How to Survive First Year in Optometry School

Sep 6, 2021
7 min read
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Embarking into the first year of optometry school is an exciting time, filled with a variety of emotions for incoming students. Between finishing undergraduate studies, conquering the OAT entrance exam, traveling to interview at various schools, and moving to a new city and/or state, incoming students have proved themselves fierce enough to endure the next four years in optometry school.

In this article, we’ll go over what to expect during optometry school’s first year. We’ll discuss ways to optimize routines and habits to ensure a successful start to a rewarding academic and professional career.

Master time management

This may be the one skill that poses the biggest challenge for first year optometry students. Between studying, attending class and clinic, schedules are soon booked by the hour/day. Not to mention, time is still needed for routine things like grocery shopping, exercise, relaxation and social time with friends. Incoming students need to set boundaries with their time and develop the discipline to balance each of these demands on their schedules.

During first year, students’ time will be disproportionately spent studying and practicing in pre-clinic. Understanding what types of environments are most conducive for studying can help students avoid wasting their precious time. Some students prefer the background noise of cafes or coffee shops, while others opt for the silence of a library or their bedroom. Regardless of preference, students should learn what works best for them and stay consistent. There will be times were certain environments are more conducive for studying in different courses (e.g., group vs. independent, noisy vs. quiet, lab vs. library, etc.) and this should also be expected.

Depending on the situation, it may benefit students to also disconnect and put all of their electronics on airplane mode to avoid additional distraction during their exam preparations.

TIP: Studying for the heavy didactic course load of first year is seldom something that can be done in short periods of time and often requires prolonged periods of uninterrupted focus. Plan accordingly.

Develop solid test-taking skills

This ties into time management, prioritizing adequate preparation for exams. More specifically, students should figure out what type of test-taking strategy works best for them. Between the Optometric Admissions Test and myriad exams taken for undergraduate studies, most students may have this figured out already. However, a big difference between undergrad and optometry school is that exams are typically longer in duration and greater in frequency (not to mention the mammoth series of national board exams). Having a solid test-taking strategy can help students remain resilient during exam weeks and minimize the chances of burnout.

While many test-taking strategies exist, one that works for students is to skim the exam and answer all questions they know, while skipping the ones they don’t. Repeating this cycle several times for each exam can help ensure no easy questions (“low hanging fruit”) are left on the table when time is up.

It can also help to go into exams knowing that there may be questions that are misleading or confusing and to not let this throw off momentum and focus. Students should expect this and either take an educated guess or promptly move on to the next question before returning later.

Reducing test anxiety can also be achieved by keeping an eye on the clock, thinking positive thoughts and ignoring everyone else in the room. Students should not get distracted, discouraged, or insecure by fellow peers who may be among the first to finish exams. This is going to happen. Regardless of time spent preparing for a midterm or final, there will always be someone else that finishes first (and who maybe even studied less!).

TIP: Remembering to take deep breaths can also help calm nerves during exams. Try box breathing—4 count in, 4 count hold, 4 count out, 4 count hold. Whispering questions “aloud” can also help improve focus and reduce feelings of test anxiety.

Confidence in their own knowledge and preparation is key for students’ success when taking exams. Adequate exam preparation can also help students rest assured they “gave it their all,” despite the final grade.

Stay present-minded

Seeing the forest through the trees is important throughout all 4 years of optometry school. While it can be easy to get overwhelmed with the demands of optometry school’s challenging curricula, it is best to stay present in the moment - easier said than done at times. Students will always have something vying for their attention and time. Students will find themselves better optimizing their time by solely focusing on one subject, exam, quiz or project at a time.

Staying present also involves partially ignoring rumors about what courses or professors are intense and challenging. It should be expected that some courses throughout optometry school will be more difficult than others.

TIP: Stay focused on the ultimate goal of becoming a Doctor of Optometry, and ignore negative or fear-inducing hearsay on future challenges they may (or may not) face during their academic journey.

Prioritize mental health

While students may not have the time (nor money) to hit the spa every week, this shouldn’t stop them from frequently checking in on their mental health, especially as they ease into things during first year.

Focusing on anxiety and stress management techniques can be key to a smooth academic journey. Prioritizing things like sleep, meditation, or spiritual practices can be great for mental health. Scheduling social outings or occasional weekend trips with friends or loved ones can also provide things to look forward to amidst the seemingly endless grind of first year.

Exercise and movement can also work wonders for the mind after long study sessions or exam weeks. Some schools may include gym access/memberships with tuition fees as well. While a home gym may not be feasible for most students, simple things like kettlebells, yoga gear, and/or a stationary bike can be extremely useful for sneaking in a short workout during busy days.

TIP: Even a simple 30 minute walk can help students unplug. Make time for movement.

Set a budget

Determining how students will be spending their savings/student loan funds can be one of the least exciting things going into first year, but this is a necessary evil nonetheless.

With the growing cost of tuition and cost of living, students must think ahead on how their financial decisions will impact their future student debt after graduation. Seemingly trivial expenses can compound over time. A few areas where students should be very intentional with their spending are housing (+/- roommates?), food (cooking vs. take out), and transportation (personal vehicle vs. public transportation).

TIP: Students who live close to campus may opt for the cost (and potentially time) savings of a bicycle in lieu of other transportation expenses such as having a personal vehicle or paying for public transport.

Conclusion

The start of first year in optometry schoolis a fun and exciting time for incoming students. At this point, students have proved themselves qualified enough to endure the next four years in their academic journey. Making small adjustments to optimize routines and build discipline will help ensure a successful start to a rewarding academic and professional career.

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About Kevin Cornwell, OD

Dr. Kevin Cornwell graduated from The New England College of Optometry in 2015. He went on to complete a residency in ocular and systemic disease with Indian Health Services in Zuni, New Mexico. He now works with MACT Health Board, …

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