6 Tips to Get Your Occupational Therapy Observation Hours

You’ve probably already heard all about how challenging the coursework is for occupational therapy programs. The process of applying to occupational therapy school can be just as challenging but in a different way, especially when you’re trying to obtain enough occupational therapy observation hours required for your applications.

In many cases, there are plenty of pre-OT students vying for a very limited number of accessible observation opportunities, so it helps to know ahead of time how to go about securing the hours you need.

Because of this, we created this handy guide to ensure you get enough shadowing hours and have a competitive edge. For even more applying to OT school tips, be sure to also check out our all-inclusive guide: 7 Steps to Get Into Occupational Therapy School.

Check out the How To Get Into OT School Guide! It’s the most comprehensive resource that covers everything you need to know.

6 Tips to Help You Get Your OT Observation Hours

1. Start Looking Early 


The most important advice I have is to start looking for OT observation opportunities as early as possible. Academic courses generally run along the normal semester schedule, which means that all of the students in your graduating year will probably start looking for openings at around the same time, at the end of the semester.

Also, as time goes on and OT school application deadlines are approaching, those who have yet to complete their hours will become more and more desperate to meet that requirement.

All this means that the sooner you begin looking for an observation opportunity, the better. You’ll also be able to rack up more hours without having to scramble to find spots at the last minute.

2. Do Some Research on Your Options

Once you’ve decided to get a jump on the competition, the best thing to do next is to research your local options.

More experienced students who have already completed their required hours are a great source for a peer perspective. Not only will each student have had their own experience observing various occupational therapy settings, but they’ve usually also spoken to other observing students about the conditions at their locations.

It is important to remember that a lot of what you hear from more experienced students will be their opinions based on their own experience, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t also have some good information and advice to pass down.

To be sure that you’re considering all of the possible occupational therapy shadowing opportunities in the area, first do a little brainstorming about all of the possible environments in which an occupational therapist might work.

After that, you can use Facebook, LinkedIn, Google, Google Maps, or even the telephone directory to compile lists of all of those types of places.

Just to be sure that you’ve considered all of the possible locations, you might even contact your state’s Occupational Therapy Association to see if there are any you may have missed. Some types of places that you might not naturally consider are group homes, skilled nursing facilities, and assisted living facilities.

These facilities may be easier to get into than the traditional inpatient rehab or acute care hospitals since they aren’t as commonly thought of. Just be sure with any setting, you’re shadowing directly under an OT for the hours to count towards your requirement.

Other OT Settings to Consider:

  • Pediatric outpatient clinics
  • Hand therapy clinics
  • Outpatient neuro rehab clinics
  • Home health companies
  • School systems
  • Research institutions with OT researchers
  • Animal-assisted therapy clinics

3. Make the Right First Impression


Depending on your program or your community, you might be required to go through an intermediary like a volunteer coordinator in order to contact the location. In other situations, you may be able to contact them directly.

When you do make first contact with the facility where you’ll be observing, be sure to treat it like you would an interview for a job. Remember that just because you’ve found an opening, doesn’t mean they’ll invite you to fill it. In many areas, due to the limited number of opportunities, OT observation assignments are competitive.

4. Stay on Top of Things

You may not receive an answer right away when you do make contact with a facility. Remember that the professionals at these facilities are often very busy with their own patients and administrative tasks. They may not get back to you quickly with an answer.

In some cases, it may even slip their minds that you stopped by and that you need to complete your observation hours. Do not rely on the professional occupational therapists to handle the arrangements for and details of your observation opportunity.

Be politely persistent while waiting to hear back from a facility that you’ve applied to, and don’t assume that someone will immediately contact you to tell you how to proceed.

5. Get Credit for the Hours You Shadow

Many occupational therapy programs have established forms and routines for how they would like observation hours to be logged. If you aren’t sure of what form to use, contact the schools you’re applying to for specific logging information since each program may have different procedures for this.

It’s possible that the number of shifts/hours offered to you for observation may be limited, so be sure to take advantage of them whenever you can, and accept your hours as they come, in multiple settings as much as you can.

If you can work it out with the occupational therapists at each facility, it’s best to try to establish a set schedule for observation that works for both of you.

Be sure to log your hours as you accumulate them and try not to let any shifts pass without documenting your hours. You’re going to need a significant number of hours shadowing, and it can be a challenge to get them all in, so be sure to get credit for the hours you’ve earned.

Always log your hours accurately and ensure that the occupational therapist is verifying them as necessary.

6. When Desperate, Get Creative!


Because there are generally a limited number of occupational therapists working in a given geographical area at any one time and because each occupational therapist can only take on so many hours of student shadowing, you may find yourself in a situation in which there simply are little to no traditional opportunities for shadowing.

In these instances, you may have to get a little creative with how and where you obtain your hours. The faculty involved with your program may have some suggestions, but it is best to approach them first with your own alternative ideas.

Consider volunteering to help with special individual events for people with needs for which occupational therapy may be helpful.

If an occupational therapy facility or clinic near you has other job openings such as a clerical or assistance position, you can try applying for one of those roles to gain experience in the therapy environment. Your school may even be conducting an academic study related to the occupational therapy field with which you could volunteer to help out.

Regardless of the alternative means you come up with to gain experience in the occupational therapy environment, always check first with your academic program administrators, and never assume that your logged hours will count unless your observation method is approved.

Bonus Tip: Get More Than the Required Hours

While this is not mandatory, I highly suggest you get more hours than the recommended number given by the programs you’re applying to. For example, if the programs you’re applying to require 20-30 observation hours, I recommend obtaining 100-200 (!) hours in multiple settings to strengthen your application.

This not only helps you learn about more occupational therapy settings and gain more exposure, but it also makes your application that much stronger with additional hours.

Keep in mind many other pre-OT applicants are oftentimes getting more than the required number of hours as well, so the more hours you can obtain, the better.

While getting these larger numbers of hours isn’t always easy, pacing yourself, following the above tips and varying the settings you choose will make this more achievable.

*An exception to this is during the pandemic, in which schools are now more flexible about the number of observation hours you get. You don’t have to get a large number of hours if you aren’t able to, but you’ll still want to meet the minimum requirement and get your hours in more than one setting.

If you still can’t get enough in-person hours, here is a great article from University of the Sciences covering OT shadowing alternatives to help you get enough of your OT observation hours during the current health crisis.

Check out the How To Get Into OT School Guide! It’s the most comprehensive resource that covers everything you need to know.

That wraps up our quick-tips guide to getting your observation hours for occupational therapy school.

Students and current occupational therapists, what advice do you have about getting your observation hours?

What else would you add to this list? Please share in the comments below!

Additional Resources

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

How to Get Occupational Therapy Observation Hours (Gotta Be OT)

A Pre-OT’s Guide to Observation Hours (Covalent Careers)

This post was originally published on August 14, 2019 and updated on February 3, 2022.

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  • Bill Wong March 7, 2022   Reply →

    Speaking of observational hours options, I actually have been posting online about how I used virtual TEDx events as a means to provide shadowing hours for prospective OT and OTA students. I am surprised that there is nobody in OT think of this creative option that is also flexible for prospective students. I have developed a model on how it might work… but I am also competent enough to pick up the slack if the prospective students are not skilled in particular areas that I may need help on. Of course, I also set some boundaries to make sure it has some relevance to OT. I think what I come up with is an option to stay even when this pandemic is over.

    The thing is- I think nobody else in OT can think that way yet because many still perceive organizing virtual TEDx events as a huge undertaking. But, I think my model has value because the students can get to learn how OT is advocated in a non-traditional way. Moreover, the fact that the model won’t disrupt those who have full time jobs is a plus!

    • Sarah Stromsdorfer, OTR/L March 7, 2022   Reply →

      Thanks for sharing your insight, Bill! I would love to hear updates from you or any prospective OTs who have been able to incorporate virtual TED events as hours. Have you heard of any OT programs that are allowing this already?

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