Becoming an optometrist is a long process. In addition to completing your Doctor of Optometry degree, you will need to complete an undergraduate degree and pass several exams for application and licensing purposes. If you are successful, you will enjoy a high salary and excellent job prospects.
Path to Becoming an Optometrist
To become an optometrist, you will need to:
- Begin a science- or health-related undergraduate degree
- Pass the Optometry Admission Test (OAT)
- Apply to optometry school
- Complete your optometry degree
- Gain experience
- Pass your licensing exam
Begin a Science- or Health-Related Undergraduate Degree
The first step to becoming an optometrist is to begin a four-year undergraduate degree (bachelor’s degree). Many graduates then enter optometry programs to study fields like biology, physics, chemistry, health science and kinesiology. The better your grades, the more likely you are to get accepted to a quality optometry school later.
Pass the Optometry Admission Test (OAT)
Once you obtain your undergraduate degree, you will take the Optometry Admission Test (OAT). This test helps optometry schools gauge how prepared you are for their programs as well as your aptitude for work in the field.
Apply to Optometry School
You can apply to optometry school using the Optometry Centralized Application Service (OptomCAS). You will need solid grades in your undergraduate program and your OAT results to be considered for admission.
Complete Your Optometry Degree
After you have been accepted into optometry school, you will need to complete a four-year Doctor of Optometry (OD) degree.
Optometry school graduates are not required to do a residency or internship to practice, but some choose to. You can also volunteer to gain experience or request to shadow a more experienced optometrist.
Pass Your Licensing Exam
The final credential you need to do to become a practicing optometrist is a passing grade on a licensing exam from either the National Board of Examiners in Optometry (NBEO) or your state licensing board.
Education and Training
All optometrists must complete a Doctor of Optometry degree (also known as an OD). This is a professional postgraduate degree that trains you to diagnose and treat refractive errors and other vision problems.
An OD alone does not qualify you to diagnose or treat eye disease. If any of your patients display signs of eye disease, you will need to refer them to an ophthalmologist for further care.
An OD is also not enough to qualify you to practice optometry. For that, you will need to earn a license. However, you cannot take any licensing tests without having earned an OD first.
The Optometry Admissions Test is the first and most important exam for prospective optometrists. Your score on this test is one of the main factors that determines whether colleges will accept you into their optometry schools. It lasts four-and-a-half hours and has four parts:
- Survey of the Natural Sciences
- Reading Comprehension
- Qualitative Reasoning
Most prospective optometrists take the OAT during their junior year, but you can take it any time before you apply to optometry school. Remember that it may take multiple attempts to achieve the score you want. It is best to leave yourself enough time to retake the test before beginning the application process.
Once in optometry school, you will have many tests to complete as part of your coursework. These may include both written and practical components depending on the subject.
After completing your degree, you will have to pass a licensing exam to gain the right to practice optometry in your state. You can pursue national certification from the NBEO or take the exam offered by your state’s licensing board.
To become a licensed optometrist, you will need to pass an exam from either the NBEO or your state licensing board. If you choose to take the state’s exam, you will only be licensed to practice Optometry within that state. Passing the national exam allows you to practice anywhere in the United States.
Optometrists are not required to be board certified to obtain a license to practice. If you choose to pursue board certification, you will need to pass a comprehensive exam from the American Board of Optometry.
You must have a valid license to practice optometry to take this test. You must also have completed a one-year residency or three years of clinical practice.
According to an article published in Clinical and Experimental Optometry which ranked schools in terms of research impact, the U.S. has eight of the top 20 optometry schools in the world. They are:
|1.||University of California, Berkeley|
|4.||University of Houston|
|6.||Ohio State University|
|9.||University of Alabama at Birmingham|
|11.||Marshall B Ketchum University|
|14.||State University of New York|
|18.||University of Illinois at Chicago|
Many alumni from these schools have gone on to become highly influential in the field of optometry. They also enjoy excellent job prospects and a sterling professional reputation.
Apply to Optometry School
To apply to Optometry school, you will need to submit your application through the Optometry Centralized Application Service (OptomCAS). You will also need an official record of your score on the OAT. In most cases, this record must also be submitted electronically.
Some schools may also require you to complete a supplemental application or pay additional fees. Be sure to check the requirements of your target schools before beginning your application process.
Costs and Paying for Optometry School
Optometry school tuition costs about $40,000 a year. Tuition at public schools is slightly lower at $30,000 a year.
Many optometry students take out student loans to pay for these costs. However, many scholarships are also available to help. The American Association of Optometry lists many of the most prestigious optometry scholarships on their website. Many more are available depending on your state.
Few of these scholarships are large enough to cover your full tuition on their own, but you may be able to defray a considerable amount of the cost if you are awarded money from several of them. Consider applying for as many as possible.
Unlike medicine and many related fields, you do not need to complete any practical placements to get your optometry license. However, you may want to gain some hands-on experience before you begin practicing on your own.
Residencies are the main way to gain optometry experience. You can apply to optometry residencies through your school. You may even receive credit toward your degree for successfully completing these programs. You can also use the Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry’s ORMatch tool to be matched with a residency near you.
If you do not mind foregoing credit and pay, you can volunteer your services at a local optometrist’s office. You will need to be fully licensed to do any hands-on work such as conducting eye exams or writing glasses prescriptions.
You can also job shadow an optometrist at any time, even before starting optometry school. Ask some optometrists in your local area if they would allow you to do this. Many will be happy to help. Some may even offer to show you some of the administrative and financial tasks required to run an optometrist’s office, giving you additional experience with matters that are not covered in optometry school.
Optometry has only one specialization: medical optometry. This specialty qualifies an optometrist to diagnose and treat eye diseases and disorders. To get this certification, you must complete an accredited residency in medical optometry and pass the Advanced Competence in Medical Optometry exam.
Optometrists can also choose to become board certified. Optometrists are not required to do this to obtain their license or work in the field, but some choose to do so to open up more opportunities or increase their credibility. To do so, you will need to pass an exam given by the National Board of Optometry. You can only take the exam after completing a one-year residency or finishing at least three years of clinical practice.
Applying for Jobs
After obtaining your optometry license, you can apply to work in an optometrist’s office. You must be licensed to practice in the state you will be working in, so be sure to limit your job search accordingly. Since few people possess optometrists’ credentials, there is usually little competition for these roles.
Many optometrists also work in their own practices as small business owners. They may also purchase franchise locations from optometric brands like Pearle Vision.
Starting an optometric practice requires a substantial investment that many optometry students are not prepared to make right out of school. However, many choose to follow this path later in their career to improve their earning potential and gain additional control over their working conditions.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, optometrists’ average salaries in 2021 were as follows.
|District of Columbia||–|
These compensation numbers include only optometrists who are paid a documented salary for their work. Those who operate their own practice may make substantially more.
How many years does it take to study optometry?
It takes four years to graduate from optometry school and earn an OD However, you will only be accepted to optometry school if you complete a four-year undergraduate degree first.
Is becoming an optometrist worth it?
Only you can decide if becoming an optometrist is worth it for you. Optometrists enjoy high pay, flexible hours, little work stress and consistently high demand for their services. On the other hand, optometrists must pursue intense study for many years and pay high tuition fees that often leave them with significant debt.
Can you become an optometrist without a degree?
No. Optometrists must complete both an undergraduate degree and a four-year Doctor of Optometry degree.
Optometry Admission Test. (2022). Optometry Admission Test.
State Boards of Optometry. (2022). American Optometric Association.
American Board of Certification in Medical Optometry. (2022). The American Board of Certification in Medical Optometry.
Residency Programs. (2022). Association of Schools and Colleges in Optometry.
Licensure Requirements: Chicago College of Optometry. (2022). Midwestern University.
What’s a doctor of optometry? (2022). American Optometric Association.
Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics Query System. (2021). U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Which are the top optometry schools in the world? (October 2021). Clinical and Experimental Optometry.
National Board of Examiners in Optometry. (2020). National Board of Examiners in Optometry.
Last Updated July 1, 2022
Note: This page should not serve as a substitute for professional medical advice from a doctor or specialist. Please review our about page for more information.