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A new breed

Tuesday, 3 October 2017  
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VetScript Editor’s pick: October 2017

This year, Massey University implemented a new approach to selecting veterinary students. What difference has it made, and what impact might it have on the future of the profession? Bette Flagler reports.

Each July a new crop of students begins their professional veterinary studies at Massey University. This year was no different, but according to Eloise Jillings, Associate Dean of Admissions and Students, the student mix was quite unlike that of the past.

Piloted in 2016, the new process for veterinary student selection, in which academic and non-academic merits are given equal weight, was implemented this year. Some students who previously would not have been selected into the professional phase were admitted this year, while others who previously would have been just nine semesters away from a veterinary degree didn’t make the cut.

Have no fear, says Eloise, everyone has met the academic requirement to complete the course. Some may not have been academically excellent – but instead have been good or very good – but they have that ‘other something’. The selection process, which included a weekend of multiple mini interviews (MMIs) and other assessments in April, was developed to assess those personal attributes that the New Zealand veterinary community identified as important, including the way applicants look at teamwork and how they think, solve problems and communicate.

Steve DeGrey, a community practitioner at the Massey veterinary clinic, spends his days with fifth-year students. “We have some students coming through who can’t communicate to clients. They’ve made it all this way to their final year, but they can’t do what we expect them to do. Those students would have been weeded out in this process.”

Eloise says that she feels more comfortable morally with the new selection process. “In the past we selected on academic performance alone and, increasingly in the later years of veterinary education, we assess students on things that have to do with their non-academic attributes and that are going to be important to their success. I think it’s almost disingenuous to select on one thing and then later assess on something else.

I think it’s unfair of us to select a student who can’t actually be successful in the programme or career. We’ve taken their time and their money and we’ve caused them a lot of angst and stress for five years. They may never be hired as a veterinarian, and if that’s the case we’ve done them a disservice.”

At the testing weekend, the 390 applicants were each interviewed by three veterinarians, two senior veterinary students and three non-veterinarians from a pool of 100 trained interviewers. “We want diversity of students,” says Eloise. “So we included farmers, a librarian, you (that’s me, the editor of VetScript) and other non-veterinarians. Having interviewers who weren’t ‘us’ helped to ensure that we don’t keep picking only people ‘like us’.”

The MMIs were run in a speed-dating sort of way. At each station, applicants were given two minutes to read and prepare to address the scenario. They then reported their thoughts to a different rater at each station for up to six minutes (at my station, the question posed to students was an ethical one).

“It’s not always the ‘answer’ that is the most important,” says Steve. “It’s the reasoning behind the answer, the process the applicant used to reach the answer, and how they communicate the answer.”

Eloise says that there was a lot of discussion on how much weighting should be given to academic and non-academic aspects. “We needed to change it enough to make a difference. Had we weighted it 80:20 in favour of academics, for example, we wouldn’t have seen a change.

“The top group that was selected was excellent in both academics and non-academics. They would have got in last year. Where it started to make a difference was halfway down the list, with students who were ‘very good’ and ‘good’ in their academics, but who were excellent in non-academics. They could get in this year, but wouldn’t have in the past.”

Mihi Shepherd and Daniel Vaughan are two of this year’s 124 successful applicants. They don’t know if they would have been accepted last year, but they both think this process is a good one.

“There may be a misinterpretation that the academic side was easier than in the past and that we didn’t have to put in as much effort. I found it challenging, and really had to put in the hours,” says Mihi, a school leaver from Whāngārei.

More importantly, she says, “No one was relying on their interviews; everyone was still focused academically. We obviously don’t know a lot yet about being veterinarians, but it is a social profession. You have to be able to get your thoughts across to clients. You can’t learn how to do that by sitting an exam.”

The process remains a stressful one and, in fact, the new method actually adds an additional pressure. “It [the testing weekend] was a big weekend and a lot was hanging on it. I felt like you did your whole academic semester, and that counts for the same as the weekend,” says Daniel, who is from Auckland and took a gap year for travel. “I enjoyed the interview process. It allowed you to get your personality across a bit better. It was good for someone who didn’t have A+ across all the courses.”

“When we first started talking about changing the criteria, I was one who said, ‘It’s about time’,” says Steve. “I did have concerns that we are asking 17- and 20-year-olds some really deep questions, and most of them will not have life experience. My concerns, though, have been lessened now that I’ve seen the capabilities of some of those coming through. I know there’s never going to be an absolutely perfect [set of] criteria, but I still think this is much better than it was.”

Eloise acknowledges that any selection process will miss some people who would be excellent veterinarians. “The process and decisions we made are based on the most well-researched, justified tools. We try to select for the attributes the New Zealand veterinary profession has told us are important, while assuring students are academically bright enough to manage the course. It’s a balancing act. If we take the top 100, it’s very likely that applicant 101 would have been good too.”

Successful students were invited to the three-day Hill’s VetStart@Massey™ in Waikanae in July and 115 participated. “It’s not compulsory, but we really want everyone there,” says Eloise. “It’s aimed at students getting to know each other and becoming a collegial unit.”
There were some lectures and talks, but through team-building and other exercises students learned about themselves, each other and how they fit together.

“We’re from all around the world. There is also a real diversity of personality,” says Mihi. “We all have different skills and we were learning from each other.”

Learning about the imposter syndrome made a difference for Daniel. “You look around and think, ‘Oh, these people did so well. Do I actually deserve to be here?’ It was explained to us that ‘Yes, you do deserve to be here, [otherwise] we wouldn’t have accepted you’. Getting over that barrier and meeting everyone else was the most important thing for me.”

“The most important thing for me was the emphasis put on ‘Now, you’re a team’,” says Mihi. “For the last six months it was a competition. We all want to be vets. We all want to get into veterinary school. Now it’s about helping each other get over the finish line ... it’s important to feel comfortable in your group and get out of that competitive mindset early on.”

Steve thinks the veterinary profession will be better for the new selection process. “Previously, we were only selecting on academic criteria and for highly driven people. Selecting differently, and focusing on teamwork and collegiality, can only be a positive change. It will be interesting to see the students changing as they come through, and whether the students who struggle with some of the interpersonal skills are no longer present.”

The selection process will be the same for 2018, and Massey will then likely do some fine-tuning, says Eloise, who researched international professional admissions requirements.

“This change has the potential to vastly impact the future of veterinary medicine in New Zealand. I feel a lot of responsibility for the process and the individuals – those who were accepted, and those who were not. I’m confident that we followed a robust process and only used things that had a strong research justification.”

Each new tranche of students is asked what words they want to be known for as a class. Eloise says this group felt constrained by just words and also picked a quote: “No pack without the wolf, no wolf without the pack.”

“Basically they’re all in this together now, and they’re all stronger for being part of this group than they are individually. But the group is also stronger than the individuals.”