How Long is Schooling for Optometrists? An In-Depth Guide

Becoming an optometrist takes hard work, diligence, and dedication. Are you thinking of becoming one? Read this guide to find out how long an optometry education takes.

TCM Staff

28th November 2022

Have you ever needed eyeglasses or corrective lenses? If so, you’ve probably been inside a doctor’s office, where you had to do one of those sight tests (you know, the ones with the rows of shrinking letters). The doctor who prescribed you glasses was an optometrist. Optometrists are specialized eye doctors who embark on a long educational and professional journey to get where they are.

But just exactly how long does it take to become an optometrist?

Unfortunately, an optometry education will take you a long time. After graduating high school, it can take eight to nine years in undergrad and graduate school before you can finally become a licensed optometrist.

In this guide, we look deeper into the type of education you need to earn to become an optometrist. We’ll answer the question “how long is schooling for optometrists?” by covering optometry school length, majors, courses, and more — including when and how to apply to your dream programs. Let’s begin!

What is an Optometrist?

What is an Optometrist?

What Type of Degree Do You Need?

Doctor of Optometry (Doctorate)

License Required?

Yes

Median Pay for 2021

$124,300

Job Outlook from 2021 to 2031

10%, which is faster than the national average

In 2019, approximately 41,000 people were practicing optometrists. Optometrists, also known as doctors of optometry, or ODs, provide the most basic and complex vision care. 

Yes, optometrists are doctors! However, they are not MDs or medical doctors — so you won’t see them using M.D. after their names. Instead, you’ll see them using O.D.

To become an optometrist, you must earn a Doctor of Optometry (OD) degree. After that, you’ll need to pass the licensure exam. Like medical doctors, optometrists cannot practice without a license.

Don’t confuse optometrists with other types of eye health practitioners, such as opticians and ophthalmologists, whose scopes of practice differ from optometrists.

What Does an Optometrist Do?

We know you’re wondering how many years you need to become an optometrist. But before we get there, let’s talk about what optometrists do first.

An optometrist is an independent healthcare provider. Thus, many of their roles and responsibilities are the same as any other primary healthcare provider, like a general practitioner.

Optometrists diagnose, manage, and treat conditions and diseases of the eyes and visual system. They examine people’s eyes to diagnose vision problems and eye diseases, then prescribe eyeglasses and contact lenses as treatment. Optometrists also administer drugs to patients to help diagnose vision problems and prescribe medications to treat some eye diseases.

These healthcare professionals spend much of their optometrist schooling years learning how to provide services like the below:

  • Performing evaluations of patients’ eyes and vision using tests
  • Coming up with diagnoses for patient vision conditions, including nearsightedness, farsightedness, and astigmatism
  • Finding other eye defects and injuries requiring treatment, such as cataracts and glaucoma
  • Providing a prescription for corrective contact lenses or eyeglasses in accordance with the patient’s diagnosis
  • Prescribing other eye medications
  • Performing vision therapy to help rehabilitate patients
  • Conducting other health assessments for conditions like high blood pressure or diabetes
  • Performing minor surgeries for the eyes

In some states, ODs are allowed to perform some corrective laser surgeries. However, most optometrists choose to be in general practice. Some ODs spend some of their optometrist school years specializing in things like geriatrics, contact lenses, occupational vision (where they help preserve and protect workers’ vision), low vision services, vision therapy, and sports vision.

Optometrists have some flexibility when choosing where to practice. For example, some may prefer to establish a group clinic with partners. Others may prefer to create their own independent private practice. Then you have optometrists who may work at established chain practices.

Optometrists, Ophthalmologists, and Opticians: What’s the Difference?

Optometrists should not be confused with ophthalmologists or dispensing opticians.

Unlike an optometrist, who is a Doctor of Optometry, an ophthalmologist is a medical doctor with the same education level as any other M.D. Optometrist school length is nearly the same as that of an ophthalmologist, who must earn a bachelor’s degree, then go to medical school. However, ophthalmologists must complete their internship and residency before they can earn their license. And yes, like ODs and other MDs, ophthalmologists must be licensed to practice and provide treatment.

Ophthalmologists perform eye surgery in addition to diagnosing and treating eye conditions. They can perform the same services as optometrists but expand further into specialized care, including eye treatments, surgeries, and therapy. The distinction between an optometrist and an ophthalmologist is similar to that between a doctor and a surgeon. 

Opticians, on the other hand, can earn their education much faster. Before you say, “why study how many years to be an optometrist when I could be an optician much faster?,” it’s worth mentioning that opticians’ educations are faster because they are not becoming a doctor.

An optician must earn an associate degree and undergo a two to three-year apprenticeship. They must then earn their license to practice.

Once licensed, dispensing opticians make, sell, and fit eyeglasses and contact lenses, following the prescriptions written by ophthalmologists and optometrists. A dispensing optician dispenses lenses, contact lenses, artificial eyes, grames, and optical devices. An optometrist or general prescribing physician should do any follow-up care or evaluation.  

Opticians can work as supporting staff at an optometrist or ophthalmologist practice. They can also choose to work in retail optical shops.

Now that we’ve covered the differences between opticians, optometrists, and ophthalmologists, let’s look at the question, “how long will it take to become an optometrist?”

How Long is Schooling for Optometrists?

How Long is Schooling for Optometrists?

If you want to be an optometrist, how many years do you have to be in school? Let’s do a quick computation:

  • Bachelor’s degree in a related field - three to four years

 

  • Optometry programs - four years
  • Optional residency - one year

 

Let’s finally answer the question, “how long do optometrists go to school?”

Adding the numbers above, we can easily say that your education will take around seven to eight years, plus one year if you choose to do a residency.

During optometry programs, students spend the first two years completing coursework. The following two years are often then spent doing clinical rotations. During these rotations, students can gain practical experience working with patients while exploring other aspects of the field.

Once you finish your four years of study, you can pursue an optional residency that will allow you to specialize in a niche in optometry that may have caught your attention during clinical rotations.

Requirements for Becoming an Optometrist

You might think earning your Doctor of Optometry degree is enough to start your career. But on top of how long it takes to become an optometrist, you must fulfill many other requirements — such as those for your school application and the optometry admission test.

So what exactly are the requirements for becoming an optometrist?

An optometry education is often as follows:

  1. Earning a bachelor’s degree, ideally in a relevant field
  2. Take the OAT or optometry admission test
  3. Earn your optometry degree
  4. Do an optional residency for specialization
  5. Take your licensing exam

Once you’ve passed your licensure exam, you can start practicing as an optometrist. You can even join professional associations like the American Optometric Association.

We’ll discuss the requirements in more detail in the two following sections.

The OAT (Optometry Admission Test)

You’ve probably already heard of tests like the MCAT, which students must take if they want to attend med school. Well, to become an optometrist, you need to take a similar exam: the OAT.

One thing you should know is that all optometry schools are accredited by ASCO, the Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry. And if you’d like to go to an accredited school, you must take the optometry admission test.

This computerized test, which is only offered in the English language and costs $490 per attempt, is a multiple-choice assessment that has four sections:

  • Biology, Organic Chemistry, General Chemistry (Survey of Natural Sciences)
  • Physics
  • Reading Comprehension
  • Quantitative Reasoning

You can take your OAT any time after your undergraduate freshman year. However, most students who take the OAT prefer to do it after they complete their sophomore or junior year. This preference is often because the science classes taken during the first three undergraduate years serve as the perfect test preparation.

To pass the OAT, you need to earn a score of 300 for each of the four sections. And though you should aim for 300, surpassing this minimum can improve your chances of getting into your dream colleges of optometry. In other words, getting a high score on the OAT is just like scoring high on your SATs or ACTs — it looks better to admissions officers.

You can take this five-hour exam multiple times, though you’ll need to wait 90 days between each attempt. You may want to take the exam two times at most, however, as some schools may not look so kindly on many more attempts.

When and How to Apply to Optometry School

We’ve figured out how many years it takes to be an optometrist. Now, let’s talk about when and how you should apply to optometry school. Note that the information below considers that you’ve already taken and passed your OAT.

You can’t apply to optometry school until you’re close enough to finishing your bachelor’s degree. But once you are, you should remember that optometry programs offered by various educational institutions have varying admissions schedules. So, the first thing you should do is check application schedules and deadlines for your schools of interest. Keep track of these schedules, so you know when to submit your application.

Applying is as simple as gathering all of your requirements, such as your transcripts, completed applications, letters of recommendation, personal statement, application fee, and so on. You may need to check with each school to ensure you have all the requirements handy.

Remember that you should submit your application on time. However, many schools will encourage you to submit early during the admissions cycle, as this can increase your chances of success (considering schools consider applications as they come in).

What Major Should You Pursue?

Your bachelor’s degree major isn’t too important as many optometry schools won’t care too much if you have a BA or BS degree. It’s best to look at the specific requirements of your schools of interest to know whether they have degree requirements.

It’s worth noting that most students typically choose STEM (or, more specifically, science) degrees for their undergraduate studies because these can better prepare them for the OAT.

Consider majors such as:

  • Biology
  • Physiology
  • Chemistry
  • Health Sciences

What Courses Should You Take?

You should ensure that you take the prerequisite courses if you want to apply to optometry schools. These courses may vary, but most optometry programs will require:

  • General Biology
  • General Chemistry
  • Organic Chemistry
  • Physics
  • Calculus
  • Statistics
  • English
  • Biochemistry
  • Microbiology
  • Human Anatomy and Physiology

Some schools may also require some humanities-related classes or psychology. It’s best to check what your specific schools and programs require to ensure you don’t miss out on taking those classes.

Degrees Related to Optometry

The degrees constituting optometry are:

Doctor of Optometry (O.D.)

Someone with a Doctor of Optometry is a primary health care professional for the eye. They identify related systemic conditions affecting the eye and prescribe treatments for any conditions and treatments of the eye. 

MS, Vision Science

The Master of Science in Vision Science (MSVS) program engages students in advanced study and research of the visual system. Furthermore, it prepares them for career success in teaching and research in academic settings or applications in the ophthalmic industry.

Master of Education/Vision Function in Learning (MEd/VFL)

A Master of Education/Vision Function in Learning (MEd/VFL) program is a specialized program designed for optometrists and other optometry students who wish to extend their knowledge of vision problems as they relate to children’s reading and learning processes.

Ph.D., Vision Science

In this program involving optometry and vision science, Ph.D. students participate in a series of courses, seminars, tutorials, and journal clubs, and receive intensive training in selected areas of vision research. The Ph.D. in Vision Science requires the completion of 80 semester hours of course credit

FAAO: Fellow of the American Academy of Optometry

The designation “FAAO” means that a person is recognized by their colleagues as a knowledgeable and experienced professional who has met the highest standards of professional competence in a broad range of issues related to eye care. 

How Much Money Does an Optometrist Earn?

The average salary of an optometrist is $115,250 per year. Depending on the type of specialization, the median annual wage varies for optometrists. 

Industry 

Salary 

Health Stores

$116,370

Offices of Physicians 

$122,800

Offices of Optometrists

$110,930

Optometry Schools to Sign Up For

Now that you know the answer to “how long do optometrists go to school?,” here are our top recommendations for optometry schools.

Rank

Institution 

Tuition Cost

1

Southern College of Optometry

$76,416 (Regional)

$138,816 (Non-Regional)

2

University of Alabama School of Optometry

$99,763 (Resident)

$202,052 (Non-Resident)

3

Indiana School of Optometry

$102,834 (Resident)

$152,978 (Non-Residents)

4

Ohio State University College of Optometry

$103,584 (Resident)

$124,630 (Non-Resident)

5

Ferris State University Michigan College of Optometry

$112,176 (Resident)

$168,264 (Non-Resident)

6

Western University of Health Sciences College of Optometry

$149,400

7

Midwestern University

$153,048 (Arizona College)

$158,880 (Chicago College)

8

Salus University Pennsylvania College of Optometry

$154,560 (Traditional Program)

$158,000 (Scholars Program)

9

New England College of Optometry

$160,148

10

Illinois College of Optometry

$170,995

 Top Schools for Optometry

Frequently Asked Questions

Do optometrists go through med school?

Optometrists do not attend med school (ophthalmologists do); they attend optometry schools. An optometrist must earn a Doctor of Optometry degree instead, which means they still earn a postsecondary education.

Is becoming an optometrist hard?

Becoming an optometrist can undoubtedly be challenging. You need to pass the OAT to get into optometry schools, earn your doctoral degree, earn your license, then keep going for continuing education courses to stay up-to-date with the latest developments in the field. However, with enough hard work, you can become an OD in no time.

Do optometrists do surgery?

Some states allow optometrists to perform some corrective laser surgeries. However, other types of eye surgeries usually fall into an ophthalmologist’s realm of responsibility. Ophthalmologists are medical doctors who went to med school, making them more qualified to perform surgery.

Conclusion

So, how long does it take to be an optometrist? It’ll take you quite a long time, but the total number of years will depend on whether you choose to go for a residency or not. 

Instead, let’s answer the question, “how long is schooling for optometrists?”

The schooling and examinations necessary for becoming an optometrist can take eight to nine years to complete. Students pursuing an undergraduate degree from all types of academic backgrounds (e.g., English, Business, Art, or Psychology) can also apply to optometry schools, provided they’ve taken the necessary prerequisite coursework.

When you’re done earning your optometry degree, the last step is acquiring your optometry license. Earn that, and you’ll be prescribing corrective lenses in no time!

We’ve answered the question, “how long is optometry school?” Are you ready to pursue a career in optometry? If you think this field is for you, check out our guide on becoming an optometrist. You can also consider looking at our recommendations for the best online science colleges.

Fun Facts - Did You Know?

  • Optometrists wear white jackets to keep the bacteria they encounter during the day off of their clothes, similar to how other medical personnel wear scrubs.
  • Optometrists see an average of 67 patients per week.
  • There is no legal reason why an optometrist can’t do an exam on his/herself, but physically, they may not be able to perform this duty.

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