Admission Requirements for Doctor of Optometry Programs

Admission Requirements for Doctor of Optometry Programs
Baseline admission requirements for optometry school include fulfilling prerequisite course requirements and providing official transcripts and letters of recommendation Image from Unsplash
Courtney Eiland profile
Courtney Eiland October 28, 2022

Admission to the US' 23 accredited Doctor of Optometry programs is competitive. Fortunately, programs accept the OptomCAS universal application, streamlining the process for candidates.

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With just 23 accredited Doctor of Optometry programs in the United States, it’s understandable that admission to schools of optometry is a competitive process. Not all programs are the same, however; some impose more selective criteria than others.

So, what can prospective students expect when applying to optometry programs? Baseline requirements include fulfilling prerequisite course requirements and providing official transcripts and letters of recommendation.

Additionally, optometry schools strongly recommend a four-year degree from an accredited institution. While some schools admit candidates pre-baccalaureate—New England College of Optometry (NECO) and the State University of New York (SUNY) College of Optometry allow applicants to skip their senior year of college if they have completed all required coursework—most applicants apply soon after earning their bachelor’s degree.

Some programs provide wiggle room in other admission criteria, such as recommending rather than requiring a minimum cumulative grade point average (GPA). Additionally, some schools—the University of California Berkeley‘s Herbert Wertheim School of Optometry & Vision Science is one—have designated standardized tests such as the Optometry Admission Test (OAT) or Graduate Record Examination (GRE) optional.

In short, admission requirements differ somewhat from program to program. This article will outline the most common admission requirements for Doctor of Optometry programs (OD programs) and answer the following questions:

  • What if you’re missing prerequisite coursework?
  • How do I become an optometrist?
  • How long does it take to earn a Doctor of Optometry degree?
  • What do you learn in a Doctor of Optometry program?
  • What are the licensure requirements?
  • Can I earn my Doctor of Optometry online?

Admission requirements for Doctor of Optometry programs

Common admission criteria required by all accredited optometry programs include:

  • Bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution, or at least 90 qualifying undergraduate credits
  • Online application submitted through the Optometry Centralized Application Service (OptomCAS) that includes official transcripts, proof of prerequisite coursework, and letters of recommendation
  • Supplemental application and fee (if applicable)
  • Shadowing an optometrist before committing to an optometry program (strongly recommended or required)

Programs vary around standardized test requirements, such as the Optometry Admission Test (OAT). While UC Berkeley waives this requirement, SUNY and NECO may accept alternative tests such as the GRE and, in some cases, the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), Dental Admission Test (DAT), or Pharmacy College Admission Test (PCAT) in place of the OAT.

Admission requirements also differ regarding minimum cumulative grade point averages. For instance, SUNY does not have a minimum GPA requirement. Instead, they encourage prospective students to maintain a 3.2 or higher. On the other hand, UC Berkeley requires a 3.0 minimum GPA. All in all, prospective students should check admission requirements per school to meet the varying criteria.

What if you’re missing prerequisite coursework?

All optometry schools require foundational undergraduate coursework to prepare students for more advanced, specialized coursework during optometry school. To meet these requirements, many prospective students earn bachelor’s degrees in pre-medical or science-related fields such as biology, chemistry, or physics. Optometry programs generally require the following courses:

  • Biochemistry
  • Biology or zoology
  • Calculus/advanced mathematics
  • Human anatomy
  • Microbiology
  • Organic chemistry
  • Physiology
  • Psychology
  • Reading/English composition
  • Statistics

Additionally, some programs require the following science courses with an accompanying lab:

  • General biology
  • General chemistry
  • General physics
  • Human physiology
  • Organic chemistry

Some schools offer exceptions by considering students with at least 90 qualifying credit hours with a grade of C or better from an accredited institution. Alternative options to satisfy the prerequisite coursework depend on the program, including whether the program accepts advanced placement (AP) credits, online credits, or classes competed at a community college.

How to become an optometrist

Optometrists are essential healthcare providers who perform vision screenings and comprehensive eye exams. These practitioners examine, diagnose, treat, and manage ocular diseases such as glaucoma, cataracts, age-related macular degeneration, and other common eye disorders. Through comprehensive exams, they can also detect more severe health issues including diabetes, cancer, tumors, and other conditions. They provide referrals for specialized treatments or surgical procedures as appropriate.

With such an integral role in vision and eye care and overall health, optometrists must obtain a Doctor of Optometry (OD) degree from an accredited program. This four-year doctoral program combines advanced coursework with hands-on training through a supervised clinical experience. Aspiring optometrists can also opt to add a year-long residency following their studies to focus on a specialized area such as pediatric optometry, geriatric optometry, ocular diseases, vision therapy, and other concentrations.

How long does it take to earn a Doctor of Optometry degree?

The journey to earning your Doctor of Optometry involves time and dedication. However, the total time is not as lengthy as in other health professions, such as licensed nurse practitioners and surgeons. The process for optometrists takes roughly nine years, including four years of undergraduate studies, four years of optometry school, and an optional year to complete a residency program.

There is one expedited route to optometry. A few optometry schools (NECO and the Salus University Pennsylvania College of Optometry among them) offer accelerated OD degrees. Accelerated programs are more competitive and require extensive qualifications and experience, allowing candidates to complete the program in three years.

What are the admission requirements to an optometry program?

When applying to an accredited optometry program, the OptomCAS application portal allows applicants to submit one application package electronically to multiple schools. The application fee is $185 to create an account and apply to one school. An additional $75 charge accrues per school. The OptomCAS provides a seamless process for prospective students to submit the following documentation:

  • Official transcripts (including cumulative grade point average and completion of prerequisite courses)
  • Letters of recommendation
  • OAT, GRE, or other standardized test scores
  • Personal essay/statement of interest

Additionally, some optometry programs may require a supplemental application and fee submitted directly through the school. It’s also worth noting that some aspects depend on the individual program, such as the recommendation letter requirements, minimum grade point average, prerequisite courses, type of standardized test (if required), and whether shadowing an optometrist is strongly recommended or required. Prospective students should research their preferred programs to ensure they meet any specific requirements.

What do you learn in a Doctor of Optometry program?

Doctor of Optometry (O.D.) programs prepare tomorrow’s eye care specialists. This role requires many skills, including critical thinking, complex problem-solving, judgment and decision-making, and active learning. Optometry schools provide comprehensive classroom instruction, applied practice, and clinical rotations to equip aspiring optometrists with the tools for success.

Course titles may include:

  • Advanced Surgical and Laser Procedures
  • Anatomy and Physiology
  • Clinical Medicine
  • Microbiology
  • Neural Basis of Vision
  • Ocular Disease
  • Optics
  • Patient Care
  • Pharmacology
  • Principles and Practice of Optometry
  • Public Health

The typical roadmap for a four-year Doctor of Optometry program includes the fundamentals, advanced understanding, patient care and management, and clinical experience.

The first two years focus on advanced instruction on foundational elements of optometry. During this time, students also build skills for working with patients in preparation for their supervised clinical practice. The third year puts the knowledge and skills learned during the first two years into practice through hands-on clinical experience. Year three also incorporates more advanced courses and electives to focus on a concentration within optometry and prepare you for the board exam.

Finally, the last year of optometry school contains four full-time clinical rotations for students to experience varied clinical environments, such as primary care, advanced care, specialty care, and an elective focus area.

Licensure requirements

Once you earn your Doctor of Optometry (OD) upon completing your classroom coursework, clinical training, and clinical rotations, you’ll need to sit for your National Board of Examiners in Optometry (NBEO) exam. This examination contains three parts that assess the following:

  • Applied Basic Science: Tests the candidate’s knowledge of basic science concepts needed to enter optometry practice.
  • Patient Assessment & Management: Assesses the candidate’s clinical thinking and decision-making skills, emphasizing decisions related to diagnosis and treatment.
  • Clinical Skills Examination: Analyzes clinical skills by simulating optometry examination rooms to reflect practice scenarios.

After successfully passing your board exam, you’ll officially become licensed to practice optometry. However, additional licensure varies by state. Furthermore, you’ll need to renew your license every two years, so continuing education is critical to remain in practice.

Can I earn my Doctor of Optometry online?

Of the 23 accredited optometry schools and colleges, no program currently provides an online or hybrid option. However, the New England College of Optometry (NECO) is on track to becoming the first accredited optometry program to offer a hybrid OD degree. Students will undertake coursework remotely online and complete rotations and other in-person program elements locally.

Currently, NECO enrolls roughly 150 students per year on-campus in Boston. The school’s goal is to add 55 more students per year through a hybrid model, starting with 25 students in the fall of 2023, then an additional ten students per year.

In the meantime, aspiring optometrists can begin preparation for optometry school by reviewing the admission requirements, such as prerequisite courses, minimum cumulative GPA, and types of recommendation letters and standardized tests accepted. Prospective students can also prepare their statement of interest and shadow an optometrist to gain insight into the profession before applying to optometry school.

It’s a competitive and selective process for entry into optometry school. Therefore, preparing in advance is critical to getting into your preferred program in your quest to earn your license in optometry.


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Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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