How to Become an Occupational Therapist

Hey readers! Happy OT Month! We have a whole month dedicated to occupational therapy, and you’ve decided that you want to join this wonderful profession. But how do you get there?!

What Program Do I Choose?

The first thing to decide is what program to apply to. This definitely comes down to personal preference. There are many benefits of both the Doctor of Occupational Therapy (OTD) and of the Masters in Occupational Therapy (MSOT) programs. I plan on writing a blog post entirely on the benefits and drawbacks of each later this month, so stay tuned! You are likely deciding between these two options if, like me, you didn’t know that you wanted to be an OT until after you already started another undergraduate degree. If you choose this path, you likely earned or will earn a bachelors degree in another subject, then you will continue on for another 2-3 years to become an OT. There is nothing wrong with this! You will be in school for a bit longer, but you will have some really unique experiences and knowledge to prepare you for OT school.

If you’e lucky, you knew that you wanted to be an OT all along. I wish I had known what OT was when I was in high school! For those of you who are applying to OT school right out of high school, you will likely complete a 5 year program where you first earn your bachelors degree in Occupational Science and then continue for your 5th year to earn your Masters in Occupational Therapy. This is also a great option!

Whichever path you choose: OTD, MSOT, take time off in between, go right from undergrad to grad school, or go straight from high school to OT school, you are making a great choice! For the remainder of this blog post, I will be focusing on how to become an OT after earning your bachelors degree in another subject.

Timeline

Now let’s talk about the timeline. Many schools begin in September, but this is not always true. My school began in June, and another that I applied to started in January. You will want to pay attention to this when you are submitting applications, because it may affect when the school’s application is due and when their interviews are. For me, it made the most sense to get all of my applications done during the summer before my senior year of college. I knew that I would not want to add the stress of applying to OT school to my senior year course work, so I planned ahead. Do what is best for you!

You will also want to plan ahead with prerequisite courses and observation hours. These take a lot of time, and if you are doing them on top of your undergraduate degree courses, it can be a lot of extra work. You do not have to take the same path that I did, but I did all of this while I was in undergrad. I felt like since I had already been in college for 4 years, I wanted to go to grad school right after I graduated to get it all done at once. While this will allow me to get to the profession that I am dying to be a part of sooner, it also led to some feelings of burnout (especially after graduating in May and starting school 2 weeks later in June!). I found myself envying the break in school that some of my classmates had by taking time off in between undergrad and grad school. This will also come down to personal preference.

I completed my observation hours the summer after my sophomore year of college and the summer after my junior year of college. For me, getting these done during the summer while I had more free time made sense. You can also do them while you are in school or during a gap year if that’s what works best for you. This will require some planning ahead, so if you want to be an OT I would start thinking about this now!

As for prerequisite courses, this will really depend on your undergraduate degree and how flexible your schedule is. This also may be a deciding factor as to whether or not you will take a year or two off between undergrad and grad school. I chose to take prerequisite courses while I was in undergrad because I had some extra credits in my schedule and did not want to pay to take classes after I graduated. For me, this made sense and I could handle the workload. Also, many of the prerequisites that I needed were already part of my program (Exercise Science). I also took a few classes online over the summer because they were not offered when I needed them at my school.

How to Apply

Lucky for us, many OT schools use OTCAS, an online platform to apply to OT school. This allows you to prepare and keep track of your applications, letters of recommendation, personal statements, essays, etc. Each school usually has a few different requirements between prerequisites needed and essays or writing prompts to answer. This platform helps you keep track of it all!

Some schools require you to fill out an application on their personal website. This just creates an added step for you, so if you don’t see a school on OTCAS it is probably because they don’t use it. This also may be because it is too far from their application deadline and they are not yet accepting applications. I recommend being very organized with this and having some sort of document or list to keep track of the schools that you want to apply to, deadlines, requirements, and what platform to use to apply.

Prerequisites

Not all OT schools are the same, but these are the most common prerequisites to get into OT school:

  • Bachelors degree with a minimum 3.0 GPA
  • Human Anatomy & Physiology I & II with Lab
  • Two Psychology courses
  • Human Development
  • One Social Science course
  • Statistics
  • Biology with Lab (not super common, but I had to take this)
  • Physics (I did not have to take this for any of the schools I applied to)

The GRE

This can be a major stressor for people! When I took it, I joked that it was like a harder version of the SAT. I’m not going to lie…some of the vocabulary used in the Verbal Reasoning portion were words that I was convinced were not in the English language (Lol).

I recommend studying before you take the GRE. You will never be able to study the exact questions that you will be tested on, but it is beneficial to gain practice with the format of the test and how to approach questions. I used a practice book that I really liked where I was able to take multiple hand-written and online practice tests as well as answer tons of practice questions to help me prepare. If you are going to take the GRE, I recommend checking out the GRE’s store. They have many practice books to choose from!

All schools have different GRE requirements, and some don’t even list them on their website. I only took the GRE once, but you can take it multiple times if you want to improve your scores. You will receive your Verbal and Quantitative Reasoning scores right away, and I got my Analytical Writing score back within about 2 weeks. These are the minimum scores that one school recommended:

  • Verbal Reasoning: 153
  • Quantitative Reasoning: 144
  • Analytical Writing: 4.5

Observation Hours

I completed one set of observation hours at a rehabilitation hospital not far from my house the summer after my sophomore year of college (two years before actually applying to OT school). I observed there for 4 hours about 3 times per week for most of the summer. For my second set of observation hours, I observed at a pediatric outpatient clinic for 6 hours once a week for most of the summer as well. I did this the following summer after my junior year of college (one year before applying to OT school). The schools that I applied to didn’t have a set number of hours that they were looking for, but rather that they wanted to see experience in multiple settings. This is something to confirm with the specific schools that you are applying to.

Many OT schools want to see observation in more than one setting, which I really appreciated. I think that it was helpful to see OT in more than one setting so I could begin to get a glimpse into what I liked and what I didn’t like. I loved both of the experiences that I had, which made me really excited to apply to OT school!

Letters of Recommendation

Most schools ask for 2-3 letters of recommendation. I asked one OT that I observed for a letter of recommendation as well as two professors who I had great relationships with throughout my undergraduate career. I recommend asking people who know you well and can speak to your strengths and ability to be a great OT to write a letter of recommendation for you. It also may be helpful to provide them with a description of what OT is, why you want to be an OT, or any prompts that your schools might give you to help them to write a strong letter for you. If you haven’t noticed yet, a lot of people have no idea what OT is! Time to start working on that elevator speech…

The Interview

This truly deserves its own blog post. Be on the lookout for this later in the year when OT schools are holding interviews! For now, just know that many schools do require an in-person interview as part of their application process. I loved the interview process, even though I was extremely nervous the entire time. The feeling that I got at MGH IHP is really what sold me on this school. I felt very welcome, and I loved their community. I didn’t get that feeling at all of the schools that I interviewed for, which really helped me to make my decision. It is definitely a nerve wracking experience, but it is a very important part of the process! More to come later 🙂

The Decision

Okay, so you’ve completed all of the prerequisites. You’ve observed multiple OTs in various settings. You’ve gotten the letters or recommendation, taken the GRE, and sent in your application. And you’ve flown all over the country to go to interviews. You’ve been offered acceptance at a couple of schools. Now comes the hardest part: deciding which school to go to!

For me, it mainly came down to the cost. It’s no lie that tuition is extremely expensive, and if you are going into an entry-level OTD or MOT program, then you likely just finished four years of college already. Student loans are REAL. If you are lucky enough to earn a merit scholarship from a grad school, this may be a deciding factor for you as it was for me.

Location may also be a deciding factor. I only applied to schools in the Massachusetts/Boston area in order to stay close to home. However, others may want to go to school across the country or may want to try living in a new city. Consider cost of living if you will be moving to a new city, including how you will get to school and if you will be able to find a part-time job if necessary.

Also, consider the opportunities that the program can offer you. They may already have connections with a hospital or an organization that you really want to get involved with. They may have clubs and other opportunities that interest you. Or, you may love the way that they structure the curriculum, fieldwork, and doctoral component (if it is an OTD program). All of this is important to think about as well!

No matter where you end up, know that you are entering an amazing field of study. Occupational therapy empowers people to live life to the fullest and to do the things that they love. I feel so grateful to be part of a profession that gets to do this, and I am so glad that you are considering it as well.

For anyone who made it to the end of this post, I hope this helped to answer any questions that you have about how to become an occupational therapist. As always, if you have any additional questions please don’t hesitate to reach out. Comment below or message me on Instagram @ allisontheotstudent!

Thanks for reading!

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