The optometry degree: why I chose it, why I love it and my advice for those applying!

After completing some work experience at a local optometrist, second year student Cassie Whelan was hooked on eyes, changed to an optometry course and now absolutely loves her degree! Find out why….

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I finally stumbled across optometry on the UCAS page when I was in my first year at uni. I had found I was studying entirely the wrong degree and was looking for something else, something that I could be passionate about. And thank goodness I did! I read more about the course, the career and the path to qualification and from then, I was hooked on eyes! 

I organised some work experience at a local independent optometrists and applied to Anglia University … and the rest is history! I wish I’d considered optometry at sixth form, but at least I got there eventually. It is the perfect course and career for those who want to help people, work with people, and enjoy biology and maths especially. Don’t panic if maths doesn’t come naturally (it doesn’t with me), all the maths on this course comes with context and that really helped me understand. There’s a fair bit of maths, especially in first year, but you will nearly always have your calculator and GCSE maths is enough. I didn’t really use A level maths at all. It does, however, help if you know you’re at least a little comfortable with trigonometry!

Why you will love studying optometry

  1. When you tell people you study optometry it sounds really cool and everyone always pulls a ‘wow that’s cool I never thought people studied that’ face! 
  2. It’s a course that leads directly to a career - not just a job. 
  3. You get to talk to people, you’re not just sat at a desk or in a lab all day.There are opportunities throughout your degree to meet other optometry students from across the country by becoming a student rep. 
  4. It’s not an easy course, but it is incredibly rewarding and interesting
  5. There are loads of different ways you can take your optometry degree. Your pre-registration year following uni is something you organise yourself, which is intense, but ultimately you can pick where you live and what area of optometry you want to work in. 
  6. Once qualified, there are also loads of further qualifications you can do to widen your knowledge, for example Independent Prescribing.
  7. Optometry as a profession is constantly evolving, particularly now, and optometrists are now able to gain more responsibilities throughout their career, for example in glaucoma care.

Some things to consider before applying

Eyes are really interesting! Reading a little about them might be useful to get you really passionate about the course before you start.

Optometry is a great course for those who like learning things in depth. One of the things I didn’t cope well with during my original course, Biomedical Science, was never being able to get really into a topic before moving onto the next thin.  It was far too generalised for me, unlike optometry.

I’m not going to pretend I’m an expert on university personal statements, but it’s usually a good idea to show some interest in the course. However, they’re not expecting you to recite a paragraph out of a textbook. Show that you’ve taken the time to read about the course and maybe talk to an optometrist to get an insight into the career and what it’s like to work as an optometrist. Get some work experience, if you have time, and make sure you suit the environment of busy clinics and are comfortable dealing with the public. Uni will teach you everything you need to know. But, as much as they try to teach you communication skills in the modules, if you hate talking to the public you probably won’t enjoy the course as it requires a lot of interaction with peers, tutors, and eventually, real patients. 

It is the perfect course and career for those who want to help people, work with people, and enjoy biology and maths especially.

Work experience also looks brilliant on an application, as it shows you’re committed and, if you need an interview for the uni you’re applying for, it gives you something to talk about. When you are organising your work experience, it’s easy to think about going to the big chains first, but try and consider the independents too, there are some really great ones and they are often forgotten about.  You could try and get a paid job at the weekend as a receptionist or an optical assistant. Either of these will expose you to terminology you may not have heard and will make you feel more at ease when settling into lectures at uni.

Some things to consider before you start first year

Once you’ve applied for university and you’re waiting to start, here’s my advice on what you can do to help yourself over the summer and throughout first year. 

Not everyone has taken biology at A level, and that’s absolutely fine. If you didn’t take biology, maybe try borrowing your friend’s A level biology revision guide over the summer just to get a basic understanding of the concepts covered. It’s not essential, and you will be taught it all over again, but sometimes being familiar with certain topics, even if you don’t fully understand it at the time, it can help you to be familiar when tutors cover it in lectures. Teaching at university is a little different to how it is at college or sixth form because they have more to cover and less time to cover it all, so being proactive to stay on top of what you’re less confident in is going to be really helpful.

Look at the different paths you can take and have a think about what sort of environment you want to end up in: hospital, independent practice, a multiple high street practice or maybe even owning your own practice. Some will suit more than others, but all are good options that.  I found it helpful when starting first year to have an end goal so when things get tough or stressful, you know exactly what you’re striving for and can focus on that. It can be helpful to talk to your personal tutor about it as well.

On the course

The optometry course is different to a lot of other courses. I think it requires a lot more self-discipline than many others. Practising techniques in your own time is essential, which means you need to plan your work and social life around when the facilities at your university are open. Once you start studying the techniques, they’re really fun and you’ll be happy to do this.  

Work shouldn’t be all you ever think about while you’re at uni! Socialising, joining societies and, potentially, being in a new city is so important. You should definitely be having fun at university, but just keep in mind that the more thought you put into your course, the more you are likely to gain.  Occasionally, you might have to miss a night out because you have a practical at 9am the following morning, you’ll thank yourself in the long run. The work-load is more overwhelming for those who miss lectures or those who go and don’t really engage in the material covered. Learning from tutors is so much easier than trying to teach yourself something that you have missed. 

My advice would be to just make sure you understand everything you’re taught as you go along - you don’t need to live in the library. Understanding everything before you come to revise for exams is SO much better than trying to completely teach yourself everything the week before the exam. Don’t panic and stick your head in the sand if you don’t understand something, tutors would rather you asked them questions than struggled. Also, talking to peers and helping each other through tricky modules is a great way to meet more people and make friends.

Universities will ask you to buy your own retinoscope and direct ophthalmoscope, so try and save up a little money over the summer as these can be quite expensive. Most universities won’t ask you to have your own equipment until second year, so there’s no huge time pressure on getting it and there will be plenty of equipment to learn and practise on, but I found having my own ophthalmoscope for my first year practical exam was really helpful, as I knew exactly how it worked and where all the switches were on it and I felt at ease (well… as at ease as you can feel in an exam situation anyway).

Cassandra Whelan
Student rep, Anglia Ruskin University


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