The DVM/PhD program at Colorado State University entails a rigorous 7-8 years of study. Nora was the first person in her family to obtain a Bachelor’s degree, she was valedictorian at Rutgers University and is attending Colorado State University as a DVM/PhD student. Not only did she maintain a 4.0 GPA but she graduated with a triple major, double minor, and worked a paying job all throughout school.
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If you are thinking about applying to one of the 30 US veterinary schools, they all have different requirements. Some schools require microbiology but a few don’t. This book will lay it all out for you in a comprehensive guide. Check it out here: Veterinary Medical School Admission Requirements (VMSAR)
Name, veterinary school attended, and year that you started.
Colorado State University. I started in 2014, but I’m also doing a PhD, so I currently finished my first two DVM years and will re-enter my third year in 2019.
Who are the animals that you currently share your life with?
My adorable west highland white terrier, Sir Winston. Because I’ve always had long hours with work and school, he is home with my family in New Jersey at the moment. I’m convinced he is my parents’ new favorite kid! He is the happiest soul I’ve ever met, and his favorite things to do are chase groundhogs, bark at the television, and hop into bed and cuddle.
Do you think there were any specific experiences or items on your application that helped to strengthen it?
I am the first person in my family to get a bachelor’s degree. If this is you, don’t be shy about emphasizing that! It is incredibly difficult to be the first one navigating college, and it definitely builds character attributes that are important to medicine, such as persistence, independence, strong communication, confidence, and organization.
In addition, I worked multiple jobs as an undergraduate, and close to full-time (35+ hours) my last two years. Part of this was to gain experience, but the reality was that I had rent and bills to take care of, and was rather financially-independent of my family, who has their own financial worries.
I should mention I was valedictorian of my college, with a 4.0 GPA. I’m not denying it helped me get in, but it is only one small part of a large application. I was never once asked on interviews about my grades, nor have I ever defined myself by my grades. Schools are very interested in you as a person and your unique experiences. That being said, when you get interviews, just be yourself and let your interviewees see your best personality attributes shine through.
Where did you attend undergrad and what was your major?
I attended Rutgers University, School of Environmental and Biological Sciences. I triple majored and double minored. My three majors were in Animal Sciences (Pre-veterinary/research track), Nutritional Sciences (a bit of a biochemistry focus), and Biological Sciences (where I took additional microbiology, ecology and physiology courses). My minors were in Endocrine Physiology and Companion Animal Sciences (where I completed coursework in animal husbandry, companion animal law, and ethics in animal science).
People always ask me “why so many majors?”. The most honest answer is that I was interested in a lot of topics. By nature, I am not a super-competitive person, and I feel that one major, done well, would be more than suitable to apply for veterinary school. I did these majors/minors because I find it fascinating hearing the same type of science (e.g. nutrition) communicated from different perspectives, such as from a veterinarian, a private investigator, and an animal production scientist. I feel that these different understandings help me build a better working knowledge of science that I can apply to my future as a veterinarian/research scientist.
Did you apply to vet school after, or during your Bachelor’s education?
I applied to vet school after finishing my Bachelor’s degree. For me, there was a year and a half between finishing my B.S. and beginning at Colorado State University.
Did you attend grad school?
Yes, but as a DVM/PhD student at Colorado State University. In this program, I completed one full year of graduate school before officially starting my first DVM year. My concentration is in cell and molecular biology, where I focus on microbiology and nutrition. I’ll finish my PhD in 2019 (hopefully!) and then head back to veterinary school to complete my third and fourth years.
At what age did you first apply to vet school?
I was 21 when I first applied.
How many schools/application cycles did you apply to before being accepted to Colorado State University to the DVM/PhD program?
I was accepted to Colorado State University during my first cycle. I was an out of state student (New Jersey resident), and I honestly applied everywhere in the country, to maximize my chances of being accepted somewhere. I think I applied to 11 schools. I applied to both DVM programs and DVM/PhD programs.
Were you waitlisted at any schools?
Yes, I was at UC Davis, following their MMI.
How many schools invited you for an interview?
I got an interview everywhere I applied, including four DVM/PhD programs.
How many of those gave you an acceptance letter?
I didn’t end up interviewing everywhere because I had already accepted an offer at Colorado State University. However, I got offers from seven schools, (eight including graduate schools).
What were some reasons in your decision to attend Colorado State University?
The biggest factor for me was the ability to integrate my degrees into a combined DVM/PhD degree. Colorado State University offered that to me, and that sealed the deal!
I also liked CSU because of their commitment to promoting good mental health in the veterinary community, which is a topic I care deeply about. I was impressed with the healthy work/life balance the students and faculty seemed to have at Colorado State University, when compared to the tri-state area where I grew up. As a DVM/PhD candidate, I know I will be in school for a long time, in a naturally-stressful degree, so being surrounded by people that care about their and my mental well-being is important to me.
Do you remember any specifically challenging interview questions?
One isn’t coming to mind, I felt that all of my interviewers were fairly down to earth. I felt it helped me to think up a list of generic questions and answers beforehand, focusing not only on my strengths but also on my weaknesses and how I would improve upon them. I tied personal stories from work and school into my responses, so that I could make then more unique.
I can’t say I’m a fan of MMI’s, but they were definitely an experience everyone should have once; it felt like interview “speed-dating”! I know there is scientific literature in support of this structure, but I still feel that there is value found in the traditional interview that isn’t captured in MMI’s.
What was your GPA (in undergraduate)?
I had a 4.0 GPA across all of my majors/minors.
What was your GRE score?
I don’t completely remember. I think it was 159/170 for both reading/literature and math, and a 5/6 for the writing (which I didn’t finish when the timer ended… oops!).
I actually took the test during the summer between my junior and senior years of undergrad. To prepare, I sat in the Barnes and Nobles down the block and studied out of different practice books. I did this pretty regularly for about a month before taking the exam. I was living paycheck to paycheck at the moment and didn’t have the money to invest in lots of practice material. That being said, there is ample free practice material online, including various “question of the day” sites, and intermittently free practice tests online via Kaplan. I studied regularly for about a month before taking the exam.
My goal when taking the test was to look for the average GRE scores of the schools I was interested in applying for, and aim for the higher average. I know personally I would never have the patience to study for a perfect score, and this was the best compromise I could find!
How many extracurricular activities did you list on your application?
I think I listed too many on VMCAS, where they wanted everything I was involved with since the start of high school… it was quite a blast from the past looking through old resumes to make sure I reported everything correctly!
However, when I made CV’s and resumes, I only listed the ones from my undergraduate career where I was either in a leadership position or was a regularly-participating member. That being said, I listed two there, the Rutgers Companion Animal Club, which I co-founded during my junior year, as well as the pre-veterinary club, where I was an active member.
Because I was interested in doing a PhD, I also took part in a variety of research projects as an undergraduate. I worked in three different labs during my time at Rutgers, where I exposed myself to different fields of research, and learned how different PI’s ran their groups. This which gave me valuable insight into what I enjoyed researching and with which types of personalities I worked best and made picking an adviser during graduate school easier.
Did you have exotic, large and small animal experience prior to applying to veterinary school?
I had some large animal experience from experienced-based learning classes at Rutgers (cow, sheep, goat). I also had some research animal experience (mouse, rat, pig). The majority of my experience was small animal, which I got by working at clinics. After being accepted, I worked briefly with exotic reptiles, but this wasn’t experience I had on my application.
What types of paying jobs did you have before going to starting your DVM/PhD program at Colorado State University?
I worked at quite a few places before attending veterinary school. As an undergraduate, this includes as a nanny for two young boys, for residence life (late-night shifts signing people in/out of dorm buildings), teaching chemistry at learning centers, working with student-athletes, and student-teaching biochemistry. My veterinary jobs included work at two different small animal clinics.
Post-graduation/when applying to veterinary school, I continued to work at a local small animal clinic and also kept teaching at Rutgers, both as a chemistry tutor and as an assistant teacher in our college’s honors program, where I helped organize and teach three seminars. I picked up science shifts at a local learning center, where I worked teaching college chemistry and biology to gifted high school students.
After being accepted to veterinary school, I decided to change jobs to get one last fun experience in before school started. I left my job at the small animal clinic and worked for my local park system, and this is a job I will always remember fondly. At that job, I provided husbandry for turtles, snakes, frogs and even a colony of Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches. The best part of the job was when people brought in different animals, and we either took care of them at our facility or released them into the wild. For the few months I was here, my room turned into a small turtle sanctuary, and I raised hatchlings to become bigger, stronger, and well-fed. I released them before I left for Colorado. On a lighter note, my biggest fear while working here was that one day, the bag of cricket I regularly picked up from the pet store, would burst open in my car and cover me in bugs when I was driving back to work. Thankfully, this never happened.J
For me, work has always been a necessity, but also a stress-relief. I’ve enjoyed each of my jobs for different reasons, and have learned more valuable life lessons in them than I believe I ever will in the classroom. I encourage everyone to try at least one job (such as teaching, or nanny-ing) that is way outside of your intended professional field! You’ll be surprised at how much you learn that you can bring back to veterinary medicine!
Did you volunteer? If so, where?
With work, I didn’t have much time to volunteer. However, we did have regular volunteer sessions at community events with the Companion Animal Club. During my junior year, I puppy-sat for our school’s chapter of the Seeing Eye, and this was an awesome experience. I got to live in a special puppy-raising apartment on campus, and there were frequently lab puppies in our living room. Never turn down the opportunity to help watch adorable future service dogs!
How many people read your personal statement before submitting it?
Four people. My adviser (and boss at the time), two of my peers, and my mother.
When did you decide to become a vet?
Literally, as soon as I knew what an animal was and that I could make a living taking care of them. That being said, this is a dream I’ve pursued since I was 4 or 5! This was solidified when I got my first dog at 13, a westie named McDuff.
Did you interview any vets before starting the application process? If so how did you approach them?
I didn’t interview any vets, but I definitely talked to many with whom I worked, and listened to the experiences they had as an undergraduate, applicant, and then a veterinary student. They knew I was applying to veterinary school, as were many of the college students working at my clinic. They were always happy to share their experiences.
Were you a member of any clubs at your undergraduate school? If so, which ones?
Yes. I was an active member of our pre-veterinary club and I intermittently puppy-sat for our student chapter of the seeing eye.
Notably, I founded the Rutgers Companion Animal Club in 2011, where I created a space for students interested in careers involving small, exotic and other pet animals that weren’t necessarily limited to those in the medical sector.
We had shelter visits/volunteering, took care of stray cat colonies on campus, invited guest speakers from exotic animal owners, led talks about emotional support animals, and plenty of fun events for students to unwind, including making dog toys, baking treats, and making Christmas ornaments. We frequently had bake sales and community get-togethers and volunteered for community events that helped people and animals. I met some great friends by running this organization, and I still keep in contact with them.
The club has since grown to over a hundred active members and now has a service dog raising program that is really involved around campus. I can’t take responsibility for these recent advancements, but I’m happy that I was able to create a space for students to build upon these interests, and I’m proud to see what the new officers are doing to keep the club growing. You can learn more about the club here:
Did you join student clubs in your DVM program at Colorado State University? If so, which ones? Were they helpful?
I am the current president of our student chapter of the AAVN (American Academy of Veterinary Nutrition). I’ve enjoyed the networking opportunities this club has offered, both at the local level, with different faculty and pet food sponsors, and nationally, via participation in the AAVN annual research/clinical meeting. It has been fun and rewarding to get to further my peer’s understanding of and exposure in nutrition, which is a topic that truly unites all disciplines of medicine… Everyone has to eat!
I’m also a member of our school’s chapter of the AHVMA (Holistic Club). A bunch of my friends are in it, and alternative/adjunctive treatment modalities (balanced nutrition, acupuncture, massage, etc) have always fascinated me. I’m interested in integrating them into my practice as a veterinarian.
I also work as a tutor in our DVM peer tutoring program, and for an undergraduate course related to my research. I’ve always enjoyed teaching, and this has been a great experience for me to get up and lecture, often in front of 60+ people during exam reviews!
On the weekends, I still work with high school students and serve as an ACT/SAT English, reading, and writing instructor.
I believe it is important to give back to the community, and I often read personal statements for my tutees and pre-veterinary students at Colorado State University and my alma mater.
Collectively, these clubs, activities, and jobs give balance to my life, which is otherwise lots of school at the moment.
Who gave you your letters of recommendation? Did you know them well?
My boss/professor of five years, a professor I really connected with in an animal husbandry class, a veterinarian I worked for, and a research scientist under whom I completed my undergraduate honor’s thesis. I knew each of them for around a year or more when applying, and had multiple, one-on-one interactions with them.
Did you find the application process stressful? Why or why not?
Yes, parts of it were very stressful! One of my friends once described applications as “another part-time job”, and I feel this is a great way of explaining it. Doing a thorough job takes time and a regular committed effort to do well, much like a job. VMCAS is incredibly detailed, and I was worried one small error would cost me my entire application. (Not true, but it was hard to convince myself otherwise in the throes of applying haha).
Asking for letters and making sure they were submitted took careful organization and attention to detail, especially considering schools had different deadlines. Supplemental application essays also took up a bulk of my time, especially since the questions were so different on each of them.
Unexpected headaches came from tracking down transcripts; I found a typo on my transcript where they forgot to list one of my majors. I also had to make multiple trips to the community college where I took some summer classes and track down another transcript.
Application costs were stressful. Part of this was on me because I applied to a lot of schools. However, finding money to put up the costs of travel made me prioritize some interviews over others, and I needed to work extra hours to even afford one interview. In retrospect, I would save a few months in advance to ensure I had enough money for interviews. Or if you are a student when interviewing, consider taking out some extra in loans for the year you are applying.
Are you happy that you chose this career? What makes you most happy about this career choice?
Yes! As a DVM/PhD, I am happy for the opportunity to integrate both medicine and research into my training as a veterinarian. For me, this is the best compromise by which I can most effectively and simultaneously impact both people and animals with my work.
Do you have any advice for students, once accepted?
Save as much money as you can, especially if you are moving across the country! There are lots of costs to account for (security deposits, flights, shipping furniture, etc), and in my case, fees that came with changing residency, which involved lots of changes to all of my automotive documents.
I worked up until hours before moving, and money was still tight. I admittedly found a part-time job soon after landing, to make paying these fees possible. I could have taken out a loan, but I’ve always been a bit stubborn and wasn’t looking to add more to my undergraduate debt at the time.
Finding a place to live, and a roommate as soon as possible, are also helpful. I moved in about a month before school started, and this gave me time to settle in before I hit the books.
Also, try to meet your roommate in-person before you agree to room. I’ve had some interesting set-ups in the past, so I was cautious with whom I’d be living during a really stressful program. Although I live alone now (she just earned her DVM!), I’m thankful that my last roommate living arrangement was one of the most normal I’ve had in a while; it definitely made a difference during veterinary school!
Also, although it might be tempting to study in advance, take the summer off and don’t do anything too taxing. Whether you believe me or not, you will spend most of your week and weekend studying in veterinary school, it will be stressful and a bit tedious, and you will be wishing you had a break. Going in relaxed with a clear head makes a world of a difference, and I’m glad I didn’t do anything too taxing before school started.
Any study tips?
Simply stated, study smart, not hard. Ask yourself what the biggest take-home messages of each lecture are, and focus on those first. Once you’ve mastered the big points, next focus on the small details and how they integrate into the larger take-home message.
Also, as tempting as it is to study really hard for one class and ignore others, don’t forget to give each class the time it needs. You don’t need a perfect score on every exam to be a good veterinarian, but you do need to have a basic understanding of many topics, and that will only come if you give each class the attention it needs. I can’t say I haven’t crammed, but I tried to give each exam two or three days of studying before taking it, and this was enough time for me to make sure the major material on each was getting reviewed.
Third, take regular study breaks, whether this being going to the gym, taking a walk outside, listening to music, or even stress-baking (my personal favorite). You will retain information better if you give yourself a mental break!
Fourth, ask your peers questions and answer theirs. Everyone has a different perspective on the material, and this will be valuable in understanding a topic completely. To me, medicine should be collaborative, not competitive; the veterinary community is only as strong as its weakest link, so learning from others and teaching others will make us a stronger field.
What have been some of your favorite classes, within your DVM program at Colorado State University?
I liked the more “process-driven” courses, including immunology, physiology, and the various pathologies that I’ve taken. Although I don’t see myself pursuing any type of career in it, cardiology was one of my favorite parts of physiology and pathology; the heart is such a beautiful synergy of physics and biology and this made the logical part of my brain very happy!
What has been the most challenging class, in your DVM program so far?
For me, this would have to be anatomy and the various radiology courses. I am much less of a visual/spatial learner than I am a process-driven person. I definitely had to work harder than some of my peers to learn the material, but with a regular, committed effort, it was possible to do well and also rewarding.
As a student, did you have to take out loans for your education? If so, are you concerned about the amount of debt you will have after graduation?
Yes, I took out loans for my undergraduate education and as a current DVM/PhD candidate. Admittedly, I have received a little help from my parents as an undergraduate, and I get tuition reimbursement from my DVM/PhD program, but still accrue a fair bit of loans for student fees and other living expenses.
I’m not denying I’m very lucky, or very fortunate to have this set-up. However, people often think I’m graduating “debt-free”. This is far from true, and I expect to graduate with about $80,000-$100,000 in debt. This comes in part because I’ve been working long hours as an undergraduate and through veterinary/graduate school. In short, it is possible to reduce your loans during veterinary school, but you would be hard-pressed to find someone that is truly “debt-free”.
Compared to the debt load of some of my peers, I am less concerned for me than I am for others about paying this debt back. I’m staying optimistic that my PhD will open more job opportunities to me as a newly-minted DVM. That being said, I’d like to take this as an opportunity to make people aware of the concerning political climate facing graduate and veterinary students. Public loan forgiveness is under review, and if this is taken away, it will be more difficult for DVM students to pay back their loans, while simultaneously resulting in less employment in critical areas of veterinary medicine, including in food inspection, regulatory agencies, and as biomedical investigators. Second, grants and currently non-taxable items, such as tuition, may be taxed as income tax that will add to our debt load. This is crushing, given that many of my peers are graduating with over $200,000 in debt. I encourage everyone to be aware, be outspoken, and contact your local representatives about these issues.
Is there anything in particular about your DVM program at Colorado State University or the school itself that you like?
I’ve only finished my first two years, and I enter and leave quite a few different years of classes throughout my DVM/PhD program. However, each class I’ve been with has been super friendly, supporting and encouraging each other. All of the faculty I’ve interacted with are super supportive of DVM students and want to see them succeed. I also like that CSU has a DVM peer tutoring program free to all students, as well as a health counselor and financial consultant that are specifically focused on and experienced in working with professional students.
Do you have any advice for students thinking about attending your University?
Overall, I like Colorado State University a lot and it has a great balance of academics and stuff to do in the surrounding town. However, it was a big life change for me moving from New Jersey to the west, and I know deep down I’ll probably move back to the tri-state area someday.
Consider the environment you will be living in because you will be spending a lot of time at the university and the surrounding town. I’m a night person, and have worked late into the evening; I don’t see that type of lifestyle to the same extent around CSU as I did living close to NYC and Philadelphia. I wish stores were open later, and that there were more coffee places open 24/7, but I can live without that. Back home, I was also accustomed to walking a lot and using public transportation to get to class and work. However, Colorado is more open land than New Jersey. I’ve never driven as much before as I have been in Fort Collins, and as a student, having a good form of transportation here is important. Thankfully, Fort Collins and CSU are super bike friendly and the city has public transportation that travels to campus, for those that do not own cars or don’t wish to pay for parking.
At this point do you think you will have a specialty?
I don’t know yet. If anything, I am considering nutrition (the national AAVN is an awesome community by the way! I highly encourage checking them out), but I am leaning heavily towards working in the research sector and will likely pursue some type of post-doctoral training following my DVM graduation in 2021. It will integrate my biomedical research and veterinary training, and I am interested in doing nutrition-related work that will benefit animals and people.
As a student have you had any challenging cases yet?
I haven’t yet started my clinical years, but I bet I will have some challenging cases soon enough!
Have you read or listened to anything worth sharing?
I follow a group online, Attitudes in Reverse, that advocates for suicide prevention and mental health awareness in our community. You can follow them here:
I also read OpEd columns from the New York Times and elsewhere. I’ve followed Michael Pollan since being in undergrad, and find many of his books, where he communicates nutrition/food ethics topics to a broad audience, both interesting and useful as someone researching related topics.
Do you have any last words of wisdom?
A few items I live by, I can’t say my grades didn’t help my application, but NEVER let them define you!
Second, your mental health is more important than anything you will accomplish in veterinary school and it can’t be ignored. There is no shame in taking time for yourself. I struggled a lot with depression, anxiety, and disordered eating as a teenager and as an undergraduate, and am not embarrassed to say I took a year off to learn to take better care of myself. In retrospect, time off, whether it is between application cycles or for personal reasons, is an amazing opportunity to grow and heal as a person.
That being said, NEVER be afraid to speak out about how you are feeling. There is nothing to be ashamed about in going to counseling, admitting you need help, or seeking treatment for your problems. Also, be kind to EVERYONE ALWAYS, even if they drive you up a wall (super easy to feel when we are all stressed about exams, applications, interviews, etc). Even the people that seemingly have it all made are fighting personal battles that we can’t even begin to fathom. This was true for me as an undergraduate; it seemed like I had the world at my fingertips with my grades and experiences, but I was struggling a lot; mental illnesses are easy to hide, but hard to live with.
Finally, enjoy the ride and don’t let every hard day, bad exam, or less-than-positive encounter with peers, faculty, or clients get you down. Veterinary school is hard, but it means we are being challenged and will be better doctors for it.
You are entitled to your feelings, and you don’t have to be happy every day. Emotional growth and being in-tune with your feelings is healthy and as equally important to being a healer as is the information you learn in class. Celebrate the little things and the good days, and for the bad days, take care of yourself, keep the end goal in mind, and remember it won’t be all exams and coursework forever!
How can people find you?
Email via: firstname.lastname@example.org
I am always happy to read personal statements for pre-veterinary and graduate students. Please give me 3-4 weeks in advance and include the prompt in your draft for me.
To learn more about my time at Rutgers, please check out this story, which my college was also generous enough to publish:http://sebsnjaesnews.rutgers.edu/2014/04/sebs-2013-valedictorian-earns-full-support-for-7-year-dvmphd-program-at-csu/