August 25, 2011

Survival of the Sanest

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The first thing most people said when I told them I was applying to vet school was, “Oh, that’s harder than getting into med school, isn’t it?”

There are 133 accredited medical schools in the United States, whereas there are only 28 vet schools. When you begin the application process, the one thing you hear over and over again is not to get discouraged if (read: when) you don’t get in the first time — plenty of people get in after their second or third time applying. So I was prepared to face a grueling application process full of absurd requirements and confusing forms, because after all, why would institutions that had no problem filling their classes bother with trying to help out the lowly applicants?

I learned a lot about college bureaucracy in my four years as an undergrad: when I needed to go to the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences or University offices, whether I needed to fill out the pink form or the yellow form (the pink one will take you to wonderland, Neo), and even how to effectively stalk faculty/staff online to find their direct contact information.  I anticipated that all of this red tape would be multiplied for the vet school application process, which involved several universities each with extensive supplemental applications in addition to a lengthy common application and with no reason to be extremely helpful.

As it turned out, the vet school admissions officers I talked to were some of the most helpful people I’ve ever met. Aside from a couple of subtle jabs at Cornell when I told them I was an undergrad here, the people who answered the phone usually had the resources to answer my questions themselves, and they never seemed to be in a hurry to get me off the line. Their kindness was amplified when I visited some of the schools — the admissions officers talked to me for as long as I wanted, and one of them even offered to read over my personal statement.

I can think of a handful of reasons for this, which were helpful to keep in mind as I went through the rest of the application process. First of all, vet school classes are small (averaging around 100 students per year) and the vet school communities are tightly knit. Having an aggressive admissions department would make the atmosphere unpleasant for everyone. In the same vein, the admissions officers know that the application process is stressful for students, and by going above and beyond in helping all of the applicants they are allowing the students to integrate themselves into the community before even entering the school.

I used to think of vet school as college part two because it was another four years of taking classes, which I imagined wouldn’t be dramatically different from college science classes. It’s easy to forget that it is in fact a graduate school, and the wine/dine tradition of grad school is not a myth.  Even though (or maybe because) the regular DVM programs can’t pay for travel or extravagant meals, there’s still the acknowledgement that you are choosing to spend another $200,000 in tuition when many of your other friends will be making more than that amount over the next four years (especially if most of your friends are going into business/consulting/finance, like mine are).

Which brings me to the most important distinction between vet school admissions and undergraduate bureaucracy: In the end, going to vet school is a choice. You pretty much have to go to college to get a job that pays even reasonably well, and there are resources to make college possible for almost everyone who wants to go. Sometime during second semester sophomore year, I had a quarterlife crisis when I discovered that I could do a host of other things with my degree — work in conservation, environmental law, consulting, writing, and even research. Vet school drew me back, but if I hadn’t gotten in, I would have found something else to do with myself that could have been just as fulfilling. Admissions officers know that the majority of students seriously applying to their programs are remarkably well qualified and have chosen to apply to places that they are willing to call home for the next four years, and this is what makes admissions so accommodating.

Of course, in the spirit of the scientific method, I do have to acknowledge that my experience was just one in thousands, and if you really wanted to do a controlled experiment to understand the psychology of admissions, then you would definitely need a lot more people. But there’s still a take-home message from all of this. Vet school admissions offices want you to like them (almost) as much as you want them to like you. Don’t be scared.

Nikhita Parandekar ’11 is a first-year veterinary student in the Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine. She may be reached at Hoof in Mouth appears alternate Fridays this semester.

Original Author: Nikhita Parandekar