How I Made My Final Decision Between My Top Two Optometry Schools

When applying for optometry school, applicants ask themselves many questions, “Is my GPA competitive enough?” or “How long should I study for the OAT?” or “Did I shadow enough?” or even “Will I get an interview?” and so on…

Even after the dust settles and with acceptance letters in hand, applicants must then ask themselves the even tougher questions, “Which school should I attend?” or “Do I want to live far away from my family?” or “How do I compare the costs of programs?” or “Which program do I see myself fitting in with best?”

First year optometry student, Dhara Patel, asked herself these questions and many others as she made her final decision to attend SCCO. For several years, SCCO had been only her 2nd choice. From the start, Dhara thought the whole process of deciding on which optometry school to attend would be an easy one. She had after all been accepted to both her “Original Dream School,” which was close to home, and her “Backup,” which was a little further away, but still a great option…

After attending her interview in person at SCCO and quite unexpectedly, her perspective began to shift. All of a sudden, making this ultimate decision became one of the hardest she’d ever had to face. Here are answers to these questions in her own words.

Dhara Patel SCCO Class of 2024
Why was your Original Dream School your Top Choice for so long?

My dream school was located near an area I’d worked in for over a year. Also, I had a lot of family members in the surrounding area. Because of this, I actually visited the school often and got to know many of the current students as well as the admissions staff pretty well. It was the only school I had consistently gone to visit and heard about. Having worked in the optometry field in that area, any doctors offices I’d shadowed, or seminars I’d attended, the speaker/ doctor had gone to that particular optometry school. It excited me to think that if I attended that program that one day, I could be one of these well known doctors in the area. In addition, working closely with other members of the optometry community, sales reps, my mentor, who also worked with the students at the school made me excited to build upon the current professional network I was already establishing. Overall, it was my dream school because it had a huge name recognition in all aspects of education and would allow me to be a graduate of that prestigious school—one that my parents would be very proud of me for attending.

What caused you to second guess your Original Dream School after all that time setting your sights on the other program?

Interview day was what initially made me start taking a more serious look at my “Backup,” aka my 2nd choice. As I spoke to the faculty, I felt like they truly were excited—even if I did not choose SCCO—to see me succeed. They were so friendly and inviting, and every member of the staff I interacted with gave me a warm welcoming feeling. And not just in the sense that they had to be friendly because it was interview day, but in a way that showed genuine connection and urge to educate and be involved in my journey. Instead of the interview feeling like a day of stress, it felt like I already belonged there and that this was me just getting to know the faculty and my potential classmates. Looking back, I was astounded by the amount of support I received, even before applying (shoutout to the Admissions Blog and calls with Eryn Kraning, Senior Director of Recruiting and Admissions at SCCO!), and even the support I received during interview day. This feeling is ultimately the main reason I chose SCCO. Because this is the support and family feeling I hope to have throughout my education and beyond.

What did you do to work through the two options?

To work through the two options, the step was that I had to now realize that now both schools were in the running. After then being admitted to both programs, I kept switching between them at first, and thought that both schools were wonderful. I made it easier on myself by seeing that I would not be making any wrong choice, but just a better choice. I had to let go of some of the anxiety I was causing myself by possibly changing the plan I’d had for so long. Sometimes it’s OK to deviate from your course, but in order to feel comfortable doing so, I needed to do more research.

To start with, I made a pros and cons list of each school. To streamline, aspects that both schools had in common such as similar National Board score pass rates, curriculum, etc. were left off the list. I was left with things like location, weather, campus facilities, faculty support, and overall quality of life. By that last bullet I asked myself things like, “if I did have free time, where would I want to spend it?” and “If I were to be in a rut during an academic quarter, which school’s faculty/ administration would I feel comfortable in confiding to?” and  “Did the peers I met during interview day, reflect those that I saw myself working with and building a tight community with?” I soon realized that some of the bullet points meant more to me than the others, so I revamped my system by highlighting certain program aspects of similar importance. I came to realize that to better understand their importance to me, I would need to take a deeper, more objective look at some of these aspects. 

How did you research the various programs in more depth? Did you talk to current students? Alumni?

To help make my choice, I decided to consult currently practicing optometrists, asking specific questions about the key differences between the schools. Education at both institutions is top notch, but there were other differences that needed to be addressed. Understanding that the tuition is something that I wanted to be able to justify for both, I asked these practicing optometrists how they felt a difference of perhaps $30K in tuition would make in my life. Although they all advised me to save money where possible, they confirmed that giving up on a program based solely on its cost should not be the case, but rather the real question is whether the difference in tuition would be the better value for what I determined to potentially be the better experience. Especially if you amortize those costs out over an entire career, the conclusion was clear: choosing the program that I thought was going to be best for me and my future goals was the best value.

For a few months during the decision-making process, I had the fortunate opportunity to work in an office that had alumni from both schools. My chief mentor was from my Original Dream School, meaning that my mentor was a not a graduate of SCCO. Though both mentors spoke highly of their schools, they also mentioned what they believed was lacking in their experiences that perhaps they had to make up for in some other ways. They helped me find answers to questions I had about what really matters when it came to the items on my Pros and Cons list. I wanted to understand more about what life would be like for me as a student. To get a feel for what they believed made their programs unique, I began this discovery by talking to current optometry students who attend each of the schools. I asked them to explain what their experiences were like and wanted to hear about their favorite experiences. I also asked what they would change about the program if they could, which gave me a clearer understanding whether I might feel the same way.

How did you make that final choice for SCCO?

After a long and insightful process, I made the decision to pursue my education at SCCO. One of the reasons was the IPE education, which would allow me to learn to understand and communicate with other healthcare fields in a learning and less stressful setting. From my previous jobs, I have realized that this communication and respect between different health care providers is so important. Being able to communicate well and thus implement care better would certainly mean a lot for the health of my future patients.

In addition, I loved that because SCCO is a private institution and therefore it’s smaller so you’re not just a face in the crowd. Also, being smaller, they have the ability to make necessary changes more rapidly. 

I already mentioned that throughout my admissions process, the feeling of being supported was a huge reason why I ultimately chose SCCO. Now that I’ve been in the program for almost 6 months at the time of this article being posted, I can say hands down that support has continued. Even in the weird pandemic times we are in, I have been able to make genuine connections with the faculty, students, and administration. There are many examples, so this is just to name a few, but I have never been to a school where reaching the Financial Aid office is as easy as leaving a voicemail or email, hearing back the next day, able to discuss any financial issues I have all within 2-3 days.

Also, I am so thankful to have professors that are are easily reachable so excited to answer students’ questions. Not only have I felt comfortable reaching out to professors during hard times or randomly emailing them about an interesting topic in their lecture I’d love to be more involved in, but I have even emailed the Dean just to say “Hi!” She quickly replied, and we talked about our lives and how I see my journey unfolding. Mind you, we are virtual, meaning reaching out should be harder! But it isn’t! These are interactions that I couldn’t even imagine as an undergrad student, but are reality for me here— so quickly and comfortably.

Another example is how the students are always here for each other. Be it sharing notes, needing someone to sit in at after hours practice, or just venting about our struggles. We all have each other’s back and I am so glad to have found my community here at SCCO!

Lastly, and most importantly, I chose a better quality of life. Although at first I had convinced myself that this was no reason to give up my Original Dream School, through my interactions and research, I realized that optometry school is no easy feat. To excel in life and professionally—both in and out of optometry school— I would need a huge support system. SCCO proved itself to be the right choice for me, and now I am so grateful to be a current first year student in the program.

Any parting thoughts?

In this time of COVID and the challenges of online learning, I am reassured that I made the right decision. Even through a Zoom screen, I feel connected with my professors and the staff and I feel as if I could go to any one of my professors and ask them about life advice or optometry and they would gladly make me feel understood. The University has taken such great measures to support our journey even in these trying circumstances, which makes me proud to have chosen the school I did.

Author’s Note:  Dhara made reference to being able to talk to current SCCO students.  To do this, we have a program known as SCCO Student Ambassadors, which is made up of students in the program who have voluteered to talk to potential students about optometry school and our program. It helps to be able to talk to your peers.  

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