Support and resilience: an alternative way into vet school

Bridey Shawyer

I attended a state school and was the first in my family to attend university. I didn’t particularly enjoy school, I obtained six Bs and four As at GCSE, and stayed on at the school’s sixth form to study A-level chemistry, biology, maths and PE. Throughout my time at school and sixth form, my teachers weren’t very supportive of my veterinary ambitions, and because of this I didn’t ever believe I was academically capable.

Within my first week of sixth form, I was told by my head of year that based on my GCSEs, I should look for something ‘easier’ than veterinary. I wasn’t predicted good grades, so teachers didn’t challenge me, and consequently I wasn’t inspired to push myself. My family really supported me and I was inspired by a vet friend. In hindsight, I wish I had listened to them when they believed in me. However, being 16/17 years old, I was very influenced by what my teachers said, and so when they said I couldn’t do it, I thought they were right! I was also working part-time at a small animal vet practice and was offered a vet nursing apprenticeship there. This was brilliant for me at the time, as I had a plan B, but didn’t help my focus on AS-levels! This continued in a perpetuating cycle of grades falling, having less support, enjoying work more, which all ended in me spectacularly failing my AS-levels (UUEE) leaving me with very little self-confidence in my academic abilities. At this point I was told I had ‘just reached my academic peak.’

As a last attempt of getting to vet school, a tutor suggested I try a City Guilds qualification in animal management and science at Sparsholt Agricultural College. I felt that the chances of getting to vet school were slim, but I wanted to work with animals, so if nothing else, this course would stand me in good stead for that. The support from tutors here could not have been more of a contrast to the sixth form. Within the first week my tutor said to me, ‘you will go to vet school, I just know it’, and they showed me exactly how capable I was and how many opportunities this qualification had to offer. From there on, my tutors never once questioned whether it was even a possibility that I wouldn’t get a place at vet school. I continued to work at the vets’ practice, while getting lots of practical experience at the college’s registered zoo and attending various farms for work experience. We were examined with continuous assignments on everything from chemistry to behaviour, and after two years I came away with a distinction.

'I have never been at a disadvantage for taking an alternative route into vet school. In some ways, I am grateful that I experienced failure because I am now more determined... and more resilient'

Sparsholt’s careers advisor suggested that I apply for the Veterinary Gateway/preliminary courses at the RVC and University of Nottingham. When I got my interview at Nottingham it was like a dream come true, and such a contrast to where I had been 18 months previously! At the interview, I felt very intimidated to be surrounded by so many incredibly intelligent people, all wanting the same thing and all far more academic than myself. I was reassured by the fact that, although I may not have got As at A-level, I did have a lot of practical experience under my belt and I knew Nottingham liked this.

The preliminary year was challenging because I had lots of chemistry and biology to learn! I was in a class of roughly 30 other like-minded people. The preliminary year is aimed at those who have had an alternative route into vet school. Whether that be picking the wrong A-levels, not quite getting the grades or mature students with other degrees. I didn’t fly through this first year, I failed my chemistry module initially, and we had the added challenge of needing 60% to pass the year (the rest of vet school being 50%). However, it was an incredibly valuable year, and felt it stood me in good stead for the rest of my time at vet school.

On reflection, I think it is important to note that although I have always been tough on myself, vet school is a challenge for everyone, and I have never been at a disadvantage for taking an alternative route into vet school. In some ways, I am grateful that I experienced failure because I am now more determined to not end up there again, and more resilient. Equally, if I had not taken the pathway that I had, I may not be where I am now, and I may not have experienced the things I have. Vet school was always going to be a challenge, but it is so worth it. It has provided some of the most exhilarating, rewarding and incredibly fun moments, and I would re-do it all again in a heartbeat. I have made friendships that will last a lifetime, achieved things that I never even thought was possible, and I can’t wait to join what is an incredible profession, in just a few months.

Advice for parents/guardians

They will do it, you raised them after all, they will be brilliant! However, you need to let them do it for themselves, be ready to catch and support them, but don’t force them. The best thing you can do for them, is ensure they are surrounded by people who believe they can do it too.

Advice for teachers and careers advisers

Encourage determination, aspirations and resilience. If someone tells you they want to be a vet, and you don’t think they are quite getting the grades they need, find ways to help them improve this, don’t down-tread them before they’ve even started! I hope my story just highlights the impact of poor and brilliant support, and the consequences of both!

Advice for students

Be determined, be resilient and believe in yourselves! Do not make the mistake that I nearly did, do not listen to anyone that says you cannot get to vet school — the only reason you won’t make it, is if you listen to them! You will get there, if it’s not on the first year of applications, keep trying — this shows resilience and vet schools are looking for just that!

Don’t compare your path to vet school, against others. You may take several years to get there, you may have taken a totally different route in. The only thing your future employers will be bothered about, is whether you have ‘MRCVS’ at the end of your name.

Find your own support network who will believe in you on the days when you struggle to believe in yourself. I was lucky to have a very supportive family, and an inspiring vet friend at the end of the phone to give me a pep-talk whenever I needed, and even now I rely on them! Whoever you choose, make sure they believe you can do it, more than you believe you can!

For more information on achieving the goal of vet school, and the various routes in to study veterinary medicine, read the BVA's guide to applying. It sets out the truths around the process and highlights the UK vet schools' desire to widen participation through increased accessibility onto degree courses. 

Other testimonies from current students on how they made it to vet school are available in the 'I am at School' section. 

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