7 tips finding best ot schools

7 Tips for Finding the Best Occupational Therapy Schools

If you’re applying to OT schools, I’m sure you’ve Googled “best occupational therapy schools” at least once or twice. There a few lists that show up, but many of these articles are not written by OTs that have gone through an OT program, and they don’t indicate how they came up their rankings.

Because of this, I wanted to outline the main things you should be considering when researching OT schools. 

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Tip 1: Don’t Just Go By The Lists You Find Online

As mentioned above, there’s no indication any of these articles were written by actual occupational therapists. Many of these lists don’t even state how they got their data ranking the “best occupational therapy schools.” Take them with a grain of salt.

You’ll really want to do your own homework to find out what the best occupational therapy program is for you.

Here are some additional tips to help you make that ever-important decision.

Tip 2: Decide If You Want a Master’s or a Doctorate in OT

Many pre-OT applicants that I talk with are under the impression that they have to get a Doctorate in Occupational Therapy (OTD) to be able to work in OT after graduation. As of 2020, this is not the case!

You can absolutely get a Doctorate if you want to, especially if you’re interested in research or teaching. But if you want to be a traditional clinician you can save significant time and money by going the Master’s route.  

There was going to be a phasing out of the OT Master’s degree in 2027 (which has now been put on hold). Even if this did happen, anyone with a Bachelor’s or Master’s in OT will always be grandfathered in to be able to practice whether they have an OTD or not.

If you don’t have a huge interest in research and are okay with a Master’s, I want to note that the OTD will, on average, add on another $20,000-$30,000 (or more!) of student loan debt to your student loans without an increased pay differential when you begin practicing.

If you’re looking for more information on the differences between the MOT versus the OTD, definitely check out our article, The MOT vs. OTD: Which Degree Should You Pursue?

Tip 3: Make Sure Your Program Is Accredited

One thing to keep in mind is to make sure your program is accredited. Some OT graduate programs may just be starting out, and are in the process of being accredited.

Generally if the pending-accreditation OT program is at a reputable school, they will become accredited eventually. However, it is still a gamble opting to get your degree at one of these programs. If for some reason the program doesn’t get accredited, you won’t be able to take the NBCOT board exam and won’t be able to practice OT, but will still be responsible for all of the loans you’ve accrued.

You can find the full lists of accredited occupational therapy master’s programs here and doctorate programs here

Tip 4: Research the Tuition Costs!

This one is huge, since OT grad program costs can vary widely. Some programs are affordable while others may take a decade or more to repay, with huge monthly student loan payments.

For example, some in-state OT Master’s graduate programs may cost less than $50,000 while many private OT Doctorate programs can run you over $150,000 for a negligible pay difference once you’re out working in the field.

7 tips finding best ot schools

Be sure to jot down all of the costs while researching your programs and keep in mind that in grad school, you may be charged interest on the loans even while you’re still in the program. I was surprised right after I graduated from my Master’s that I already owed several thousand dollars more than I expected, just from the accruing interest.

Another aspect a lot of new OT grads don’t realize is that they most likely won’t be making the Bureau of Labor Statistics‘ reported average of $84,950 as new grads, so student loan payments that are well over $1,000 a month can be pretty painful. For more in-depth information regarding new grad OT salary information, read Occupational Therapist Salary: Data From 2,322 OTs and COTAs.

Tip 5: Look at Each Program’s NBCOT Passing Scores

A quality indicator to take note of is the program’s NBCOT pass rates following graduation. The NBCOT (short for the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy) is our national board exam that must be passed after graduation in order to become a licensed occupational therapist. 

Higher first time passing scores of the NBCOT will indicate a quality program that truly prepares its students to pass. You can find NBCOT passing rates from each program here to compare and add to your notes.

Tip 6: Consider The Programs’ Scheduling and Format

Another factor to think about is what type of occupational therapy program will work for you: Full time, hybrid (part online and part in-person) or a weekend option. Think about the time and availability commitment you’re able and willing to make to a program. If you have other major life obligations like family, work, etc., don’t underestimate the time and energy these other things are going to require from you.

Do keep in mind that graduate school is a larger commitment than the time spent in your undergrad. Be sure to leave yourself enough time outside of class to do the increased studying and homework that you’ll be assigned.

If your schedule or living location is too restrictive to allow you to effectively attend school full-time in the classroom, you may want to consider a hybrid or weekend option. This is offered both for master’s or doctorate programs. While there are not any fully online occupational therapy graduate programs, AOTA’s list of accredited programs will mention if the programs offer a hybrid or weekend option.

Tip 7: Don’t Let Online Rankings Be Your Biggest Deciding Factor

I know that school rankings still do make a difference and are still something to considered when you’re narrowing down programs. You can certainly still let these play a role, but I want to make note of something most pre-OTs aren’t aware of:

At the end of the day, all occupational therapy graduate programs are going to be pretty similar with their education and curriculum. Where you’ll learn the most (in my opinion) is during your two Level II Fieldworks.

These are two full-time, 12-week clinical rotations where you get to take what you’ve learned in your program and get to really practice “real-life” OT skills. The fieldworks are assigned fairly randomly, so at the end of the day, it won’t matter whether you go to a “Number 1” program or a program that maybe is 20th on some random list. 

The main thing with this, no matter what program you’re in, is to try to get a Level II fieldwork in a setting you want to work in after graduation. I can assure you, hiring managers in the therapy world are more focused on what type of fieldwork you had versus what school you went to.

Managers want to know you had actual fieldwork/clinical experience in the job you’re applying to, since just learning about the setting in a classroom is not the same as hands-on clinical experience.

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I hope these tips helped you in your journey to find the best OT school for you. The main takeaway is to be patient and really take the time to do your homework – OT school is a major commitment. 

If you’ve found your school (or you are a practicing OT already!) what other tips would you share with prospective OT students? Please let us know in the comments below.

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