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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 blog posts, 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.

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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You’ll have a big focus on science, research, and theory in your coursework, along with multiple in-the-field 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 solid GPA (preferably above a 3.5 to be competitive), 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 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. 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 huge loads of 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 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 gain 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 even worth it, and 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.

If you know you do want to be an OT, I don’t want this article to freak 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! 

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 do it 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)

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)

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2 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 🙂

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