How to Choose the Right Optometry School For You

11:08 PM

You've done it!  You've made the decision to devote the rest of your life to eye balls and their care and keeping.  I know that may seem like an exaggeration, but when you become an optometrist, you really do think about eyes all day long.  When you aren't at work seeing patients, you are talking to your optometrist friends about eyes, talking to your family about their eye problems, talking to your outside of optometry friends about their eyes, talking to total strangers that ask what you do for a living about their eyes.  Just as a word of advice, when you are on vacation and don't want to talk about eyes for a few days, pretend that you have a different career.  White lies can't hurt in this case. There is nothing like hiking Yosemite and having to talk to a stranger about their uncle's cousin's cataract surgery complication all the way up the mountain.

States with current optometry schools -- more coming soon!  via

But I digress, what this post is really about is finding the right optometry school for you!  After you decide on optometry, applying and selecting the school that fits you and your needs best can be a daunting challenge. These days, more and more new schools are opening their doors to student optometrists, and with so many choices just selecting the closest school doesn't necessarily make for a clear decision.  Here are some things to look for when finding a school that fits you best:
  • Consider the Finances
While there are not huge differences in tuition costs between most schools, it is certainly something to consider.  The average graduating optometrist student debt in 2010 was $121,852.  In addition to tuition, you need to factor in cost of living (apartments in Boston are a lot more expensive than apartments in Houston, Texas for example) over the four years of school.  Many states offer tuition breaks for in-state students (if your state has a school), and if your state doesn't have a school, there are often "regional" schools that have a discounted tuition fee for your state.  Anything to reduce your costs when you are a student will truly help when you are looking for your first job out of school and needing to pay back those loans out of your sometimes meager first pay check.
  • Consider the School's Focus
While the curriculum at every optometry school has to cover the general basics, there are definitely some schools more devoted to certain aspects of the optometric experience.  If you are interested in offering vision therapy, or low vision, then make sure your school has a curriculum that includes substantial time here.  A great way to delve into the specialty offerings at a school is to look at the residency programs that each school offers.  If the school in question has a resident training program for that specialty, you are assured that there are significant resources available for your classroom and clinic experience in that topic.

During your tour of the school, you will be shown classrooms and clinical exam rooms.  These are great areas to pay attention to what the school is prioritizing.  There is no right or wrong way for a school to devote its financial resources, so what you are looking for in the school's offering is going to be personal.  For my own decision, I wasn't sure what areas of optometry specifically interested me, so I wanted a school that would let me be exposed to a wide range of patient care areas.  I did know that I wanted my course work devoted to clinical learning, and less focused on research and scientific journals.  So I looked for a school with a focus on a clinical model even in the classroom, and where I knew that I would be logging a lot of hours one on one with patients.
  • Pay Attention to the Student Body
Remember while you are on your tour and application interview, you are also interviewing the school to see if it fits for you.  That means paying attention to the small things around you -- like how do the students seem to be going about their day?  Are they falling asleep in the back of the classroom, or staring gloomily at their books over their lunch break?  Are they even in the class room at all?   Some schools I toured literally had a quarter of the students attending class.  It must have been that boring to be in class there. Observing students studying together or at lunch can even be helpful.  Is there a sense of larger community?  Or do people seem to be sticking to themselves or in small groups? Coming from a large undergrad, I liked seeing large group of students interacting and studying together because that was my comfort zone.  For some people, smaller student bodies where you will be getting more one on one attention, or schools where people seem to be more independent in their studies might be more attractive.  So again, look for what fits your personality and learning style.  You are going to be logging a LOT of hours at school and with your classmates, so make sure that you feel like you can picture yourself fitting into that environment.

  • Think About Your Education and What Challenges You Will Face in Getting a License
This seems silly to point out, but not everyone graduates optometry school.  Not everyone graduates in just 4 years.  Not only do you have to worry about your school curriculum's difficulty level, but there are national tests to take (3 of them to be exact).  And then you have your individual state licensure to achieve.  If you know that the state you want to practice in has a tougher license exam reputation, look at the doctors that got their license in your state in the past 2 or 3 years.  What schools did they go to?  If those schools prepared those doctors, then they could prepare you too.  Optometrists as a general rule are very open to answering questions, so feel free to email new doctors in your area of interest if it is difficult to find this information online.  Nowadays just a quick Google search is likely all you will need to link a doctor to their graduating school.  This might not be fair to all of the new optometry schools opening up, but if you are worried about passage, there has to be some peace of mind if others have made it through before you. You may not know where you want to practice after you graduate, but talking to new and recent grads is a great way to prepare yourself for what the optometry climate is like for them.  Speaking with older ODs is important too, but the new grad specifically can really help with their own personal experiences and what they felt like was good and bad about their optometry school.  Just because XX optometry school was great in 1995, maybe in 2014 there are different schools leading the industry. 

  • Ask yourself:  Can I Be Happy Here?
Keep asking yourself this throughout your tour -- can you see yourself fitting in here? enjoying this school?  these teachers? this city?  That might sound trivial, but where you are living can make a big difference to your happiness.  Do you hate the cold, and live for sweet tea and Bojangles biscuits?  Well if you are me,  then going north of Washington, DC for school was really going to take a toll on my at-home happiness.  And optometry school is challenging; you are going to be pushed to your mental and emotional limits.  There are long hours and longer and wider channels of loneliness away from loved ones, friends, and family.  You need to feel like you are going to a place where you can fit in -- find new friends, make new memories.  I often find myself reminiscing about my optometry school family, and some of the best friends of my life were made during those four years.  Just remember, no matter what school you chose, you will be entering the optometry family, and we are happy to have you!  
My Graduating Class

Please comment or email me with any questions or thoughts on the topic.  I want to hear more from you new and aspiring OD's!

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  1. I really liked the section on paying attention to the student body. I remember a certain someone in our class that liked to make himself cry when the tours came through during our lunch break.

  2. I failed to account for the number of optometrists who thrive on devious shenanigans. The more of those that you see on your tour, the better in my experience haha

  3. Great post! Been reading a lot about optometry programs. Thanks for the info here!

  4. There are many questions about career like is optometry a good career choice for us? So the answer is simple that it is important for students who want to set their career in optometry.