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February 15, 2021

Potential veterinary students face layered admission challenges

Cost, requirement differences complicate the application process

Illustrations by Dr. Vishal Murthy

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Dr. Christina V. Tran, a first-generation Filipino American, completed her undergraduate degree at the University of California-Davis, where there is a preveterinary club and a robust animal science program. There was an abundance of readily available resources to help navigate the veterinary school application process. However, some students who go to institutions with small or no preveterinary clubs and lack preveterinary advisers may have more trouble accessing resources and finding information.

“It may not dawn on them to ask for help or reach out,” Dr. Tran said. “You would think it would be easier with the internet, but sifting through (lots of information) is difficult.”

Many potential veterinary students face obstacles unrelated to their academic abilities when applying to veterinary school. The challenges can range from the cost of application fees to undergraduate advisers who aren’t knowledgeable about the requirements needed to attend veterinary school to varying admission requirements at each institution to difficulty in gaining enough veterinary experience hours. Issues also stretch back further than at the time of applying for admission. That said, a number of groups and individuals are looking at the process to see what improvements can be made.

Illustration: Pathway to veterinary school


Pipeline puzzle

Dr. Tran, immediate past president of the Multicultural VMA and an associate professor at the University of Arizona College of Veterinary Medicine, said there are many barriers for people of color who want to enter veterinary school, which can cause issues with developing a diverse pipeline for the profession.

“I know that specifically with MCVMA, one of the things we have been doing to address this is focusing our efforts on K-12 outreach,” she said.

For example, MCVMA has a partnership with Nepris, a platform that connects educators to a range of professionals, to reach K-12 students and talk about veterinary medicine as a career.

Over half of nearly 1,000 high school and college-age students indicated they had considered becoming a veterinarian; however, 32% of those students changed their mind before graduating college, according to research released in September 2020 from Banfield Pet Hospital and Lincoln Memorial University College of Veterinary Medicine. Also, over half of the Black high school students who responded said the reason they no longer wanted to become a veterinarian was that someone persuaded them to choose a different career path. The research is available at the Banfield website (PDF).

Leaders are working to bridge the gap between wanting to become a veterinarian and going to veterinary school by mentoring and educating K-12 students. Two programs out of Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine, This is How We Role and the League of VetaHumanz, are working specifically in this area.

Another platform, Pawsibilities Vet Med, a nonprofit dedicated to recruitment and retention of diverse students in veterinary medicine, is also working on this. The platform aims to address admission barriers through webinars and its mentorship program, as well as providing scholarships in the future.

Richard Barajas, director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine, said he is also focused on outreach to younger populations and demystifying the application process.

“First-generation students don’t necessarily have the knowledge of what a good application looks like,” he said.

Barajas said he is still figuring out his new role—he started this past September—but he wants to focus on exposing students to different career paths within veterinary medicine.

Finding mentors, advisers

Dr. Brittany S. Moore-Henderson, director of admissions and a clinical instructor at Mississippi State University College of Veterinary Medicine, said she knows the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges provides a lot of information, but it may be difficult for students to access it if they don’t know where to look.

“It is so much a student has to go through to find out all the information they need,” she said. “As college students, starting off as a freshman, if you don’t have resources or an adviser that can help direct you, it makes it difficult to navigate this career path.”

Many undergraduate programs lack specific animal health or veterinary advisers.

Dr. Bernard M. Fischer is an associate professor of pediatric research at Duke University Medical Center and a preveterinary adviser who has worked with students who have gone on to veterinary school all over the country. Dr. Fischer is also the AAVMC liaison to the National Association of Advisors of Health Professions. He is currently working on an adviser toolkit for premedicine advisers to adapt their resources to preveterinary students.

“The toolkit goes through everything involved with going to veterinary school,” Dr. Fischer said, adding that he hopes it will go live this spring. He wants people to feel comfortable working with preveterinary students and know what resources are available and whom they can reach out to if they have questions.

The toolkit will include key information about course requirements for admissions, community service and shadowing requirements, and letters of recommendation.

Dr. Moore-Henderson also suggests students reach out to various veterinary schools for admission information.

“Veterinary schools are open to contact from students if they don’t understand the pre-requirements and the process,” she said. “Students that don’t have preveterinary clubs or advisers, I advise them to become a part of the American PreVeterinary Medical Association. You don’t have to be at a university with a preveterinary club, it is open to anyone.”

Cost

Students, even those who have mentors, may face an additional barrier related to the cost of applying to veterinary school.

Dr. Tran said the overall cost to apply and be accepted can be a real challenge, especially as potential students are encouraged to apply to multiple institutions.

“Students play a guessing game if they have financial concerns,” Dr. Tran said. “I have X amount of dollars to pay for this. If you do have the money to apply but you are in California and you are invited to a veterinary school on the East Coast for an in-person interview, how do you get out of school and how do you fund traveling to the interview?”

More applicants to veterinary school applied for a fee reimbursement in 2020 than ever before. The program from the AAVMC through the Veterinary Medical College Application Service, which is used by all veterinary institutions in the U.S. except for those at Texas A&M University and Texas Tech University, offers eligible students a reimbursement of the first application fee of $220.

Diana L. Dabdub, director for admissions and recruitment affairs at the AAVMC, said the program reimbursed nearly $200,000 to applicants for the 2020-21 cycle. The AAVMC plans to offer the program again for the next cycle but also has plans to expand it.

Jenna Henshue, director of admissions at Wisconsin’s veterinary school, said she sees cost as a multifaceted barrier.

“As we think about students applying to veterinary school, they are often reviewed academically and nonacademically, but sometimes your economic status can have an effect on both of those things,” she said. “From an academic standpoint, GPAs are competitive, but if you are in a position where you have to work through undergrad, you may experience some lower grades. … In the nonacademic realm, admission committees are looking for breadth and depth in animal science experience, but if you are a student who needs to work during undergrad, some of those extras are limited because of time.”

Henshue said that along with the cost of admissions, the debt-to-income ratio for a newly graduated veterinarian is also a concern for many students and their families.

COVID changes

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dabdub said, the AAVMC surveyed veterinary colleges about admission changes related to requirements such as accepting online coursework, accepting pass-fail laboratory grades, forgoing a letter of recommendation from a veterinarian, dropping the Graduate Record Examination, relaxing experience hours, and allowing for virtual interviews.

“I don’t think anyone ever thought we would be in this position and for this long,” Dabdub said. “Everyone pivoted well, but now we are thinking about what is coming up and what will impact us for the next cycle.”

Future concerns for incoming students could include not having any letter grades at all because the majority of their undergraduate degrees included pass-fail coursework.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also led to many institutions removing the GRE requirement. Previously, about half of AVMA Council on Education–accredited veterinary institutions required the examination. However, because of the pandemic, more have removed this requirement.

Dabdub said only about 13 veterinary schools still require the examination.

“While the pandemic made some things tougher, it allowed some institutions to be able to make changes sooner in terms of the GRE being dropped,” she said. “There has been a shift in moving away from the typical standardized test and grades.”

The AAVMC has a resource for applying to veterinary school and has a resource for potential students on how to apply and requirements, including a school directory detailing each institution’s modified requirements because of COVID-19, at applytovetschool.org.

The 2021-22 VMCAS application cycle opened Jan. 21, and the VMCAS website now features an updated page on admissions requirements for veterinary schools that enables applicants to more easily review requirements for each veterinary school by using filter options. Also new for this cycle is a school comparison feature that allows prospective applicants to compare school requirements. On the VMCAS application itself, the essay requirement has been changed from three questions to one question, and applicants will now be asked to denote up to five of their most important experiences.

Illustration: Veterinarian mentor and potential vet student


The future

The AVMA Council on Education recently formed a working group on diversity and inclusion. The council previously made changes to its Standards of Accreditation in March 2017, embedding diversity, equity, and inclusion language throughout because the council said it believes DEI should be integral to veterinary education. The current working group is charged with identifying areas for improvement in the language used in the COE’s Standards of Accreditation. The working group will also assess including language around pipeline programs.

Other areas of improvement in bridging barriers for potential students could include further pipeline development and providing more mentoring opportunities for young people interested in veterinary medicine.

Also, Dabdub said the lack of standardized admission requirements, which could further break down barriers, has been an ongoing conversation.

“This was a huge light bulb that went off when I joined the AAVMC a year ago—a goal might be: Consider more global requirements for veterinary medicine,” she said. “I don’t know when that might happen as many of these schools have had these processes individually for decades.”

Dr. Tran said that despite challenges still existing, conversations are leading to more action.

“There is no quick fix. It’s a marathon, and we need to keep it at the forefront and think systemically.”