As you probably already know, all of the schools and colleges of optometry require applicants to take the Optometry Admission Test (OAT). In addition to having the right prerequisites and a good GPA, the OAT is another important checkpoint you’ll have to clear on your road to a career in optometry. Each school ranks the importance of OAT scores differently as it considers whether to admit you to its Doctor of Optometry program, but poor scores are a nonstarter across the board. The high stakes can certainly be stressful — but much less so if you’re properly prepared.
So where to begin? First, download and read the official OAT Guide provided by the Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry (ASCO). The Guide contains a complete overview of the testing process as well as key details such as how to apply to take the test, the subjects you will be tested on (with sample questions), how the test is scored, the breakdown of the four-hour and 40-minute test day, items that you won’t be allowed to take into the testing area, fees, and FAQs. In fact, when you actually apply to take the test, you’ll be required to confirm that you have read and understand the information in the Guide.
Two Students Who Did Well Share How They Prepared to Succeed
Kelsey Connelly, a first-year student at Inter American University of Puerto Rico School of Optometry, says she tends to struggle with standardized exams, so she took an OAT prep course during her junior year of undergraduate school. In addition to the resources provided through the prep course, she used her class notes, especially in general chemistry and human anatomy, for studying. And, thinking back, she remembers studying “a lot.” Each week, she spent about three hours in the prep class in addition to studying on her own for 6-8 hours. “I gave up a lot of fun time,” she says, “but it was an investment in my future that paid off. I got into the school of my choice!”
Kelsey, who is also a Trustee-Elect for the American Optometric Student Association (AOSA), says it was important for her to determine her strengths and weaknesses early on. At the beginning of her prep course, she took a practice OAT. “I took that practice exam cold, and it told me what I was good at and what I wasn’t good at right off the bat,” she notes. “I used that as a tool to shape my study plan. I also talked with my advisor about what she saw as my strengths and weaknesses, which added a helpful perspective. Also, there are plenty of resources online and in libraries that can help you master the subject matter. Talk with other students and your professors about anything you don’t understand.”
In hindsight, Kelsey wishes she would have waited to take the OAT until after she finished her undergrad physics course. “The physics section was more difficult for me because the physics class I was taking at the time hadn’t yet covered a lot of the material.” However, her study plan served her well, and she advises others to use their study time wisely too. For example, “If you know the biology material really well, don’t spend as much time on it; move on to what you struggle with.”
Elizabeth Brubaker, a first-year student at The Ohio State University College of Optometry and President of her class, agrees that planning for the OAT is crucial. “Make a plan and stick with it,” she says. For starters, she credits being an active member of Ohio State’s pre-optometry club as “by far the best resource I had.” The club provided her with solid information she could use for formulating her OAT plan. With that knowledge as a base, she also bought a 12-week prep course during the spring semester of her junior undergrad year. She chose the online option, logging in to lectures every Sunday night for four hours. From that point, she was able to plan what areas she would study and when. “Even though I attended the online class every week, it was hard to study more material during the week along with my other classes. So after finals were over in June that year, I focused on studying the additional prep course materials for at least an hour every day until I took the OAT in August.”
Elizabeth also used a strategy she learned from another optometry student. During the two weeks before she took the OAT, she woke up every Monday, Wednesday and Friday as if it were test day. She got ready, ate breakfast and sat at her desk as though she was actually at the test center. She took a full-length sample test on each of those days (part of her prep course resources), complete with the same scheduled break and snack she planned to have on test day. “I believe this helped me the most because it trained my body and brain to be able to sit there for that length of time and focus. It was also great because it showed me how well I was doing in each section and what sections needed more focus before the test. It was very useful too for adjusting to taking a test on a computer, which is how the OAT is done.”
If she were taking the test again, Elizabeth says she would schedule it for at least a month or two earlier. “Had I done that, I could have submitted my application to optometry school that much sooner, which would have given me a little more time to relax before starting my senior year of undergrad.” She also thinks that instead of taking the online prep class, she perhaps would focus on other online resources. “I learned so much more from the online quizzes and tutorials than I did from listening to the professor lecture. But really it depends on what type of learner you are and what will work best for you.”
OAT Tips from the Admissions Office
Michael N. Robertson, Director of Admissions & Enrollment Services for Southern College of Optometry, says there are lots of study guides out there, and each one has its own merits. He recommends that students look at several to see which one(s) seem best for them. He also says you don’t have to restrict yourself to OAT guides. “Some candidates have told me they found MCAT or PCAT guides to be great supplements.” Of all the tools available, however, he feels “you can’t beat good old-fashioned class notes and textbooks when it comes to test prep.”
Robertson says the biggest OAT-related mistake he sees prospective students make is taking the test for granted. He points out that a mindset such as “I make really good grades, so I’m not worried about studying for the test” could be counterproductive. He also advises against taking the test a first time “just to see what it’s like.” As he explains, “More than likely, the school to which you apply is going to see that first ‘practice test’ score and it could cause concern. It’s better to prepare thoroughly for the test the first time.”
Robertson leaves us with two more sage points of advice: “There’s no one way to prepare for the OAT, but nothing can totally replace hard-core studying.”