The author is a partner in the Maria Stein Animal Clinic, Maria Stein, Ohio.

This uterine torsion case was a bit of a challenge, as they often are. The first challenge is to correct the torsion. The second challenge is to extract the calf through a birth canal that has not had the benefit of slowly stretching and dilating. Patience and lubricant are both essential.

In this instance, we got a live heifer calf, then the cow’s owner, Josh, asked, “Who is going to do this in five years?”

My answer was, “It might be me, or it might be one of the very capable doctors that work with us now. It might be a doctor we hire between now and then, or it could be one from the dozens of applications I reviewed over the weekend.”

Josh commented, “You’ll be really old by then, and how did you get dozens of applications? I thought the supply of mixed animal vets was really tight.”

I said, “Let me clarify. You are only as old as you feel, and I try not to let the old man in. A friend of mine in Michigan is still practicing in his 90s. His body gives him some challenges, but his mind is sharper than mine.”

Josh joked, “Your friend wouldn’t have to be that sharp.” I reminded him that I hadn’t written the bill yet.

The future veterinarian

The applications I was reviewing were for the veterinary school at my alma mater. A large number of volunteers tackle the review of 2,500 applications to select the 650 applicants that are interviewed virtually for 165 seats in the class. It is a huge task, and I probably am not strict enough because I recommended that 75% of the applicants I review get an interview.

Natalee, Josh’s daughter, then perked up with questions. Nat had just finished her first semester studying agriculture at the local community college. She was really bright and was working for Josh as herdsman. Natalee could become the ideal candidate for veterinary school.

She asked, “How do I become one of those that get an interview and then secure a seat in the class?”

The easiest factor to discuss is the time-honored competitiveness of the grade point average (GPA). Many colleges are now on a pass/fail system, and we did not even get GPAs in the recent applications.

There was a time that GPA was central to admissions. It is a measure of success in the academic setting, and it may be a disservice as the pendulum swings away from it. Yes, we want doctors who are going to be successful in real life, but they have to get through vet school first, and the amount of information thrown at students is like drinking from a fire hose. Undergrad course work will cover in a day what an intensive high school will cover in a week. Vet school repeats this step up in speed, and a person must have the academic horsepower to handle that pace.

When you compete at this level, you will find geniuses that you didn’t know existed. I’m a survivor, not a pace setter, but we hired a doctor who never wrote anything down in four years and graduated fourth in his class. To survive in that environment, you must be very diligent and efficient at hitting the books, or webinars, or downloads, or however education works these days.

Besides competing with geniuses, you will also be running with the privileged. One third of vet students graduate with no debt. That probably means their parental support was 100%, so they have more time to study and rest. My parental support in 10 years of school was 5 pounds of hamburger and 2 quarts of green beans. That builds lifelong resilience.

I had to work during school, as most students do. My best and worst job was night shift at the self-serve gas station. I got paid for eight hours of work and got six hours of studying done. I wouldn’t recommend that today as I was between a rough part of town and the interstate and my only veterinary experience that year was on Saturdays.

Make connections

There is a section on the evaluation of the applications for supporting letters from three to six people who know the student well. I think at least two of these should be veterinarians, and they need to know you for two or more years. This means, prospective students should get a job at a vet clinic or research lab and do well there so the people like and appreciate them.

There are also points for diversity of animal experience. Even if Natalee is going to stay in the dairy world, her home farm experience may not be enough. Having a relationship with a nutritionist, genetics company representative, hoof trimmer, and an extension agent as well as a solid veterinary experience will have value, not just on the evaluation but in real life. Some other species knowledge may be important because they will be part of the vet school experience. It is also easier to get a vet job in the Midwest as a mixed practitioner than as a food animal only doctor.

I was surprised how many of the applicants’ only food animal experience was volunteering at an animal rescue shelter. That is better than no experience at all, but it does not give a true picture of food production agriculture.

A big reason to get vet experience during undergrad is to be sure this is what a person really wants to do before investing many years and hundreds of thousands of dollars. I have a daughter that had six years of Chinese language in high school and entered college as a Chinese major. After six months in China her sophomore year, and she came back and changed her major. We are glad she didn’t wait until senior year to immerse herself.

It’s a people business, too

There is also a section on the evaluation for achievements. This is to show if an applicant is well rounded. Did they join clubs, play sports, donate time, and be a leader in those efforts? I was surprised at the applicants that left this section blank. I assume they did nothing but study and work.

Veterinary medicine is a people-centered business disguised as an animal business. Developing the skills to help people by communicating well can never be a loss.

There is also an essay describing why a person wants to be a veterinarian and why they should be admitted to vet school. Dreaming of being a veterinarian since kindergarten is not enough of a reason. Actions make dreams a reality. What actions support the aspiration to become a veterinarian?

Natalee said, “Thank you for the insight. That may be more reality than I expected, but it’s good to know what I’m in for. I’m up for the challenge and will put together a plan. Can I call you with questions?”

“Absolutely,” I said. I answer the call for a sick cow; I’ll surely answer for someone who would like to prevent disease and treat the sick cows of the future.