The All-Star Vet School VMCAS Essays

The Vetducator Star Symbol

Applying to vet school is exciting and intimidating.  For many, it’s the culmination of years of focus and enthusiasm.  It’s a high-stakes application, with an applicant:seat ratio of between 1.6 and 2, indicating that there are at least 1.6 applicants per available position in veterinary schools.  Your strategy to apply to vet school may be a years-long affair, with retaking classes, studying for and taking the GRE, and fulfilling prerequisites all long before the application.  Once it comes time to apply, though, you have direct and immediately control over your application packet, including your essays. It is just one piece of the puzzle, but it’s one you can improve right now.

Your essays should achieve the following goals:

  • Tell them why you want to be a veterinarian.
  • Demonstrate good communication skills.
  • Demonstrate an understanding of what veterinary school entails.
  • Illustrate why the program should choose you over another applicant.
  • Create some memorable or interesting personal detail for the evaluator to remember.
  • Avoid all of the mistakes previously described here at The Vetducator.

Tell them why you want to be a veterinarian

Of course you love animals.  Of course you want to help them.  This is self-evident because you are applying to veterinary school.  But what is it about being a veterinarian that appeals to you? You can use the “I was a child and my horse got sick and the vet helped it and I knew at that moment that’s what I wanted to do” story, but it’s hard to make it unique or interesting enough to (possibly jaded) evaluators.  Try to elevate your origin story from the first Deadpool movie (I got cancer and I love her doc) to something more like Infinity War (my world was dying from overconsumption so I solved it the only way I knew how- killing half the people).

Demonstrate good communication skills

In addition to avoiding grammar and spelling mistakes, you want to be articulate.  I will devote an entire blog post to this topic, because it is expansive. In general, be sincere, use simple (but not simplistic) language, use punchy sentences, use appropriate openers and closers, present your thoughts in an organized way, use paragraphs, create narratives, and use good punctuation.  You may also demonstrate good communication skills by relating a story of a challenging communication you had with a client, other student, clinician, etc. Everyone knows communication is essential to any job- show them you can do it well.

Demonstrate an understanding of what vet school entails

You have no idea.  No. Idea. Nothing you have done- unless you went to another professional program in your life- can possibly prepare you for vet school.  Undergrad and grad school are a cake walk. A full-time job where you only work 40 hours a week- laughable. The social dynamics are like high school- 4 years together, stuck in one room with the same people day after day.  The workload is indescribable- you never imagined there was so much information in the world. The psychological and mental toll WILL break your mind in order to rebuild you stronger, better, faster.

You can acknowledge that vet school is a new, unknown challenge but you have the mental fortitude to handle it.  Can you tell a story of when you had grit? Can you elaborate on a time when you helped solve some interpersonal conflict in a group?  Can you handle it? The evaluators want to know if you can.

Illustrate why the program should choose you over another applicant.

This is the real kicker, and consequently almost impossible to pin down.  You need to draw from your experiences and who you are and showcase your best characteristics.  Don’t just tell them what you did in school. They have your CV, they know WHAT you did. WHY did you do it, WHAT did you learn, HOW does it make you a better person and candidate?

Create some memorable or interesting personal detail for the evaluator to remember.

First, make sure your details are not too quirky- this turns off some evaluators.  What you want is when they are reviewing the short listed candidates and your file comes up, one or two of them will say, “Oh yeah, that’s the one who talked about learning about One Health when visiting a small village where the animals and people all mixed together.”  This is not essential, but if you are able to pull it off, it is a slight one up in your favor.

Avoid all of the mistakes previously described here at The Vetducator.

Please?  For me?

Veterinary school essays are a small part of the overall package.  Compared with grades, GRE scores, recommendations, experience, and interviews, they are probably near the bottom of the pack.  Nonetheless, they can still help or hurt you.

At the end of the day, you have to express yourself, and no rules or formula can tell you how to do that.  Have others review your letter- friends, classmates, mentors. When you get suggestions for changes, though, you don’t have to accept all of them.  We can probably take 100 people and generate “typical” good essays, but they won’t be YOUR essays, it will be a regression to the mean. Show them you can be a great vet.

There is No Ideal Applicant

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Most people who apply to a position want to be the ideal candidate.  Employers want the ideal candidate, so they get a quality employee who will stay for the long term and not cause waves.  Applicants want the ideal position, to progress their career and to maximize happiness.  Sadly, there is no such thing as the ideal candidate or the ideal position.  There’s only a good fit.

This became evident to me with one of my first residents.  Our training program was designed to provide a high degree of autonomy to the residents. They chose how to spend their off-clinic time, what rotations to take, what research to pursue, how to study, etc.  This worked great when I came through the program- I did external rotations at UCD in Ireland and at Royal Perth Hospital in Australia, I got five papers submitted for publication, and I passed the written section of boards the first time.  This also worked great for the resident who came after me. But the next resident did not have a high degree of internal motivation. He needed a more structured program.

He had difficulty with deciding how to spend his time, did not seek out advice, and generally did not efficiently use his time.  Ultimately he ended up not completing the program. I don’t see that as a failing of his or a failing of the program.  It was a bad fit.  Our program worked well with highly internally motivated residents and he needed a program which would tell him what to do and when.  Subsequent residents were highly successful once we identified that we needed to tell residents about this feature of our program. We would tell applicants what our program was like during the interview, and if they needed more structure, there were great programs that could provide that out there.  But ours was not one of them.

There are good programs.  There are good candidates.  But there is no perfect program or perfect candidate.  

You have to be extremely honest with yourself:  

What can you tolerate?  

What kind of person are you?  

How do you like to work?  

Do you want to be the top in your field and climb over the bodies of your fallen enemies or are you happy just doddering along doing your thing and being happy?

How many hours and how hard do you ACTUALLY want to work?  

Do you need the social status attendant with being in a top program?  

Do you want high income, or more free time, lots of students/interns/residents to train, lots of time for research, more contact with students, or more time in the classroom?  

Spend time dwelling on what you actually genuinely want.

This is less critical for internships- they are only a year, and you can tolerate almost anything for that span of time.  When evaluating residencies and faculty positions, though, ask a lot of questions to make sure you would actually be happy where you are applying.  Don’t just accept anything- your life is too short to waste it being miserable. Do you have a tale of a good position not being a good fit or visa versa?

Maximize Your Senior Year for Internship Success

The Vetducator - Picture of senior vet year schedule for internship prep
Sample senior year schedule for a small animal internship-bound student.

What are your concerns in scheduling your senior year?  When you plan to take boards and what rotations to do before that.  When you want to take vacation and do job interviews. Have you thought about how scheduling your rotations may affect your intern application success?  Because it can, fairly dramatically.

Remember what intern evaluators want to know– can you do the job?  More specifically, do you have general surgical and medical skills sufficient to be a competent intern?  Even if your interest is neurology, the internship evaluators are probably not very interested in the amazingness of your neuro knowledge.  Evaluators know about your clinical skills largely from your letters of recommendation.

You need to make sure your senior year is structured to maximize your likelihood of getting good letters of recommendation from core clinical disciplines.  Core disciplines are medicine, surgery, and related disciplines. Your first rotation or two is a wash- you’re just learning the clinic and figuring things out.  Getting a good letter from the first rotations is nearly impossible- you don’t know enough to shine yet. Load up rotations which will get you in the clinic but which are not core, such as ophthalmology, dermatology, anesthesiology, oncology, and similar disciplines.

You want to schedule the rotations where you will get your really stellar letters of recommendation in the late summer and early fall.  Internal medicine, surgery, and emergency medicine are probably the top contenders. Cardiology and neurology can be rotations for good letters if you absolutely cannot arrange your schedule to get medicine and surgery during this time.

Some internship programs may offer on-site interviews after applications are due in early December.  Having some vacation time in late December or early January to arrange these may be helpful. However, everyone else wants to be off over the holidays, too, so this may be difficult.  Don’t lose sleep if you can’t arrange it- most programs which do interviews are fine with phone or video interviews.

Don’t waste any time before the match doing external rotations at the clinic where you worked during undergrad, or on peripheral disciplines like pathology or behavior.  You may, however, do external rotations at other universities or clinics which have internship programs to which you want to apply. But remember, you don’t have much time to become an above-average clinical senior veterinary student in order to perform to the level where you will get good letters of recommendation.  Focus on core clinical disciplines and leave the rest of the year after match applications are due for anything else. Not sure how to do this? Ask away!

Guidelines for the Best Faculty CV


The Vetducator Guidelines for Best Faculty CV - Sign of what you can't do here.

Even if you have experience writing a CV for vet school, internship, residency, or grad school, you can always improve your CV-writing skills.  I see CVs from applicants all the time and think, “Who advised you to do it like this?” There aren’t many rules when it comes to faculty CVs, but you can make the most of your application with a few simple guidelines.

Length.  Make it as long as you like.  The CV is intended to be exhaustive.  Mine is 17 pages, and I trimmed a fair bit of content recently.

Font.  This isn’t particularly critical, as long as it is readable and not tiny.  I would keep it between 9-12 point font and recommendations vary widely on what font to use, but it seems like there is a short list.

Time.  You probably don’t need to include awards you got in undergrad, or externships you did in vet school.  If you are applying for a new assistant professor position, potentially including awards from veterinary school, internship, and residency are acceptable.  After that, unless it occurred when you were on faculty, you can remove them.

Organization.  Create headlines in decreasing order of importance.  End with references. If you are applying for a clinical position and are residency trained or boarded, open with that.  Then, education and experience are up, with publications close behind. Teaching experience follows, then any other service information.  If you are applying for a non-clinical position, highlighting grant funding is important. Everything should be listed in reverse chronological order.

Headings.  You can chose many or a few, and there is no proscribed list.  Here are some examples of potential headings to get your creativity going: Diplomate Status, Education and Employment, Professional Progression, Publications, Research in Progress, Submitted Research, Research Funding, Grants, Teaching Responsibilities, Continuing Education Presentations, Mentees, Awards, Associations, Committees, Reviewer Responsibilities, Research Presentations, Special Skills/Certifications, Conferences, Abstracts Presented, External Rotations, Interests and Activities.

Research.  List publications by year and highlight your position in the author order.  If you have non-peer-reviewed publications which are not obvious (book chapters are obviously non-peer-reviewed), label them appropriately with an * and indicate so at the bottom of the section.  If you have a lot of publications, you can keep a running count.

Teaching.  If you have little teaching experience, list everything and give details (number of contact hours, number of students).  If you have extensive teaching experience, you can summarize. Indicate if you were the course coordinator.

New teacher:

2016 Fall                    Lecturer, SAMS 5373 (Basic Surgical Techniques)                                      – 4 lectures, 16 lab periods (4 labs); 120 students

Experienced teacher:

Principles of Anesthesia                                                         Course Coordinator 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016

The CV is a practical document, not a time to express your individuality- that comes from your letter of intent.  When in doubt, include more content rather than less. If you are an Associate Professor or full Professor, you may want to condense some material or drop whole sections which are not that relevant for a search committee.  What other guidelines do you think should be considered for the faculty CV?

How to Nail the Vet School Interview

The Vetducator Vet Student Interviews.

Veterinary schools engage in interviews to varying degrees. Some go back and forth on doing them or not. There is not particularly compelling evidence that interviews improve the selection process, but it’s hard to let go of them. It SEEMS like sitting down talking with someone should help us determine if they will be successful or not. So, for those schools that do interviews, how do you really nail the interview?

Your goal is to have notes made by the interviewers that you are an above-average candidate. You do not have to aim to be a superstar candidate or the best candidate and, in fact, aiming for that is likely to backfire. As always, aim for zero. Here are some general tips which will help you with any vet school interview.

Be concise but not parsimonious with your answers.  When you are asked a question, answer it without rambling.  However, try not to answer with one or two sentences. You need an opportunity to showcase yourself, and answering questions is how you do so.  Answer the question directly and expand on your answer. If you find you are speaking for more than about three minutes on a reply, it’s probably too long or rambling.

Use examples.  Whenever possible, use examples from your own experience.  If you are given an ethical conundrum, try to relate it to something you had to tackle yourself in the recent past.  Always share what you learned from the experience and how you might do things better in the future.

Be secure.  If you need a question repeated, ask so politely.  If you need to take notes, do so. Take the time to take a sip of water.  You don’t have to answer in a rapid-fire manner. Consider your answer before giving it if you need to.

Be prepared.  Why do you want to go to that institution?  You should have researched this before the interview and have some answers prepared.  Why are you a good candidate? Be genuine but not generic. If given an opportunity, have questions to ask them.  Remember, it’s about finding the right fit– you need to make sure this institution is where you want to go to school.

If you hit these points, you will come off as poised and professional- a future colleague to the interview team.  Although the interview is rarely a make-or-break decision for the admissions team, it does factor into their decision making.  I have seen some interviewees who impressed the heck out of me, and others which were definitely unremarkable. If you follow the short list above, you are more likely to edge into that impressive group.  Are there scenarios you have heard of where you think the above would not be helpful?

How to be Successful: Aim For Zero

The Vetducator - Chris Hadfield Book Cover

I was doing a locum job in Saskatoon when some of the people at the hospital directed me to a book written by the first Canadian to walk in space, “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth” by Chris Hadfield.  While generally entertaining, I found the most compelling chapter in the book was about performance. How do you excel in a new position, and how might you extend this to a job search or interview?  If you have a scale from -1, which is being a drain on the system or a bad interviewee, to a 0, where you contribute your fair share to the system or do a competent job, to a +1, which is being a superstar and beloved by all, Hadfield’s advice is to Aim For Zero.  I couldn’t agree more.

I will never forget becoming a new third-year resident and having the new first-year residents start at the hospital.  One of the new medicine residents had a case going in radiology under anesthesia. One of my mentors, a full Professor of anesthesia, British not-to-be-messed-with attitude, and all around terrific academic, went to radiology to check on the case.  The new medicine resident told my mentor in a very sharp, dismissing tone, “Don’t worry, I’ve got this.” Everyone got very quiet. My mentor barely acknowledged the resident, checked out everything, and then went about her business. She wasn’t angry, just shocked, as was I.  What the hell was the resident thinking? Looking back, the resident was aiming to be a +1, able to handle any situation, trusted and respected by all. Instead, her actions marked her as a clear -1.

In writing a letter of intent, you want to follow the general guidelines we have mapped out before, but you don’t want to try TOO hard.  You may come across in a way you don’t intend. In an interview, you want to be prepared, competent, knowledgeable, and personable. But you don’t want to strive to be amazing.  I had one candidate interview for a faculty position who had done an amazing amount of research. He had committed my recent publications to memory and asked me about all of them.  He knew people in the organization and what their roles and duties were, and he brought them up. It was impressive, but also just a little bit off-putting. Other candidates have been prepared- knowing one or two interesting publications of mine which have come up organically during conversations- and that was fine.  The obsessive focus this candidate had was not fine.

Could you lose out to the actual +1 candidate?  It’s possible. Charismatic, competent people who are amazing at writing and interviews do exist.  But in my experience, they are few and far between. And, are you really going to beat out the top 5% for a position if you are genuinely in the top 15%?  I think it is more likely you will end up hitting -1 if you try to aim to be a +1. Maintain your dignity and trust that the right thing will work out for you. We will cover all the elements needed to become a +1 in a series of posts on How to be Successful.

You need to prepare.  You need to practice. You need to research and talk to others about your application and process.  But don’t aim to be that amazing blow-them-out-of-the-water candidate, because you’re more likely to miss.  Aim for zero- quietly competent.

Mistakes to Avoid in Your Application Letter

The Vetducator Avoiding Mistakes in your Vet Application Letter - Slipping banana peel

There’s no “right” way to write a letter of intent.  Applicant evaluators are so widely varied, you can’t possibly write the ideal letter unless you happen to A) know the evaluators and B) apply to only one institution.  Fortunately, there are some “wrong” ways to write a letter of intent. Let’s try to avoid them.

First think from the evaluator’s perspective.  They have a monumental challenge- reviewing possibly several hundred applicants for a handful of positions.  It is a grueling, churning, time-sucking task that they get very little thanks for. If you give them the opportunity to rapidly assess your letter as representing someone who is not a good fit, it saves them the trouble of reading your CV and letters of recommendation and thus saves them time.

Here are the rules to keep your letter from getting tossed into the discard pile.

One page or less.  I know some evaluators read two page letters.  I know more who use this as an instant rejection.  You should be able to express yourself succinctly.

Good grammar and spelling.  This may seem obvious, but I would say a full 20% of letters I read fail this test.  Have other people go through your letter _carefully_ with a fine-toothed comb and make sure they are brutally honest.

Good use of English.  This one is hard for non-native speakers, but it is very obvious when it is present.  If your English is good but not native, find several native speakers to review and correct it.  We use language in odd ways in English.  The Japanese small old car is technically correct, but does not sound the same as the small old Japanese car.

Avoid a TOO-unique letter.  You can and should write your own letter and not a form letter, but if your letter is quirky or eccentric, this may work for some evaluators but not for others.  This is highly polarizing with people who feel very strongly on both sides. Don’t risk it.

Don’t use odd word choices, or excessive Thesaurus use.  This may not get you an instant rejection, but it can be off-putting.  Keep it simple.

Don’t be boastful or arrogant.  I think there is some advice out there on the internet that you need to be assertive and confident in your application letters.  Maybe this is true for business, but it is not true in academia. Some people may not notice or care about this, but I know many evaluators who react poorly to arrogant letter-writers and veto their application.

As noted in the introduction, evaluators are an extremely heterogeneous group, and you can’t possibly avoid all pitfalls of all evaluators.  Maybe some don’t like anything other than a five-paragraph-essay format. Maybe others will reject any letter with the word “yellow” in it. It’s impossible to predict all the things on which evaluators may reject you.  However, the tar pits listed here are the most prominent, consistent, and important. Write your letters accordingly and, if you need help, please reach out to me. What elements of letters of application have you seen or heard of which you think should be considered mistakes?

What Everyone Ought to Know About Interviews

The Vetducator Vet Interview Basics
Interviewing seems simple, but it isn’t.

I have participated in some disappointing interviews.  Cases where participants clearly did not prepare, or did not care, or said the wrong things, or otherwise shot themselves in the foot.  For vet school, internships, and residencies, the interview is a small piece of the puzzle, but still an important one. For faculty positions, the interview is probably the most important consideration in hiring.  Regardless of the position to which you are applying, here are some basic rules for a successful interview.

Be interested. I considered writing ‘appear interested’, but if you’re applying for a position you’re not interested in, stop and withdraw your application. You should at least be interested at the start of the interview. That may change by the end, but you need to begin with enthusiasm. This is manifested by responding to what you’re told and asking questions. It kills me when I am in an interview setting and we ask, “What questions do you have for us?” and get “Uhm, none really, thanks.”

Be prepared. You should spend time on the organization’s website. For vet school, do you know what tracks there are and when you get to touch live animals? For internships, what specialties are at the practice? For residencies, who are the people in the program and their backgrounds? For faculty positions, you need to do so much research that I have a separate post about it. This research should inform the questions you ask.

Be engaged. Ask the interviewers questions as you go. A back-and-forth conversation is more natural and will get you better answers than a barrage of questions at the end.

Dress appropriately. In veterinary medicine, this is a suit. For men, a suit and tie. For women, pant- or skirt- suit with a nice blouse. No exceptions. More conservative colors are better- black and navy blue. You should know what color shirt looks good on you. You do not need a vest or pinstripes, but these are acceptable if they are within your style and suit your frame.

Be timely. Get to the location no later than 5 minutes before your scheduled time. If you don’t know the area, leave plenty early. You can sit in your car if you get there very early. Don’t enter the location more than 15 minutes before your scheduled time. Watch the clock when you are talking with interviewers to make sure you have time to ask the questions you want to ask.

It’s not a long list, but it is amazing the number of applicants who do one or more of these wrong.  There are just the basics, we will cover how to do a great interview elsewhere. But you have to nail these without exception.  Walk before you run. What other baseline, core rules do you think belong on this list?

The need for this blog

Vetducator demonstrates veterinary academic professionals need help.
Photo by Noah Buscher on Unsplash

This year, I’ve had quite a few students and interns approach me about reviewing their materials for the VIRMP, which I am more than happy to do.  I thought, instead of sending individual emails to each, I could write a single blog post and direct them to it. I could also offer my services online.  That way, others outside of my institution could also benefit.

I have seen some atrocious applications for vet school, internships, residencies, and faculty positions.  Video interviews where the interviewee was backlit. Poorly composed CVs that evaluators had to dig through until they figured ‘why bother’ and stopped considering the applicant.  Negotiations where one side or the other acts unwisely or unprofessionally, sinking the whole deal. I have been shocked that no one has mentored students on how to structure their senior year to maximize the impact on their internship application.  There is a need for people to get help in their professional progress in veterinary academia. I want to help those people.

This blog will be about employment and professional progression in academic veterinary medicine.  From undergrads applying to vet school, veterinary students applying to internship, residency applicants, and faculty applicants.  We will talk about cover letters, CVs, interviews, how to strategize to position yourself for the next step, who to talk to and when, and all other things related to the business of veterinary academia.

I have personally experienced this progression and the job market, have served on and chaired countless search committees, have been a hiring manager in my role as a Department Chair, have helped innumerable undergrads, vet students, interns, residents, and junior faculty get to their next step, and have published in peer-reviewed journals about post-graduate education.  I have always had an interest in the business of veterinary medicine, I stay up to date on current trends, I touch base with colleagues at other institutions to sound out the academic world. I want to share this expertise with those of you who want to make your professional progression as excellent as possible. Please follow along, comment, email me, and work together to make things better.