Dr. Diane Dommer supports helping aspiring veterinarians learn the ropes by allowing them to job shadow, but when the clinic where she practices in eastern Wisconsin had to create a special schedule to track five students, she began to wonder if things had gone too far.
“What really astounded me was my current pre-vet shadow told me that her advisor told her she needed 600 hours of shadowing for [her] vet school application,” Dommer wrote on a message board of the Veterinary Information Network, an online community for the profession. “... Since when did this recommended hours become a thing?”
For decades at least, experts say. Real-world experience in the field is important on veterinary school applications, according to multiple sources in program admissions. The weight that admissions committees give experience hours — learning about the profession as paid veterinary assistants or technicians, as volunteers or by shadowing veterinarians — has ebbed and flowed over time and varies by institution.
The VIN News Service contacted the 30 veterinary schools in the United States to determine their policies for experience or shadowing hours. (See chart.) Three programs were not able to provide the information within four weeks of the request, one did not respond and one declined to provide answers.
Of 25 responding colleges, nine require anywhere from 40 to a minimum of 500 hours. Nine do not specify a number of hours, but suggest or recommend a range from 200 to 500. Seven do not specify a number of hours or make ballpark suggestions.
By and large, applicants appear to be far exceeding the requirements and suggestions, even at schools that proffer no numbers.
For example, the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences at Colorado State University does not require or recommend a particular number of hours, but Dr. Gretchen Delcambre, director of admissions, said the average applicant reports 1,000 hours.
At the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine, which has the lowest required minimum hours at 40, Dr. Linda Berent, associate dean for academic affairs, noted that applicants average between 350 and 500 hours.
The University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine requires at least 180 hours of hands-on, quality veterinary experience. Those who are admitted average 1,600 hours, according to Kim O’Bryan, director of admissions.
Other schools report similar applicant averages. Michigan State University said students in the most recent incoming class had an average of 1,850 hours. University of Tennessee said many applicants have well over 2,000 hours.
“We have seen well-qualified applicants with a minimum of 25 hours of shadowing experience, all the way up to 10,000+ hours gained after working as a veterinary technician for many years,” Karen M. Nelson, director of admissions at the University of Minnesota, told the VIN News Service by email.
Such figures make the 600-hour target that astonished Dommer seem moderate. When the Cedar Grove, Wisconsin, veterinarian applied to school 22 years ago, she remembers letters of recommendation — not experience hours — being the key.
Dommer wonders if all these hours really make a difference and are worth the added work and stress for the supervising veterinarian. “We do owe it to the next generation,” she said about providing shadowing opportunities, “but we need to be realistic.”
She may be on to something. Many programs are embracing a reality check — reducing or not specifying the experience-hours requirement. Overriding aims include expanding access and capturing qualified students from diverse backgrounds. Meanwhile, the message that less isn’t necessarily more hasn’t reached veterinary school applicants, who are ratcheting up experience hours and fueling the drive for more.
Amid these counter-narratives, one question is unanswered: What experience is the best predictor of academic and professional success?
What counts as experience?
For the most part, admissions teams are looking for experiences supervised by a veterinarian or research scientist in veterinary practice, veterinary or biomedical research, public health, or other areas of the profession.
According to the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine website, competitive applicants normally have engaged in two or more areas of veterinary experience, or a combination of veterinary and animal experiences (such as small animal, large animal, research, food animal, production, exotic, aquatic, wildlife or zoological medicine), with substantial depth of experience in at least one area.
Examples of animal experience obtained without the supervision or direction of a veterinarian are volunteering at an animal shelter, working with livestock, showing animals, or working at a zoo, aquarium or pet shop.
Most admissions committees do not distinguish between volunteer and paid work.
“What we want are candidates who have a realistic idea of what they are getting into,” explained Dr. Jonathan Foreman, associate dean of the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine. “That’s a candidate who we feel has a good feel for the profession.” The best avenue for that, Foreman said, is “direct veterinarian-supervised” experience.
Illinois does not publish a required amount of experience time. “When you start to say hours, you are in danger of making a contract whereby the candidate feels that they are entitled to be admitted if they meet some minimum published standard number of hours,” Foreman explained. “Of course, the admissions process is much more complex than that.”
He cautioned that among pre-veterinary students making claims about schools’ target numbers, “there is a lot of misinformation out there. Any number or limit or target is not necessarily coming from the schools themselves.”
Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University also does not publish a set number of recommended or required hours. That doesn’t mean the college doesn’t care whether an applicant has experience. It cares very much, but what matters “is not a number but rather the type of experience,” said Ford Barnet, assistant director of admissions.
Tufts wants to see that applicants understand the challenges and rewards of the work. They also look for students who go beyond shadowing, maybe turning the opportunity into something more hands-on.
To Barnet’s mind, experience is not just about understanding the downside. It’s also about the positive experiences. In the stressful academic trenches, remembering the satisfaction of real-world interactions helps remind students, “This is what I am doing this for.”
Dr. Julie Brinker, a veterinarian in Missouri, is a 2000 graduate of the University of Missouri veterinary school. When she applied, shadowing was recommended but not required.
“[Y]ou could tell the difference between those who had spent a lot of time in a clinic from those who had not, the latter were still learning how to restrain animals and read [their] body language, which increased their learning curves,” Brinker said by email.
Missouri added an experience requirement in 1999. Associate Dean Berent explained: “Students who applied with zero exposure to the profession were not successful in gaining acceptance due to a lack of realistic knowledge of the profession.”
Brinker believes the requirement is valuable. She worked as a veterinary assistant in small-animal practice off and on during high school and college, and also assisted an equine veterinarian.
“As a result, I had already seen what veterinarians go through,” she said. “I’d witnessed how they dealt with going from plan A to plan C, saw how they handled grieving and angry clients, and what their daily schedules actually were. I also learned how to talk to clients from answering a multitude of phone calls, and how to read animal body language from restraining and otherwise handling them for appointments."
Even still, she had much to learn. “What my previous experiences could not teach was how emotionally hard it is to be the final word on what is going to happen with an animal’s recommended diagnostic and treatment plan,” she said. “Or how much stress you feel when you’re the only DVM in the office so all of the staff turns to you to know what to do.”
Requirement is softening
The Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges does not maintain specific data on the number of hours required or suggested by each college. However, AAVMC Senior Director Lisa Greenhill said she’s seen the number of required hours decline at several member institutions.
As an example, she pointed to Iowa State University, where the experiential requirement has been reduced to 200 hours. Dr. Jared Danielson, associate dean of academic and student affairs at Iowa State, explained the change this way:
The university has a rubric that awards a range of points for various criteria, one of which is experience. An applicant with very little experience receives no points; one to seven points for fewer than 200 hours; and eight to 15 points for 200-plus hours of relevant experience, depending on the nature of the experience.
“In the past, that number was higher (and involved more categories of experience),” Danielson said by email. “Therefore, an applicant can now earn full experience points for as little as 200 hours, whereas in the past more hours were required to receive full experience points. Note that, theoretically, an applicant could be admitted with less than 200 hours, though they will need to be extra competitive in other areas.”
A big gap exists between the new requirement and current reality. Applicants to Iowa State for the school year that begins this month presented with an average of 1,560 hours, according to Greenhill.
While Danielson could not confirm that average, he said those kinds of numbers illustrate the problem with putting so much emphasis on experience. “If the average applicant has 1,560 hours of veterinary experience, that means that a very large group of prospective applicants, who could have succeeded academically and who might have brought a unique set of skills and/or perspective to the profession, didn’t even bother to apply because they were unable to clear the experience hurdle.”
Even as schools reduce experience requirements, pre-veterinary students apparently perceive that experience — and lots of it — makes them more competitive.
“It is clear that applicants believe that the number of hours has increased in importance because the number of hours they are accumulating has risen over time,” Greenhill said by email.
A look at postings on the American Pre-Veterinary Medical Association’s Facebook page shows plenty of concern among would-be veterinarians about accumulating hours. About once a month, a frustrated pre-vet student asks for advice on how to land a coveted shadow opportunity. Underlying the suggestions on how to approach clinics, where to look for other opportunities and the relative merits of volunteering versus paid work is the belief that you gotta get the experience.
That can be stressful.
“Applicants are more than aware that the pool will contain people that have accumulated thousands of hours,” said Ana Pantin, who is headed to Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine this fall after just graduating from the University of Miami, where she was a leader in the pre-veterinary club. “Many students take a gap year just so that they can close the gap between themselves and that applicant. It’s becoming more and more difficult to apply to veterinary school right out of undergrad because of that.”
Educational opportunity or barrier?
Dr. Jim Weisman, a clinical associate professor and director of student services at Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine, was surprised to hear that veterinarians such as Dommer perceive a greater emphasis on accumulating experiences hours today than in the past. Like Greenhill at the AAVMC, he’s seeing the pendulum swing the other way.
“Twenty to 25 years ago, it was more assumed that everyone had experience,” Weisman said. “We look at students more holistically now.”
Do medical schools require ‘experience hours’?
The reason, he said, is that “people come from different places and backgrounds, [and] we don’t want this to be a hurdle.” Purdue is among the seven colleges that do not require, recommend or suggest a target number of hours.
The thinking is similar at Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. The college recently reduced its requirement from 300 to 100 experience hours. Applicants get no extra credit for exceeding 100, and it’s possible to be accepted with zero, said Dr. Jacque Pelzer, an associate professor of population of health sciences and director of admissions and student support.
However, “if they don’t have the hours,” Pelzer said, “they have to have very sound reasons why.”
The college doesn’t want a lack of shadowing hours to be a barrier for applicants and realizes that the requirement can work against its desire to improve diversity. (According to former AVMA president Dr. Joe Kinnarney, the profession is 96 percent white.) The admissions team also looks for other work experience as a demonstration that the student is saving to help pay for veterinary school, since student debt is an issue.
“People of privilege are often the ones who can get thousands and thousands of hours,” Pelzer said. “I don’t think that’s right.”
AAVMC’s Greenhill confirmed that not everyone enjoys equal access to shadowing opportunities. “The data show that applicants who are first-generation college students tend to have more difficulty finding opportunities to gain experience,” she said.
“This is likely because parents have not navigated higher educational systems and are disadvantaged at helping their students find creative opportunities to gain experience.”
In its own research, AAVMC is examining the differences among applicants who are racially and ethnically underrepresented in the profession, those who are first-generation and those who are eligible for or receiving Pell grants as undergraduates. (Pell grants are a form of federal financial aid for low-income students.)
“[The] preliminary data suggest that all of these students do acquire the necessary hours to be competitive, but they are also more likely to work full time, which may have a greater impact on their academic performance in the form of lower grades and/or taking longer to finish their prerequisites and/or their undergraduate degree,” Greenhill said. “This is where [we] see the burden — students with less resources cannot afford to pursue volunteer positions.”
As programs strive to balance the challenges of access to volunteer experiences and the desire for diversity in the profession with the educational benefits for students, there’s a key unanswered question: Does prior clinical experience ensure that students have a better chance of success in their programs and/or later as professionals? If so, how much experience does it take?
“I’ve looked at the literature. No one can come up with a magic number,” Pelzer said.
Greenhill concurs that no published data exists that ties experiential hours to success. The association aims to counter the dearth of information, starting with a study to explore that relationship. The study is a collaboration between AAVMC and Purdue. The project is still in planning stages; organizers hope to have data in mid- to late-2018.
Editor’s note: Further details about experience expected or required by schools is available on an interactive map under development by the VIN Foundation on the site vetschoolbound.org.
VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.