Tips for Future (and Current) OT Students: Applying to OT school

I’ve navigated this process. Applying for OT school, getting through OT school, and charting the course post-OT school. It’s not easy. Trust me I know. OT is an amazing profession, it’s rewarding, creative, very in-demand, flexible, and also well-payed (although that’s not the reason we become OTs, right?). I always see prospective OT students looking for advice/assistance when applying for OT school and I thought since I’ve been through it, I can offer some good insight. My opinion/advice are clearly just that…my own. My perspective may be different from others, but hopefully you can get something out of it.

Applying for OT School

Okay, like I mentioned above, there are many benefits to becoming an OT. So this profession is very attractive to you (and many others), but let’s face it the application process is going to be competitive. Here’s some tips on getting through this daunting process.

1. Make a list of school you’re interested in attending. The AOTA website lists all of the schools in the US that are accredited OT or OTA programs. I suggest you start here if you haven’t picked a few schools of interest yet. If you’ve already determined the programs you’ll be applying to move on to step 3.

2. Are you a traditional student or non-traditional student? I categorize it this way because there’s a few different route of entry into the profession. Traditional means “I’m graduating high school and applying for college”. Non-traditional refers to entry-level master’s programs (for people who already have a bachelor’s degree) or bridge programs (former COTAs looking to become an OT). The reason it’s important to identify yourself is because many schools have different routes of entry (My school offered both).

3. Once you’ve found the programs you’re interested in, make a list (I suggest applying to more than 1 program because getting in is getting very competitive). In this list write out all of the admission requirements for each program you plan to apply for (e.g. transcripts, GRE/SAT scores, volunteer hours, etc.). It may be easier to make a table or checklist for each program, especially when you’re applying to more than 1.

4. After you’ve breezed over some of the application requirements at some of the programs, it’s time to tackle the specifics. Let’s start with your grades. How is your GPA? Since OT programs require you to obtain at the minimum a master’s degree, they want students who have a high chance of success, this all has to do with being accredited by ACOTE, which each OT program has to be accredited by in order to produce future OT/OTA students, if you really want to know more about this click the link above. So accreditation on top of many many students applying for 30 or fewer slots in each graduating class means that these programs are competitive. If your GPA isn’t at least a cumulative 3.0, stop right now. I don’t mean to be harsh, I’m being realistic. I would discourage you from wasting your time and money on those applications, because you’re going to need to fix that first if you have any chance of being accepted.

  • If you’re graduating high school and you’re starting this process and your grades kind of suck, I suggest you start at the community college level and bring up those grades for a few semesters first and reapply (some programs will let you transfer) or obtain your bachelor’s first and apply to an entry-level Masters program.
  • If you’ve graduated college already and your grades suck, I would stick around a few more semesters, take a few courses (like your pre-requisites, more on that later), and get your GPA up. As far as I know, most schools look at your cumulative GPA, which means all the grades from every college you’ve ever attended. Please read: I would not recommend giving up and going into an OTA program (unless you really want to be an OTA) if you plan to become an OTR someday and then reapplying later, because these extra 2 years really won’t do you any good. By the time you’ve gotten through it, most OTR programs will require OTAs to have worked a few years in the field and also passed the NBCOT for OTAs, so you’re just wasting your time (years) to come back to the same goal, when you can just go back and get that GPA up. At the end of the day, you will still have to take the same courses as other OT students (those OTA courses don’t transfer) and really most OT programs don’t care if you were an OTA, a painter, a chemist, a Wall Street broker, whatever, because what major you studied prior to applying for OT school doesn’t matter, you won’t have an edge over anyone else. Although, if you want a bit of help in your own preparation for OT school taking courses in psychology, anatomy, biology, etc. may help you better prepare for the course work. But that decision is completely your own.

If you’re GPA is decent and the above doesn’t apply to you, let’s move on to step 5.

5. Pre-requisite courses. In your list from step 3, you should have also made a note of all the pre-requisite courses you’ll be required to have (This does not apply to high school students that will be freshman in college). If you don’t have these courses completed already, I would take a year and get them done and maybe spend that year working and saving up money or applying for scholarships, before you start the daunting task of being an OT student. Most programs will require the following courses, although some programs may require more: Intro to Psych, Developmental Psychology, Anatomy/Physiology I & II, Abnormal Psychology, Sociology or Anthropology or another social science course, Statistics. Some other courses you may have to count on taking may be Physics, medical terminology, or an additional psychology class. These classes should be able to be taken anywhere, so if you’re still in college I suggest to start taking them now if you have time before you graduate, otherwise you can save money and take them at your local community college, most programs don’t care where you take them as long as the content is equivalent to what they expect (call the admissions office and ask).

6. Observation/volunteer hours. Ok this is probably the most overlooked but also most important part of your applications. 99% of OT programs require you to have such and such number of hours of shadowing or volunteering with an OT before you apply or are accepted into the program. Again, look at your list and see how many are required. Here you don’t need to go too crazy with the hours, having 1000 hours when your program only requires 40 isn’t going to give you an edge really, you’ll just drive yourself crazy. The important thing here is the experience itself. I recommend finding a good OT in your area that is willing to take you and really really observe and ask questions, get to know the setting and patient population. If there aren’t many OTs in the area or you’re having a difficult time because most places are busy or not willing to except random strangers to sit in when they have HIPAA and everything else to worry about, start at your local hospital or nursing home. Most of these places have volunteer programs and will be glad to help you get these hours if you mention you need experience with an OT or OTA. They may have you cleaning equipment or wheeling patients back and forth, but this is all good hand-on experience, so don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty and jump in there (it may also make for a wonderful letter of recommendation (LOR) when you’re ready to apply). Quick Note: Don’t be one of those people to call and bug or beg the OT for hours at the last minute when your application deadline is 2 weeks away, because you’ll either be rejected or looked at like a last-minute-I-don’t-really-care about-the-profession-or-kindness-of-the-OT-type of person, and no OT supervisor or fieldwork educator wants to take on that kind of student or eventually hire that kind of OT. Plan ahead and take your time. Like I said before, having a 1000 hours isn’t going to give you an particular edge, but another thing I recommend is getting some experience in a few different settings whether it be in a hospital, outpatient, nursing home, etc. and also try to observe both pediatrics and geriatrics or adult, because OTs really work with everyone across the lifespan. Once you’ve completed your hours at a setting, the OT you’ve worked with will probably have to write a letter or provide some sort of documentation for you to send to your school. And if things went really well, you can also ask for a LOR. Also, take this experience to really think about if you can see yourself doing what you’ve observed. This in an opportunity for your to see if you’ll be happy in this profession (again, we aren’t trying to be an OT for the money, right?). Ask yourself: Can you really work with people? Can you be on your feet all day? Can you think on your feet? Because you will be going going going and thinking thinking thinking when you’re an OT.

7. Letters of Recommendation. Pretty straightforward ask your professors, a former boss, an OT you’ve volunteered with, or whoever knows your best work ethic. There’s not much advice, I can offer you here.

8. GREs/SATs. Again there’s not much advice I can offer you here because the whole process has probably changed since I last took them, but I would make note of if the program requires you to take these or not. You may get lucky and apply for a program that doesn’t require them (my experience), but if so try to find out what the minimum passing score is and aim for that. Take a prep course if you have to or get a good review book.

9. The essay. That dreaded essay. Yes, probably every program will ask the same question: Why do you want to be an OT? Or some version of this question, but either way, you’ll still probably have to explain this to the admission committee. Probably the most important thing here is to be honest and open. Everyone has a reason they want to become an OT (e.g. their brother/sister was autistic and you loved what you observed when they got OT, your grandmother was in the nursing home and saw how much she improved, yada yada). Ok if you’re applying for OT school there’s probably a moment that touched you that made you want to do this (if not, why are you even applying? Not for the money, right?), everyone has the same story. So make yours stand out. Find a reason for why you wanted to become an OT and connect it to your life, expand upon it, make it personal and put those creative writing skills to use. Then figure out what about you will make you a great OT. Really, OT is such a holistic and creative profession that there is definitely something about you that will make you stand out. Find it and write it. Spend the most of your efforts on this essay. I can’t emphasize this enough. But also, be sure to answer the question(s) they ask you. Read it over and over until it’s perfect. Have your mother, friend, English professor, etc. read it over and critique it. Really, though this is probably the part of the application that will allow you to stand out the most.

10. Apply and wait. So did you get in? If you did, congratulations! Were you waitlisted? Don’t fret, there’s still a chance you will get in eventually. Were you rejected? Go to step 11.

11. If you were rejected, think about why that might be. Is there anything on your application you could have improved? If so, improve it. If it’s simply because there’s 400 other people that have the same GPA, life story, experiences, etc. as you, then you may have to cast your application net a bit wider. You may not get into the school of your dreams, but you will get in somewhere. The bottom line for those who have been rejected is this: DON’T GIVE UP. You may not get in the school or program of your dreams, but you will make it happen, eventually. It really doesn’t matter what school you’ve graduated from or what your GPA is, because if you graduate you’re still going to be an OT because we all have to pass the same NBCOT exam (more on that later). So don’t let this set you back, many times it takes a year or two or more for some people to get in. This field is just that competitive right now. And I know it will be discouraging, but if you honestly want something bad enough, then you should go to the ends of the earth to make it happen. Go find yourself some motivational quotes, cry for a few days, complain to your mom or BFF, and then pull up your bootstraps and get back on the horse.

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