Being an optometrist is an incredibly rewarding career; you can help others, enjoy great employment opportunities, be your own boss, maintain a healthy work-life balance, and secure a solid income. In fact, “Optometrist” consistently ranks as one of U.S. News’ best jobs in America, based on it’s median salary of $111,790, the number of jobs available, and an unemployment rate of just 0.1%.
But becoming an optometrist is not something that can happen overnight. In order to take advantage of these benefits that come with the profession, substantial education, preparation, hard work, and dedication are required. Having worked with countless optometry students and young professionals, we put together this guide to help you better understand the steps you need to take in order to become an optometrist.
Benefits of a Becoming an Optometrist
In addition to the benefits mentioned above, pursuing a career in optometry is considered a smart move due to the predicted rise in demand for optometry. With a growing and aging population, there will be more people experiencing vision problems and needing optometry services. If you can successfully complete all the requirements and certifications to become an optometrist, you can expect great job opportunities and job security compared to many other professions.
Of course, you shouldn’t pursue a career in optometry for simply practical or economical reasons. To be a great optometrist, you need to be passionate about helping others and improving their overall quality of life. By improving patients’ vision, you can make a profound and lasting impact on their lives, and this should be a driving force in your journey to becoming an optometrist.
An Introduction on How to Become an Optometrist
Put simply, these are the standard steps you’ll need to take to pursue a career in optometry:
- Earn your undergraduate degree, ideally with a pre-med or biological science focus, and complete any required prerequisite courses.
- Pass the Optometry Admissions Test (OAT).
- Apply and be accepted into a Doctor of Optometry (O.D.) program.
- Successfully complete your four-year O.D. degree.
- Pass the National Board of Examiners in Optometry exam, and potentially other exams depending on your state requirements.
- Obtain a license in whatever state you’ll be practicing in.
- Join an existing optometry practice or consider starting an optometry practice of your own.
Read on to learn more and explore all of these steps in more detail.
How to Become an Optometrist: Finishing Your Education
Completing your education is the single most important step to becoming an optometrist. You will first need to complete your undergraduate degree and meet any prerequisite requirements. Then you must earn a specialized Doctor of Optometry (O.D.) degree from an accredited college or university. O.D. degrees are typically four-year programs with the first two years focused on basic science and the final two centered on clinical rotations to gain supervised, hands-on experience with patients. It’s an advanced degree, so you can expect whatever program you’re in to be challenging. However, it’s generally considered to be less rigorous than med school, which requires learning about the entire body rather than just the eyes. We’ll explore more about optometry school requirements and the application process in the sections below.
Optometry School Requirements
The requirements for optometry school vary from place to place, but there are several core requirements you should expect and prepare for across the board.
First, you must carefully plan out your undergraduate course load and make sure that you’ll meet any prerequisite requirements. As explained by the Association for Schools and Colleges of Optometry (ASCO), “the requirements for admission to the schools and colleges of optometry vary, but students wishing to study optometry should be certain to take at least a year of biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, general physics, and microbiology; English; college mathematics; and other social science and humanities courses.” Be sure to look into the specific O.D. programs you’re interested in for more specific course requirements.
The next requirement is a successfully completed undergraduate bachelor’s degree. Your undergraduate GPA, and your science GPA in particular, will be considered during the admission process. In assessing your GPA, the admission board will take the difficulty of your undergraduate course load into account. It’s a good idea to look into the specific O.D. programs you’re planning to apply for and see if you can find the average GPA of accepted students for comparison purposes.
The next step is to take and pass the Optometry Admission Test (OAT), which is required for admission into any optometry school in the United States. The OAT is a computerized, standardized test designed to measure your overall academic aptitude and ability to comprehend scientific information. Different O.D. programs have different OAT score requirements or benchmarks, so it’s a good idea to look into average scores for the specific schools you’re planning to apply to. You are permitted to retake the OAT as many times as you want to, but you must wait at least 90 days between testing dates. It’s important to note that some schools may accept GRE scores in place of the OAT exam, so be sure to check.
Lastly, most optometry programs look for some form of industry-specific experience, whether it be paid or volunteer experience. Often, schools require that you spend time working or volunteering at a private optometry practice, even if just for a few hours each week. This gives the admission board confidence that you are committed to the field of optometry and know more about what it takes to be an optometrist.
Optometry School Application Process
Once you have all the requirements for admission prepared, you’re ready to start applying to O.D. programs! You will prepare and submit applications through OptomCAS, the Optometry Centralized Application Service. The great thing about this system is that you can prepare one application and send it to multiple optometry programs.
On top of the OptomCAS application, you will likely need to submit your test scores, official transcript, letters of recommendation, a resume outlining any relevant work or volunteer experience (if any), an essay, and any other specific requirements required by the program you’re applying for.
Lastly, some optometry schools require interviews. If you do have the chance to visit the school in person for a campus interview, it’s a great opportunity to get a better feel for the school and see if it’s a good fit for you.
Next Important Steps and Certifications
If you’re on your way to successfully completing your O.D. degree, the next hurdle you need to prepare for is your national board certification. The National Board of Examiners in Optometry gives the national board examination. The first exam covers basic science and ocular physiology and takes place during your third year of optometry school. Next, in your fourth year, you’ll need to pass a written exam on the diagnosis and treatment of ocular diseases. Lastly, you’ll take a practical exam during which you will be evaluated in real-time as you treat a patient. Once you pass all parts of the national certification, it must be periodically renewed. Depending on your state’s requirements, you may also need to pass a state or regional examination in addition to the national board exam.
How Long Does It Take to Become an Optometrist?
So, with all the above in mind, how long does it take to become an optometrist? Typically, it takes four years to complete your undergraduate degree, four years to complete your O.D. degree, and then maybe a few weeks or months to ensure your licenses and certifications are all in order and secure employment. It’s a long road to complete your education, but the unemployment rate in the profession is very low and you will likely be able to earn a comfortable living soon after you’re certified and ready to practice.
If you plan to start your own practice, it will certainly take longer to begin practicing, but there are many benefits to going this route, such as the ability to be your own boss and earn a higher income in the long run. The basic steps you need to take to start your own practice include but are not limited to: writing a business plan, conducting a location and market analysis, completing required registrations, naming your practice, assembling a capable team, and much more. To explore this path in more detail, read our Guide to Starting an Optometry Practice. Other options include buying into an existing practice in part or in full.
How to Become an Optometrist: Launching Your Career
As you can see, it’s never too early to start thinking about your career! If you’re proactive and start planning and preparing now, your journey to becoming an optometrist will be much more swift and smooth.
Once you’re on your way to becoming an optometrist and are enrolled in an O.D. program, you should definitely consider joining our Student Membership Program, which is designed for optometry students who want to get a head start on preparing for their future as an eye care professional. Best of all, our Student Membership Program is FREE for all currently enrolled students! You’ll have access to exclusive PECAA programs, student-specific education, training and webinars, opportunities to network and establish contacts with practicing OD’s and industry professionals, as well as insight on current industry trends and how to be successful in your first years of practice. All this support and access to resources will give you a leg up as you complete your education and certifications and search for employment opportunities.
Later on, if you do decide to start your own optometry practice, become a PECAA member and take advantage of our Cold Start Practice Program, which will provide you with resources and support to successfully get your optometry practice off the ground. Starting your own practice is a complicated process, and you’ll need all the support you can get.
“I joined PECAA pretty much as soon as I decided to open my own practice. My PECAA membership proved immediately beneficial in many areas. An area that was invaluable was when I was applying for a bank loan. Bryan was able to help me polish up my financial goals and projections before presenting myself to our local bank to ask for a loan. Needless to say, we got it! Bryan also provided me an excel spreadsheet which gave me an idea of how many of each ‘type’ of frame I should aim for (women’s vs. men’s, high vs. low price, etc). These are just a few examples of the ways PECAA has helped, I could go on and on!” -Dr. Meg Richardson
Are you ready to get going on your optometry career? We’re here to help and support you along each step of the journey. Reach out to us today to learn more or become a PECAA member!