How to Become an Optometrist

October 12, 2023


Reviewed by:

Jonathan Preminger

Former Admissions Committee Member, Hofstra-Northwell School of Medicine

Reviewed: 10/11/23

If optics and biology interest you, pursuing a career in optometry might be a good choice. This article will discuss how to become an optometrist and provide insight into the best schools for optometry and what life might be like after you graduate. 

Optometrists are not medical doctors, so the process of becoming one does not involve applying for or attending med school. However, all optometry programs are doctorate programs, so technically, those who earn the degree are entitled to be called "Doctors." As for how long it takes to become an optometrist, it can take a minimum of seven to eight years, based solely on the amount of schooling required.

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Steps to Become an Optometrist

Now that we’ve given an overview of what an optometrist is, this next section will cover how you can become an optometrist. Here you’ll find the steps you can take to become an optometrist, from your undergraduate degree to certification. 

Step 1: Earn an Undergraduate Degree

Usually, prospective students major in science. However, this is not mandatory. Your GPA must be high. According to U.S. News, only two schools offer optometry majors as part of their undergraduate study programs: Ball State University and the University of Missouri, St. Louis

Taking an optometry major is not required to be admitted into optometry School. However, students are required to have taken certain courses in science that involve labs. Make sure to check your school’s requirements and complete all specified credits.

Step 2: Prepare for and Write the Optometry Admission Test. 

This multiple-choice exam tests students on their knowledge of biology and physics and more generalized knowledge like reading comprehension. If you’re currently an undergraduate looking for more information on the OAT, a comprehensive guide has been made available online by the Association of Schools and Colleges of optometry.

This guide states that there is no “passing” score on the OAT as each school makes its admission decision independently. The guide states that scores range from 200 to 400. As admission is competitive, optometry applicants should aim to score above the 50th percentile- which equates to a score above 300. 

Optometry schools often provide applicants with current statistics that include the average OAT score of their incoming students–so it’s best to consult each school to get an idea of what your score should be.

Applicants can take the test at any point after completing one year of an undergraduate degree. However, be judicious when planning to take the test. Candidates can retake a failed OAT test 60 days after an attempt up to four times a year but need special permission to retake the test after a third attempt. 

Some schools accept other standardized test scores such as the GRE, MCAT, DAT, or PCAT. Before submitting these scores, ensure the school you’re applying to will accept them instead of the OAT. 

Step 3: Apply to an Optometry School

You can apply directly to each school or use OptomCAS, a centralized application for all schools of optometry. Applicants must provide academic transcripts from their undergraduate degrees, OAT testing scores, letters of recommendation, and supplementary essays. 

Step 4: Attend Optometry School

The Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry summarizes the optometry school experience as a mix of classroom lectures, labs and clinical experience. The site says students concentrate primarily on structure, function and disorders of the eyes and learn about Ocular Anatomy, Pharmacology, Perception, and Optics.

Step 5: Pass the National Board of Examiners' Optometry Test

The National Board of Examiners in Optometry (NBEO) test is designed to ensure that students thoroughly understand the basic scientific concepts necessary to become practicing optometrists.

The NBEO exam uses criterion-based scoring to assess whether you pass or fail. Your score can range from 0 to 900, with the minimum score for a pass being 300. However, NBEO warns that each state licensing board has its own standard for exam scores. This means that meeting a minimum pass score doesn’t guarantee that you will be granted a license to practice.

The test consists of three parts, Part I – ABS, Part II – PAM, TMOD, and Part III – CSE. The tests are taken during optometry students’ time at school, beginning in the third year. 

Part I – ABS

Part I - Applied Basic Science is a multiple-choice exam that tests fundamental scientific knowledge. There are two sessions, with a maximum time allowance of four hours to complete each test. You’re allowed to use a calculator, but the calculator will be provided to you at the test. 


Part II - Patient Assessment and Management is also a multiple choice exam that tests each candidate on their ability to diagnose and treat patients. Similar to part one, two sessions of testing must be completed. Each part lasts about three and a half hours.

As the cases presented on the test will require candidates to choose drugs for the patient in each case, candidates will have a searchable drug list for their reference. Test-takers can review a tutorial page on the NBEO website before taking this exam so candidates can familiarize themselves with the process.

Embedded within the exam is the TMOD section, which stands for Treatment and Management of Ocular Disease, accounting for roughly a third of test questions. This section will have its own breakout score, and a pass-fail decision will be decided based on the questions. 

Part III – CSE

The final exam is the Clinical Skills Examination. This section is the only exam which simulates real-life optometric exams. It requires students to examine patients at four 30-minute stations. There are no written portions for this exam.

These exams are videotaped as the examiner is not in the room with the candidates. This section aims to determine whether each candidate can easily use optometric equipment, communicate with patients, and administer various optometric tests and treatments.

Step 6: Complete an Optional Residency

While not required, according to the American Optometric Association, 26 percent of all graduates complete a residency after completing optometry school. 

The Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry says residencies typically run for one year, beginning in July and ending in June. Depending on the institution funding the program, residents can receive a stipend of $25,000 to around $60,000.

The American Optometry Association says residencies are usually more of a requirement for candidates looking to pursue a career in research or academia. However, residencies are an excellent option for any student looking for hands-on experience before making a decision about their ultimate career path. 

Not all optometrists have their own private practices–some go back into academia and research, and some end up working for the government or in a hospital. 

Step 7: Obtain a License to Become an Optometrist

Once you've completed all the steps above, the final step to becoming an optometrist is to obtain a license from the state they wish to practice in. The Association of Regulatory Boards of Optometry is an excellent resource for understanding the role of state optometry boards.

Applying to Optometry School

In the United States, students can apply to optometry school through OptomCAS, which collects applicant data and determines if they are eligible for admission. This application service allows a candidate to apply to all and any optometry school in the United States. 

The application requires students to submit specific data required of any post-secondary institution, including an academic resume, schooling transcripts, test scores such as the GRE and OAT, personal essays, and recommendations. The application will also collect a criminal background check. Some schools require students to complete a supplemental application.

Optometrist Salary

When it comes to how much optometrists can expect to earn, you can expect a fairly high salary even in their first year of practice. The average optometrist’s salary in the United States is $139,206. However, the range typically falls between $123,239 and $154,197.

FAQs: How to Become an Optometrist

Here are our answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about how to become an optometrist. 

1. Is Becoming an Optometrist Hard?

Becoming an optometrist is fairly straightforward, but the steps require a lot of hard work. It’s imperative to prepare yourself to achieve academically, as there are not many optometry schools in the United States, and thus it is a competitive field–so make sure you stand out in your application!

2. How Long is an Optometry Degree?

On average, you should expect to take eight years to complete schooling. It can take three to four years to complete a requisite undergraduate degree and another four years to complete a doctorate at an optometry school. 

3. Do Optometrists Go To Med School?

While opthamologists need to go to med school to practice, you won’t have to in order to become an optometrist. However, you will have to attend an optometry school. 

4. How Many Years Does it Take to Become an Optometrist?

Depending on whether you opt to do a residency, it can take about eight years, accounting for a four-year bachelor’s degree and a four-year optometry program.

Final Thoughts

In the United States, becoming an optometrist can be competitive, as there are a limited number of colleges with optometry programs. Even though becoming an optometrist can take quite some time, the path to getting there is a pretty straightforward process. 

Optometry schools are very flexible when it comes to which kinds of students can be admitted to optometry schools as long as applicants can demonstrate they have the requisite knowledge. Therefore, many kinds of STEM undergraduate students or even other medical students who find themselves attracted to the field have the option of applying to optometry school.

Optometrists also have a variety of options when it comes to their career paths. Many open their own private practices or pursue careers in research and academia, while some choose to work for the government, military or hospitals.

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