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Even though you may have already decided that you want to be an optometrist — an exciting, in-demand, well-paying career — it doesn’t mean you couldn’t benefit from some help along the way. Joining a pre-optometry club is a great way to learn things you need to know about academic requirements, the Optometry Admission Test (OAT) and OptomCAS for applying to optometry school. But the clubs offer much more, too.
They invite speakers to inform and inspire members by providing information on a wide range of topics, such as why they chose the profession, the many different ways to practice, eye diseases and current research. Speakers often include representatives from the schools and colleges of optometry, who talk about what makes their programs unique. Club members get involved in the community by doing volunteer work and helping eye health-related organizations with fundraisers. Members of clubs in areas with a school or college of optometry nearby have opportunities to visit campus and interact with optometry students and faculty. Also, a pre-optometry club is a source of support, fun and camaraderie with like-minded students.
Many undergraduate colleges and universities have a pre-optometry club, which you can find at events like freshman orientation fairs or through the university’s website if it lists available activities or registered student organizations (RSOs) on campus. The Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry (ASCO) provides a list of clubs here, and clubs can register with ASCO to be included on the list.
How the Pre-Optometry Club Helped Me
Here are just a few of the ways students say they benefitted from their involvement with a pre-optometry club.
Patricia Ziccarelli (first-year year student at Illinois College of Optometry (ICO); former member of pre-optometry club at Purdue University in Indiana): “My pre-optometry club was very important in solidifying my decision to go through with applying to optometry school. It was nice to meet other students who shared my same goals. We talked a lot about things that we were all going through together such as taking the OAT, navigating OptomCAS and getting teacher recommendations. The club only met once a month or so but it was nice to have a reminder every few weeks about my end goal of being an optometrist. If for no other reason, I am happy I joined the club because it was at a meeting that I was first introduced to ICO, which is where I am a student today!”
Maryam Khan (first-year student at Illinois College of Optometry; former member, secretary and president of pre-optometry club at Benedictine University outside Chicago): “The leadership experience, including hosting fundraisers and community events, will be something that will help me during and beyond optometry school. The number of members in our club increased every year as awareness of optometry on campus grew. In my first year of undergraduate school, we had 3-5 members and by my last semester we were able to fill a classroom. As we had more members, we added even more events and fundraisers, which led to more awareness and interest in optometry.”
Aaron Nichols (first-year student at Illinois College of Optometry; former member of pre-optometry club at Ferris State University in Michigan): “One of the optometrists who came to talk with our pre-optometry club, Dr. Mark Colip, Vice President for Student, Alumni and College Development at ICO, really sticks out to me as being very helpful. Because the undergrad university I attended has its own college of optometry, I thought I knew what optometry school would be like. However, Dr. Colip explained to us how different students (based, for example, on demographics or personality) are better suited to attend different optometry schools. He explained how life as an optometry student and an optometrist varies in different areas, such as rural vs. major city. He was telling us to find the best place for us, the place we’d be comfortable. That really helped me to broaden my interests when applying to optometry school and realize I wanted to be where I would see the most diseases and potentially more diverse patients.”
No Pre-Optometry Club on Campus? Start One!
While attending MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, Jade McLachlin was surprised to learn there wasn’t a pre-optometry club on campus. So she and a friend decided to start one. It required planning and legwork to determine the club’s mission, what type of meetings it would have, how to get the word out about the club and the field of optometry in general, how to elect officers, how to obtain university permission to set up a club (often through an office of student activities or student affairs), how to file an official budget, etc. At times it felt like a lot to do, but you can do it, she says. Her advice: “The best way to go about it is to be passionate! If you’re passionate about starting a club, you’ll find a way to make it happen.”
Sign Up for this Additional Valuable Experience
On April 21, 2015, ASCO is holding another Optometry Virtual Fair. No matter where you are that day, you can hop onto the Internet and live chat with admissions representatives from any or all of the 21 ASCO member schools — all for free. They’ll be waiting to answer any questions you may have. Register today.
One of the most important items on the How to Get into Optometry School Checklist is shadowing. Shadowing is when you spend time observing an optometrist as he or she works through a typical day. All health professions schools strongly recommend, require really, applicants to shadow. The point is threefold: to gain a real-world understanding of what people in the profession actually do, to ensure it’s what you want to do, and to help you prepare for the admissions interview, during which you’ll definitely be asked to explain why you want a career in the field.
Not every school or college of optometry mandates a certain number of shadowing experiences or hours (although some do), but all of them consider it best that you shadow several optometrists who are practicing in different settings. This gives you a wider view of the many different ways it’s possible to practice optometry.
How to Arrange to Shadow Optometrists
There are several ways to pursue shadowing experiences. Some schools and colleges of optometry and some undergraduate institutions (often via pre-optometry clubs) have formal or semi-formal programs through which they can connect you with alumni and/or local optometrists who are willing to be shadowed. In some cases, you can observe for several days. In others, you may be able to do more than observe, perhaps performing office tasks or working on your technical skills as part of patient care, almost like a mini-internship. Whether you have single or multiple visits with each optometrist, keep track of your shadowing locations and times. You’ll be required to provide varying levels of detail about them as part of your optometry school applications.
It’s also possible to find optometrists to shadow on your own. “You just have to be willing to pick up the phone or walk into the office and ask,” says Kelsey Connelly, a second-year student at Inter American University of Puerto Rico School of Optometry. She shadowed in two private optometric practices and one optometry/ophthalmology private practice for a few full days each. Annie Lee, a second-year student at the University of California – Berkeley School of Optometry, and Kristin Schwab, a second-year student at Pennsylvania College of Optometry at Salus University, also successfully used various resources to find shadowing opportunities. Among the options they utilized were contacting local doctors listed in the phone book or online, those they learned about through friends who had positive shadowing experiences, the family optometrist or doctors involved with a pre-optometry club. In addition to shadowing an ophthalmologist, an optometrist at a VA site and an optometrist in solo private practice, Annie worked at the UC-Berkeley School of Optometry’s Clinical Research Center as a Berkeley undergrad, which she says “gave me exposure to yet another mode of practice.”
Elizabeth Brubaker, a member of The Ohio State University College of Optometry class of 2017, shadowed six different doctors in different practice settings — a Walmart location, several private practices in a large city, a private practice in a rural town, an ophthalmology practice in a large city, a vision therapy practice, a pediatric practice and a clinic at a homeless shelter — prior to her admissions interviews. “This was very beneficial because no two optometrists do everything the same way,” she notes. She requested shadowing sessions via e-mail whenever possible or by leaving a phone message with office staff. She also made connections at the Ohio Optometric Association’s EastWest Eye Conference. “During one session, a doctor in the audience asked a question and said where he was from,” Elizabeth recounts. “It happened to be a town where I’d really like to work, so I introduced myself to him after the talk. We exchanged contact information and have been in contact several times since.” Attending the 2014 Optometry’s Meeting in Philadelphia was helpful as well. “It’s all about asking questions and making connections with doctors who will let you shadow them or direct you to another optometrist who specializes in your field of interest,” she says.
Scoping Out Your Career in the Optometric Profession
Kristin shadowed four optometrists in four settings: an optometry/ophthalmology group practice, an optometric group practice, a solo practice and a corporate practice. “I was more confident that optometry was the right profession for me after I shadowed several optometrists,” she says. “I better understood what the daily routine of an optometrist is, and what the differences between optometrists, ophthalmologists and opticians are. I was a senior in high school when I shadowed my family optometrist, so I think this showed the admissions committee that I had a longstanding interest in the profession. The earlier you can start shadowing, the better!”
If you were to ask Elizabeth for her advice on shadowing, she would say to not be afraid to ask questions. “Optometrists are generally very happy and helpful people,” she points out. She gained lots of insights by asking the doctors questions such as whether they like their job, if they think pursuing a residency is a good idea (e.g., if they were to hire another doctor, would they be looking for someone with residency training?) and if they specialize in a certain area, what got them interested in it. “With every opportunity I took advantage of, I seemed to have another door opened to me,” she continues. “I would make another valuable connection with another optometrist or I was inspired by a patient interaction. I walked away even more enthusiastic about the field of optometry than I had ever imagined. Shadowing was also useful because it gave me many ideas and stories to talk about in my application to optometry school. Because I had so many positive experiences while shadowing, it was easy to explain to the interview committee the many reasons why I wanted to become an optometrist.”
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 /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.
Majority of Optometry Students Use Financial Aid
The majority of optometry students utilize financial aid, including loans. You’ll likely be doing the same, so you’ll want to plan ahead of time how to finance your optometry education responsibly. As you probably know, the costs to complete a program in any of the health professions, which include not only tuition but also living and other expenses, have been on the rise.
“Based on information included in the Annual Student Data Report (Academic Year 2013-2014) from the Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry (ASCO), the average indebtedness of students graduating from optometry school is $148,000,” says Tami Sato, Senior Director of Enrollment Management and Financial Aid at Marshall B. Ketchum University (MBKU). For many students, this can’t be avoided, Sato notes, so the goal is to have a strategy that will lead to successful repayment.
Understanding the Terms of a Loan
The good news is that graduate students in general have a low average student loan default rate, 6.4% according to the U.S. Department of Education, and the average default rate among optometry students is even lower. “The colleges and universities that list their optometry program’s default rate separate from their overall rate in the Department of Education’s database tend to have default rates among optometry students of 1% or less,” Sato explains. “At the Southern California College of Optometry at MBKU, we have had a zero percent default rate for 16 years. These low rates indicate that the strength of the optometric profession is strong enough to make the debt level manageable.”
A solid repayment strategy includes borrowing the least amount possible and understanding the terms of your loans. The latter can be tough because, as Sato explains, “In addition to the standard 10-year, graduated, extended and loan consolidation plans, there are seven income-driven repayment plans. It’s a puzzle for students to try to figure out the best repayment plan for their individual situation.” Fortunately, there’s lots of help available. Every optometry program provides some kind of assistance, whether it be seminars, informative publications or one-on-one counseling. “The schools and colleges of optometry are concerned about the wellness of the whole student: physical, mental, personal, academic and financial,” Sato says. “So if we can reduce the financial stress/worry for students, they can focus on what they are attending our schools and colleges for, becoming successful Doctors of Optometry.”
Scholarships are a great potential source of financial aid and are available through each of the schools and colleges as well as via industry and other national organizations such as the American Optometric Foundation. You can find an American Optometric Association Guide to Optometric Loans, Grants and Scholarships online. Scholarships are awarded based on a wide variety of criteria. You can contact the financial aid officer at the school(s) or college(s) of your choice for information on all types of available aid. Some students work while attending optometry school to help defray expenses. Work study programs can be a good option for landing an on-campus job that might allow some flexibility for fitting with your class schedule. Whether to work while attending optometry school is a personal choice based on how you assess your ability to juggle both your studies and a job.
Other Helpful Financial Resources, Most of Which are Free
Other excellent resources, some related to general financial wellness and many that are student-loan specific, include:
■ The exit interview, an in-person or online counseling session with your optometry school’s financial aid office before graduating, is an opportunity to review the terms and obligations of your outstanding student loans.
■ 360 Degrees of Financial Literacy is a national volunteer effort of the nation’s certified public accountants to help Americans understand their personal finances and develop money management skills.
■ The free mobile phone app mint.com (owned by Intuit) enables easy organization of your finances, including automatic categorization of your transactions, plus active, zoomable charts and graphs, bill payment reminders and ways to save money.
■ Great Lakes is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping students borrow responsibly, complete their education and find repayment solutions that work for them.
■ YouCanDealWithIt.com is a public service of the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency that provides practical and easy-to-understand advice on how to deal with common financial situations facing today’s college students and recent graduates.
■ SALT, created by the non-profit American Student Assistance, helps students make better decisions about paying for and paying back the cost of their education.
■ Nelnet offers products and services to help students and families plan, prepare and pay for their education.
■ The U.S Department of Education has created several tools to help borrowers understand their loan obligations, such as a financial aid counseling tool and detailed explanations of flexible loan repayment plans.
■ Inceptia, a division of NSLP, provides forms, resources and calculators aimed at helping students achieve financial success.
■ The National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS) is the U.S. Department of Education’s central database for student aid. NSLDS Student Access provides a centralized, integrated view of Title IV loans and grants so that recipients of Title IV Aid can access and inquire about their loans and/or grant data.
■ Practical Money Skills for Life, a partnership between Visa and leading consumer advocates, educators and financial institutions, aids consumers and students of all ages in learning the essentials of personal finance. At the website you can find free educational resources, including personal finance articles and games.
■ Many books have been written about managing student debt. Titles include: How Smart Students Pay for School: The Best Way to Save for College, Get the Right Loans, and Repay Debt, CliffsNotes Graduation Debt: How To Manage Student Loans And Live Your Life and How to Wipe Out Your Student Loans and Be Debt Free Fast: Everything You Need to Know Explained Simply.
Successfully Financing Your Optometry Education: Your Happy and Successful Future Depends on You
If you asked MBKU’s Sato for her advice on responsibly financing your optometric education, she would tell you to establish good fiscal patterns by not borrowing more than you need to, not overusing credit cards, having an emergency fund and paying bills on time. Her top five recommendations:
1) Have a spending plan. Know where money is coming from and where it is going.
2) Know what you owe. Keep all your loan documents in one place and refer to the government’s website, NSLDS.gov for your loan history.
3) Establish or keep your good credit. Pay bills on time, don’t take out too many credit cards (that extra 10% off at department stores is not worth it) and regularly check your credit report.
4) Plan for the unexpected. Have adequate insurance, have an emergency fund or plan for car repairs, a trip home due to a family emergency, a dental problem, etc.
5) Don’t become delinquent or default on your student loans. This is pretty hard to do if you know and use the options available to you, such as forbearance (a temporary halt to repayment) or using one of the income-driven plans for loan repayment.
She also says that financing your optometric education is an opportunity to learn and practice good financial habits that will carry over to your professional — and happily successful — life as an eye doctor.
You can get a great education at plenty of schools and colleges of optometry, but to really make the most of it, you’ll need to look beyond the brochures. Ask yourself what you need to succeed in the career you are envisioning for yourself and what factors are most important to you when you think about how you’ll be spending the next four years. Your answers will lead you to the school that is the best fit for you.
Reid Cluff, now a second-year student at the University of the Incarnate Word Rosenberg School of Optometry (RSO), chose what school to attend based on his three primary criteria, which were the institution’s reputation and the affordability and family-friendliness of the surrounding area. “As much as I was attracted to some of the schools in bigger cities, they weren’t an option for me because of their high living expenses,” he says. “For me, being married with three kids, RSO has the whole package. It’s a mission-driven school with great faculty and excellent class size in an affordable yet fun city in which to live,” Reid says.
For Lauren Fereday, choosing the MCPHS University School of Optometry had a lot to do with how the school approaches clinical experience and interprofessional care. “MCPHS prides itself on getting students into the clinic in the first year, which was really a huge selling point for me,” she says. “In addition to allowing students to work with patients in the school clinic early on, they explained during my admissions visit how they were establishing more clinic sites around the city to give students more time with different types of patients.” MCPHS is also home to other health professions programs, which appealed to Lauren. “I like the idea of having different cohorts to interact with,” she explains. “The way healthcare is going, we are going to have to work closely with different providers, and this gives us the opportunity to start sooner. I was also ‘wowed’ by the phenomenal technology available at the school and in the clinic because the program is relatively new.” Cost of living was important for Lauren too. “It’s very different in Massachusetts than in my home state of Louisiana, but the school was generous with scholarships and able to point me to reasonably priced, nice housing options nearby.”
Weighing the Tangibles and Intangibles
Lauren and Reid also talked about the questions they asked and what they paid attention to during their campus visits that helped them figure out where they would feel most comfortable. “I gathered what details I could about each school ahead of time,” Lauren notes. “Then during my visits I asked about the resources available for students, especially online library access and resources in case I needed help in a certain class. I also asked about extra activities the school offers because I knew I’d want to get involved with something other than my classwork. Finally, I asked about the surrounding area and my safety. I knew my parents were eager to know about this as well!” Lauren says applicants can learn a lot about a school or college of optometry during their one-day visit to campus. “You can see how all the students interact and ask them their opinions about the school. Alumni can give you some insights, but because schools continue to change, the students are closest to the current dynamics.”
Reid applied to nine schools, was invited to interview at eight, and accepted five of the invites before settling on RSO. He always asked admissions officials how they would define success in training optometry students. “I wanted to make sure I found a school that coincided with my own personal goals so I could ensure my best chance for success,” he says. “The biggest things during an interview that made me want to attend a school were feeling like the school cared about me as an applicant and was a competitive, successful school that was going to be a great investment.”
Some Parting Advice
Reid says if he were going through the process of choosing a school or college of optometry again, he would narrow his list of choices sooner. He concludes, “That would have been more efficient and saved me some money on application fees and travel costs.” And according to Lauren, “Don’t choose a place because someone else really likes it. You are the one who has to spend the next four years there so make sure you are choosing a new home for you, not someone else.”
Both students moved quite a long way from home to attend their chosen schools — Lauren from Louisiana to Massachusetts, and Reid from Utah to Texas. Both miss friends and family back home, but don’t regret the change. Reid sees it as “a great opportunity to experience a new culture and location.” For Lauren, “The toughest thing to get used to was missing holidays, birthdays, family events, weddings, etc., but so many other people in my class are in the same situation, so it has been an opportunity to get to know each other better and celebrate with each other like a family. I’d never change my decision to choose optometry as a career or my school choice. It is a perfect fit for me and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
What do you want to hear about?
All roads to optometry school lead through the admissions interview. This is the campus visit and sit-down with school or college representatives that you’ll be invited to attend if they think you would be a good fit after reviewing your OptomCAS application materials. If you get “the call” — these days it is usually “the e-mail” — it means you are considered a competitive applicant. It doesn’t mean, however, that you’re guaranteed to be accepted into the program. You’ve got to do well on your interview day. Here are some tips to give you an idea of what to expect and what admissions officials do and don’t like to see.
1. Start with the Basics
- Be on time for the appointment. The admissions interview/campus visit at schools and colleges of optometry is typically an all-day affair that begins in the morning.
- Dress professionally. Showing up in jeans and a sweater doesn’t make a great first impression.
- Know the specifics of the day. Each institution handles the admissions interview differently. Some do one-on-one: one student and one faculty member or administrator. Others interview by committee, and current students may be part of the process. Schools’ interview periods differ as well. You might get your invitation as far in advance as a year before you would enter the program or it might come closer to that date.
- Act professionally. Believe it or not, there are real-life examples of applicants behaving badly on interview day, including one who argued with the campus tour guide about the accuracy of information. “What you do is just as important as what you say,” advises Teisha Johnson, MS, Senior Director of Admissions at Illinois College of Optometry (ICO).
2. Understand that the Interview is a Two-Way Street
- Know why you’re there. “We are evaluating you, but you are also evaluating us,” Johnson says. “At the end of the day, we both need to have the information we need to make an informed decision.” Kurt M. Thiede, Executive Director of Enrollment Management, New England College of Optometry (NECO), agrees. “As much as possible, candidates should come to the interview experience relaxed and open to the knowledge and insights they can gain, perceptions that will help them to determine if the college is a good fit for them,” he explains. “It is also an opportunity to provide an understanding about who they are as a person and why optometry is their professional choice. In many respects, the most basic question candidates need to answer is why they are interested in a career in optometry. This genuine interest should be reinforced with each answer they provide and each question they ask the interviewer.”
- Be honest. Go to the interview prepared to discuss any blemishes on your record, either academic or personal. “For example,” Thiede says, “Without a full explanation, a low grade in the sophomore year can become more of an issue in the admissions committee than it should.” And, as Johnson notes, “It’s easy to get defensive when tough questions are asked, but it’s best to be honest. Know that we aren’t trying to put you on the spot; some issues require a discussion.”
3. Ace It!
- Be engaged. “Seeming disinterested is very poor on a candidate’s part,” ICO’s Johnson points out. “It shows, and it weighs heavily on the final decision. Try not to be nervous. We want to get to know you, so be yourself, perhaps your best self, but come in ready to be engaged.” Thoughtful answers to questions are a good way to be engaging, Thiede says. “The candidate should be prepared to explain ‘why’ a certain experience was meaningful to him or her rather than simply describing the experience,” he advises.
Interviewers are looking for candidates who will be engaging as doctors, too. “Although it might seem self-evident, optometry is very much a people-oriented profession and making patients and colleagues comfortable with an appropriate level of eye contact is important,” Thiede says. “A lack of eye contact during the interview raises a red flag as to the ability of a candidate to successfully work with patients.” He advises that eye contact should be natural, not forced. Don’t lock into a potential staring contest, but don’t stare at your feet either.
- Ask good questions. Thiede appreciates when potential students learn as much basic information about NECO as possible prior to their interview. “If the candidate isn’t asking questions for which answers are readily available on the college’s website, the conversation can be more impression-building than fact-finding,” he says. “The best questions are those that seek ‘why’ rather than ‘what,’ e.g., why the college made a commitment to an early clinical experience instead of what the college offers as far as clinical experiences.”
It’s not a deal-breaker for Johnson if candidates ask a few basic questions, there’s a lot for them to take in, but she’s more impressed with questions that indicate they know what they’re looking for in a school and that go beyond the admissions process. “These types of questions may be geared toward class structure, residency opportunities, career development services, etc.,” she explains. “There’s always going to be something that’s very important to you in choosing your school. Really think about what that is before the meeting. You can also ask a mentor or the Career Services Department at your current institution or search online for a list of commonly asked health professions interview questions. Then, while you are at a school for your interview, you should be asking yourself whether you can picture yourself being there as a student. Fit is very important.”
For more information about the schools and colleges of optometry, please check out the ASCO website.
Mark Your Calendar for this Fall’s Optometry Virtual Fair
If you have yet to check out the Optometry Virtual Fair, mark your calendar for October 9. That’s the day of the next Virtual Fair, during which you can log on and meet admissions representatives from any or all of the 21 programs that are members of the Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry (ASCO, www.opted.org). The absolutely free event is your opportunity to live chat with the people who have answers to whatever questions you might have about optometry school.
Head to the Registration Page to register today or contact CareerEco [firstname.lastname@example.org, (770) 980-0088] or Paige Pence, ASCO’s Director of Student and Residency Affairs [email@example.com], for more information.
It’s the Web Portal You’ll Use to Apply to Optometry School
If you’ve been working on your game plan for becoming a Doctor of Optometry, July 1 is the day you can really put it in motion. That’s the first day this year you can apply to one or more of the U.S. (including Puerto Rico) schools and colleges of optometry through the Optometry Centralized Application Service (OptomCAS). OptomCAS, which is brought to you by the Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry (ASCO), is a real time-saver for applicants to optometry school. It allows you to use a single web-based application and one set of materials to apply to multiple schools and colleges of optometry. To be accepted into optometry school and start classes in 2015, you need to get in on the current application cycle. It begins on July 1, 2014 and closes on June 2, 2015. You initiate your application process by creating an account at www.optomcas.org.
There, you’ll find all of the steps you need to follow to apply, which include filling out an application with information like your biographical data, colleges and universities attended, academic course history, work experience, extracurricular activities and honors. You’ll also upload a personal essay, provide the names of people who will write letters of recommendation for you, and designate which schools you want to receive your application.
“It’s a straightforward process, but applicants should really make sure they’re prepared before they start the process,” advises Paige Pence, ASCO’s Director for Student and Residency Affairs. “They should review the instructions at the site well ahead of time, which they can do any time, even before they create their account, so they are aware of all the materials they’ll need to get together, such as college transcripts, letters of recommendation, etc. They should also check the application deadlines for the schools they want to apply to because they aren’t all the same.” Pence notes, too, that the OptomCAS website has a new and improved look for this application cycle and is more user-friendly. And, if you’re curious, Pence also notes that, on average, most would-be students end up applying to five schools.
Once you create your account, you can log in and out of OptomCAS as you work on completing the application process. Liaison International, the company that runs the service for ASCO, has support staff available to answer any questions you may have. After you officially submit your application, you can check its movement through the process, including receipt of the necessary external documents (more on that below) via the “Status” section of the site.
Here are a few key points to be aware of as you familiarize yourself with OptomCAS:
■ OptomCAS doesn’t determine whether you have met a school’s or college’s requirements or are eligible for admission. That decision is made by each respective school or college.
■ The fees for using the system in 2014-2015 are $155 to apply to one school or college of optometry and an additional $55 for each additional school or college to which you want to apply.
■ You are required to use OptomCAS to apply to any of the 21 ASCO member schools and colleges of optometry in the U.S. (including Puerto Rico). However, some schools may also require you to submit a supplemental application and fee directly to them. You can find out which ones at the OptomCAS site under “Information About Schools & Colleges” and “Deadlines and Other Information” at www.optomcas.org.
■ Obviously, your academic transcripts are a required part of your application. Note, however, that transcripts sent to OptomCAS directly from you are not acceptable. Instead, you’ll need to print an Official Transcript Request Form and give it to the registrar’s office at the college or university you attend(ed). The registrar then needs to mail to OptomCAS in a sealed envelope the form and your transcripts, bearing an official seal or signature of the registrar and a watermark.
When you give the transcript form to your registrar, request an unofficial student copy for yourself because you’ll need it to help you complete your online application.
■ At the OptomCAS site, you need to provide the names and contact information of the people who will be writing your letters of recommendation, but you don’t collect and send in the letters. OptomCAS sends an e-mail evaluation request to the “recommenders” with information on how they should electronically submit their letters. Once you know what programs you are targeting, check their individual websites to determine the number and types of letters they require. You can also find letter of recommendation information at the OptomCAS site.
■ Once you’ve completed the steps required of you and OptomCAS receives and verifies your transcripts, your application is considered complete (even if all of your recommendation letters are not yet sent in). From that point forward, any communication about your application will come from a school or college itself, not OptomCAS. It’s possible that you would be contacted directly by a school or college prior to that point as well.
Now that you have an idea of how the process works, get all of the details you need by checking out OptomCAS asap!
Diversity Awareness and Cultural Competence in Optometry
We use this blog space most often to provide information to folks who are considering pursuing a career in optometry. This time, we visit a topic that pertains to everyone in the field, now and in the future. Technically, it’s two topics — diversity and cultural competence — but as you may know, they are closely related. The U.S. population is increasingly racially, ethnically, religiously, linguistically and culturally diverse. When health professionals aren’t prepared to care for patients in the context of their individual cultural norms and beliefs, access to quality care for entire groups of people is compromised. Therefore, increasing diversity among healthcare providers and ensuring they are able to communicate effectively with all patients and recognize and advocate for their unique needs have been ongoing goals across medicine. As listed below, the Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry (ASCO), with support from industry partners Walmart and Alcon, has been spearheading many efforts designed to help the eyecare profession meet these goals.
Developing a Diverse Applicant Pool in Optometric Education Mini-Grant Program
This is the tenth year that ASCO has offered a diversity-related mini-grant program. For 2014, the program focuses on increasing diversity among applicants to optometry school. The grants awarded help member schools and colleges to develop and implement activities aimed at recruiting and retaining underrepresented minority students, financially disadvantaged students and first-generation college students. This year, the program awarded nearly $20,000 to the following institutions to help fund their diversity programs, which reach out to and encourage potential students in various ways:
Illinois College of Optometry (Focus on Your Future Summer Program)
NOVA Southeastern University College of Optometry (The Preparatory Optometry Program [POP])
The Ohio State University College of Optometry (Pathways to Optometry)
SUNY State College of Optometry (Increasing Diversity by Engaging All [IDEA])
University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Optometry (Providing Diversity in Optometric Education through Continual Enhancement of Current Programs)
University of the Incarnate Word Rosenberg School of Optometry (Summer Optometry Institute [SOI])
University of Houston College of Optometry (Texas Optometry Career Opportunities Program [TEXOCOP])
Indiana University School of Optometry (Your Future/I Can See Clearly Now).
Information about the programs can be found at the schools’ websites.
Guidelines for Culturally Competent Eye and Vision Care
ASCO also developed Guidelines for Culturally Competent Eye and Vision Care to help schools and colleges of optometry prepare clinicians who can address the eye health needs of a multicultural and global community. This document is a compilation of cultural competence best practices used by schools, colleges, organizations and associations in the health professions.
To bring the guidelines to life, ASCO has also made available to member schools and colleges of optometry fully-funded, onsite Cultural Competency Curriculum Guidelines Implementation Workshops.
Grants to fund the workshops are awarded to ASCO member schools through a competitive application process. Interested institutions can apply now for a workshop to be held on their campus that will help them address the unique challenges they face in their efforts to achieve cultural competence. Applications are due by August 8.
According to Dr. Barbara Fink, Chair of ASCO’s Cultural Competency Curriculum Guidelines Subcommittee, “It is a clinical necessity that optometrists possess the patient-centered attitudes, knowledge and skills required to competently serve a diverse community with its spectrum of education, experiences, beliefs, values, customs, preferences, fears and expectations, all of which impact the interpersonal interactions involved in clinical care. The workshops give the schools and colleges the opportunity to become familiar with ASCO’s cultural competence guidelines and learn ways to implement them effectively.”
The workshops are making a difference. After each workshop that has been conducted, school administrators completed surveys identifying subsequent actions that have been taken. “In all cases, the optometric institutions are making changes to enhance cultural competency,” Dr. Fink notes. “We have also trained facilitators from several of the schools and colleges of optometry to provide the workshops at institutions other than their own.”
Cultural Competency Case Study Competition for Students and Residents
ASCO is augmenting its cultural competency guidelines in another way as well. By offering the Cultural Competency Case Study Competition for Students and Residents, it is building a database of real-world examples of how to handle culturally sensitive patient encounters, while at the same time awarding $2,500 each to the student and resident who win each year’s competition.
This year was the first year for the contest. Chelsia Leong (pictured to the left below), a Pacific University College of Optometry resident at the VA Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics, won for her case study “Cultural Competency with the Navajo Nation.” The 2014 student winner was Fatima Elkabti (pictured to the right below), who just completed her third year at the University of California – Berkeley School of Optometry, for her submission “At Home for an Hour: Competent Healthcare for the Homeless.”
Looking at the Big Picture
Diversity and cultural competency are concepts that are focused on patients and the care they receive. But, in addition to enabling health professionals to respond to demographic changes and eliminate health disparities, they allow them to improve the quality of services and health outcomes, meet legislative, regulatory and accreditation mandates, gain a competitive edge in the marketplace and decrease the likelihood of malpractice claims.
“Diversity makes the profession better,” says Dana Beards, University and Student Relations Specialist for VSP Vision Care Provider Services. “We are more complete as a profession when we are incorporating different cultures and the unique perspectives each culture brings to health care. It’s not that every patient necessarily needs to be seen by a doctor of the same ethnic group or culture. But if healthcare professionals expand their cultural horizons and have peers and mentors representing a wide variety of cultures, then every doctor will be more competent in providing excellent optometric services to a wide range of patients. From a pure business perspective, a doctor who has multiple cultural competencies stands a far greater chance of being successful. And from the perspective of VSP, we want to provide the most diverse doctor network possible to the more than 65 million members that we serve nationally. It’s important that our members have the ability to receive optometric services in a healthcare environment that’s comfortable for them.”
As is the case at many optometric companies, diversity is an ongoing part of VSP’s business, beginning with its own employees. Beyond its internal policies and initiatives, the company invests in partnerships to help improve diversity in optometry. “For example, at The Ohio State University College of Optometry, we fund a program called Improving Diversity in Optometric Careers (I-DOC),” Beards says. “Each year, I-DOC identifies people from under-represented minority groups who are interested in optometry and brings them to OSU for a three-day program where faculty members, staff, alumni and students expose them to the profession and encourage them to consider optometry as a career. Over the past five years, more than 20 I-DOC participants have entered optometry schools across the country.”
Pick a Place to Start
If you’d like to learn more about diversity and cultural competency in health care in general and optometry in particular, a good place to start is ASCO’s website. There, along with detailed descriptions of ASCO’s diversity and cultural competency programs, you’ll find links to a collection of reading materials the Association recommends.
Making a Difference Every Day
By the time Ryan Corte, OD, graduated from optometry school, he had a clear picture in his mind of how he wanted to practice. He planned to provide full-scope care, from prescribing glasses and contact lenses to diagnosing and managing eye diseases and the ocular complications of systemic conditions. “During my rotations at Ohio State, I realized how much I appreciate being able to treat ocular disease,” he says. “After graduation, I completed a residency in ocular disease and primary care at the Illinois Eye Institute. In my mind, if I wasn’t going to be offering my patients everything I could, whether it relates to low vision, binocular vision conditions, specialty contact lenses, disease management, etc., I wouldn’t be serving them properly.”
Now, less than a year after finishing his residency, Dr. Corte’s plan is in full swing. He works at two practices in North Carolina (Premier Family Eye Care and Modern Eye Care) and his approach allows him to impact patients in a positive way every day. In many cases, the care he provides is life-changing. Take for example the gentleman who recently made an appointment with Dr. Corte because he wanted to find out if multifocal contact lenses would help him to see better. His pupils weren’t dilated at that first visit because dilation prevents an accurate assessment of accommodation, which interferes with the multifocal contact lens fitting. However, when he was dilated during his follow-up visit, Dr. Corte observed arteriovenous nicking in his retina, which is an indication of hypertension. Dr. Corte recommended the patient, who hadn’t had a physical or eye exam in several years, see his primary care doctor. Sure enough, the next time the patient came to see Dr. Corte, the first thing he did was thank him. His primary care doctor found that his blood pressure was “through the roof” and started him on medication to address the problem right away. He had also been counseled about exercise and a proper diet, which he realized could add years to his life.
“The patient was so thankful that I picked up on this,” Dr. Corte says. “And this type of scenario plays out on a daily basis in our offices. This is where the rubber meets the road for me and what motivates me in practice. It’s very gratifying to impact someone’s life not only in the way I go about their eye care but also going the extra mile to pay attention to their overall health. It’s what I truly enjoy, and I wouldn’t practice any other way.”
When it comes to glasses and contact lenses, patients can experience instant benefits, Dr. Corte notes. “It’s an amazing feeling to get someone into a pair of contacts or glasses, especially someone whose vision has been uncorrected for a while, and see his or her face light up because the vision is so clear,” he says. “You can really see the confidence it creates in middle school students and teens, too.”
Extending Optometry’s Reach
Dr. Corte has also taken advantage of opportunities to make a difference in the lives of people more than a thousand miles away from where he practices. Last spring, he and another optometrist traveled with a group of Ohio State optometry students to the Gamertsfelder Medical Center in Jamaica, where they screened for cataracts in patients who without the Center would have very little if any access to eyecare services. Their team, working on behalf of the Fellowship of Christian Optometrists, encountered not only cataracts but also other serious problems, including a retinal detachment, diabetic retinopathy and neovascular glaucoma.
“It was an incredible experience,” Dr. Corte explains. “The people were so gracious. There are many opportunities through a variety of groups, such as VOSH and SVOSH, to do this type of outreach. Whether it’s on a mission trip or at home, optometrists have the ability to provide the gift of sight. You just don’t get that in every profession.”
Read More True Stories
Have you downloaded True Stories, the free booklet brought to you by the Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry? This must-read resource provides lots of valuable nuts-and-bolts information about how to pursue an optometric career. Beyond that, it inspires with engaging narratives that illustrate how optometrists help their patients live life to the fullest.
Whenever we move forward to a new phase in life, it’s reassuring to have at least some idea of what to expect. To give you some food for thought as you look ahead to attending optometry school, we asked two current students, one first-year and one third-year, what their typical day is like. They’re working hard, but they also describe what they’re doing as productive, interesting, informative and fun.
First Year: Settling in and Rolling Up Your Sleeves
Senija Vehab, a first-year student at the Illinois College of Optometry, is an early riser, at 6:30 a.m. on exam days (exams are always at 8) and 8:30 a.m. on most other days. On exam days or days when she’s busy with her required lab time, she heads first to the ICO cafeteria to grab breakfast. On non-lab days, she likes to take a run along the Lake Michigan shore trail, which is a half mile east of campus. It it’s too cold (this is Chicago, remember), she hits the gym instead. Her class lectures take place from 2 to 6 p.m. most days and from 9 a.m. to noon on Fridays. “After lecture at 6 p.m., everyone eats dinner in the cafeteria,” she says. “After dinner I typically go back to my room — I live at the resident complex, which is right across the street from school — and plan what I want to study or work on that night. Usually, it’s studying for the next exam. Some students like to study into the wee hours, but I prefer to study no later than midnight so I’m fresh for the next day. Everyone has their own schedule, and I found that figuring out what worked best for me was important.”
In addition to her coursework, Senija does work-study, last quarter as a technician at the Illinois Eye Institute on Thursday mornings and now at the security desk in the resident complex on Monday nights. She also serves as a Trustee-Elect for the American Optometric Student Association and plays intramural flag football or soccer, usually one evening a week. Although getting her studying done first is always her goal, she says “Saturdays and Sundays are different because I can plan something fun to look forward to during the week. I’ve met some great people at ICO. School keeps us busy, but we can usually find time to just hang out, whether that’s watching a movie in one of the lounges, playing ping pong in the game room, or getting ice cream in the city while it’s snowing. And of course downtown Chicago is always fun and adventurous.”
Comparing the first year of professional school to her undergrad years, Senija says she expected it to be busy and it is. “Sometimes it’s challenging to attend class right after studying for an exam, for instance an ocular anatomy lecture at 9 a.m. after just taking the ocular anatomy exam that morning. All of our lectures are taped though, so that adds some flexibility. And unlike in undergrad, everyone is in the same boat as you with the same ‘major.’ We’re all studying for the same exams, attending the same labs, doing the same practicals. We’re always with our group, everyone knows what we’re going through, and it’s nice because it’s our family away from home.”
Third Year: Buckling Down for the Boards
Keylee Clemons Brown, a third-year student at Inter American University of Puerto Rico School of Optometry, was recently able to exhale after taking Part I of the national boards in March. With that experience still fresh in her mind, she divides what her typical day is like into two distinct categories: before boards and after boards.
Like the days of third-year students at most schools, Keylee’s are divided about 50/50 between classes and clinic. But starting last June, she added studying for Part I of the boards to her schedule by reading Remington’s Clinical Anatomy and Physiology of the Visual System. Over Christmas break that year, she worked on flash cards, and in January of this year she set a regimented study schedule for herself. The goal for January was 10 hours a week, about half on the weekends. February’s goal was 15 hours every week. For March, studying was her total focus. “As boards approached, there was very little time for anything other than eating, sleeping, studying and maybe getting in a workout here or there,” she says. However, after the big day and a couple days of post-exam recovery, Keylee had some free time, during which she did some traveling, including attending Vision Expo East in New York City. Now, life is back to how it was prior to the board exam.
Keylee notes that her day is similar to other third-year students’ in that she’s going to class and clinic, but she also likes to be involved in extracurricular activities and leadership positions. She’s been involved with the American Optometric Student Association since her first year. She’s served as a Trustee-Elect and a Trustee and recently stepped into the role of Secretary on the association’s Executive Council. In her experience, “The busyness goes in waves. There are times when you have a lot of free time and times when you don’t. You have to prioritize so that you can get your school work done and still have time for yourself. Now that I live on an island, I try to go to the beach when I have extra time on the weekends. I also enjoy running outside, shopping, exploring new places and traveling.”
Keylee says third year has been challenging, balancing clinic, classes and studying, but she has really enjoyed it. One reason is the classes are solely optometry-related. She looks forward to fourth-year, when the focus will be on working with patients. “Fourth-year supposedly allows for a little more free time since studying for classes in the usual sense is not part of the mix. It will be great to rotate through the various clinics in Puerto Rico and in the states and learn more about all the different specialties in optometry. Then, it will be time to look forward to graduation!”