If you are considering applying to veterinary school, you will need to put together a competitive application that includes solid academics, overall professionalism, and evidence of legitimate preparation in the form of pre-veterinary experiences. In order to make the veterinary experiences section of your application stand out, you will need to spend a solid amount of time with a diverse group of working veterinarians. You will need to keep good records of each experience so that you can list all of the hours you have spent working, volunteering with, or job shadowing a veterinarian on your applications.
While record-keeping alone can be a big task, the true challenge for most pre-veterinary students is obtaining a large number (typically well over 400+) of hours of veterinary experience before ever setting foot in veterinary school. Typical routes for obtaining veterinary experience include job shadowing, working as a veterinary assistant, working with a veterinarian on a research project, and attending pre-veterinary symposiums and other programs designed to teach students more about the veterinary industry.
Keep reading to find out more about the number of veterinary experience hours needed for a successful veterinary school application and how to find these opportunities. I also include my own personal examples for each category of veterinary experience.
Why You Need Veterinary Experience and How to Get It
In 2017, the VIN (Veterinary Information Network) News Service contacted 30 veterinary schools in the United States to ask them how many hours of veterinary experience they recommended or required that successful applicants had. Of the 25 responding colleges, these numbers (when specified) ranged from 40 to 500.
But while those numbers seem pretty achievable, these same veterinary colleges reported that the average applicants often have over 1,000 hours of veterinary experience. That’s a lot of time and takes planning to acquire that many hours prior to applying to veterinary school.
Admissions teams are looking for experiences supervised by a veterinarian or a research scientist in veterinary practice, veterinary or biomedical research, public health, or other areas of the profession. So while these hours can be obtained in many ways, they typically entail working as paid veterinary assistants or technicians, volunteering with a veterinarian, or job shadowing veterinarians.
The goal of all of this experience is to help veterinary schools find candidates who have a realistic idea of what the profession is actually like. Basically, veterinary schools are looking to see that you have a good idea of what you are getting yourself into. On your veterinary school application (VMCAS), you will also be able to list animal experiences not supervised by a veterinarian, but veterinarian-supervised activities will carry more weight.
So now that we have established that a large number of hours working with a veterinarian is typical (if not required) for a successful application to veterinary school, let’s look at some of the common ways to obtain that experience.
For most pre-veterinary students, this is one of the most common ways to gain veterinary experience. Many veterinarians will allow high school or undergraduate students to come and spend time observing the day-to-day tasks of a veterinarian. While this can be one of the easier ways to gain experience, but it can be hard to get 400+ hours.
For me, I personally logged around 160 hours of time in classic job shadowing situations. I was lucky that my high school had a program that allowed me to spend some school hours job shadowing at a local veterinarian. I was able to log a total of 100 hours at this veterinary clinic. Around 60 hours through my high school “class” and another 40 on my own time.
Then, I spent a few days job shadowing at another small animal veterinary clinic, spent a day shadowing a mixed animal veterinarian in a small town setting, spent a day assisting the veterinarian who worked at my town’s local zoo, and another day at a canine rehabilitation clinic.
It can be a little intimidating to ask to job shadow a veterinarian that you don’t know well. So if you are thinking about asking your local veterinary clinics, read my tips for composing a great email requesting to job shadow: How to Ask to Job Shadow a Veterinarian: Email Templates
Despite the effort it took to obtain my 160 hours of job shadowing, they probably wouldn’t have been enough to make my application competitive on their own. So during my senior year of college at UWRF, I also spent 2 months studying abroad as an unpaid intern/assistant at a small animal veterinary clinic in Switzerland. This brought my total number of veterinary experience hours to about 490 hours.
So let’s talk a little about the benefits of working as a veterinary assistant.
My experience of working as a veterinary assistant abroad is a little atypical. But many veterinary school applicants can find part-time or seasonal jobs as veterinary assistants locally.
Working as a veterinary assistant is one of the best opportunities to really get a good feel for the day-to-day tasks and stresses of working in a veterinary clinic. It will give you regularly scheduled hours in a veterinary clinic that can quickly add up over a few years of working. And all of this time spent in a veterinary clinic should help increase your ability to read an animal’s body language, learn veterinary terminology, and understand routine veterinary procedures.
Veterinary assistants typically restrain animals, help with nail trims and anal gland expressions, run lab work, answer phone calls, and help keep the clinic clean. A position as a veterinary assistant can be very competitive near undergraduate schools with pre-veterinary programs. So you may need to start your career in a veterinary clinic as a kennel attendant or other position. But this position is definitely worth working to obtain if you are interested in getting into veterinary school.
If you are interested in working as a veterinary assistant, here is the post of my advice on how to get a job as a veterinary assistant: How to Get a Job as a Veterinary Assistant
While many people think of clinical veterinarians working with client-owned cats and dogs or maybe horses and farm animals, there are many veterinarians who do not work at a veterinary clinic. Research veterinarians are one of them. To help diversify your veterinary experience, consider applying to help work on a veterinary research project.
Depending on how many research projects the professors at your university undertake, you may have more or less research assistant opportunities.
For me personally, I only assisted with one research project for a total of approximately 10 hours of experience working with a veterinarian. But it was a neat opportunity. The study involved evaluating the utilization of glucose in the muscles of reining horses. I was able to help draw blood samples and take vitals as well as observe muscle biopsies and IV placements.
Another potential way to gain some experience working with veterinarians is to attend pre-veterinary symposiums and participate in wet labs and other activities.
When I attended the American Pre-Veterinary Medical Association’s symposium I was able to attend various labs that ranged from learning about clicker training to artificially inseminating dairy cattle. This only resulted in a few hours to add to my application, but it did add a little diversity to the application.
Other Resources for Pre-Veterinary Students
Regardless of how you end up getting hours of veterinary experience, the important thing is to make sure you have some knowledge of the veterinary industry.
If you are interested in reading more posts about pre-veterinary experiences and what successful veterinary school applications look like, I recommend two great resources:
- The Student Doctor Networks (SDN) has a pre-veterinary section in its forums. And each year, many successful veterinary school applicants post their statistics here. The thread for the class of 2025, can be found here. Most of the people who post here have a lot more veterinary experience than I did, but remember that veterinary experience is only a part of the applications.
- HowIGotIntoVeterinarySchool.com interviews a diverse group of veterinarians and veterinary students about their backgrounds and experiences getting into veterinary school. It can a good resource for pre-veterinary students.
And if you are struggling to find could job shadowing opportunities, check out my review post of Vet Set Go’s new phone App. This app is an amazing resource for finding and recording veterinary experiences.
Overall, I wish each of you success in finding great veterinary experience prior to applying to veterinary school. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your local veterinarians. It can be stressful trying to put together an impressive VMCAS application, but a little bit of preparation during high school and your first years of undergrad can take a lot of the stress of getting experience hours off of you the year your application is due.
And again, don’t forget to start logging every animal or veterinary experience you have now. A good record makes filling out the VMCAS a lot easier.