Head of the Class


There might be a gap between employer demand and the skills of graduates, which contributed to the new process.

Employers' demand has driven admission criteria to include more non-cognitive skills during the past few years. Qualities such as leadership, business acumen, community service, relationship building and a realistic understanding of the profession are believed to determine the success of a DVM in the practice world.

Propelled by studies by Personnel Decisions International (PDI), KPMG Mega Study, the Brakke Management and Behavior Study and analysis by National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues (NCVEI), admissions programs across the country have been re-examining the qualities that contribute to a good veterinarian.

"The fact that veterinarians might not be looking at the whole breadth of the employment setting that they might fit into helped prompt the new process," says Dr. Laura K. Molgaard, associate dean for academic and student affairs at the University of Minnesota's College of Veterinary Medicine, which initiated the PDI study. "The fact that there might be a gap between employer demand and the skills that our graduates possess also contributed to the process, and there was a hunch that there was a connection with the economic state of the profession, too."

The biennial AVMA Economic Report on Veterinarians and Veterinary Practices (1999), conducted by Brakke Consulting, demonstrated that there was little real growth in veterinarians' incomes from 1985 to 1995, and they have not improved significantly since.

Likewise, the KPMG Mega Study showed the income of individual veterinarians seriously lags behind that of similar professions and impacts the ability to repay student loans, to attract the best and brightest to the profession and to invest in personal and professional growth.

The PDI study was the brainchild of a consortium of veterinary schools led by the University of Minnesota and included Iowa State University, Michigan State University, The Ohio State University, Oklahoma State University, Purdue University, University of Illinois, University of Wisconsin and Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine. It sought to define success in veterinary medicine by conducting qualitative research assessments of about 300 veterinarians in private practice, government, industry and academia. The research identified six skill sets that could promote more success in the profession: business/political acumen, focusing one's career, growing through change, achieving life balance, managing people and processes, and satisfying stakeholders.

Competencies believed to promote success included interpersonal skills, self-management skills, communication skills, leadership skills, practice/business skills and critical-thinking skills.

Critical tools

The main tool to advance from the PDI report was a scientific interview tool aimed to gauge qualities the report identified as important for a veterinarian's success, including community service background, determination, diversity, communication skills, integrity, intellectual curiosity, professional experience, realistic knowledge of the profession and team spirit to supplement academic competence, test scores, grades and required curriculum. The University of Minnesota implemented the interview tool for the first time during this past admissions cycle.

"We were hoping to find a reliable, valid tool to help us select people who were most likely to succeed," Dr. Molgaard says. "A number of schools have done interviews for years, and our concern was that those interviews weren't always terribly reliable or valid."

The interview template, in conjunction with traditional cognitive assessments, targets not only potential but motivation levels, too. The pragmatic approach to admissions gives a new leg-up to applicants who might have a lot of animal experience, interest and motivation but might be a few grade points short of the traditional cutoff. Once the determination is made that an applicant can handle rigorous scientific curriculum, then grades take a back seat to personal characteristics and qualities, says Barbara Coats, MBA, coordinator of student affairs for Mississippi State University's College of Veterinary Medicine.

"The PDI document tells us that these qualities, including dedication to community service, integrity, intellectual curiosity and knowledge of the profession, are things that we cannot teach in the veterinary medical curriculum," Coats says. "These are things that are either inherent in the person or have become part of that person because of his or her experiences. We're here to teach veterinary medicine, so if students don't have these qualities when they come into veterinary school, then they are not likely to have them when they come out."

The average grade-point average (GPA) of Mississippi State's students is 3.5, but many 3.0 students have a chance, too.

"Often it is those 3.0 students who rise to the upper part of the class because they usually have a tremendous amount of experience and have worked very hard to get themselves out of GPA holes from earlier careers," Coats says.


The data that points to what personal characteristics contribute to success as a veterinarian might be relatively new, but the practice is fairly well-established at Colorado State. The veterinary college has conducted psychological evaluations to gauge aptitude for about a decade, largely to mitigate the time and energy poured into checking transcripts, science prerequisites and calculating and last 45 credit hours, says Sherry McConnell, DVM, MS, associate dean for admissions at Colorado State University's College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. She says veterinary schools have an obligation not only to admit candidates who are likely to complete the program, but also have the potential to further the profession and give back to the community.

"We felt that a good veterinarian knows what they are getting themselves into," Dr. McConnell says. "They understand the human-animal bond and the pros and cons of the profession, so the more experience they have and the more variety of exposures, then the more likely they are to know what they were getting themselves into."

Proven leadership, relevant community involvement, communication skills and work ethic also demand recognition at Colorado, but applicants generally are the crème de le crème, so risk is low, McConnell says.

"It's comforting to know that we can use our good common sense and make good, holistic decisions about candidates; you have such high-quality candidates to choose from anyway that you really aren't taking a lot of risk," she says, adding that it gives schools a chance to screen for applicants that might fill the greatest need for the industry at that particular time as well.

"For instance, we have a shortage of food animal veterinarians, so we can hone our search on someone who might have a food animal background or food animal science experience who looks like he or she wants to go back to that, so we can try to meet some of the needs of our industry with this type of process," she says. "It is a heck of a lot more logical, and it really cuts down on personal bias."

Michigan State University, part of the PDI group of schools, implemented the PDI interview two years ago, but it has been conducting a structured interview for the past seven admission cycles. Psychologists and statisticians formulate the questions in structured interviews so the responses will be relevant information, which often is assigned a value so a candidate's answers can be quantified and assessed. The result has been a less-competitive, more-interactive veterinary student, says Hilda Mejia Abreu, MPP, director of admissions and student services coordinator for Michigan State's College of Veterinary Medicine.

"Strictly anecdotally, because we don't have any data yet, the students in the last two years, especially in anatomy, are very involved in working in teams, and they are more collaborative," she says. "The other thing that I see: They might not have a 4.0 in organic chemistry, but they have the motivation that compensates, and they strive for excellence. They are really the type of student that we are striving to admit—not that our previous the candidates weren't; they were the right candidates for the right time, but the times are changing."

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