Career as a Optometrist

How to Become an Optometrist

The route to becoming an optometrist is straightforward. You’ll need to complete a four-year Doctor of Optometry (O.D.) program that combines classes and supervised clinical experience

After getting your O.D. degree, you may wish to complete a one-year residency program to get advanced clinical training in an area of specialization -- family practice, low vision rehabilitation, pediatric optometry, geriatric optometry and ocular disease, among others.

Steps to Become an Optometrist

  • Go to college.

    Get a bachelor’s degree, ideally with a pre-med or biological sciences emphasis.

    For some schools, you may only need three years of post-secondary education with courses in biology or zoology, chemistry, physics, math and English.

  • Pass the first test.

    Before you can apply to an optometry program, you must pass the Optometry Admission Test (OAT). This computerized exam tests applicants in science, reading comprehension, physics and quantitative reasoning. Submit your OAT scores with your college application.

  • Pursue your doctoral degree.

    Once accepted to a four-year Doctor of Optometry (O.D.) program, your coursework will include anatomy, physiology, optics, visual science and the diagnosis and treatment of eye diseases/disorders.

  • Pass a second test.

    When you have your O.D., you must pass all sections of the National Board of Examiners in Optometry exam. Some states require that you pass an additional clinical exam or an exam on law.

  • Get licensed.

    Obtain a license to practice in whatever state you’ll be employed in. Check to see if that state requires an additional clinical exam.

DegreePurpose
Doctor of Optometry (O.D.)Optometrists
MS, Vision SciencePrepares students for teaching or research in the ophthalmic industry
Master of Education/Vision Function in Learning (MEd/VFL) Pacific Oregon U.Extends an optometrist’s knowledge of vision problems as they relate to children's reading and learning
PhD, Vision SciencePrepares students for careers in research and/or teaching, in vision science, optometry, ophthalmology, bioengineering, psychology, biology and related disciplines
FAAO: Fellow of the American Academy of OptometryOptometrists who are licensed to practice at the highest level allowed in their jurisdiction

"Consider a post-graduate residency program. The extra experience will position you ahead of others when seeking employment opportunities. Or if you're considering private practice, it will strengthen your skills."

Nicholas Xanthos, OD

Pennsylvania College of Optometry Program, 2000

Best Schools for Optometrists

The best school for someone else may not be the best school for you. Here is what to consider during your research to ensure a good match:

  • program structure and curriculum
  • types of clinical education and training opportunities
  • faculty composition and tenure, student demographics
  • facilities, campus setting, geographic location
  • size of the university, size of the class
  • licensure pass rate, employment rates
  • degrees awarded, program length
  • admission requirements
  • cost and financial aid opportunities
  • extracurricular activities.

In 2015, there were 23 accredited optometry schools in the U.S., including Puerto Rico. Here are the top ten schools, as ranked by Startclass.com.

RankSchoolLocationNote
1UC Berkeley School of OptometryBerkeley, Calif.Has one of the higher ratios of female students, at 81%.
2State University of New York College of OptometryNew York, N.Y.Has produced more than 60% of the practicing optometrists in New York State.
3The Ohio State University College of OptometryColumbus, OhioA private school founded in 1914.
4UAB School of OptometryBirmingham, Ala.The current dean, Kelly K. Nichols, O.D., MPH, Ph.D., FAAO, is one of the world’s leading vision scientists.
5University of Houston College of OptometryHouston, TexasHas grown from a relative small program into a major, internationally recognized vision center.
6Ferris State University Michigan College of OptometryBig Rapids, Mich.Clinical research activities are conducted at the Vision Research Institute (VRI), dedicated to creating, developing and testing products and procedures for vision correction.
7Nova Southeastern University College of OptometryFort Lauderdale-Davie, Fla.Offers a Mini-MBA program, an Extended Program and a Preparatory Optometry Program.
8Illinois College of Optometry (ICO)Chicago, Ill.ICO’s NBEO pass rate is among the highest in the country.
9Marshall B. Ketchum University, The University Eye Center at Ketchum Health (UEC)Fullerton, Calif.The major patient care and clinical teaching facility of the Southern California College of Optometry at Marshall B. Ketchum University.
10Pacific University College of OptometryForest Grove, Ore.Was founded in 1921 as the North Pacific College of Optometry. In 1945, it became part of Pacific University and the Forest Grove Campus.

"You must be willing to be a lifelong learner. The scope of education and the technology of the profession are advancing rapidly, and if one does not keep pace, they will be left behind. You are free to advance to the limit of your licensure, but as a profession, we must also strive to expand our range of services to keep up with the pace of technology and the increasing volume of patients who seek optometric services."

Michael Veliky, OD

New England College of Optometry, 1992

Applying for Optometry School

The four-year Doctor of Optometry (OD) degree focuses on the structure, function and disorders of the eye. You’ll also study human anatomy, biochemistry and physiology, and more. With an average GPA (in 2015) of 3.43, the field is less competitive than many other medical professions. Admission committees do, however, look for a strong background in the sciences -- math, chemistry and physics, seeking students with high GPAs.

  • Each optometry school has its own admissions requirements. Some, but not all, require a four-year college degree. You should begin your application(s) a year before school begins.
  • OptomCAS, the Optometry Centralized Application Service, allows applicants to file one application for all optometry programs. Every U.S. school and college of optometry participates in this service.
  • Take the Optometry Admission Test (OAT). This entrance exam is required by every U.S. school of optometry. The OAT measures general and scientific knowledge. The OAT is administered and you may take it unlimited times. Scores are good for three years.
  • Make sure any school you apply to is accredited by the Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry (ASCO).
  • Fill out and submit the school’s application, with the application fee, letters of recommendation by a work supervisor, optometrist or even a sports coach, and your OAT score.
  • You may need to write a short essay about why you chose optometry as a career and an official transcript from your current school may be required.
  • In the summer and fall of your senior year, optometry schools will invite you to sit for a personal interview.

Paying for Optometry School

Like most higher-level education programs, optometry school is not cheap. Tuition and fees can range from approximately $70,000 to $221,000 over four years. Plan to start saving early, and look into research scholarships and loan repayment and forgiveness programs. Make sure to contact the financial aid officer at the colleges to which you’re applying. Income-based repayment can also make paying loans more manageable.

More ScholarshipsInformation
University of Houston College of OptometryOffers 75 endowed scholarships.
Federal Student AidThe U.S. Department of Education office provides more than $150 billion in federal grants, loans and work-study funds annually to 13-plus million students.
University or College ProgramSchools and programs offer scholarships and financial aid to their students.
AmericorpsParticipating as a volunteer results in money for a student's education, no matter their major.
U.S. ArmyThe program covers a student's tuition in exchange for time spent on active duty.
Indian Health ServiceThree scholarships -- for preparatory, pre-graduate and health profession students -- are awarded annually.

"Optometry can be a great career. In the right situation it can be lucrative, personally fulfilling and intellectually challenging. But it can be difficult to find that position and with so many new schools opening up, there may be a severe oversupply."

Edward Melman, OD

Salus University Pennsylvania College of Optometry, 1981

Getting Licensed

Each state requires you to be licensed to practice. Some require candidates to pass an additional clinical exam or an exam on laws relating to optometry.

Becoming certified by the American Board of Optometry is optional, but it demonstrates an advanced level of knowledge.

Getting Experience

A great way for aspiring optometry students to learn more about the career is to work or volunteer in an optometric practice. This is also called “shadowing.” Each shadowing opportunity is different. You may observe patient care and/or assist practitioners in office activities/practice management. Shadowing is a great way to know for sure if a career in optometry is for you.

You can also join a pre-optometry club. This is a wonderful way to meet other aspiring optometrists who share your interests, to learn about academic requirements and to hear speakers from across the field as well as from local optometry schools discuss topics relevant to the profession. Club members may also volunteer at eye health-related organizations.

Poll: Why Did You Become an Optometrist?

So we have answered the question of how one becomes an optometrist. But... why become a optometrist? That's the question we posed to five working professionals, who are listed by their graduate year and alma mater.

Kathleen E. Goff, OD, FAAO (University of Houston College of Optometry, 1978): "I felt that optometry was a relatively 'clean' health profession. Looking inside someone's mouth did not sound good to me. My father had also practiced optometry until he was 80 and I liked the idea of helping someone see a new world."

Alan Glazier, OD, FAAO (New England College of Optometry, 1993): "My father was an optometrist. While I was in college pursuing a goal of becoming a vascular surgeon, I observed how satisfied my father was with his career choice. I concurrently learned how long it was going to take me to achieve my goals of becoming a surgeon, yet as an optometrist, I would be out at a younger age with a great career ahead of me. That’s what solidified my choice."

Nicholas Xanthos OD (Graduate Pennsylvania College of Optometry, 2000): "My Greek heritage and growing up working in the diner business made me a 'people person' And I always enjoyed the health sciences. Optometry was a great fit for combining health sciences and personal interactions. Over the years, I have built a great repertoire with so many of my patients and have enjoyed everything from explaining exam results to talking about our families/personal lives."

Donald Matsumoto, OD, FAAO (University of California-Berkeley School of Optometry, 1980): "I am a believer in role models. My personal optometrist, when I was a child, was my role model. He did wonders for my eyes. But more importantly, he was my basketball coach and a member of my church. I, and many others, looked up to him. I wanted to “be like Mike,” as the commercial says. As I learned more about optometry as a profession, I discovered it was a wellness profession -- people were upbeat coming into the office and not miserable. It was a 'clean' profession -- typically no blood and no one died under an optometrist’s care. And you made an immediate difference in the lives of your patients. It seemed to be my calling."

Michael Veliky, OD (New England College of Optometry, 1992): "The eye is a very interesting little organ, and it's not a certainty that after four years of medical school that one can absolutely get into an ophthalmology residency. Completing four years of optometry school and passing board exams guarantees that you can have a career as an optometrist. When I decided that I wanted to be a healthcare provider but not go to medical school, the eye was far more appealing to me personally than other professional schools."

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