Published in Non-Clinical

Surviving and Thriving in Your First Year of Optometry School

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14 min read

Discover five key steps for surviving and thriving in your first year of optometry school with insights from the experiences of a current third-year student.

Surviving and Thriving in Your First Year of Optometry School
If you find yourself reading this article, you are likely either on the brink of commencing your journey into optometry school or you've just completed your first semester and are wondering how to navigate the challenges that lie ahead.
In which case, the top-of-mind questions are typically “What can I expect, and how can I prepare?”

Common challenges for first-year optometry students

You may be nervous and wondering, “Is the first year in optometry school as difficult as I’ve imagined?” No, I promise it isn’t. Unlike the perplexities of undergrad, where you wondered why you needed organic chemistry to become a great optometrist, in optometry school, you delve into the world of eyes—a subject you're genuinely passionate about, and it becomes the driving force that keeps you going.
One of the biggest struggles in first year is assimilating to various changes simultaneously in a high-paced environment. Moving to a new city/state, making new friends, and embarking on your optometric journey are all huge life adjustments. Honestly, the first year was the hardest for me as I went through several life changes at once. I am very family-orientated and moved away from my parents and siblings.
I needed to learn how to balance cooking for myself or I’d go hungry, studying for hours on end, not having enough hours in the day, crying about the next midterm, and more. If you name it, I probably struggled with the same thing you struggled with. Now, because I went through this, consider me your online optometry sister.
As your big sister, I will break down everything you need to know to survive AND THRIVE in first year:

5 steps to thriving in your first year of optometry school

1. Ensure you start with the essentials.

Gather your indispensable study materials, such as:
  • iPad/Tablet: You need a digital lifeline for uploading your lecture slides/PDFs and taking notes. I’ve had professors go through hundreds of slides in a matter of hours. There’s no way you can use paper and pencil to write what's on the slide AND what the professor is saying.
  • Apple Pencil/Stylist and Keyboard: Your iPad/Tablet is incomplete without a pencil AND keyboard. At one point, you’ll need to use both to write or type on your lecture slides.
  • Notability or GoodNotes Applications: You need an app to store all your notes; be sure to set up your notes backup ASAP! I use my Google account to back up my notes with Notability.

Pearl: If you’re wondering if you should invest in a new tablet or laptop, I recommend investing in the tablet first. You will use it every day for lectures, and if you get the keyboard, it's a mini-laptop already!

2. Set up a workspace that works for you.

We can get all fancy and list everything you could possibly need for your study desk at home, but the most important thing is that you design your desk in a way that excites you to study. Some might recommend multiple monitors or a specific desk chair, but I recommend a sit-stand workstation.
A myriad of options exist for setting up a sit-stand workstation, from stacking up books/boxes (free) to clamp-on styles ($50 to $200) to fully motorized desks ($500+). I love my standing desk because if I start falling asleep, I can simply move my desk up.

3. Learn how to balance didactic courses and clinical skills.

This is the biggest difference between optometry school and undergraduate or master’s program studies: Clinic. There is a learning curve to understanding how best to study for courses. A day of lectures feels like a week’s worth of undergraduate classes in the beginning.
On the bright side, you will start to adapt to the amount of lecture material you receive in a day, and it becomes routine. On the not-so-bright side, you have to balance studying for didactic courses AND practicing your clinical skills.
In first year, I recommend 4 hours of after-school clinical skills practice every week. Pick 2 days to practice and split the practice into 2-hour intervals—you will greatly benefit from consistent practice. Just know that the effort and sacrifice you put in your first year will show in your second and third years when you start seeing patients.
Practicing with your classmates will help you obtain a sense of normal, healthy ocular anatomy as well as physiologic variations from normal. By the time you are in third year, you will not be focused on how to change magnification without losing focus, or if the beam needs to be an optic section vs. parallelepiped, you will be looking for abnormalities and disease.

Pearl: Work on your slit lamp routine. Make sure you are in focus, know the thickness of your light beam, what intensity the light should be, how and when to increase magnification, and practice until it is all a swift movement

4. Develop successful study habits.

Before you start studying, always remind yourself that there is a reason you are learning this. You will need this information for Boards (when OD students say this, we are talking about Part 1 of Boards) OR for clinic.
I’ve found the following are integral to successful study:
  • Mastering memorization
  • Joining a study group

Mastering memorization in your first year of optometry school

You will memorize a lot, so start developing your way to memorize. Your way may be different for each subject. For example, how you memorize ocular anatomy differs from how you will memorize optics equations. Do you make online flashcards? Write down the material/problem over and over again? Repeat it to yourself?
Mnemonics, whether your own, or pre-existing, can also be a powerful study tool. I also use Anki Cards, and I recommend them to everyone. Anki saved my life in optometry school. If you’re unfamiliar with Anki Cards, you’ll find many students sharing how to use them on YouTube!
You won’t be memorizing information for every class. Of course, there is critical thinking, analyzing, discussing, and practicing the lecture material. I focused on memorizing because this is what I struggled with the most during first year. You need a solid foundation in how to memorize not just for exams but also for national boards and in-clinic when you see patients.

Joining a study group in your first year of optometry school

Sure, optometry school can be done solo, but it will be overwhelming to get through it alone. You need a study group. While each student learns in different ways, joining study groups can be an effective habit when preparing for exams.
It’s important to pick people who you can actually study with (meaning it might not be your best friend, but could be!) I break down my study groups into two categories:
Category A: Who I can learn with
For this study group, you want to study with a person (or people) who you can open up a lecture with, talk about each slide, and learn the material together. Usually, neither of you has reviewed the lecture, so you share what you think the slide means or the most important takeaway and take notes (Anki cards, study guide, excel sheet/tables, etc).
This is for studying a lecture with someone you can bounce ideas off of and learn the material together.
Category B: Who I can rapid-fire quiz with
This is the study group where everyone did their previous studying separately and can then quiz each other on the lecture(s). You must review the material before meeting, or else this type of study group will stress you out if you are unprepared.
It is most beneficial if you’ve already studied, can quiz each other, and then teach one another if necessary!

5. Maintain your physical and mental health.

With all the changes and challenges brought on by optometry school, it can be easy to forget to focus on your physical and mental well-being. However, if you are not feeling healthy, rested, and mentally/emotionally stable, implementing the above four steps will become more difficult.

Prioritize nutrition in your first year of optometry school

First and foremost, don’t forget to eat: I don’t want anyone going hungry in first year because you feel like you don’t have time to cook. Your new thing in optometry school is meal-prepping.
Here are my tips for meal-prepping in your first year of optometry school:
  • Breakfast: For me, overnight oats in mason jars is a must. It’s an easy, portable breakfast, and you can find so many different sweet or savory combinations online.
  • Lunch and Dinner: Preparing and seasoning your meat and keeping it in ziploc bags in the freezer is a big help. When you want to eat it, take it out of the freezer to defrost overnight and BAM, just add your prepared meat to a hot pan.
    • You can also make large amounts of veggies or rice at once and save it in containers to heat up when you're ready to eat.
  • Quick Meals: Instant pots or crockpots can also optimize your cooking routine and save time.
  • Nutrient-Dense Snacks: Meal replacement/protein bars can also supplement your daily energy needs.

Avoid burnout in your first year of optometry school

It is so easy to get inundated with responsibilities, opportunities, and an endless list of goals to accomplish. If you push yourself too hard for too long, it is inevitable you will become overwhelmed. It happens to almost every optometry student at some point in their academic career.
Remember these five tips to avoid burnout in your first year of optometry school:
Be selective (learn to say NO!)
Don’t sign up for every leadership position available in your first semester of school. Think about what you are truly passionate about in optometry and sign up for that first!
Embrace work/life balance
You still have a life outside of optometry school and should continue to pursue outside interests that bring you satisfaction. Continue to do the activities that make you happy, be it painting, hiking, dancing, baking, playing video games, or just watching Netflix. You cannot stop all hobbies and fun just because you are in school. Instead, learn how to practice a healthy form of time management.
For example: On Saturday, you will have a 2- to 3-hour no-distractions study session in the morning, followed by 1 hour of doing anything you want, the next hour of doing your chores, and then another 2 to 3 hours of studying again. Breaking up your study schedule into time intervals will make you more productive.
Do not be afraid to ask for help
I promise your professors and peers want to see you succeed. Go to office hours with professors. Ask the GSIs/TAs for one-on-one time to go over difficult concepts. Do not let yourself fall behind because you think you can do this on your own. There is strength in asking for help.
Cultivate a support system
Optometry school is difficult but possible. And as I’ve mentioned before, it's harder when you do it alone. Who are the people before optometry school who were always there for you? Keep them close.
It’s easy to cut people out of your life when stressed, but remember that it only hurts you more in the end. Also, you need a friend in school. Your classmates are the ones who understand firsthand the pressure and stress you are going through. Find people who you enjoy being around and be open to investing in these friendships.
Finally, knowing someone who recently finished optometry school is so inspiring because you can share your struggles with someone who went through everything you are going through. If they made it through, so can you!
Make sleep a priority
Prioritizing sleep is crucial throughout optometry school. Having a consistent circadian rhythm (waking up and going to bed at the same time, every day!) can turbocharge your ability to mentally and physically perform and avoid feeling burnt out.
Having a consistent evening routine (e.g., reading a book, walking, meditating, avoiding blue light exposure/social media) helps to optimize sleep. If you’re in the midst of finals, consider evening study with printed materials in lieu of more screen time (and please, no all-nighters!).

Final thoughts

Thriving doesn’t mean perfection. Please, read that again. I thought I needed to continue to be a straight-A student in optometry school. I thought I would never fail an exam. I thought that if I had a mental breakdown, it was because I was just not fit for this program. I thought everyone around me was doing fine, and it was just me struggling.
Being kinder to yourself means redefining your idea of “perfection” and “success” and removing unrealistic expectations. It’s important to make this journey your own and not let others’ experience of a professor/course/clinic site dictate what your experience will be.
You will struggle and cry from long hours of studying, but that doesn’t mean you are not fit to be an optometrist. You are right where you are supposed to be. You are here for a reason. You are working towards becoming the best optometrist you can be for your future patients, and I am so proud of you.

For more, follow me on Instagram at www.instagram.com/futuredr.nunez/.

Svetlana Nunez
About Svetlana Nunez

Svetlana Nunez, a third-year optometry student at UC Berkeley's Herbert Wertheim School of Optometry & Vision Science, discovered her passion for optometry when her mother faced temporary vision loss following eye surgery. As a first-generation Latina, she's dedicated to providing academic and career guidance to aspiring optometry students. Her post-graduation plans include pursuing a residency and eventually opening a private practice. In her free time, she enjoys painting, pilates, surfing, and baking gluten-free desserts.

Svetlana Nunez
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