Occupational Therapists (OTs) work with patients to help them achieve independence in life skills that matter to them. Goals are often related to performing every day, occupational activities, such as participating fully in school despite a disability, or recovering from an injury in order to regain a certain skill. An OT uses a systematic approach to assist their patients in the most beneficial and comfortable ways possible. This approach includes individualized evaluations with each patient, customized interventions based on each patient’s goals, and outcome evaluations to ensure that goals are being met. OTs take a holistic perspective when treating a patient and consider the patient’s daily environments and personal relationships in the treatment process. Occupational therapists work in a wide range of settings such as acute care hospitals, inpatient rehabilitation, skilled nursing facilities, outpatient facilities, school systems, mental health facilities, home health, etc. In order to become an OT after one earns a Master’s degree, it is necessary to sit for a national registry exam, the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT). As of June 2016, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the average salary for an Occupational Therapist was $78,810. More information about the OT profession can be found at www.aota.org.
As summarized in Appendix A, occupational therapists much complete a series of prerequisite courses to be considered for graduate programs. Students can choose any major, but some majors fulfill OT program prerequisites better than others. Although there are commonalities in which courses are required, each school is slightly different. Students interested in specific programs should check with those programs to review their particular requirements. Generally, an introductory biology course and 6 to 8 hours of human or vertebrate anatomy & physiology are required, along with 3-6 hours of human development (life span development). Most colleges also require 3-6 hours of introduction to psychology and abnormal psychology, and 3 hours of either sociology or social psychology. Quantitative requirements usually entail a course in college algebra and a course in introductory statistics. A 1-2 hour medical terminology course is recommended, if not required, at most schools. Some other prerequisites that may be required include general chemistry, physics, and kinesiology. On average, schools require an overall GPA of 3.0 and a grade of “C” or better in prerequisite courses. Although the minimum GPA for acceptance is 3.0, the GPA of students who are accepted is much higher, averaging approximately between 3.3-3.5 overall and 3.6-3.7 in prerequisite courses.
In addition to these prerequisite course requirements, most graduate schools request that applicants complete a minimum of 30-40 hours of volunteer or work experience hours under the supervision of a licensed Occupational Therapist in at least two settings. Applicants with more hours of experience will be more competitive during the application process than those who barely meet the minimum requirement.
There are several steps involved in applying to occupational therapy graduate schools (refer to Appendix D for a suggested preparatory timeline). In order to apply to an OT program, it is necessary to complete a common application through the Occupational Therapist Centralized Application Service (OTCAS; https://portal.otcas.org/). Applicants must also take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and submit these scores as a part of their application. Some schools also request a general application to their graduate program that is specific to their school, and some request the submission of a Technical Standards form. Any secondary applications should be sent back as soon as possible after they are received.
The GRE is composed of questions assessing verbal and quantitative reasoning as well as analytical writing. Verbal Reasoning is assessed in two, 30-minute sections consisting of approximately 20 questions. There are also two sections of Quantitative Reasoning with 20 questions with each section lasting approximately 35 minutes. The Analytical Writing component consists of two 30-minute essays. Most accepted applications have a GRE score above the 50th percentile, and an Analytical score of 3.5 or above. There are a number of print and online guides available for preparing to take the GRE. Additionally, there are in-person courses offered from time-to-time at area colleges/universities. More information about the GRE can be found at www.ets.org/gre.
On the OTCAS, you will be asked to write a personal essay explaining the reasons you are interested in becoming an occupational therapist. There is a 7500-character (not word) limit, so it is critical that you are able to succinctly and clearly describe your motivation for becoming an OT. You should have one of your professors or pre-health advisors review your statement before you submit it because this is a very important component of your application. The statement should explain why you selected OT as a career and how an OT degree relates to your immediate and long-term professional goals. You can include how your personal, educational, and professional background will help you achieve your goals.
Most graduate schools require three letters of recommendation. Often, one must be from a licensed OT who has directly supervised the applicant and can attest to his or her abilities and investment in becoming an occupational therapist. Another letter of recommendation should be from a professor who is familiar with the applicant’s work in prerequisite courses. It is a good idea to ask for these recommendation letters well in advance of the submission deadline.