What Work Experience Should I Do to Get Into Vet School?
Updated: Oct 6, 2022
Vet School applications are scary. Let's get that out there now.
You spend months on a personal statement, revising for entrance exams, trying to cram every inch of your biology A-Level into your brain in the hope that something comes up in the interview. If you're like I was, you also spend hours browsing the internet, trying to cobble together as much information as you can about work experience, and where the hell you're meant to get it.
Because, if a face to face interview wasn't bad enough, vet schools also LOVE you to 'prove commitment' and 'build a foundation' by collecting weeks of work experience and writing about it in your personal statement. I get it. It's hard. And not to get 'well in my day' on this, it used to be even worse. At one time, the University of Liverpool were asking for 10 weeks worth of experience, although thankfully somebody had a word with them and reminded them about accessibility.
It's sharply approaching a new school year and a fresh round of applications, and I want to make it simpler for all vet school applicants to get fast, free information, in one place about how to apply and get the most out of your application. First up in this series, written by me, is a big bible of work experience information, that I'll continue to update now and into the future.
So, whether you're not sure where to start or think you know it all, I hope you'll find the following information useful. Plus, if you have anything to add that I may have missed, drop me a message using the 'Contact Me' box and I'll get it added to the post!
What is it?
Work experience is a form of volunteering that lets you work in an environment you are considering a future career in. It allows you to get, usually unpaid, an introduction to the type of work you might be doing, and establish if it's something you would like to do long term.
For most vet schools in the UK, and around the world, there is a strict requirement for the number of weeks of work experience you need to gather in order to get into the university. For all vet schools, work experience is at least recommended.
It usually consists of a minimum of 1 week (5 working days) spent in an environment with animals, although vet schools often stipulate specific species and clinical requirements so it's important to check. An 'animal environment' can range from farms to dog groomers to vet practices to hydrotherapy businesses, and the only restrictions on the type of work experience you gather is your imagination! (and school requirements).
Generally, most vet schools will need at least 1 week, usually 2, in a clinical setting. This refers to veterinary practices, or anywhere where an MRCVS (a registered vet) is practising veterinary medicine. You'll likely spend your time observing consultations, watching surgeries, helping the nursing team, and making cups of tea.
Other requirements stipulate 'animal handling', referring to places where you get hands on with animals, but aren't necessarily following around a vet. When I was doing my work experience, I visited a beef farm, a dog groomers, a hydrotherapy unit, a stables and a petting zoo. I've listed some ideas in the 'where can I get it?' section that may help you to come up with ideas of your own.
Finally, work experience is changing. With the COVID-19 pandemic wiping out many applicant's chances of gaining in person experience, vet schools now readily accept experience gained via online courses. Examples of these and where to find them are also included in the 'where can I get it' section, but many are Googleable and you should use your own research to find ones that interest you.
Why do I need it?
Vet schools are in that unfortunate niche of 'too many applicants, too few places', and most candidates have the string of As and Bs necessary to make a competitive application. That means that grades alone aren't enough to even streamline the initial first round of applications, let alone make a final decision. So, vet schools have turned to asking you to prove your commitment and interest in the profession, and build enough base knowledge prior to coming to university in order to see who has the most potential, and who will get the most out of studying a veterinary degree.
To give them credit, work experience is an excellent way to check whether or not you want to be a vet, and all vet schools now take accessibility requirements seriously, so gone are the days of ridiculously high volume work experience requirements. It also helps to illustrate to admissions that you have the capability to manage a high intensity work load alongside gaining practical experience, as most candidates do their work experience alongside their level three qualifications.
You'll usually be expected to reflect on at least one aspect of your work experience in your personal statement, and many vet schools will have a variant of the question 'tell me one thing you saw on your work experience and why it interested you'. Lara Savage writes brilliantly about how to incorporate this into your personal statement in the second post in this series, and you can find an example statement on my website. Be warned, UCAS uses extremely thorough plagiarism software, so don't be tempted to lift text straight from the source!
How much do I need?
This depends on what vet schools you are considering applying to, and you should pay careful attention to their individual requirements. I've linked their webpages down below. If you want to read more about the individual vet schools themselves, I've written a blog post entitled What Vet Schools Should I Apply to? which you might find useful!
Where can I get it?
Depending on what type of work experience you want, will depend on where you should be looking. For example, clinical work experience can often be found by looking online, emailing, calling and by popping into the practice. For handling work experience, you may have family or friends contacts - use them! But you can also find more mainstream and corporate ideas by using Google - it's your best friend.
In the mean time, here's some examples to get you going.
- Small Animal Practice (Dogs, Cats, Small Furries, Some Exotics)
- Large Animal Practice (Farm Animals + Horses)
- Equine Practice (Horses/equids only)
- Exotics Practice
- Zoo Veterinary Team
- Ask your friends, family, social media!
- Use the RCVS' Find a Vet Surgeon and search by your location to view nearby practices
- Beef/Dairy farms
- Sheep farm
- Pig farm
- Petting zoo
- Hydrotherapy units
- Physiotherapy units
- Research placements (check your univeristy requirements, as Sixth Form summer research placements don't always qualify as direct work experience)
How do I get it?
Asking for work experience from someone you've never met can be nervewracking, but it's important to do it yourself. I can't tell you how many times I've had to remind people that professionals will be much less inclined to give you a shot if your well meaning parent is asking on your behalf. It's not necessarily the nicest thing in the world, but the assumption still remains that prospective vet students should be proactive and confident enough to take the lead on securing their own placements. Whilst difficult the first time you do it, the more you ask (and you will ask lots of times, believe you me!) the easier it will get.
My first tip for asking for work experience is to go in person as much as possible. You might be redirected, given an email, or a phone number to call, but going in person shows you're proactive and keen to learn. It also means that you're not waiting days or even weeks for replies to emails and calls, and everything you say/want to know can be responded to in real time.
Key questions to ask when booking work experience:
•Know the person's your speaking to name
•Know your dates of availability
•What should you wear?
•What should you bring?
•What are your working hours?
•Where should I park?
•Is there accommodation available?
•Who should you report to on arrival?
My second tip is that, more and more, practices are asking for CVs. I've yet to hear an answer decently explaining the reasons for this, and it wasn't something I was ever asked to do when I was going through this 4 years ago. Lots of schools will have a life skills programme that will help you design a document, and the Barclays Skills courses are great at helping you develop your own. It doesn't have to be fancy, just a brief overview of your skills, any prior work experience, and any qualificatons including educational ones. Ask a parent, sibling, friend or teacher for advice, and don't worry if you don't have much to put on there at the moment - at your stage, my CV probably would have consisted of 'knows her way around a Biology GCSE, not bad at maths'.
Tip number three focuses on flexibility. My top recommendation is to try to book experience at least six months in advance, as there are more people looking for vetty work experience than you realise. Animal science applicants, BTEC students, apprentices, nursing applicants all require similar experience, and as a result there's usually a fairly limited calendar for you to pick from. Try to give a reasonable window of flexibility to help the practice accommodate you as much as possible, and remember that they may have paperwork or age requirements (for example, you need to be sixteen to watch an xray).
Finally, get a reference letter! This is the third time I've written that in this blog post, and it's because it is so so so important that you get these references as you go along. Vet schools will ask for evidence of your placements, usually in the form of a headered letter, and trying to chase practices three years down the line when they don't remember you won't end well. Remember to ask a few days before the end of your placement to give them enough time to write something out, and if your placement doesn't have headered paper, don't panic. Most farms won't, and vet schools know this.
How can I get the most out of it?
So, you've located the practice, you've booked your slot, all that's left to do now is actually do the placement. But how do you get the most out of your time, and what are vet schools actually looking for you to learn?
Remember that it's the quality of your work experience that vet schools look for, not quantity. It's no use booking 12 weeks of experience just to come away and go 'what does a cow look like again'? The point of work experience is to have students reflect on their placement and consider what they've learned, and how it would be relevan to studying a veterinary degree. They want to see that you've actually gained an educatonal experience, and not just spent your time collecting placements.
I used to follow this structure on placement:
1) what have I done?
I watched a bitch spay in my first week observing in a practice, and it was amazingly cool to see inside a dog for the first time and understand how anatomy influences pathology and how surgery works.
2) what did I learn?
I learned that vets typically recommend spaying your bitch after their first season, and that spaying reduces over population and the spread of diseases, as well as the number of animals in shelters and overall neglect.
3) why is this information important for a vet degree?
It's clear that vets are integral cogs in preventing population spiral of dogs, and work on the front line of disease prevention and control. By proactively recommending to clients that they spay bitches after their first season, there is a reduction in the chances of cancers later in life, and less overall money spent on the animal.
4) why did this interest me and make me want to study to be a vet?
I have a keen interest in disease and epidemiology, and prior to watching the spay I hadn't considered how population control is so important in preventing disease spread. I also hadn't realised the long term benefits spaying brings in reducing the incidence of non-communicable diseases, and the intersection of communicable and non-communicable diseases and how vets work on the front line to tackle both inspired me further to pursue a career in veterinary medicine.
Do you see how this is almost a PEA paragraph? (Point, Explain, Analysis). It's a structure that allows you to reflect on what you've seen and why this reinforces your desire to apply to a veterinary course. As you go along on your placements, keep a daily journal where you proactively write out your thoughts and summarise your reflections in a similar way to the above. It'll help enormously when it comes to personal statement writing, and you'll have already done half the work!
Lastly, if you see anything that interests you on your placements - research it further! Go home, Google, ask family, look in books, try to explore the subject to as high a level as you can understand. It might inspire a new interest, and it'll be an additional bonus in your application if you can say 'look, I went away and researched myself to understand more! Look how committed I am!' with evidence instead of just words.
What should I do after my placement?
After your placement, make sure to say thank you to the people who have hosted you. It might sound simple, and you'd probably do it anyway, but telling the people who've given up their time to help you for free that you value their help will make their day. Everybody likes to hear they've made an impact, and veterinary teams are no exception.
I used to take a cake or sweets or food of some kind as well at the end of my placement, but you are absolutely not obligated to do this. There is a culture in the veterinary world that this is the 'standard' vet students and prospective students should meet, but that to be frank is complete rubbish. If you hated a placement, you are not obligated to bake them a cake. If you loved it, you are still not obligated. A thank you will more than suffice.
It's also worth trying to stay in contact with the placement, as they may be helpful for your future EMS requirements (yes, work experience doesn't stop even when you're at uni!). I returned to many a placement whilst doing my EMS, and since they already knew me and knew how hard I worked, it was much easier to secure dates I wanted. Plus, it was more enjoyable since I already knew them!
I hope this guide has been helpful for you, and if it was, pass the favour along! Know a prospective vet student who might find it useful? Give them the link! Post it on the Student Room, pass it around friends, share the love and help other students get the information they need all in one place :)
This post will be a series, written by myself and other guest contributors. We'll be running through vet school applications step by step and compiling knowledge usually scattered across the internet into one easy to access space. Check back over the coming weeks for each post, and let me know if there's something specific you want to see.
Thanks for taking the time to read, and good luck! The entire profession is rooting for you :)
Are you a vet student/vet educator/vet school applicant applicant? Do you have work experience recommendations for students applying to study at vet schools that you would like to share?
Please drop me a message using the 'Contact Me' box and pass on the details, and I'll add them to the above list! Soontobeavet receives over 1000 visits a month and you'd be helping to make vet school applications more accessible and open for hundreds of students!
I hope this was helpful and informative, and as always if you have further questions you can email me or book a Zoom call with me where I'll answer any questions you may have, for less than the price of a cup of coffee
And finally, want five FREE secrets to making an AWESOME vet school application? Click here to get the guide!