How to Apply to Occupational Therapy School
Written by Ray Salvador, Published on October 10, 2017
We’ve created an incredible ebook that will be your go-to guide for everything involving applying for occupational therapy school.
The application process for occupational therapy school can be daunting, with everything you have to gather and fill out. But don’t panic! You are not alone, and hopefully, this guide helps you breathe and know you can do this!
In this ebook you will find:
- Occupational Therapy School Prerequisites – What they are and what you should consider
- Community College Courses Vs University Courses – Which should you choose
- Observation Hours – How many you need and where you should do them
- Letters Of Recommendation – Who they should come from and how to ask for them
- Taking The GRE – Study resources and tips and what score you should aim for
- Writing Your Essay
- How to Choose What Schools to Apply to
- When to Apply
- and much much more….
Occupational therapy school prerequisites
Congratulations on deciding to enter the absolute best profession in the world. First and foremost, you need to get those pesky prerequisites out of the way. This, among other things, is something that you absolutely must do.
Depending on which schools you apply for, you must typically earn a 2.3 or above in each prerequisite class (this roughly translates to about a C+.) If you find that your scores in some prerequisites are lower than a C, then you’ll need to retake them.
In addition to completing these prerequisites, you’ll also need to have a Bachelor’s degree. Your undergraduate degree. It doesn’t necessarily have to be in a healthcare related field, but it does help that many of the prerequisites required for OT also fulfill requirements for degrees such as kinesiology, or exercise science.
A rule of thumb is always try to have the best grades possible so you don’t have any red flags on your application.
In some cases, schools are okay with you having one C in a class. Also, be careful with how many times you retake a class. Some schools only allow a class to be retaken once outside of the first attempt.
Take prerequisites as early as possible so that schools are not waiting on you to finish too many classes. It gives schools a clear picture of your grades when most of your prerequisites are done.
Many schools have a minimum undergraduate GPA, and also a separate prerequisite GPA. You want to make sure that you meet the requirements for both, and retake any classes as necessary.
I know that sometimes people question how many prerequisites they can have in progress/not yet begun before applying. Well, it usually depends on the occupational therapy school, but most schools only allow one or two classes that are in progress/not yet begun. It is always a good idea to check the school’s website or contact the school to find out.
Typical prerequisites for occupational therapy school programs include, but are not limited to:
- Anatomy and Physiology I and II (with lab)
- Biology (with lab)
- General Psychology
- Human Development Across the Lifespan
- Abnormal Psychology
- Various Social Science courses (ex: Ethics, Anthropology, Sociology etc.)
- Medical Terminology
Keep in mind this isn’t an exhaustive list, and that many programs across the nation may or may not require additional prerequisites.
University or community college?
As mentioned above, you need a Bachelor’s degree before you can apply for OT school. With this, try to complete as many prerequisites while you’re at your 4-year university or college, simply due to the fact that it is a more effective use of your time.
If you find yourself having to retake a course, depending on your situation, it may be more economical to retake the course at a local community college. Check in with the OT schools you are applying to and see what their policy is regarding prerequisites completed at community colleges.
In my experience, they typically have no preference. I completed a majority of my prerequisites at various community colleges while working full-time and had no trouble with the application process.
Community college courses are way more inexpensive than courses offered at universities.
Observation, volunteer, shadowing hours
Depending on where you apply, OT schools may require that you have received hours in various settings. Besides that fact that it will look good on an application, earning hours in a variety of settings will be a great learning opportunity for you to see that role of occupational therapy in different patient/client populations.
It also allows you to establish a foundation for your professional network and maybe even get a reference or two. The number of hours typically varies from school to school (anywhere from 40-100+), so be sure to check in to see if there is a minimum required or a particular setting that is required.
The field of occupational therapy is growing each day, and it may be difficult to find a volunteer placement, so check everywhere! Start with the bigger companies (hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, etc.) early, and figure out what their volunteer or observation process is and get on the list ASAP. Search for local clinics, private practices, everywhere!
Remember, occupational therapists work in a variety of settings, both traditional and non-traditional. Check in with the schools you are applying to and see if you can use hours say, working as a front desk associate in a medical clinic, or volunteered in a setting that an OT could service.
Variety is key! Try to have experience in at least 3+ settings.
Make sure to let the places where you are shadowing know what kind of experience you are looking for. Be clear about this so that you get the most out of your experience!
- Do you want to help the therapist get supplies together so you know the names of supplies?
- Do you want to be educated on what the therapist is working on with a patient?
Things like that are some examples. Also, let them know that you want to specifically shadow an occupational therapist. Definitely connect with patients and get comfortable interacting with them. Do not be afraid to ask questions. All of these tips will help you create a relationship with occupational therapists you observe, instead of just being another body in the room.
Make sure to have a log where you track your hours and have the occupational therapist sign off on the log just in case!
Lastly, get reliable contact information from the occupational therapist who you are shadowing and if possible have a backup occupational therapist that can verify your hours at the same clinic. I suggest this because it will help you always have someone you can get into contact with, just in case things change or there is a problem. It’ll save you a headache!
Use these strategies to land the letter of recommendation you need and to get the most out of your experience.
Letters of recommendation
You’ve finished your prerequisites, earned your Bachelor's, and have been spending countless hours shadowing various therapists. Many of the occupational therapy school programs out there require letters of recommendation from employers, college professors, or other professional contacts.
I find it best to find the individuals who know you best and find some time to sit down and talk to them about your plans to apply for graduate school. Make sure you do this EARLY!
Remember that a particular college professor or employer may have a lot on their to-do list, and writing a letter of recommendation is an additional task for them to complete. Be courteous, punctual and professional, and be sure to provide them with any additional information they might need.
Providing a resume can be extremely helpful in writing a letter of recommendation. Make sure to offer this to whomever you are requesting letters from.
My letters of recommendation came from a wide variety of professionals.
Consider the following when deciding who to ask for a letter of recommendation:
- Who is most likely to support you?
- Who has seen your accomplishments?
- Who has watched you problem solve? Who sees your characteristics?
- Who has seen you demonstrate integrity and compassion?
I had taken a communications elective during undergrad and had a really great relationship with the professor. The course was based off a subject that I really enjoyed and had a passion for, and it reflected in my coursework and projects that I had completed.
I felt that I would receive a very strong letter from him and decided to reach out, especially since he was able to comment on my strengths. Communication skills are invaluable in the field of occupational therapy. It is also one of my primary reasons for requesting a letter from him.
When I was applying to occupational therapy school, I was also working full-time in a pediatrics clinic as a patient scheduler. The doctor I scheduled for was a big proponent of continuing education, and encouraged me to pursue a career in the healthcare field, so it was a no-brainer for me to ask him for a letter of recommendation.
He was able to comment on my multitasking skills, ability to manage a schedule, and work with parents and children, all of which are skills that translate well in the field of OT.
I requested a letter from an OT at the pediatrics outpatient clinic I was volunteering at the time I was applying to occupational therapy school. I hadn’t known her for a long time, but I had learned a lot from her and she was willing to write a letter based on my potential during the time I had spent volunteering in her clinic.
I want to reiterate that you should definitely ask for letters from professionals who know you best, and that you trust will describe both your character as a person and your future potential. Ask early and try to give them as many resources as they need. You might also need to be persistent in asking for letters, especially if whoever you are asking has a busy schedule.
Ah, the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE). To be honest, I didn’t spend a lot of time studying for the GRE at all.
I did, however, practice my test taking skills, which is a lot of what the GRE is about. I ended up downloading a few GRE test prep apps on my iPad and spending a couple of hours each week doing practice questions. There are even GRE prep courses that you can take online or in-person at various testing centers.
You might feel intimidated before you take the exam, but don’t let that psyche you out. It’s just another piece of your application and does not decide whether or not you get into school. Depending on where you apply, they may have minimum scores on each section that they require, so be sure to check in on this.
If you find your scores lacking the first time you take the GRE, you can always retake it.
Try to score a combined score of 300+ and a 4.0+ on the analytical writing portion. Let’s say you score below this try to retake it to score a little higher. You can also apply to schools that do not weigh the GRE heavily. BUT always put your best foot forward and do the best you can on the test. Some OT schools weigh the test heavily or will use it as a positive if your GPAs are low.
Grades and the GRE scores are important, but they don’t define who we are from a holistic point of view. When you’re completing your applications, the extracurricular section is where you can really shine.
Put those volunteer experiences in, that research paper you wrote in undergrad, your work experiences, anything that you feel makes you stand out as an applicant.
Did you do sports or participate in intramurals during undergrad? The field of OT is so diverse, and we need applicants who are unique, motivated, and passionate.
OT schools also want to see that you can handle a tough course load while doing an extracurricular activity, volunteering, or working.
This is another key piece of the application process that many students may overlook. Personal statements and essays should be about yourself and why you are unique. Yeah, I know, super broad.
- Why do you want to be an occupational therapist?
- Are there major events that led up to your desire to enter the field?
- How did you find out about it?
These are questions that you should be asking yourself and doing some pretty deep reflection on as you compose these essays.This is where you want to stand out and comment on what makes you unique. How would you like to contribute to the profession as a whole? What makes you a candidate that a school simply cannot deny?
Make sure to have more than one person read your essay. Mentors, professors, friends, and the writing center at school are great sources to review your essays!
Many, if not all, occupational therapy schools use the Occupational Therapist Centralized Application Service or OTCAS. This drastically cuts back on the use of paper and streamlines the process for both you and your desired schools.
This is where you will have your transcripts, GRE scores, letters of recommendation, and upload your personal essays/statements. It allows you to, fairly easily, send your applications to multiple schools.
The important thing to note here is that many schools require you to use the OTCAS system, but also have additional application requirements.
Pay attention to this, as this will make the difference between an acceptance letter versus a rejection. For example, OTCAS may say your application is complete, but you may overlook additional application requirements based on the school.
Make A List Of OT Schools That Match The Stats On Your Application:
This will be one of the most important pieces of advice that I can give you. Many students make this mistake and I want to help you not do the same! I myself did this and learned from it. Make sure to apply to schools whose minimum requirements you meet. This will save you time, money, a headache, and a rejection letter from that school. How can you do this?
- Look at your GPAs to make sure your prerequisite GPA and cumulative GPA meet the minimum for the particular program you are interested in.
- Most schools require a 300 combined score or above on the GRE. So make sure that you meet the score requirement for that school.
- Make sure to have the required observation hours in each setting that the school requires.
- Make sure to have recommendation letters from each person that an occupational therapy school specifies.
- Make sure to have the required classes that the school has listed as prerequisites.
How can you be strategic, especially if you have a low GPA or GRE score?
- Start at the OTCAS website under their program directory tab here: https://portal.otcas.org/otcasHelpPages/participating-programs/index.html
They list OT schools by state or alphabetically. There is also a list of schools who do not use the OTCAS application system.
- Look into schools that have a lower required GPA that is around yours.
- Look into OT schools that will allow you to replace a low grade with a retake grade if you retook a class (this will make your GPA higher).
- Look into OT schools that use your last 60 credit hours as one of their GPAs they look at. This works for students because sometimes this GPA tends to be higher.
- Look into OT schools that do not require the GRE.
- Look into OT schools that do not have a minimum score requirement for the GRE.
- Earn more observation hours in different settings.
- Gain super strong letters of recommendation.
- Write a strong personal statement.
- APPLY EARLY!
- Contact the OT schools you are interested and find out what your stats/application looks like compared to students accepted in the past. This will give you an idea of what the school looks for if you are unsure of whether or not you should apply.
- Attend graduate school fairs at your school. This will allow you to talk to different representatives from various schools.
What should I look for when applying to an occupational therapy school?
- Many times students will use a ranking list for OT schools. These ranking lists should not be all you use to determine which school to apply to. Often times the ranking lists are surveys that are conducted –which does not provide actual information about the occupational therapy school ranking. So it is important to do your own research.
- See if the OT schools you are looking into have scholarships.
- Check to see what the faculty is like and if they have interests that align with yours.
- Is the location somewhere you can see yourself?
- What are their graduation rates?
- What are their passing rates on the NBCOT?
- How long are their clinicals?
- How supportive of an environment is it?
- What is the cost of attendance?
- What other opportunities does the school offer (electives, study abroad etc.)?
Apply early – Make sure you get your applications in a few weeks before the deadlines the schools you would like to attend have set forth. This gets you a bit of a head start and you might even find out the school decision earlier.
Create a budget – You want to budget your finances in preparation for application fees as well as planning for any possible trips you might need to take for interviews. The GRE also costs around $160 to sit for, and if you need to retake it, this can add up. Transcript requests may also have a fee associated, depending on your undergrad institution.
Take a tour - If it’s feasible, try to give the schools you are interested in a tour before applying to see if the environment is a good fit. Many schools offer tours for prospective OT students, so check in with their OT department and see.
Make a checklist – This can help you stay organized and give you a really great visual of the things you need to do before you can apply for each OT school. Have one of these for each occupational therapy school you are applying to and check things off as you go. This will help ease some of the anxiety you might have and also keep you on top of things.
Be confident – You’re taking the first few steps on your journey to becoming an occupational therapist, and that is something you should be proud of!
Feel free to contact me if you have any specific questions. :)
Looking for more, check out our 10 tips for undergrads considering occupational therapy school!