If you are wondering how to become an optometrist in the USA or Canada, this article is for you! Becoming an optometrist is not unlike becoming a DO or MD - it is a laborious and demanding journey, but we are here to help you! We’ll cover exactly what you need to know about optometry school requirements, the application process, licensing procedures, and more. If you were educated abroad and are thinking about practicing in North America, we’ve got you covered, too!
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Requirements in the USA
Becoming an optometrist in the USA usually requires 7-8 years of postsecondary education in total. You will begin by completing a 3- or 4-year Bachelor’s program, and then attend a 4-year optometry program to receive your Doctor of Optometry degree (OD). All optometry schools in the United States are accredited by the Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry (ASCO). There are currently 23 accredited schools in total, one of which is located in Puerto Rico. A full list of accredited schools is available on the ASCO website.
Undergraduate Degree and Prerequisites
Before attending a four-year Doctor of Optometry program in the United States, you must first complete an undergraduate (Bachelor’s) degree and complete the required prerequisites. These are not unlike the medical school prerequisites. Required courses may vary by school, but the ASCO recommends that you complete the following courses during your Bachelor’s program:
- 1 year of Biology
- 1 year of General Chemistry
- 1 year of Organic Chemistry
- 1 year of General Physics
- 1 year of Microbiology
- 1 year of Mathematics
- 1 year of English
The ASCO stresses that all of the science classes you take should be pre-professional courses designed for science or health majors, and that these classes need to involve a lab experience component. If you are in any doubt about which classes to take, you should consult an academic advisor at your undergraduate institution, or contact your optometry school of choice for further guidance.
Taking the OAT
I am sure many of your have heard of the importance of the MCAT score for med applicants. Well, optometry schools have their own equivalent! All of the accredited optometry schools in the United States require that applicants take the Optometry Admission Test (OAT) before applying to a school of optometry. The standard fee to take the test is $490 USD. The OAT is a multiple-choice exam divided into four sections: Survey of Natural Sciences (Biology, General Chemistry, and Organic Chemistry); Reading Comprehension; Physics, and Quantitative Reasoning. The test is offered only in English.
You may take the OAT at any point after the first year of your Bachelor’s degree, but most students prefer to take it after completing 2 or 3 years of their Bachelor’s program. After all, the undergraduate science classes recommended by the ASCO are the perfect preparation for the OAT! The minimum score required to pass each section of the exam is 300. The higher your score, the better your chances are of getting into your optometry school of choice. You are allowed to retake the OAT up to three times. You will need to request special permission to take it after your third attempt.
Some schools will accept results from GRE, MCAT, DAT, or PCAT as an equivalent for this requirement, so be sure to check with your school of choice beforehand if you have already passed one of the above exams.
Applying to Optometry School
To get an idea of what you're up against, let's look at your competition. According to recent data from the ASCO, the average cumulative GPA of optometry applicants was 3.36. Other recent ASCO data suggests that the average GPA of recent admitted applicants is as high as 3.64 (Michigan College of Optometry) or even 3.7 (College of Optometry, Ohio State University)!
Anyone wishing to apply to a school of optometry in the USA must submit their application through OptomCAS – Optometry’s Centralized Application Service. The online unified application system allows you to apply to multiple schools of optometry in the USA at the same time. The system opens for applications at the end of June/beginning of July every year. You will pay a fee of $180 USD to apply to your first school, and an additional $70 USD fee for any additional schools you apply to.
The OptomCAS application has four core sections:
Each school is different, and you need to check their specific prerequisites and admissions criteria before applying to make sure you are a good fit for their program. However, the ASCO offers the following overview of the essential traits a strong applicant should have:
- Strong academic profile
- Deductive reasoning
- Interpersonal communication skills
- Work ethic
- Community service
Once you are accepted into an optometry school, you will need to complete all of the requirements of the 4-year program. The costs of attending an optometry program vary from school to school, but the usual range is between $25,000 – $50,000 USD per year for tuition. It is important to note that within that range, rates are usually higher for non-resident students than for their in-state counterparts.
A typical curriculum will include two years of classroom study, followed by a mix of classroom and clinical instruction in the final two years. Post-graduate residencies last for a minimum of twelve months. There are currently 258 optometric residency programs accredited by the Accreditation Council on Optometric Education (ACOE) available in the United States. Post-graduate residencies are not always mandatory to practice as an optometrist, but they are highly recommended to improve your chances of employment.
The National Board of Examiners in Optometry (NBEO) administers the standard entry-to-practice examinations. There are three different candidate categories.
- Students currently enrolled in an optometry program may sit the first part of the three-part exam during their third year of study. They may then sit the second part as early as December of their academic graduation year, and the third part on or after August 1st of their academic graduation year.
- Graduates of accredited schools of optometry are eligible to sit the entire exam.
- “Sponsored candidates” – those who are not current students or graduates of an accredited school – are those sponsored by a state licensure board of optometry or accredited school to sit the exam. The NBEO must receive the letter of sponsorship before the exam can be taken.
Becoming licensed to practice as an optometrist is state-specific. Some states still have clinical and written examinations that all aspiring optometrists must pass before receiving their license. However, many states have now moved to accepting examinations administered by the NBEO that are given to students during or after their medical education. Check with your state authorities to determine the specific requirements they have in place for licensing. Regardless of which state you choose to practice in, all optometrists are required to hold a Doctor of Optometry degree from an accredited school, and to have passed either the NBEO exams or the state license examinations offered by individual states.
Practice and Compensation in the US
Even after you become fully licensed as an optometrist in your state, your learning will not stop! Optometrists must be life-long learners willing to continuously improve their knowledge and skills. All states require practicing optometrists to take continuing education courses to qualify for a license renewal.
According to data from the American Optometric Association, the average earnings for an optometrist in the USA are $143,520 USD per year.
Qualifying as an International Graduate in the USA
If you studied optometry outside of the United States, there are three different pathways you can take to become licensed to practice in an American state. The three pathways are:
- Complete a customized program for international graduates. Both the New England College of Optometry and the Pennsylvania College of Optometry at Salus University offer a customized curriculum for students who have already graduated from an international optometry program.
- Get admitted with “Advanced Standing”. There are several accredited schools in the USA that offer “Advanced Standing” admittance to international medical graduates in optometry. The schools that offer this option are: the Illinois College of Optometry, the New England School of Optometry, Nova Southeastern University College of Optometry, Pennsylvania College of Optometry at Salus University, and the New York State College of Optometry.
- Be “sponsored” to sit a 3-part NBEO examination. Your third option is to be “sponsored” by a state license board of optometry or accredited institution to take an examination offered by the NBEO. The exam is in three parts, and you must successfully pass both the first and second part before being permitted to sit the third part. For more information about potential sponsorship, you should contact the relevant license board or accredited school in your state.
Requirements in Canada
Becoming an optometrist in Canada usually takes the same amount of time as it does in the United States: 7-8 years of postsecondary education. You will begin by completing a 3- or 4-year Bachelor of Science degree, and then study for 4-5 years for your Doctor of Optometry program. A Doctor of Optometry degree is usually between $60,000 and $70,000 CDN in total tuition costs.
There are currently only two schools of optometry in Canada accredited by the Accreditation Council of Optometric Education. If you wish to study in English, you must attend the optometry program offered by the School of Optometry and Vision Science at the University of Waterloo. If you wish to study in French, you will have to attend the École d’Optométrie at the Université de Montréal. To give you a detailed overview of what it takes to become an optometrist in Canada, we will focus on the application procedures for the School of Optometry at the University of Waterloo.
Undergraduate Degree and Prerequisites
The School of Optometry and Vision Science at the University of Waterloo requires a minimum of three years of a Bachelor of Science degree (BSc). You may choose any science program you like for your undergraduate degree. You may also complete your undergraduate education at any accredited university in Canada, as the University of Waterloo assures applicants that it gives no special preference to any particular Canadian university.
All applicants need to have taken a full-time courseload during their Bachelor’s. You must maintain a minimum overall average of 75% in your Bachelor’s program to qualify as an applicant. The following undergraduate prerequisites are also required from all applicants, and must be completed before entry into the optometry program:
Applying to Optometry School (University of Waterloo)
Spot Available: 90
Overall Acceptance Rate: 30%
Minimum GPA: 75%
Average GPA of Matriculants: 79%-92%
The Average OAT: 380
The overall acceptance rates at the School of Optometry and Vision Science at the University of Waterloo is 30%:
To apply to the optometry program at the University of Waterloo, you will have to submit an application through the Ontario Universities’ Application Centre (OUAC) – the same online application system you used to apply to your undergraduate program. Your application to the School of Optometry and Vision Science will consist of several components:
Canadian citizenship/legal resident status. You must be either a Canadian citizen, or a legal resident in Canada for at least 12 months before the start of your program. Occasionally international students are considered for admission on a student visa, but this is rare. If you are an international student interested in the program, you should contact the University of Waterloo directly for more information.
Proof of English proficiency. If you are not a native English speaker and have not spent the most recent four years of your education in an English-language education system, then you must pass an English proficiency test and submit your scores to the university as proof of your English abilities.
Taking the OAT. You must also take the Optometry Admission Test (OAT) before applying to the School of Optometry and Vision Science. The OAT is administered by the Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry (ASCO); although ASCO is an American organization, it administers the OAT for Canada as well as the USA. The test is multiple-choice and is offered only in English.
As mentioned above, the average score for applicants to the University of Waterloo is 380. To increase your chances of achieving a high score, you should commit yourself to studying using the proper test preparation materials. You can also seek guidance from an academic mentor or professional consultant if you find that you are struggling with your preparation.
Taking the CASPer Test/CASPer Snapshot. All Doctor of Optometry program applicants are also required to take a CASPer test and a CASPer Snapshot. The standard CASPer test is used to assess your non-cognitive skills and interpersonal characteristics. The new CASPer Snapshot interview is meant to reveal more about your communication skills and your personal qualities. Check the University of Waterloo website for CASPer test dates before you apply, as you will have to reserve one of the specified test dates for yourself.
Are you preparing for your CASPer? Check out our video for important tips for how to ace your test:
Two confidential assessment forms (CAF). The University of Waterloo requires two confidential assessment forms (CAFs), which are similar to a letter of reference, but more structured. One of your CAFs must be written by an optometrist, with whom you have performed a minimum of 8 hours’ worth of job-shadowing. Your other CAF is a character reference, and may be completed by a professor, employer, minister, coach, or supervisor who knows you very well.
Non-academic application section requirements. Your application to the Doctor of Optometry program will also require you to share information regarding the following areas: job shadowing or volunteering with an optometrist for a minimum of 8 hours, and academic and non-academic awards, work experience, and volunteer experience.
Completed police check. If offered admission to the program, you must complete and submit a Vulnerable Sector Criminal Record Check (CRC) to the university before beginning your studies.
To become licensed as an optometrist in Canada, you first must complete your Doctor of Optometry program. You will then have to pass one of the following entry-to-practice exams:
- The Canadian Assessment of Competence in Optometry (CACO)
- The Optometry Examining Board of Canada (OEBC) exam
- National Board of Examiners in Optometry Exam (NBEO)
You must also register with the relevant College of Optometrists for the province you wish to practice in.
Practice and Compensation
After graduation, you will establish yourself by either working in an existing optometrist practice, buying an existing one, or starting a new practice yourself. Most optometrists in Canada work in private practices that they own or co-own with other optometrists.
The average earnings of an optometrist in Canada can vary according to location and the hours worked, but recent data from the federal Job Bank of Canada suggests that the median wage is $86,115 CDN per year, and can go up to a high of $167,858 CDN per year.
Qualifying as an International Graduate in Canada
If you graduated from an international program in optometry and wish to practice in Canada, you will need to contact the Federation of Optometric Regulatory Authorities of Canada (FORAC). You will be required to undergo the following process:
- Review the Optometry course descriptions published by the University of Waterloo. Is your education comparable?
- Obtain a World Education Services (WES-ICAP) credential evaluation report.
- If you did not take your degree in English, you must complete the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) with a minimum overall average of 7.5 and with no individual score lower than 7.0, or the CanTest with a 4.5 minimum overall average and with no individual score lower than 4.0.
- Complete the FORAC application for credential assessment. The fees for this assessment usually total $2,542 CDN (tax included). Note that all of the documentation you submit as part of your application must be either originally in English, or translated into English by a certified translator.
- Take the Internationally Graduated Optometrist Evaluating Exam (IGOEE), administered by the Touchstone Institute.
- Once you have satisfied the above requirements, you will complete the Canadian Assessment in Competence in Optometry (OEBC) exam, offered by the Optometry Examining Board of Canada.
- If successful, you will then contact the regulatory authority in your province of choice to register as a practicing optometrist.
1. How long does it take to become an optometrist in the USA or Canada?
Becoming an optometrist usually requires 7-8 years of postsecondary education in total. You will first have to complete a minimum of three years of a Bachelor’s degree, and then the four years of a Doctor of Optometry program.
2. What are the common prerequisites for a Doctor of Optometry program?
Prerequisites may vary according to the school, and so you need to check with your school directly to ensure you are meeting the requirements. However, most schools require a minimum of a 3-year Bachelor’s degree, and undergraduate science courses such as Biology, Chemistry, and Physics with lab components. You will also have to pass the OAT (Optometry Admission Test) at some point before you apply to your Doctor of Optometry program.
3. How much “shadowing” experience should I have before applying?
The University of Waterloo requires that applicants have a minimum of 8 hours shadowing an optometrist. If applying elsewhere, check the website of your school of choice for information about shadowing requirements.
4. What is the OAT? Is it mandatory?
The Optometry Admission Test (OAT) is a standardized test you must take before applying to a school of optometry. The OAT is multiple-choice exam divided into four sections: Survey of Natural Sciences (Biology, General Chemistry, and Organic Chemistry); Reading Comprehension; Physics, and Quantitative Reasoning. The test is offered only in English. Most students take the OAT after completing 2-3 years of their Bachelor’s program. Some schools in the United States will accept results from GRE, MCAT, DAT, or PCAT as an equivalent for the OAT requirement, so be sure to check with your school of choice beforehand if you have already passed one of the above exams.
5. What kind of extracurriculars could benefit me as an applicant?
Extracurriculars that help you develop your leadership skills, communication skills, and service to others will help you exhibit some of the essential traits defined by the ASCO. Consider volunteering (especially in a clinical setting), participating in clubs, and advocacy activities to help boost your application.
6. How do I apply to optometry schools in the USA?
You must apply through OptomCAS – Optometry’s Centralized Application Service (optomcas.org). The system opens for applications at the end of June/beginning of July every year. You will pay a fee of $180 USD to apply to your first school, and an additional $70 USD fee for any additional schools you apply to.
7. How do I apply to optometry schools in Canada?
To study optometry in English, you will have to submit an application for the University of Waterloo through the Ontario Universities’ Application Centre (OUAC). To study optometry in French, you will have to go through the Université de Montréal’s application system.
8. How long is a typical Doctor of Optometry program?
A Doctor of Optometry program is usually 4 years long.
9. What are the usual tuition costs for a Doctor of Optometry program?
Tuition varies by school. In the United States, tuition fees can range from between $25,000 - $50,000 USD per year. Non-residents of the state usually pay higher fees than state residents. In Canada, the cost is usually $18,000 per year for the first three years of the program, and $24,000 for the final year of the program.
10. What examinations do I need to pass to receive my license to practice?
In the USA, all optometrists are required to hold a Doctor of Optometry degree from an accredited school, and to have passed either the NBEO exams or the state license examinations offered by individual states. In Canada, you must hold a Doctor of Optometry degree and pass an entry-to-practice exam offered by the Canadian Assessment for Competence in Optometry (CACO), the Optometry Examining Board of Canada (OEBC), or the National Board of Examiners in Optometry (NBEO).
11. How much does a practicing optometrist usually make?
Wages vary depending on factors such as hours worked, services offered, and location. In the USA, the average earnings for an optometrist are $143,520 USD per year. In Canada, the median wage is $86,115 CDN per year, and can go up to a high of $167,858 CDN per year.
12. I studied optometry abroad. Can I get a license to practice in the USA or Canada?
Re-qualifying to practice as an optometrist in the USA or Canada can be a lengthy process. In the USA, you will usually have to take a customized program or enter an accredited school with “Advanced Standing”. You can also be sponsored to take the NBEO exams by the state licensure board of optometry or an accredited school. In Canada, you will have to undergo a multi-step process, including a World Education Services (WES-ICAP) credential evaluation report, and passing the Canadian Assessment in Competence in Optometry (OEBC) exam. For an overview of all the steps, see the “Qualifying as an International Graduate in Canada” section in the article above.
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