How to Choose the Right OT Program for You
Written by Jessica Broughton, Published on April 10, 2018
Congratulations, my friend: you have finished applying to occupational therapy school!
You shadowed for many hours, studied for the GRE, and conquered the OTCAS beast. You are now on to the next step of the process and are faced with the decision of what OT program to choose. Now, before you go ahead and send in that deposit for the first school that accepts you, take a moment to consider your options. Choosing an OT program is a major personal, professional, and financial life decision.
When trying to decide which program is the one for you, consider some of the following factors.
Program location can have a major impact on your graduate school experience. It can affect access to resources and fieldwork placements.
One of the most exciting parts of starting OT school is getting to go on fieldwork for the first time. In general, most Level I fieldwork placements will be local to your school. This means that your Level I placements will be at whatever hospitals and healthcare facilities are nearest to your program.
City-based programs often have access to many different Level I placements in top healthcare facilities. However, sometimes these sites can be overwhelmed with students. Programs in rural areas may have less access to nearby placements. You might have to travel farther to get to your Level I fieldwork, but there are some advantages. There is less competition from other schools for placements, which could lead to a Level II placement if you enjoy your experience at a particular site.
In case you did not know: Level I fieldwork is a short-term placement to gain exposure to different settings and happens every semester while you are in OT school. Level II fieldwork is a full time, 12-week placement in which OT students assume the role of a practitioner while being supervised by a clinical instructor. Students get to choose where they want to do their Level II fieldwork and can be placed anywhere in the United States.
The location will also affect how much money you will be spending each month. It is important to consider how much it costs to live in a certain area and what it will be like to live there. It can be fun and exciting to live in a city, but sometimes the price of rent is just not affordable. Unfortunately, life is not like Friends, and a beautiful 2-bedroom apartment in the middle of Manhattan is a little out of reach on a waitress (or student!) budget.
Do some research on living options in the area around each school to get an idea of how much rent will be per month. It will also be important to like the area where you live while you are in OT school because you will be living there for the next two or three years of your life. You might even stay longer if you get a job there after graduation!
Program cost is another major factor to consider. OT school is a big investment. Depending on what program you choose, tuition can be anywhere from $30,000 to over $100,000 for some private and doctoral degree programs. This can lead to a lot of student loan debt down the line.
Calculate the full cost of attendance for each school that you are interested in and ask if they offer any scholarship opportunities. It is important to be up front with yourself about how you will pay for school and how much you can afford before making your decision.
Don’t put yourself into major debt just to attend a “top” school.
Every OT program is going to prepare you to enter the field. What makes a program worth paying for is what opportunities that it offers and how it fits your goals, not how it is ranked.
Faculty Interests and Research
Take some time to research the professors at each school. What are their professional backgrounds? Are they currently involved in research? These are important questions to answer, because faculty experience and interests will shape a program’s curriculum.
Each professor brings their own clinical experience to the table when teaching a class. Professors who have specialized interests may also teach electives so that students can get a more in-depth understanding of a particular topic. If you are interested in learning more about specific areas of practice such as low vision therapy or assistive technology, see if a program has professors who specialize in those areas. They can be a great resource to further your understanding of special topics and can help you to explore your own professional interests.
It's also helpful to know what research projects the program is conducting. Some programs emphasize student involvement in research more than others. Doctoral programs will typically require students to do research during the course of the program. If research is something that you are interested in, ask about what opportunities are available for students and what research projects the faculty are working on. You will want their projects to match your own interests.
Choosing a OT program with a Master's or Doctorate can be a personal choice. Here's why you should consider both!
However, you may not be interested in research at all, and that’s ok. It is not for everyone and research is not a requirement for every program. Look through the curriculum to see whether or not research is an essential component of the program you are interested in.
Unique Program Assets
Now on to the fun part! What made you decide to apply to a program in the first place? Each program has something unique to offer, but some may have had opportunities that especially stuck out for you.
Many OT students are interested in being able to study abroad while in graduate school. Study abroad is not as typical in OT school as it is in undergrad. Not every program offers the opportunity to travel. However, many schools have partnerships with countries across the world and are able to send their students abroad for classes or even Level II fieldwork placements. Some schools may only offer opportunities every few years. If studying abroad is something that is really important to you, then choose a program that has international opportunities permanently built into their curriculum.
Programs also have unique partnerships with the communities that they serve. For example, a program may offer a free clinic where students are able to provide occupational therapy services to local clients in need. Programs also offer various opportunities to volunteer in the community.
Volunteering is a chance to gain exposure to many different types of clients and network for your future career. Volunteering can be a great way for you to explore your interests, whether that be adaptive sports, hippotherapy, working with the homeless, or more! Keep some of your extracurricular interests in mind when comparing schools. It can be helpful to know if a program has specific opportunities for students to get involved in areas that they are interested in.
4 tips to help you make a decision
1. Decide which factors are most important to you
There may not be a program that has everything you are looking for. Try and decide 1-2 aspects of a program that are absolutely necessary for you to be successful. This will help you start to narrow down your choices.
2. Go visit and spend a day there if you can
Reading about a program on their website is not always enough to understand what it is really like. If you have the opportunity, go visit a program and get to know more about what it is like to be a student there. Sit in on a class if you are allowed. This is the best way to truly experience a program before enrolling.
3. Talk to both faculty and students
Having a conversation with faculty can tell you a lot about a program. You can learn a little more about the program’s goals and what their faculty and students are doing. Conversations with students can also be very helpful. They can tell you about their experience and what they like or don’t like about the program. If you are unable to come talk to faculty or students in person, having these conversations over the phone can be a great option.
4. Write everything down and compare your notes
It can be easy to get confused when you are researching multiple programs at once. To avoid mixing up details, make sure you write down what you learn about each program and document your initial impressions. Seeing all of the information on paper can make it easier to process. Here’s a useful chart to help you compare your options:
Choosing an OT program can seem overwhelming, but . . .
Hopefully, for this information will be helpful when you are making your decision. Ultimately, it is about finding the OT program that fits in with your goals and where you see yourself being successful. Just remember that it will all be worth it in the end. No matter where you decide to school, you will be starting your journey of becoming an awesome occupational therapist!
Got any more tips on how to choose a program? Let us know in the comments below!
If you're still in infancy stages of the application process, be sure to download our ultimate guide and ebook. It covers everything related to applying to OT school.