For the times when “I want to be a doctor when I grow up” turns into an actual calling to pursue a career in the health professions, optometry can be a great answer. For those who are eager to begin setting themselves up for success, preparation to become a Doctor of Optometry can begin as early as high school.
While a high school may not have resources geared specifically toward optometry, it’s becoming more common to find organizations or clubs or events at that level for students who are interested in a healthcare career in general. Says Roya Attar, OD, clinical assistant professor and director of professional relations at the University of Pikeville Kentucky College of Optometry (KYCO), “Many such programs also partner with universities to offer interested students an opportunity to have exposure to different careers in health care through participation in health science workshops, field trips and healthcare conferences.”
Former high school teacher Juan Saavedra, MA, who is currently a recruiter with Nova Southeastern University College of Optometry (NSU), has worked with young people his entire career and has seen how keeping long-term goals in mind truly helps them achieve success. He says high school students who want to work in a health profession can begin by taking advanced placement/honors courses in the sciences and math and speaking with a guidance counselor about how to research healthcare careers and about colleges with strong undergraduate science programs and healthcare career tracks such as pre-optometry. They can also volunteer at local hospitals or clinics to learn what’s involved in providing care to the community and help determine whether a career in health care is right for them. In addition, it’s a good idea to speak with and shadow optometrists sooner rather than later. Saavedra adds, “Plan to take 15-18 credit hours per semester in college in order to prepare for the course load in optometry school. The more you challenge yourself academically, the smoother the transition will be to optometry school.”
Cliff Caudill, OD, clinical associate professor and assistant dean at KYCO, offers similar advice. “Prep in high school is all about preparing for the undergraduate years, and shadowing,” he says. “Take advanced science courses to prepare for undergraduate sciences, and establish relationships with local optometrists who will potentially provide reference letters for optometry school admission. Inquire with the state optometry association about participating in projects, meetings, political events, etc., in order to network into the state optometric community.” Yes, thinking about contacts that can help a high school student along his or her career path is important, agrees Dr. Attar. “Making and fostering connections early on could definitely make all the difference in helping students to get accepted into the optometry program of their choice and possibly also in securing a job following graduation,” she says.
Advice from Current Optometry School Students
When Eye on Optometry asked KYCO Admissions Coordinator Casey Price for his insights on what high school students could do to prepare to attend optometry school, he surveyed the college’s inaugural class (fall 2016). He asked them what would be the one thing they’d tell themselves in high school, if they could, to better prepare for optometry school. Three key themes emerged. First, learn good study skills and time management habits. One student says “Start figuring out the best way you study,” while another one notes “Learn how to study to retain information, not just to pass a test!” Working on these skills “will greatly benefit you in undergrad, increase your chances of acceptance into optometry school, and help eliminate unnecessary stress,” offers another. Second, start shadowing optometrists very early “to get a feel of how each one adapts certain techniques and to be able to see more eye disorders and be more familiar with optometry equipment before coming into the professional degree program.” And third, study diligently in physics and chemistry. As one student offers, “Take chemistry and physics more seriously and take extra classes to get better prepared.”
Consult Your Inner (Potential) Optometrist
As high school students go about deciding whether a health professions career is right for them, it helps if they ask themselves some questions, says Saavedra, including whether they like math and physics and the life/medical sciences (e.g., biology, microbiology, anatomy, chemistry). They should also ponder whether they like to work with people and like to help people (of all different ages and ethnic groups) and whether they want to be part of the patients’ healthcare team. When it comes to optometry in particular, he adds, relevant questions include whether it’s important to them to be able to make a positive difference in people’s daily lives, work with advanced technological equipment, and have a favorable work/life balance, all of which are associated with optometry.
It also makes sense to consider whether opening an optometric practice and being “one’s own boss” might be a future goal. If it is, “Think seriously about combining an undergraduate science degree with a business degree,” Price advises. And beyond asking themselves these types of questions, he says, high school students should definitely shadow professionals, but not just optometrists. “Shadow ophthalmologists, pharmacists, family practice physicians, dentists and other professionals in the medical field,” he explains. “You may also want to shadow with industry professionals in optics, manufacturing or technology. Each has a little different work environment and a little different work/life balance. Ask them questions about their daily routine. Ask if they would go back to school and do it all over again. Ask what career path they would choose if they were in your shoes. We think optometry has one of the best career pathways and affords professionals one of the best balances in career and family, but make sure you know it’s the best career for you by comparing it to others.”