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  • Rachel Shackelford

6 Things I've Learned in My First 5 Weeks as an Optometry Student

Five weeks of optometry school down! That means fall quarter is already halfway over. I've taken my first exams for each of my classes, and I'm starting to get the hang of things. Some days, I feel totally lost; other times, I am comfortable with everything I'm learning. With everything that optometry school entails, it can be difficult to reflect on the journey. I took some time this week to think about some of the most important lessons I've learned so far.

A photo of everything I need to get through a week of Gross Anatomy. The class has a lot of information to learn, so I have to condense and rewrite the important information in order to commit it to memory.

1. Every Class is Different

Regarding studying, my undergrad classes mostly fell into one of two categories. Either the class was reading/writing intensive (meaning I would participate in discussions in class then spend my time outside of class reading and writing papers), or it was lecture-centric (where I would listen to lectures in class and periodically study the material leading up to quizzes and exams).


At ICO, while all my classes are primarily graded on exams spaced a couple of weeks apart, the way I approach each one is very different. I don't treat any class the way I did my undergrad classes. I have totally changed my study habits, and adjust them constantly as a new exam becomes imminent and different topics are brought to focus. As my time commitments change over the coming quarters, with increased hours in clinic and additional opportunities outside the classroom, my approach is sure to change again. If I've learned anything from optometry school, it is to be adaptable.


2. I Need to Take Advice from Others...

I realized early in Orientation week that the upperclassmen would be great resources. They had just gone through these same experiences one or two years earlier and would be able to prepare me for some of the struggles I may face. Since then, I have sought out tutors and TAs to help guide me through some of the unknowns. I already can't count the number of times they have answered questions for me about everything from how to properly perform a cover test to how to work the equipment in the labs... or, embarrassingly, where to scan my ID in the cafeteria.


I am still learning how to use the ICO faculty and staff as a resource, but I know they are always there to help make things easier. Most of my professors have been teaching their respective classes for at least a couple of years, so they know what students struggle with most. They may have ideas for strategies to help me succeed.


3. ... With a Grain of Salt

On the other hand, I've also learned not to take everything I hear at face value. While I believe everyone at ICO wants the others to succeed, it is important to remember that everyone is different. I have to learn to make my own judgments and decisions about my experiences. A professor may believe the exam they gave is pretty straightforward, and yet, I could really struggle with it. Or, a group of second years may say it's impossible to do well in a class I'm going to succeed in. When classes first began, I used everything I heard from the upperclassman as a place to start. As time goes on, I'm learning what works for me and am adjusting accordingly. Everything about school (and life in general) is a matter of perspective. It is important to try to learn from the advice of others, but not to take it as cold hard fact.

A goofy photo with friends at ICO's Mardi Gras themed Homecoming.

4. My Group of Friends will be There for EVERYTHING

In optometry school, it is easy to connect with people quickly. Every class is with the same students. After the first few days, everyone finds their semi-permanent spot in the Lecture Center, and friendships naturally form. My friends have taken on a lot of different roles in my life. They are my motivators, partners, teachers, or distractors. Whether I need to collaborate on a homework assignment or want someone to walk with to Taco Bell, I know at least one of my friends is down. Honestly, I've found that it's impossible to make it through optometry school alone. Without a support system, the stress would be too much. Having people around who understand the pressure is really important. ...and, of course, without close friends, who would be willing to sit as a patient for me until I master my skills in the lab?

My friends and I took a study break the weekend before our first exams to check out Margaritaville at Navy Pier.

5. Breaks are a Necessity

It is really easy to get caught up in the stress of optometry school. Exams are constant and there is always huge amounts of information coming in. Most people will say that you are always behind in optometry school; almost everyone will also say it is important to take breaks, anyway. After about two weeks of pushing myself to focus on school every day, I already began to feel burned out. From then on, my friends and I decided to be intentional about the breaks we take. During the weekends, we try to plan a small activity each day that gets us off campus. Living in the Residential Complex, it is easy to go days simply moving back and forth from the school to the RC. So, whether it's going downtown to try out a restaurant, seeing the sites of Chicago, or simply walking to a nearby coffee shop, we try to get mentally and physically away from school for short bursts.


6. Actually, I've Learned a Lot

Before I got to ICO, I assumed most of my first year would be about gaining the basic science background needed for later years. While most classes do cover basic science, I have been surprised by how much optometry knowledge I've already acquired. My Biochemistry class is almost entirely focused on the production and maintenance of tears. It's not uncommon for my Anatomy and Physiology professors to give examples about the eyes, and Clinical Methods is all about the basics of optometry.


When I get focused on mastering new material or getting the grades I want, I often forget how much I've learned in the past few weeks. The details of everything can get the best of me. This past week, I had been stressing over the preparation for my first Clinical Methods exam and skill check off. Then, as I was reviewing the details of visual acuities, I remembered back to the first week of classes. In the middle of Clinical Methods class, I distinctly remember Googling the difference between myopia and hyperopia (myopia = nearsightedness; hyperopia = farsightedness). Just weeks later, I use these words every day and find it comical that it tripped me up.


So, even if I'm not scoring perfectly on every exam, or remembering every step for my next clinical check off, I am learning and getting better all the time. With how far I've come in five weeks, I can't wait to look back on my accomplishments after four more years!