Occupational therapists help treat individuals who have injuries, medical conditions and disabilities. If you are passionate about health, mobility and helping others, occupational therapy may be the right career for you.
There are many different specialties and positions in this field, which give occupational therapists many career paths. Occupational therapy is also a fast-growing profession. As of 2018, there were 133,000 occupational therapy jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The field is expected to grow 18% by 2028.
Occupational therapy offers a competitive wage. The BLS reported the national median pay for occupational therapists was $87,270 per year in 2018. The highest 10% of earners received salaries over $120,750 in 2018.
If you are interested in pursuing this career, learn more about how to get into occupational therapy school/OT school.
What Degree Do You Need for Occupational Therapy (OT)?
Almost every state requires occupational therapists to obtain a master’s degree to qualify for licensure. Once you complete a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree in occupational therapy and fieldwork, you can take the National Board of Certification of Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) exam. Once you pass the NBCOT exam and receive your occupational therapy license, you have the option of pursuing additional education and training.
The first step in pursuing any career is preparing to get into a top educational or training program for that field. ACOTE-accredited schools for occupational therapy are competitive. You should research OT school requirements and determine the elements that will make you a top applicant.
Getting into an occupational therapy graduate program takes planning and work. There are several steps you must take to be well-informed, eligible and competitive.
Complete a bachelor’s degree
Before you can obtain a master’s degree or doctorate in occupational therapy, you must first obtain a bachelor’s degree. For most graduate programs, your bachelor’s degree can be in any discipline or a wide range of subjects. The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) does not require a specific major.
This is a profession you can choose to go into after completing a bachelor’s degree in a different field. However, if you know early on you are interested in occupational therapy, you can choose a relevant bachelor’s degree in kinesiology, biology, psychology, sociology, education or business.
OT schools have academic eligibility requirements to apply, such as a minimum GPA and prerequisite courses, according to an Occupational Therapy Admissions Guideby The Student Doctor Network. Prerequisites usually include courses in biology, anatomy and physiology, human development, psychology, sociology, statistics and medical terminology. Other courses may be recommended. By obtaining a Bachelor of Science degree, you are more likely to cover these course requirements. However, you also can take these courses as a post-grad at a university or community college.
Take the GRE
Occupational therapy schools typically require a GRE score. Do not take the GRE lightly. There are many study materials available. You can and should study over a couple of months before scheduling your exam. If you are worried about the test or have trouble with standardized tests, you may want to consider a structured study or training program.
You can retake the GRE up to five times within a 12-month period, according to the Educational Testing Service. While you likely don’t want to take it repeatedly, do not be afraid to take the GRE a second or third time. After the first exam, you will better understand what taking the test is like. You can spend additional months studying and come back with an advantage. Taking the GRE multiple times won’t hurt your chance of getting into a graduate program. You have the option to decide which GRE score is sent to the OT schools.
Complete OT observation hours
Most occupational therapy schools require 30 occupational therapy observation hours. This is referred to as shadowing. If you decide to apply to an OT school online program, earning observation hours is also recommended.
You need to connect with active, licensed occupational therapists about shadowing them. An advisor at your university may be able to help you. However, you may need to search for and reach out to occupational therapists at hospitals, nursing homes and long-term care facilities, schools and rehabilitation clinics in your area. You also can consider occupational therapists who work in mental health care, worker rehabilitation, horse therapy, burn care and low vision practices.
When you call or email an occupational therapist, be sure to tell them you are a prospective OT student looking to shadow a professional. Some facilities do not accept students. Others accept students for limited hours or opportunities.
The more hours you can get, the better. Obtaining observational hours in two or more settings can be beneficial to your education. Additional hours make you a more competitive applicant. There will likely be applicants with more than 100 hours in several settings. This should be your goal. The hours also help you determine a specialty and career goals. They may also help to prepare you to write a great personal statement and answer questions at your admission interview.
Explore occupational therapy specialties
You do not have to pick a specialty before applying to OT school. This can be challenging when your knowledge of the field is limited. However, doing your research and considering a specialty can be helpful during the application process. Choosing a specialty can help you craft your personal statement and answer interview questions about your goals.
Driving and Community Mobility (SCDCM or SCDCM-A) Environmental Modification (SCEM or SCEM-A) Feeding, Eating and Swallowing (SCFES or SCFES-A) Low Vision (SCLV or SCLV-A) School Systems (SCSS or SCSS-A) AOTA Board Certifications include: Pediatrics (BCP) Gerontology (BCG) Mental Health (BCMH) Physical Rehabilitation (BCPR)
Assistive Technology Professional (ATP) Seating and Mobility Specialist (ATP/SMS) Certified Brain Injury Specialist (CBIS) Certified Stroke Rehabilitation Specialist (CSRS) Physical Agent Modalities (CPAM) Certified Lymphedema Therapist (CLT and CLT-LANA) Lee Silverman Voice Training – Big (LSVT) Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS) Certified Living in Place Professional (CLIPP)
Various organizations offer certification in some of these specialties, including the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America (RESNA), the Academy of Certified Brain Injury Specialists, and the American Stroke Association. Some of these specialties may be too specific to choose early on, but learning more about them can help you decide who you would like to work with as an occupational therapist.
Write an impressive personal statement
Becoming a top candidate for OT school is about doing more than meeting the minimum prerequisites. It is not enough to have a decent GPA and GRE score and the minimum number of observational hours. You want the OT school administrators to be impressed with your entire application, from additional shadowing hours in several settings to a great personal essay.
At this point, you should have a strong understanding of the occupational therapy field and how you want to use your education and training in the future. You might have a good idea of a specialty you’d like to focus on in school. You will want to use all of this in your personal essay to show the school you are knowledgeable and driven to excel in their program.
You should get started on your personal statement early. You might need to go through multiple drafts and revise your essay more than once. You should have one or two other people proofread the essay for typos, grammatical errors, style and tone.
You want your essay to be sincere, easy to read, and demonstrate why you want to be an occupational therapist.
You should talk about your experience in the field, including your observational experience and any other volunteer and work experience you have. This also gives you the opportunity to talk about what makes you unique. Talk about any skills, qualities and personal experiences that set you apart from other applicants and would make you a great occupational therapist.
Other OT School Admissions Requirements
Send your transcripts
You must provide official transcripts from your bachelor’s degree to prove you meet the course and GPA prerequisites. Official transcripts can be obtained from your university for a fee.
Update your resume or CV
Your application should include a thorough resume or CV demonstrating the positions you have held and your duties in those positions, any volunteer experience, articles you have published, organizational membership and any other educational and professional accomplishments.
Obtain letters of recommendation
Every occupational therapy program will require you to have letters of recommendation. Usually, you must obtain a recommendation from at least one occupational therapist. Other good sources for recommendations are professors, school advisors, employers and mentors.
An OT school may require only two letters of recommendation. You should go above and beyond. Provide several letters from professionals with whom you worked closely who can speak to the qualities that will help you build a successful career in occupational therapy.
Prepare for Typical OT School Entrance Interview Questions
Most OT schools interview prospective applicants months before making final admissions decisions, according to The Student Doctor Network. Interviews are often conducted by faculty, though current students of the program may participate in group, round-robin or panel-style interviews. Interviews may take place in the department and include a small tour of the facilities. You also may have the opportunity to meet faculty members who weren’t in your interview.
OT school interviews can be nerve-racking, but they do not have to be impossible. There are materials on how to prepare for occupational therapy school interviews, including what to wear, how to behave, and common questions that an OT school interviewer may ask.
Occupational therapy school interview questions might include the following:
How would you describe yourself/tell us about yourself?
How do you define “occupational therapy?”
Why are you interested in occupational therapy instead of physical therapy?
Why do you want to be an occupational therapist?
What interests you the most about this occupational therapy program?
What relevant volunteer experience do you have?
If you completed your observational hours, what settings did you observe?
What did your observational hours teach you?
Tell us of a time when you did not agree with a classmate, coworker or supervisor and how you handled the situation.
Tell us of a time you and a team had to work together to achieve a goal.
How do you maintain a balance between school and your other commitments and hobbies?
What are your interests outside of school and work?
What do you feel are important qualities for an occupational therapist to have?
What are your strengths and weaknesses/best and worst attributes?
What leadership experience do you have?
How do you deal with stress?
How will you contribute to our program?
What are your career goals?
3 Tips to Ace the OT School Interview
The interview is often the last step before you learn whether you were accepted to the OT school. Here are three ways to handle the interview like an expert:
1. Practice, practice, practice
You can find dozens of practice questions online. Ask some friends, family members, classmates, co-workers or mentors to interview you. Ask them to take it seriously. Schedule a time and place to meet. Make sure they have questions ahead of time, but you should not now know which questions they will ask and in what order. Dress appropriately and act as if it is a real interview.
If you are worried about your appearance, posture or fidgeting, consider recording yourself in one practice interview. This gives you a new perspective and can help you make changes for another practice interview.
2. Develop strategies to deal with your nerves
Faculty will expect you to be nervous at your interview. However, they also expect you to be able to remain calm, answer the questions and participate in any group events. You must be able to cope with your nerves so you can answer confidently and when necessary, assert yourself.
Find the right strategies for you. Options include deep breathing, and positive thinking and mantras. Also, eating well and exercising in the weeks leading up to the interview can help.
3. Have questions
At some point, you will be asked whether you have any questions for the interviewer. You should have questions ready. Being without questions speaks to a lack of preparedness. You can and should ask about onboarding and mentoring opportunities in the program. You can ask the faculty member what they like most about the program. You can ask a faculty member’s opinion on a current trend in the OT field. There are many points of discussion, and having a few relevant questions shows you have done your homework.
Admission to OT School Is Possible
Getting into an occupational therapy master’s or doctorate program can be challenging but it is possible. The key is doing your due diligence by submitting an excellent application and preparing to ace the interview.