What should you know before starting vet school? – on background knowledge and useful experience

This is the second part of a four-part series on “what you should know as a first-year vet student”. Click here for the introductory blog post on what the series is about, and click here for the first post, on the metrics of vet school.

For the second entry in the four-part series, I have compiled a list of what I think are some useful ways to prepare for vet school. So without further ado, here are my five picks for useful background knowledge to have before entering vet school:

1.       Try to get clinical experience:

It’s never too early to volunteer to work at a clinic. Whether it’s scrubbing floors or answering the phone, by just being in that type of environment you will learn so much. You can shadow the vets and vet nurses, see how they work and interact with the patients and owners, and write down the things you pick up, like the typical medication they prescribe for usual infections, or how they proceed during routine operations. When I got to work at one of my local clinics last Christmas, I journaled every day when I got home, about what I’d learned, and the different questions I had after watching the vets work.

Alternatively, if the clinic isn’t looking to hire/looking for volunteers: Ask your local vet some questions about what it’s like to work as a vet. What does a usual day look like? What are the most common diseases and injuries in his or her clinic? 

2.       Try to get husbandry/shelter experience:

If you live in an area where there are farms, or if you live near a shelter, volunteer to work! Here you will most likely get more of a hands-on experience with the animals, and the experience you will get is immensely valuable. I have not worked at a farm yet, but by listening to the students in my year who have either grown up at a farm, or have worked at one previously, you can hear that they’ve learned so much. I have however worked at a cattery, which taught me a lot about handling timid animals, and was an eye-opener for just how much abuse cats in particular are exposed to. For any animal-lover, I highly recommend shelter experience. 

Alternatively, if the farms are too far away/not looking to hire/take on volunteers: Do the same as with your local vet, and ask your local farmer what his or her daily routine is like. What are the most important parts of his or her job? How do they best ensure that the animals have everything they need? What are some key indicators that something is wrong with any of the animals?

3.       Be prepared to put in a lot of work:

Vet school is quite different from any of the other university courses I have been enrolled in. Although the curriculum resembles that of a biology or chemistry major, I think what surprised me the most are the sheer number of hours you have to put in each day. You have to be ready to go over 4 or 5 huge books in the timespan of just a few months, and you have to prepare for not feeling like you’re on top of things at all times. Sometimes you’ll feel a bit lost, other times the work you’ve put in will show, and everything will just click! I think what was the biggest transition for me was going back to the high school model of spending all day at school. From literature, I was used to having maybe one lecture and a seminar 3 or 4 days per week, and the rest of the time off to write papers or read. Now we have three lectures per day, and study group to go over what we learned the day before.

4.       Work on your English reading skills:

There is no doubt that English is the lingua franca of medical books, and as far as I have seen, the same few books are used throughout Europe. Therefore, I highly recommend practicing your cognitive reading skills. You can do this by reading novels, or perhaps by reading non-fiction on science and animals. I think that many were taken aback by just how much reading we would be doing, and even though I might not have had as big of an advantage as my peers as far as work experience goes, I was used to reading entire plays and novels on a weekly basis for my English literature degree. I also recommend familiarising yourself with biological terms in English, and perhaps purchasing a good biological/medical dictionary to keep in handy while doing your coursework, or to just keep a tab with google translate open while reading.

5.       Be prepared to work in groups:

I would estimate that about 35-40 percent of the time first-year vet students spend at school are spent working as a group. Although that number changes on a year-to-year basis, by the end of your degree you will have to work with other people, regardless of whether you end up in an office or working with salmon. Therefore, try to figure out how to be an asset in a group setting. What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? Are there different ways you prefer to work? Do you know what type of learner you are? (Really, I know I stressed this in my last blog post as well, but you should take the time to think about how you learn best!) Work on trying to convey what you have learned in a simple manner. Create metaphors or similes to explain difficult mechanisms. These are all valuable skills to have when talking to animal owners in the future, or perhaps more importantly, for working in a team environment with other vets and vet techs/vet nurses.

That’s it for this blog post, but if you have any more useful tips as either a vet or vet student, feel free to comment, either right here on the blog, or write me a comment over at Instagram (@vettobe). I hope you’re all having a great Sunday, and if you have any studying to do in preparation for Monday, here’s the music I’ve been listening to all day while studying. Enjoy!