You belong

Catherine Liu, ICO, Class of 2025

Dear future optometrist,

How are you doing? You hanging in there?

Maybe you’re a pre-optometry student still working on your prerequisites in college and worrying about that pesky OAT, wondering if you’ll be able to make it into optometry school. Maybe you’re an incoming first year about to start optometry school and you’re so excited but also so nervous because you know how rigorous it’s going to be. Maybe you’re about to start year two, ready to dive deeper into what you’ve learned but already stressed remembering how hard first year was. Maybe you’re in the swing of year three, navigating the responsibilities of patient care and preparing your battle plan for NBEO Part One in less than a year. Maybe you’re finally in your fourth year externships, amazed at how far you’ve come but still feeling anxious about what’s ahead.

We’re all at different points in our journeys to becoming optometrists, and none of our paths look exactly the same because we’ve all had our own unique experiences that have led us to where we are today. Maybe you took a gap year—maybe even a few. Maybe you went into school straight from college. However you got here, just know that YOU BELONG, and I’m also here to tell you to give yourself more credit for where you’re at today. Because let’s face it: what we’re doing is not easy, but it’s so important.

According to the CDC, about 12 million people in the United States over the age of 40 have some form of vision impairment, with 25.3% of children from the ages of 2 to 17 already wearing some form of vision correction (as of 2019). By 2050, it’s expected that almost 9 million adults over 40 will suffer from vision impairment that cannot be corrected due to various diseases, including diabetes—a disease that about 1 in 10 Americans have. The CDC also claims that almost 100 million adults in the U.S. are at high risk for serious vision loss, including blindness—but only about half of that population has visited an eye doctor in the past year.

And you are joining the profession that gets to help all of these people. How cool is that?

With so many communities in the United States designated as Medically Underserved Areas, you are answering the call by purposefully pursuing more education in order to provide desperately needed vision care to people all across the country. You chose to sacrifice at least four more years of your life, take on an unholy amount of student debt and study for countless hours in order to make your difference in this world by allowing people to see all that it has to offer. You learn not only everything there is to know about eyeballs but also all about systemic physiology, pathology and pharmacology so that you can care for your patients holistically and make a true impact on their overall health and well-being. To be able to do what we aspire to do and make an immediate improvement in the quality of life of our patients is a gift, and you should give yourself some credit for choosing this path in life.

So really, going to optometry school shouldn’t even be thought of as a “sacrifice,” because it is truly an honor and privilege to get to do what we do. It is so important to keep this in perspective, because with all of the long days and nights of studying and stressing, it can sometimes be easy to wonder if it’s going to be worth it. But you are relentlessly putting in the work and persevering through some of the most trying times in your life, and that is perhaps one of the most courageous things that you can do. And let’s not forget: you’re doing all of this in spite of a worldwide pandemic! I mean, come on, how brave is that?

It’s not easy. Nobody said it was going to be easy. But you’re doing it anyway, and you are going to walk out into this world after earning those coveted two letters after your name with not only the knowledge base and skill set but also the confidence and intrinsic drive to make it a better place. You belong in this profession, and if you haven’t taken some time to celebrate yourself in a while, I encourage you to do so because you deserve it!

So to all my future optometrists out there…

I see you. And you’re doing amazing. Keep it up.


Another future optometrist

Advice Column / Pre-Optometry

Advice for Optometry School Hopefuls

What is the key to getting into optometry school? Networking!

Not what you thought I’d say, right? When applying to schools, I was in frequent communication with my top choice program’s admissions teams. I would pick up the phone, ask for informational interviews and use them as an opportunity not only to learn more about the program, but to build rapport with the admissions teams and help them put a face to my name. Doing this made me feel comfortable on interview day because I already knew some of the people that were there, as well as navigate the application process with better guidance to have the best chances of acceptance.

Another thing that I found useful was utilizing email communication. During the COVID-19 pandemic, when it was difficult to shadow in person in hospitals or clinics, I still made it a priority to network. I would get in touch with local practices and schedule informational interviews with doctors of optometry to learn more about the care that they specialize in. Eventually, when it was safe to do so, I was able to go in and shadow when other applicants may have still been having a difficult time. This also broke down geographic barriers and allowed me to connect with optometrists all over the country whose specialties I took interest in. Highlighting these experiences in my application showed that I was a resourceful and outside thinker, and these were qualities that often stood out on interview day.

While it is important to network with the schools themselves, I also found it beneficial to network with other optometry students. Just before my AZCOPT interview, I received an email from the program with the breakdown of how the virtual interview day would go. Included in this email were the names of the three student panel members and their emails in case us interviewees wanted to reach out to them beforehand. Being quick to seize this opportunity, I looked up the student panel members on LinkedIn to see if I had anything in common with them, and I found out that one of them actually went to the same undergraduate institution as I did. I emailed her to introduce myself and on interview day, I had the advantage of already being connected to a student panel member.
Being quick to create and seize opportunities gave me greater advantages as an applicant; however, these skills have carried over into my career as a whole.

I am still connected with the student panel member and she is currently in my top choice residency program which has further benefited me by allowing me to ask questions, get in touch with the right people, and set myself up for the best chance of being matched with them in the future. About a month after receiving the news of my acceptance, I toured AZCOPT and there was a first-year student ambassador who stayed with me for the entirety of the tour. I made sure to stay in touch with her all throughout the summer. She helped me in my decision-making process, and when I began school, she became my anatomy and physiology tutor. Furthermore, at the start of school, the assistant dean sent out an “AZCOPT Survival Guide” and provided the email of the student who had written it. Again, I was quick to take the opportunity to connect with her, and now she too has become a close friend of mine, as well as an amazing resource. These skills advanced my application and educational experiences, setting me up for success and excellence.

Overall, my advice for optometry school hopefuls would be to make your own opportunities instead of waiting for them to come to you! A quick phone call, a short meeting and staying connected goes a long way and you never know when those connections will come in handy!


Why I Took a Gap Year and What I Did To Remain a Competitive Applicant for Optometry School

Taking a gap year was the best decision I’ve made during my application process. Instead of rushing to fit a certain timeline, I decided to take a mental break from school and spend more time expanding my patient care experience. This extra time before optometry school helped me become a better prepared and more confident applicant when completing my applications.

Before graduating college, I knew I wanted to spend my gap year before optometry school exploring different practice modalities. The idea of working in an OD/MD group practice has always intrigued me and I was lucky enough to find a job opportunity working as a medical scribe for an ophthalmology/optometry practice located in my hometown. I’ve had prior experience working in patient care, but this job expanded my knowledge of the optometry profession completely beyond an annual eye exam. I was exposed to a range of specialties in optometry such as pediatrics, low vision, ocular disease management and myopia control. The doctors of optometry and ophthalmologists worked closely as a team to handle many post- operative appointments for cataract and pterygium surgery follow-ups. This was a side of optometry I didn’t even know existed!

As time progressed, I became more comfortable interacting with patients coming from different age groups and cultures. I even got to assist with in-clinic procedures, such as punctal plug insertions, laser peripheral iridotomies and medical Botox® appointments! This would not have been possible for me if I didn’t decide to take a break from academics.

Prior to this year, I was certain optometry was the right profession for me. After taking a gap year to explore my specific interests, I have a clearer vision of what kind of optometrist I strive to be. Completing applications, finishing prerequisites and taking the OAT exam is an understandably stressful timeline to meet. Optometry school will have many challenges, both mentally and physically, so ensuring that you’re in the right mental state to prepare for its challenges is crucial. A gap year can be a wonderful opportunity to further your experience, maturity and character development, and I recommend it for every pre-optometry student!