What I Learned Interviewing Vet Student Applicants This Year

Every year when I conduct interviews and evaluate applicants, I try to reflect on what I have learned and find tidbits to share with you all to improve your applications and interviews.  Here are some thoughts from reading dozens of VMCAS applications and then conducting interviews for vet school.  I have made these anonymous when needed.

Essay Notes

  • I liked that a handful of candidates mentioned the value of mentoring once they graduate.  This suggests they realize they won’t Know It All as new vets and indicates some degree of humility, which I like to see in a student.
  • Don’t write TOO short of a letter.  You don’t need to use all your space or word/character limits.  But a handful of applicants wrote maybe 3-4 sentences.  I thought, “Really?  That’s all you can say about veterinary medicine?”  Even though I tend to be concise, if I’m trying to demonstrate that I know about something, I will do my best to do that by expanding on a topic.  Don’t be needlessly wordy or lengthy, but also don’t be too short.
  • Bad grammar REALLY distracts me when reading and it detracts from your message.  Spell and grammar check it before putting it into VMCAS.  Have others review your work.  Check out my grammar posts.
  • Don’t be too specific about your career objectives (e.g. I want to be a board-certified neurologist) unless you have a lot of experience with that (e.g. worked with at least 2 different neurology practices AND seen other specialties to compare).  If you’ve worked in a single neurology clinic and you’ve decided to base your whole career on that experience, that seems a little naive to me.
  • Terrible essays will sink your chances.  I think I only encountered a couple of these, but essays can’t be TERRIBLE.  They don’t have to be stellar- there’s a lot of other aspects to your application.  But they have to at least be passable.

Punchy Openings

Something that grabs the reader’s attention and compels them to read further is good in my opinion.  People differ on what they like in essays, so don’t take this as the gospel truth.  These are just some lines I found which I appreciated.  I have changed the actual text but tried to retain the impact.

  • “Veterinarians are versatile medical professionals. They advocate for the well-being of animals, but they do that for the people as well.”
  • “My sister should have known better.”
  • “My life has been a blessing.”
  • “I would bet that most people’s first thought of a veterinarian would not be an elderly black man in a lab coat.”
  • “At my preschool graduation, I announced that I was going to be a veterinarian when I grew up.”
  • “I was studying abroad in Italy when I learned of the pandemic, and this experience inspired me to consider a career that combined veterinary medicine, public health, and international outreach.”

Interview Notes

  • As much as possible, answer the question as asked.  I realize this can be hard, given the high-stress nature of an interview.  But try not to do what politicians do when they get a question they don’t want to answer, where they answer a question related to their speaking points.   It doesn’t help me get to know you, which is the point of an interview. I also might wonder what you’re trying to hide by avoiding my question.
  • Have questions to ask.  Ideally, these questions should help YOU make a decision whether to go to that school or not.  I don’t think questions about the interviewers are very helpful for most students.  But have something to ask about the school or the program.  A couple of students didn’t and I thought, “Did you prepare for this?  There’s really NOTHING you want to know about this place you may be at for four years?”
  • Smiling is just SO important.  A handful of candidates just could not smile and it made it really hard to figure out what was going on for them.  Maybe they were stressed?  Maybe they were depressed?  Maybe they were unenthusiastic about vet school?  Difficult to say.  But it does not give a good impression.  Work on smiling naturally.  You’re interviewing for vet school!  Isn’t that amazing and exciting?  Show your excitement and eagerness!
  • Subtle use of humor makes the interview more engaging and memorable.  This can be difficult to pull off.  If it doesn’t come naturally to you, don’t worry about it.  But if you can maintain a lighthearted tone (without being flippant), feel free to do so.
  • If you are doing a video interview, make sure your camera is on a stable surface.  If you’re using your laptop, for example, don’t put it on your lap.  It was fairly distracting to see the screen moving constantly for some interviewees.
  • If you are doing a video interview, put your camera at eye level or slightly above.  Don’t have the camera looking up at you.  This is not a flattering angle.  There’s a reason people take selfies by extending their arm up and to the side.  A slight downward angle is the best angle.
  • If you’re comfortable with it, show appreciation to the interviewers.  You can give a short opening or closer: “Thank you for taking the time to interview me today!”  It’s not required, but it was nice to hear from some of the interviewees.
  • It can seem like a gimmick, so don’t overuse it, but responding with “That’s a great question” or “Thanks for that question” can be an effective technique for showing engagement.
  • Don’t ask questions of interviewers which are meaningless (e.g. “which courses do you teach?”)  Use your question time wisely- to help YOU make a decision.
  • If it’s available to you, don’t just use buzzwords like “communication”.  HOW are you communicating?  Active listening?  Validating?  Tons of applicants said “communication” is important to being a veterinarian.  Many gave an example of being in a leadership role and they said “communication” was important in that role.  It started to sound more like a buzzword than anything meaningful.  What type of communication?  What specific skills did you use?  The more detailed you can be, the more that demonstrates that you are ACTUALLY communicating and not just using buzzwords.  Ditto “leadership”.

Letters of Recommendation Notes

  • Letters from people who have known you and your family your whole life really don’t help much.  I expect most applicants can get a professional family friend to write them a letter- it doesn’t separate them out from the other applicants.  If you have three letters from professors/veterinarians, don’t add a fourth from a family friend.  It’s not necessary.
  • A fourth letter of recommendation, if coming from a veterinarian, may help.
  • If you have an option for a letter from one of two employers, and one of those employers is a family friend, choose the employer who is NOT a family friend.  Again, a letter from a family friend just isn’t going to tell me much.  I don’t trust that they are going to provide a true and accurate portrayal of the applicant.
  • If you have a LOR from an English or Math professor, that is impressive.  I expect applicants to be good at biological sciences.  If they could impress a professor from outside the biological sciences, that suggests they are a well-rounded student.

General VMCAS Notes

  • Review and edit.  Don’t enter “fgdgdasg” for Experience Details (true story).
  • Put it in the VMCAS – if you have an experience, include it.  For several interviewees, we only found out about a bunch of their experience during the interview.  If it hadn’t come up in the interview, their ‘paper’ scores would have been low because they didn’t include that experience.  This means animal experience, veterinary experience, experience on a team sport, etc. etc.  If you’ve done it as a human and it has helped you learn and grow, put it in.
  • A Master’s degree is actually helpful if you had a not-great undergrad grade performance.  Those who did a Master’s degree and got all As in those courses (which were usually intense science courses) suggests that they can keep up with the heavy coursework in veterinary medicine even if things were a little rough in undergrad.
  • Actually complete your VMCAS application details (e.g. dates, supervisors).  Lack of attention to detail is not a good quality for a medical practitioner.
  • If you don’t care about your VMCAS, why should we care about you?  Again, check it and recheck it and make sure it is filled out and complete.

It’s a lot to digest, and that’s on top of everything you’re already doing when applying and interviewing for vet school.  So don’t worry too much about most of these.  DO pay attention to the notes I gave about things that will seriously damage your application or interview.  They’re not hard to avoid.  You need to aim for zero.  After that, it’s mostly up to your grades, experience, and demonstration of qualities we are looking for in a veterinary student.

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