contents of your personal statement so read this again beforehand and make sure that you can elaborate on any points you have made.
Some students will attend a panel interview, while some universities have now adopted the ‘multiple mini interview’ (MMI) approach. Students attending an MMI will experience a series of short, mini interviews with different members of staff each intended to examine a specific skill. Find out which approach your university is taking so that you can prepare yourself effectively and anticipate what to expect.
If your UCAS application was successful, you will be holding at least one conditional offer as you head into your A level examinations. The grade entry requirements for veterinary medicine vary from AAB to A*A*A so there is still a lot of work to be done before you can start celebrating.
Your priority between the interview and the exams should be your schoolwork. Well in advance of the examinations (the Easter holidays at the latest) start reviewing your notes and take the time to speak to tutors if you need clarification on any topics. Start revising at the start of the summer term and visit exam board websites for past papers and mark schemes that you can use to practise.
On results day, if you have received the requisite grades for your firm or insurance choices, UCAS Track will update and you are on your way to Vet School! If you have not received the requisite grades, or if you did not receive an offer first time around, you will need to reapply (and possibly retake). Seek advice immediately from your school about what to do next. At MPW, senior members of staff are available for three weeks from results day to the start of term to discuss grades, retakes and academic advice with students (including non-MPW students). Contact us if you require any help from results day onwards.
The final step in the process is to complete your degree. This will usually take 4-6 years depending on your course, after which you will receive accreditation with the RCVS and be permitted to title yourself ‘Dr’. And after that, the real work begins!
For more information about getting into veterinary medicine, watch this video with MPW London's Head of Admissions, James Barton: