OT/OTA Admission Series Part 1: Getting In

Strategies to get accepted into Occupational Therapy or Occupational Therapy Assistant School

Applying to an occupational therapy or occupational therapy assistant program is a process and any misstep along the way can negatively impact admission because of the competitive nature of occupational therapy programs. When does planning begin when applying to an occupational therapy or occupational therapy assistant program? Answer: At the start of your first semester of your college education. You may ask, what if I change majors to occupational therapy after my freshman year? The answer remains just about the same: At the start of the first semester when you decide that you want to apply to an occupational therapy program. What if I already have a bachelor’s degree and want a master’s degree for OT? The answer: At the point you realize that you want to obtain a Master of Science in Occupational Therapy. What if I already have a bachelor’s and want to be an OTA? At the point you realize you want to be an OTA. You get the picture. Once you determine that you want to be an occupational therapy professional, planning to apply to an OT or OTA program must begin right away.

Due to the competitive nature of occupational therapy programs, for some, there is apprehension to even apply. However, if your goal is to be an occupational therapist or occupational therapy assistant, then a well-developed plan can allow you to realize your work goal. There are many benefits to being an occupational therapy practitioner. The first benefit (and I am 100% biased here) is that it is the best job ever! We look at the whole person, their occupational roles, and get them back to what they love to do. You basically go to work to make people engage in tasks that make them happy. What’s not to like? There are many more positives: Benefits of OT as a Career  and job security. Just look at the  OT Job Outlook and OTA Job Outlook. Still, you first must get accepted into an OT or OTA program; and the acceptance rate across OT and OTA schools vary. You want your application packet to shine so your name can be in the ‘accepted’ pile!

Wherever you are with the application process, look to three key components to keep your focus on activating and maintaining your plan: (1) Application requirements I can control (2) Application requirements I cannot control and (3) Things to consider with each.

Believe it or not, you have quite a bit of control in the application process. Here is a visual below of what is in your control.

The scale is definitely tipped in your favor to get into an OT or OTA Program!

Now, looking at that scale, doesn’t getting accepted to an occupational therapy or occupational therapy assistant program look very doable?!  Your future is in your hands, not the in the hands of the admissions committee! So, what are the ways of maximizing what is in your control? With all plans, you must first look at the entire landscape to determine action steps to get to your goal. First step, what are the application requirements?

Application requirements

FYI: For more information on the application requirements for OT and OTA programs in the United States, start your research here: https://acoteonline.org/all-schools/

Currently, the minimum requirement to practice as an occupational therapist is a master’s degree and as an occupational therapy assistant, an associate degree. Application requirements for master’s degree programs consist of a variety of requirements: grades, essay, interview, recommendations, GRE and volunteer hours are at the foundation of most programs, with some additional requirements in other programs.  For example, some programs may also want scores from a Health Sciences Reasoning Test, in addition to what most schools want (grades, essay, etc.).  Application requirements for an associate degree to be an OTA run along the same lines as the OT programs: grades, essay, interview, recommendations, volunteer hours and sometimes a Health Sciences Reasoning Test. Many OT Programs have also progressed to a Doctorate in Occupational Therapy (OTD). However, the strategies to gain admittance into an OT or OTA program would work just as well for an OTD Program.   Once you have determined that you would like to be an OT or OTA, what is next?

Know the specific requirements of the Program(s) to which you are applying. Note this step indicates programS. With the competitive nature of occupational therapy and occupational therapy assistant programs, if this is the field you wish to enter, there is a need to expand the net you cast during the application process. The rule of thumb with applying to colleges is to apply to at least three schools: (1) a safe school that you feel confident you will get accepted (2) a moderate reach school which is a school that you feel is a little above your safe school, but acceptance is possible and (3) a reach school where you are below in many areas of the application requirements, but strong in other areas and there is crossing of fingers, toes, and whatever else can be crossed that you will get in. As you do your research, keep in mind the same three categories system with OT/OTA Schools. After you determine your three categories of OT/OTA schools, list all the requirements and deadlines of each school to begin to craft your plan!

Know the deadlines of the applications and deadlines for all components of the applications—all of them! For some OT/OTA schools, there is an application to a certain school of the college and then the OT/OTA program. So, there may be two deadlines. One deadline for the school within the college and another for the OT/OTA program. Then there are other deadlines that can affect even being considered for a program—the time frame of completion of the volunteer hours, when certain classes need to be completed, specialized testing, etc. Being aware of all deadlines is the first step of any well laid out plan. This also allows for having a backup plan should one of those deadlines be in jeopardy. For example, not getting approved to volunteer at one site six months before the deadline allows for alternate plans. Not getting approved to volunteer one month before the deadline does not.

With OT/OTA program choices, application requirements, and application deadlines organized, the next step is to determine where you stand in the application areas and how to address your situation to increase your chances of getting accepted.

The Plan

Application Requirements I can control

Grades:

Let us start with the elephant in the room. The dreaded grades! You must think, surely, she is kidding! I cannot control my grades. The professors control my grades, or some classes are really hard, what about getting good grades in those hard classes?! The answer remains that you are in control of your grades.

Things to Consider:

Organize your course schedule to get the best grades. Grades are actually the most straightforward of the requirements. Each school provides a list of pre-requisite course requirements, the grades required for those pre-requisites, some even give a certain sequence to complete these pre-requisite classes. But, if you are in a position to do so (i.e., applying to a BS/MS Program, AAS, or know that you want to get an MS and working on those pre-requisites for the application as you finish your bachelor’s degree), take a good look at the sequence. Does it work for you? Are you able to take 12-15 credits where you have Physics and Statistics in one semester? I would not be particularly thrilled to have both of those classes in one semester, not many people would. Therefore, determine a good course sequence each semester to perform your best in all your classes. You are not wining any awards by taking all the pre-requisites in the least number of semesters possible. Quite the opposite. You are placing yourself in danger of poor grades. So, if possible, try to organize your schedule where you have a good ratio of easy to hard classes while making timely progress with graduation.

Aim for an A in all your classes and work for it! Many programs list a grade of C as the minimum to apply. But what grade do you need to get in?! Most likely, the bare minimum of a C is not going to help your cause. So, keep an A as your goal and work hard towards that goal. Research shows that grades predict performance. Therefore, the student with an A in a course versus a student with a grade of C in the same course, is a safer bet for an OT or OTA program. If your hard work garners you a B, still a respectable grade and very much a grade that keep you in the running if you have A’s speckled on your transcript.  You want to present strong grades to the OT/OTA admissions committee for them to realize that you understand this material and you will most likely be successful with their occupational therapy curriculum.

Setting yourself up to get an A: Employment. What do you need to get competitive grades? Intense focus on your classes. Therefore, you need to have the time to focus and need to determine the impact of working on your ability to focus on your schoolwork. Can you not work during the semester? For some students, with some crafty budgeting, it is possible. But, for some working is a requirement. Bills have to be paid and there is no other source of support. What are some options when you have to work? Can you get a job where you can study or one that is flexible?

Setting yourself up to get an A: Course completion. If possible, take harder courses at your local community college. The classes are smaller, which can positively impact your grade. Check with the registrar to determine transfer status (Pass/Fail versus the grade you received in the class) and with the OT/OTA program to determine if the grade transfers as well. If yes from the registrar and OT program, go for it!  If you are a full-time student, take some courses you are good at to boost your GPA.

Setting yourself up to get an A: Address distractions that affect your focus.  Figure out what is getting in the way of following your study schedule and address it. Is it your friends that want to hang out? Go to the library to study. Is it social media? Put your phone away while you are studying or get an app that blocks out the internet like the Freedom app . Is it your family? Go to the library or a coffee house with headphones. Is the work too hard? Get a tutor. Do you work better in groups or not? Figure it out before you pour time into poor preparation. If you are in a study group and you spend 75% of the time chatting and not studying in the group, you work better alone.  If you have family responsibilities (kids, parents, etc.) give yourself enough room in your schedule to address these responsibilities. You may need to wake up early to study or put the kids to bed early to study at a reasonable time in the evening. Solidify your support in the beginning of the semester to allow for time to study. Put you plan in place every semester, follow it, and keep plugging away until the semester is over, and you will get OT admission caliber grades.

Setting yourself up to get an A: Get to know all components of your syllabi.  Syllabi are your friends. You never really have to wonder what you need to get a good grade in a class. The professor provides you the road map in the syllabus. Read. The. Syllabus. The assignments are broken down for you. It also gives you expectations of each assignment component. It gives you the math of an A! Do the math to determine what you need from each grading component to get an A.  If you are not the best test taker or essay writer, seeing varied assessment measures gives you hope that your strength in one area will make up for weakness in another. Sometimes, syllabi are available online prior to the start of classes. Look at the grading breakdown (2 exams at 50% each could spell disaster vs 2 exams, 1 paper and quizzes for a grade, which is a bit more doable). Does this work for you? If not, find an instructor that has more varied grading measures.

Know the drop/withdrawal deadlines. Know when a class can be dropped without having to take a W(withdrawal) on your transcript. Sometimes it is not the right semester for a class. Rather than fail, drop the class when you are able to make school your priority. Be careful with this option. If you drop too late, you need to take a W in the class. So, you are in a position to either get a bad grade or a W. Both, poor options. But, a W will not bring down your GPA. Programs may look at the W in an unfavorable light. Too many withdrawals and that will show a pattern of poor work habits—it appears to others that if a class is too hard, you withdraw, which is not good. So, use this as your last option.

Re-taking a class for a better grade. If you have all C’s in your pre-requisites, consider taking some of the classes over again. Per credit hour, at a community college or state school, you can pay a low rate for a 3-credit class. You are investing in yourself and your future. It makes no sense to apply with the C’s when A’s are the standard. It also shows that you are resilient and aim for the best. You do not settle for the minimum to apply. You push yourself to perform better and to put your best foot forward.  Also, some schools will allow you to take the higher of your pre-requisites when applying. So, it is in your favor to present a higher grade.

Advisor. They are there to help. They provide great resources! They will provide you with information on what courses are required, what courses can transfer, financial aid resources, the application process, and so much more! Use them.

Entrance Exam

Some schools will require the Health Sciences Reasoning Test: [https://www.insightassessment.com/article/health-sciences-reasoning-test-hsrt-2]

Things to Consider:

Having an understanding on the makeup of the test is the first layer of preparation. The Health Sciences Reasoning Test is a 33-question multiple-choice test that basically assesses reasoning. An overall score of 15 to 20 is indicative of moderate critical-thinking abilities, 21 to 25 is indicative of strong critical-thinking abilities, and ≥26 is indicative of superior critical-thinking abilities.

The creators of the exam provide the following information on areas assessed on their website:

Area AssessedSkills needed to be proficient in this area
Reasoning Skills OverallThe Reasoning Skills Overall score describes overall strength in using reasoning to form reflective judgments about what to believe or what to do.  
AnalysisAnalytical skills are used to identify assumptions, reasons, themes, and the evidence used in making arguments or offering explanations.  
Interpretation  Interpretation is the process of discovering, determining, or assigning meaning.  Interpretation skills can be applied to anything, e.g. written messages, charts, diagrams, maps, graphs, memes, and verbal and non-verbal exchanges. People apply their interpretive skills to behaviors, events, and social interactions when deciding what they think something means in a given context.  
Inference  Inference skills to draw conclusions from reasons, evidence, observations, experiences, or our values and beliefs.   
Evaluation  Evaluative reasoning skills enable us to assess the credibility of sources of information and the claims they make.  We use these skills to determine the strength or weakness of arguments.  Applying evaluation skills we can judge the quality of analyses, interpretations, explanations, inferences, options, opinions, beliefs, ideas, proposals, and decisions.  Strong explanation skills can support high-quality evaluation by providing the evidence, reasons, methods, criteria, or assumptions behind the claims made and the conclusions reached.   
Explanation  Explanation is the process of justifying what we have decided to do or what we have decided to believe.  People with strong explanation skills provide the evidence, methods, and considerations they actually relied on when making their judgment  
Deduction  Deductive reasoning is rigorously logical and clear cut. Deductive skills are used whenever we determine the precise logical consequences of a given set of rules, conditions, beliefs, values, policies, principles, procedures, or terminology.  
Induction    Inductive reasoning relies on estimating likely outcomes. Decision making in contexts of uncertainty relies on inductive reasoning.  
Numeracy  Numeracy refers to the ability to make judgments based on quantitative information in a variety of contexts. People with strong numeracy can describe how quantitative information is gathered, manipulated, and represented textually, verbally, and visually in graphs, charts, tables and diagrams. Numeracy requires all the core critical thinking skills.  

As with any test, the second layer of preparation is using resources that are available to help develop the skills that are being assessed. The links below have resource recommendations that will aid with preparation. Once you establish the resources that are available, place preparation for this assessment into your weekly schedule. Not all schools require the Health Sciences Reasoning Test. But, if required, with preparation, peak performance is possible! This is not a test that is provided across all schools. So, if this is an area of high anxiety for you, consider an OT/OTA Program that does not require this test. If you have no choice [i.e., location or cost] prepare, prepare, prepare! More resources are below.

Health Sciences Reasoning Test Resources:

Health Sciences Reasoning Test

Health Sciences Reasoning Test Preparation

Critical Thinking Preparation 1

Critical Thinking Preparation 2

Volunteer Hours

You can definitely see this as being in your hands. You setup the volunteer opportunity. You present yourself in the clinic in a professional manner while learning about occupational therapy. You support the needs of the clinic during your volunteer hours.

Things to Consider:

Timing. Do not leave this for the last minute! I repeat, do not leave this for the last minute! There are many students that need to volunteer to meet entrance requirements. The mindset of, I will do it over the summer, may leave you stuck when there are no places to volunteer over the summer. If you can get some hours in during a semester, make it work.

Location. Location. Location. If you are in a pinch, outpatient facilities are more accommodating and can approve volunteering in a shorter period of time compared to a hospital. Another bonus is that they are smaller, and you can make better connections with the professional staff. Areas with smaller populations are more likely to have volunteer availability as oppose to cities with larger populations. Therefore, it may make more sense to look outside larger cities to find facilities to volunteer. 

Volunteer Application Process. Applying to volunteer can be quite a lengthy process to ensure patient safety and confidentiality. Get ready for it! Prior to volunteering, look at the clinics in the area and the requirements needed to volunteer (immunization, application form, etc.).

OT School Volunteer Forms. Check to see if there are forms to complete for the OT school and have the forms ready for your site.  Make sure you get all the necessary signatures prior to submitting the form with your application. Nothing is worse than doing all the hours and not having the proper signatures or the proper form.  

Make a good impression. When volunteering, try to make a lasting relationship with an occupational therapy practitioner at the site. Going back to the requirements of application, it may very well be that one of your recommendation has to be from an occupational therapy practitioner that can attest to your therapeutic use of self. Understanding that recommendation requirement, helps to shape your volunteer experience. Place your best foot forward. Follow the clinic dress code, wear appropriate shoes (flip flops, crocs, etc. are not safe!).

Don’t be a stranger. Making a good impression goes beyond the time you are officially on the volunteer clock for OT school. If possible, volunteer beyond what you need to apply to the OT Program. In some OT Programs, additional volunteer hours are figured into the admission rubric. Also, you make a great impression on the OT staff when your presence there is because you want to be and not because you are there to accumulate hours to apply to an OT Program.

Volunteering during COVID-19. In the interest of full transparency here, many programs have been forced to cut their volunteer hours by as much as half because facilities are navigating safety of others. Check on the website of your school of interest to learn of their updated volunteer requirement and quickly work towards the new requirement.

Interview

Second elephant in the room, the dreaded interview. Someone else judging you, your outfit choices, your answers, can definitely make you nervous. Panel interviews can also seem like an area that is out of your control. Nope. This is also in your hands.

Things to Consider

If you made it that far in the application process, you are close to being considered for acceptance. Place that in the back of your mind to stay focused and to keep you motivated as you prepare. The Admissions Committee wants to meet with you! Is this person as good in person as they are on paper? Yes. Yes, you are. Make sure that you are by preparing before. Know the usual questions and practice! What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? Why occupational therapy? Why not another profession? How are your time management skills? Practice the interview to practice your demeanor and responses for the actual interview. Sometimes, you will answer the practice questions and see issues to be mindful of during the interview (not enough eye contact, not providing a genuine answer).  Many schools have career centers that can analyze your interview skills, use them. You paid for their services in your student fees! Another nice thing about practicing, you get a system to deal with nerves. When practicing, you can notice the nerves and practice bringing yourself back into focus, which will be the same strategy you use in the real interview. Learn the OT Program to understand course sequences, fieldwork schedules, course expectations. These are questions that may come up in one way or the other.

Contact the program ahead of time to learn the time frame of the interview. Some interviews could be 15 minutes, some 1 hour. Your responses in a 15-minute interview will be different than an hour-long interview. Practice getting to the location of the interview. Now with social distancing, in-person interviews are not as prevalent. But, if that occurs, practice, practice, practice. Look at parking, directions, etc. Nothing is worse that being late for your interview. Bring material to keep you occupied, such as reading material and headphones to block out the other nervous interviewees stressing you out!

If you are having an interview by Zoom, save the interview information and Zoom link in a Word document on your computer desktop for quick access. Nothing will be worse than trying to find the link in a long list of emails. You will most likely be in a waiting room in Zoom until the interviewers are ready to let you into the interview. Get to the interview early to ensure that you have access.  Getting to the link early gives you a head start with how you look on video, which can increase your comfort level. Any spinach in your teeth from that omelet? Nope. Am I too close, too far, not enough light? As with any other interview, getting there early, even if it is virtual, gives you some time to center yourself to quell the nerves.

Another level of preparation, dress professionally for the interview. In person, a full suit is the standard. What about Zoom where it is just your upper body that is seen? Should you wear a full suit? Yes! What if you need to get up to get a document? How will it look to the committee to see your plaid pajamas with that crisp white shirt and jacket? As a side note, always have a suit available. There are some great options right now to offset the expense of a good suit—consignment shops, asking for a suit as a graduation gift, or saving up and buying one.

Always ask pertinent questions at the end of the interview. This is your opportunity to get questions answered. Use this time wisely. Ask a question about the program, coursework, what are they looking for in a student, how do different class levels in the Program interact are just a few.

There are many sites and books with tips and tricks for interviews. The best plan is to read a book: Interview Book Resources, practice the delivery with a person (preferably the Career Center) and you are on your way. Follow-up with a thank you email and a thank you card to your interviewers (read: make sure you note the names of the interviewers to send individual thank you cards).

Essay

Someone else is judging my writing! Yes. But you can prepare for it!

Things to Consider:

Essays are truly a great way to express yourself. In most cases, there will be one topic, or you can choose 1 topic from a choice of topics. In most cases, you are not writing an essay on the spot. You have time to prepare, use it!  To make the application process uniform, most universities will provide you with the topic (s) and the parameters. Do not go outside of the parameters. If the limit is 500 words, provide 500 words. Do not go over the word limit to show them what a great writer you are. It shows that you are unable to stay within provided parameters, which can be detrimental to your chances. In many cases, with online application, there is a word cap that cuts you off at the word limit. Check the word count in Word to make sure your response captures your best for that topic and paste into the application.  This is an essay that will impact your future career. Have someone read it, preferably an OT practitioner. The Writing Center at your University will give you good information on content and grammar. An OT practitioner will let you know if you captured the OT component because there will be OT practitioners reading what you wrote. You want it to come across as genuine, but also knowledgeable on the field.

If the essay is onsite, ask the program contact (make sure the contact is someone who would know such as a program director) the best ways to prepare for the essay. This can be reviewing pertinent OT documents such as the OT Practice Framework, staying up to date on OT news (which is easy these days with social media—follow AOTA on Twitter and Instagram for all the news). When writing the essay, make an outline of your thoughts prior to writing the essay and write from your knowledge from reading key AOTA documents, recent healthcare and general news, and your volunteer experience.

GRE

Honestly, like grades, you control this, not the test makers.

Things to Consider:

The amount of resources available to get the needed GRE score to be considered for acceptance into an OT Program are exponential. Some think there is no real preparation for the test. It feels like there is no real right answer during the exam. But, in reality there are a lot of methods of preparation for the GRE. In today’s world, the online resources to prepare for these exams are limitless and can be found here: GRE Prep Resources.  Again, planning and discipline is the way to go. Do not rush through preparation for the GRE or leave it for the last minute. Make a study plan and stick with the plan. With the exam being online, use all online test taking resources such as full exams online with practice books to refine your skills. This is also a great way to build your exam stamina to stay focused for long periods of time to perform optimally on the exam.  I would take no less than 3 full exams online. One to establish your areas of strength and weaknesses, a second to see what you learned from reviewing the results and answers from the first exam, and a third exam to see if you are progressing with more preparation.

There are also exam centers here: GRE In-person courses which has a higher cost. But, if your dream OT school requires it, then you can also obtain the additional support. This may be an option if you feel that the self-study option is not working for you.

Application Requirements I cannot control

Recommendations

So, we are at the point where you learn the one requirement you cannot control. Recommendations are completed by other people for you and you certainly cannot make people give you a recommendation any sooner than when they produce it. However, there are some things to consider increasing the likelihood that you will get the recommendation in a timely manner for your application.

Things to consider:

The reality of it is that the person you are requesting a recommendation from is most likely inundated with reference requests and your request can go on the back burner relatively quickly. There is that fine line between gentle reminders and harassing someone for a recommendation. Once you cross the harassment line, there is no going back! So, you are at the mercy of the writer. In my experience, recommendations come through in the nick of time for all students. However, it is an art to obtain that one piece of paper! Then there are other issues outside of your control. You may have done a glowing job with your interaction with this person. But the one-pager is less than stellar.

So, how do you get that glowing recommendation? Best way is probably asking: let me know if you need any help with forming the letter, I can provide my resume to get a little more background on me. The best way to ensure you get the letter in a timely manner is to give the person enough time to write it and move the deadline up a bit to give yourself a time cushion. For example, if you need the letter by March 15 for an application deadline, tell the person that the deadline is February 15. Another option is to have some backups in case you are short 1 recommendation. If 3 recommendations are needed, ask 4 people, and see which 3 reply first. Finally, be mindful if there is an online component to the application and make certain you are clear of the expectations so the individual can navigate the online process to provide the recommendation.

Keep in mind the time frame for the recommendation. It may need to be within a year of the application. So, while you had a great experience 3 years ago with a college professor, and have the recommendation for the application, it will fall outside the accepted time frame, which would affect your application.

Final thoughts:

Many programs do not specifically ask for school activities as part of the application requirements. Still, get involved in your school. There are many clubs that foster community participation. Join clubs that volunteer at local hospitals, food banks, and the like. If you have already graduated (i.e. applying for an MS or OTD), get involved in your community after you graduate to maintain volunteer efforts. Even with COVID-19, there are many opportunities to support your community—food drives, sewing masks, delivering food, raising funds, etc. You may be able to work your involvement in the essay or during the interview.

Make sure you maintain occupational balance. I am the first person to say stay focused to put your best foot forward to get into an OT or OTA Program. But I am also the first person to say do so while ensuring occupational balance. Make certain you have an outlet to refill your cup as you tackle this goal and place this in your schedule. Make these self-care moments a priority. Make time for your family and friends and place this time in your schedule. It is important to shy away from socialization when you are staying focused on your work. However, make certain that staying away for schoolwork is one chunk of time and there is another chunk of time to engage with family and friends. Keep in mind, that self-care time does not need to be long, it can be a cup of coffee in 15-minutes as your catchup on the news or a 30-minute walk in the park.

Being an occupational therapist has been good to me. I have been on quite a journey in this field and I have loved every moment! As an educator, it warms my heart to see occupational therapy and occupational therapy assistant students on their journey to becoming clinicians. I hope my strategies can be used to secure acceptance to an OT or OTA program. I think I covered quite a bit of ground with the strategies provided. But I am sure there are more questions. If there are any specific questions, ask in the comments or send me an email.

On my next post, I will provide advice for being successful in an OT/OTA school.

Turquessa.

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