We’ve been in the optometry biz for a long time, and because we’re the Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry (ASCO), we know a lot about, well, the schools and colleges of optometry. We’ve also learned a thing or two about the students who aspire to a career in optometry and what they typically need and want to know in order to make that happen. So, here we highlight a handful of the most common questions for which you will eventually be seeking answers. We asked Eryn Kraning, Director of Admissions at the Southern California College of Optometry at Marshall B. Ketchum University (SCCO at MBKU), for her insights and how things work at her school as well.
1. What are the Academic Prerequisites for Optometry School?
Every optometry school lists the coursework it requires all students to complete before being accepted into the program. The list is pretty similar for all of them, but what may not be as simple to figure out are how the schools’ policies surrounding the prerequisite coursework differ. For example, as Eryn explains, some accept online coursework, AP credit in lieu of classes or courses taken many years ago, while others don’t. Some limit the number of units that can be taken at a community college, while others don’t. Eryn’s advice: “Thoroughly review a school’s website to clarify its policies. If that leaves you with unanswered questions, contact the admissions department directly.”
There are requirements other than coursework that also come into play as you’re applying to optometry school. They include getting letters of recommendation, shadowing optometrists and taking the Optometry Admission Test (OAT). (Click around the OptomCAS website, www.optomcas.org, for more information regarding application requirements.)
2. What Do I Need to Score on the OAT?
Speaking of the OAT, all U.S. schools and colleges of optometry require students to take the test in order to be considered for admission. However, how much weight OAT scores carry toward your likelihood of getting in is not the same at every institution.
Of course every school wants students to have strong scores in all subjects tested, but not all of them have a set minimum acceptable score. They may instead cite a range of acceptable scores, or emphasize that their admissions decisions are made with consideration of several factors, such as leadership and community service experience, shadowing experience and GPA and level of competitiveness at the undergrad school attended. At Eryn’s SCCO at MBKU: “We highly value optometric experience, community service and leadership skills. However, first and foremost, a student must be capable of handling the rigorous academic coursework of a professional program. This is why we place a strong emphasis on OAT scores and GPAs. We want to make sure that anyone admitted has the ability to thrive academically in our program.”
ASCO is in charge of the OAT testing program, and its guide to the test can be found at http://www.ada.org/en/oat/guide. In addition, every year, ASCO compiles average OAT scores for the entering class of each U.S. school and college of optometry. The most recently posted information can be found at http://www.opted.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Profile-of-the-Entering-Class-2014-Final.pdf.
3. When During My Optometry Education Can I Start Seeing Patients?
Actual patient care usually ramps up in the third year of optometry school, but sometimes sooner depending on the school or college. Eryn points out that “At SCCO at MBKU, we have an Enhancement Program that has first-year students working with upperclassmen, observing in the clinic almost immediately. By the second quarter of their second year, our students are performing a full examination on their own patients in the clinic.” You may follow a similar path at other schools, or you might work your way up to patient care differently, such as observing third- and fourth-year students in the clinic right away, screening patients at community events in your second year, or serving as a scribe prior to actually examining patients yourself. It all depends on how each program has chosen to structure the way it goes about achieving its goal of providing you with the best optometry education possible.
Consider, too, that “how soon” you’ll see patients is not the only question you may want to explore as you’re researching schools. Other good questions are the number of patient encounters you’ll experience, the diversity of types of cases and patient demographics you’ll see in the clinic, and if you’ll be participating in interprofessional care, which is the way of the future. In the fourth year at all U.S. schools and colleges of optometry, the focus is on students providing direct patient care in the schools’ clinical facilities and/or at externships, so you’ll want to research what externship opportunities each program offers and how rotations are assigned/selected.
4. What about Housing During Optometry School?
Some, but not all, of the schools and colleges of optometry offer college-operated, on-campus housing. Those that don’t always provide at least a minimum of information about finding a place to live in the area. They may even have a housing-specific handbook or have a “housing day” event you can attend to get information and learn about the options, especially in the larger cities where the hunt can be more challenging. Eryn elaborates on SCCO at MBKU’s setup: “We don’t have on-campus housing, but we’re located in a suburban neighborhood, so we provide a list of about 30 housing options all within a few miles of campus. We have a way for students to fill out roommate profiles online, post rooms for rent, get help from upperclassmen, etc., so they’re able to find students from any of our programs to room with.”
Current students at all schools typically say the best thing they did while looking for housing was to ask people already attending the school about their experiences and recommendations.
5. Are Doctors of Optometry in Demand?
That’s a big yes! The population is aging, which means the need for eye care is vastly increasing. People in general are increasingly aware of the importance of prevention and proper health care, which requires the services of optometrists now more than ever. The settings in which optometrists are needed are numerous. If you don’t plan to open your own practice, you can fill the demand in a hospital, ophthalmology or optometry practice, community health center, teaching institution, the ophthalmic industry, the military, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs ... the list goes on. Optometrists provide about two-thirds of all eye care in the United States.
The numbers are there to back it up: According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook 2014-15 Edition produced by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of optometrists is expected to grow 24% percent from 2012 to 2022. This compares favorably with the average growth rate for all occupations, which is projected to be 11%.
6. Where Can I Find Out More about Optometry School?
We hope the questions we’ve brought to your attention here get you off to a good start in your search for an optometry school and your pursuit of an optometry career. We’ve answered many other common questions in previous posts, so take a look back to make sure you didn’t miss any. And you can always visit ASCO’s website, www.opted.org, and the websites of ASCO member schools for all kinds of useful information.