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Is Occupational Therapy School Hard?

I get a lot of pre-occupational therapy readers here at My OT Spot, and a common question I get from the pre-OT crowd is, Is occupational therapy school hard?

While I’ve talked about this a bit in other OT school-related articles, I realized I needed to give this question an article of its own, for the pre-OT’s wondering the answer to this question.

In this article, I’ll go into what the challenging aspects of OT school are along with what you can expect throughout your OT program.

If you’re currently in the process of applying to OT school and need some guidance, I’ve got you covered with our all-inclusive guide, “How to Get Into OT School: Everything You Need to Know.” It’s the resource that I wish I had when I was applying, and covers everything OT school application-related that I’ve shared on the blog and more, all in one handy guide. 

Is Occupational Therapy School Hard?

The short answer is: YES, occupational therapy school is hard.

But so is physical therapy school, nursing school, medical school, pharmacy school, physician’s assistant school, etc.

All healthcare degrees are going to be challenging, and for good reason. These programs want to ensure you’re equipped to competently and safely work in the healthcare field, so you’re going to have a good amount of science classes involved in any of these programs, along with challenging clinical/fieldwork rotations.

Working with medically complex people is not always easy in itself, and all healthcare programs want to ensure you’re fully prepared to take on the challenge.

Occupational therapy school isn’t any different.

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Similar to other healthcare programs, you’ll have a big focus on science, research, and theory in your coursework, along with multiple in-the-field (fieldwork) clinicals in multiple settings, and often a graduate thesis to top it all off.

However, even though OT school is hard, it is not impossible.

I tell prospective occupational therapy students that if you have a competitive GPA (preferably above a 3.5 to stand out), get solid grades (mostly A’s) in your OT school prerequisites, especially in anatomy and physiology, AND you get accepted into OT school, you can totally handle OT school, and the challenge is absolutely worth it.

As mentioned above, since occupational therapy is a healthcare field, all OT graduate programs want to be sure you’re prepared to work with people of all walks of life safely and competently, regardless of the setting.

You can expect to study several hours most evenings, often after eight hour days of classes and labs. Social time is definitely more limited than in your undergrad days. It’s still possible to maintain some semblance of a social life, although it will probably involve more group studying and research than going out.  

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Here’s a typical layout of what you can expect throughout an OT graduate program. This applies to both Master’s and Doctorate degrees. Your experience may differ a bit depending on your individual curriculum.

The Hardest Courses are Usually at the Start

In my OT school experience, and in many OT graduate programs, the most challenging classes are front-loaded in the beginning of the programs. For many students (myself included), gross anatomy, neuroscience/neuroanatomy, and kinesiology are typically the hardest of the classes. 

These courses are almost always in the beginning, which helps ensure that admitted students can handle the rigors of graduate school.

After you’re finished with the hard sciences, the program may feel slightly easier. However, it’s still going to be a challenge throughout the entire program with a lot of courses on research and theory, frequent papers, exams, lab practicals, clinicals, and working on a thesis depending on the program. My master’s program had a group thesis that we worked on throughout the entire program.

While it’s not easy, the OT school curriculums do do a good job of providing you a solid foundation as you begin your occupational therapy career.

To Work or Not to Work?

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Most full-time OT programs suggest you don’t work during the program, since you will be spending A LOT of time studying and working on research before you start fulltime fieldwork. I highly recommend you save as much as possible for living expenses beforehand so you can minimize the time spent working during OT school.

If you have to work, it is possible to work a few hours part time until you start Level II fieldwork. I tried not to work more than 10 hours a week, and many weeks I opted not to work at all when I had large chucks of time needed for thesis research and studying. I did not work at all during both of my Level II fieldworks, which I’ll go into next.

Wrapping Up OT School With Level II Fieldwork

Level II fieldwork consists of two 12-week semesters where you’ll typically work 40 hours a week. This is the clinical portion of OT school. These clinicals, typically at the end of your OT program, will challenge you to tie everything you’ve learned together while working with actual patients. You will have to come up with appropriate treatments for multiple patients a day.

You will have some experience working with patients before Level II fieldwork thanks to Level I fieldwork which is usually only one day a week per semester, or just one full week per semester. Level I fieldwork can be in multiple settings and allows you to observe therapists and learn treatment ideas. Your Level II fieldwork is the point in school that you will really gain solid skills and a foundation to practice as an OT.

On top of the 40 hours a week for your Level II fieldwork, you can expect to spend several more hours per week treatment planning and researching, so outside work at this time is not recommended. You might also have to take an online elective during each fieldwork, which involves more homework outside of clinicals, which is tough but still doable.

Is Occupational Therapy and OT School Right For You?

If you’re wondering if going through the rigors of an occupational therapy graduate program is worth it, and you aren’t really that interested in occupational therapy, I would recommend you think twice about applying.

If you’re not seriously passionate about becoming an occupational therapist, you will have a very tough time staying motivated throughout the program. OT school is not for people who just want a career that pays well. It takes a lot of work and motivation to get through an OT program, so if you don’t think you’ll have that drive to get you through, I suggest you consider another career that you are more passionate about.

If you know you do want to be an OT, I don’t want this article to stress you out or deter you from applying to OT school. I just want to give a realistic picture of what you can expect in OT school.

Remember, if you’re truly passionate about becoming an OT and have made it through the acceptance process, you can totally do it! 

If you’re still new to the idea of becoming an OT and might be on the fence about it, that’s okay too! I have a follow-up article just for you, Decide If Becoming an OT Is Right For You.

So is the Stress of Occupational Therapy School Worth It?

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Yes, absolutely! While OT school was personally hardest schooling (and time) of my life, I have never regretted my decision. I can’t imagine working in any other career, and even after over four years of practicing, I still love helping patients progress and meet their goals to live their best life.

If you know that occupational therapy is the right career for you, accept the challenge and know that you can do it! If occupational therapy is your passion, you can get through OT school and feel confident in your decision to become an OT.

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If you’re already an OT, or you are currently in OT school, what do you think? Has occupational therapy school been challenging for you? What were the hardest parts for you?

And if you’re thinking about applying to occupational therapy school but still aren’t sure, what questions do you have? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

If you want to learn more about occupational therapy school, be sure to also check out these resources.

Additional Resources

How to Get Into OT School-Everything You Need to Know (Guide from My OT Spot)

A Day in the Life of an OT Student (My OT Spot)

7 Steps to Get Into Occupational Therapy School (My OT Spot)

5 Big Mistakes I Made Applying to OT School (My OT Spot)

Gotta Get Into Grad School Series (Gotta be OT)

This post was originally published on January 1, 2020 and last updated on February 5, 2024.

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18 comments

  • Misrak October 12, 2020   Reply →

    Thank you so much for the info! I never took or learn about kinesiology. Can you please explain how is that class? Hard or complicate to understand? Thank you!

    • Sarah Stromsdorfer, OTR/L October 13, 2020   Reply →

      Hi Misrak, kinesiology is the study of human movement and I found it to feel similar to physics but in relation to the mechanics of the human body. It was challenging but it is also really interesting (in my opinion) so I wouldn’t let it scare you from pursuing OT 🙂

  • Leanne Cayer August 9, 2021   Reply →

    Hello,

    I am very interested in applying for a masters in OT and I worked very hard to keep my undergrad GPA above 3.7. My concern now is that I have a baby and she will be approx. 16 months when I start my masters program. Do you think it is possible to do this program while having a child? And for that child to still thrive? I do have a husband who is a very hands on dad.

    • Sarah Stromsdorfer, OTR/L August 13, 2021   Reply →

      Hi Leanne, while it is a bit more challenging, it’s totally doable to attend OT school with very young kids. Several of my classmates had young children, with one even having a baby during the program (although to be fair it was his wife and not him!). It may be easier to attend a hybrid (partially online, partially in-person) OT program or a weekend program to make it easier on yourself, but in the end the type of program is up to whatever is best for you. I wish you the best of luck!

  • Brenna Hendler August 31, 2021   Reply →

    Hello,

    I am considering Occupational therapy and going back to school for it. However, I am not sure if it is right for me, my background is in education and working with individuals with disabilities. I am worried it might be to hard for me to start as I have a B.A. in liberal studies, not a bachelor of Science. What I eventually, want to do is to work with individuals who, struggle with learning and recovering skills through art and tactile motor functions. I know that teaching and getting an education degree is one route, but I would like to know more about occupational therapy as well.

    • Sarah Stromsdorfer, OTR/L September 12, 2021   Reply →

      Hi Brenna, you can absolutely go into OT with a background in education, in fact many OTs have a background in education and it can be great fit. If you’re wanting to do more of a deep dive into OT, we have a whole blog category all about Becoming an OT that you can check out here.

  • Martha Herrera January 29, 2022   Reply →

    Hi,
    I am currently in a Masters program and I have to say it is sooo hard. Like life challenges you all the time. I agree you have to be super passionate because I do have days when I want to give up and pursue something else and I am currently having a crisis. If you feel you can endure two plus years of stress and know how to manage your time to combat it do it! But just know you will fail and that is okay because you learn what you need to do better next time. Thank you for this post. It would have been so helpful had I read this when starting my interest in OT school

    • Sarah Stromsdorfer, OTR/L January 31, 2022   Reply →

      Thank you for sharing your experiences and words of encouragement!

  • Ying Zhang December 20, 2022   Reply →

    Thank you for the insightful article on whether OT is right for me or not! I’ve heard an update regarding the doctorate mandate on becoming an OT in the near further. OT graduates with a Masters are no longer eligible to apply for a OT license? Can you confirm if this is true for all 50 states and explain further into this matter? When will this take effect?

    • Sarah Stromsdorfer, OTR/L January 22, 2023   Reply →

      Hi Ying, the mandate for all OT graduate programs to transition to Doctorates is now on hold but even when the programs do transition to OTDs, you will always be grandfathered in to work as an OT even if you completed a Master’s in OT.

  • Sadie June 26, 2023   Reply →

    Hi I’m 35 years of age and wandering if I’m to old to to an OT degree? Also I didn’t had math or biology. Does that matter?

    • Sarah Stromsdorfer, OTR/L July 11, 2023   Reply →

      Hi Sadie, I don’t think you’re ever too old for an OT degree, especially at 35! I’m 35 myself and would definitely still do OT school over again at this age if I wasn’t already an OT 🙂 You’ll just want to look at your desired schools’ pre-reqs and get those going if you’re wanting to apply soon.

  • Victor Victoria October 7, 2023   Reply →

    Hi..
    I am considering occupational therapy and want to go back to school for it because of my passion and interest in helping people improve physically, mentally and emotionally through creativity but I am afraid after reading this article. I don’t have any basis in Anatomy. Infact, I only have a background in Economics. Do you think I can do this?

    • Sarah Stromsdorfer, OTR/L October 26, 2023   Reply →

      Yes absolutely! You’ll be required to take Anatomy and Physiology I and II as well as a few other foundational pre-reqs before you even apply to OT schools so you’ll feel a lot more prepared once you take those.

  • Orlando January 18, 2024   Reply →

    Thank you for a well written and researched article into getting an OT master degree. I have a fine arts background (BFA), and a year work experience helping individuals on the autism spectrum that was very rewarding. I also have my massage therapy license so have a good idea on anatomy already, but what I’m curious about is if I apply for OT masters in 2026 (as that’s the soonest I can be able to) will that be too late for the doctoral requirements cutoff? I know I can do the work, but something about both a masters and a doctoral stresses me out.

    • Sarah Stromsdorfer, OTR/L January 24, 2024   Reply →

      Hi Orlando, you can absolutely still apply for Master’s level OT programs, even if they eventually phase into Doctorates as you will be grandfathered in with a Master’s degree. You will always be able to practice with a Master’s for your entire career and will not have to get a Doctorate unless you want to. The Master’s routes are often considerably less expensive than Doctorates as well.

  • Eva July 2, 2024   Reply →

    Hello,
    I am a secondary school student trying to figure out if this could potentially be an option. I am on track to get the australian equivalent of a GPA needed to get into an OT course, however I am not taking any sciences currently in high school (i take psychology, but i’d assume universities wouldn’t really count that). Would you still recommend it considering I haven’t any exposure to biology courses or anything related for the past 3ish years?

    • Sarah Stromsdorfer, OTR/L July 17, 2024   Reply →

      I’m not as familiar with Australia-based OT programs but I know in the US, you will take your science pre-req courses before applying so you’ll automatically have some science background. You don’t need a science-based undergrad degree as long as you’ve gotten most of your pre-req courses done. If anyone applying in Australia has any other perspective, please let us know! I would also recommend contacting any local OT programs directly to get their thoughts as well. Good luck!

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