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5 Big Mistakes I Made When Applying to OT School

This article was originally published on April 23, 2016 and updated on March 9, 2019.

If you’re in the throes of applying to occupational therapy school, or will soon be applying to OT school, this post is for you! 

I was inspired to write this article, as new grad, about all of the mistakes I made when applying to OT school so you don’t have to go through the same stresses that I went through. 

At the time that I was applying to OT school, I thought it would be a simple and easy process: Apply to schools, get multiple interviews, and get accepted soon after.

I realized after the rejection letters started rolling in that this would not be the case, and I would really need to step up my game to succeed in getting into OT school.

OT school is very competitive and takes more than just haphazardly applying to schools at the last minute. Make sure you’re prepare by learning from my mistakes and following these actionable tips to increase your odds of getting accepted. 

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

The Application Process is Intense

You are typically required to send these pieces of information:

I personally chose to only apply to OT schools that were part of OTCAS, also know as the Centralized Application Service for Occupational Therapy, but there are certainly other OT programs you can apply to separately. 

When using OTCAS, you send everything to them, and when you’re ready to apply to your selected programs, they send your application out to all of your chosen programs for you.

It’s very convenient once you get your materials in and OTCAS verifies everything. This way you don’t have to send out everything over and over.

When you begin applying, be sure to also check out our article 10 OTCAS Tips For A Smooth Application Process for more information about using OTCAS.

Once You Find The Programs You Want to Apply To:

1. Don’t Wait To Apply!

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I can’t stress this one enough. Occupational therapy school is SO competitive, since many applicants are applying as soon as they can as opposed to when the supposed deadline is.

For example, say the programs you’re looking at have deadlines in December, but they start accepting applications in August.

Submit your application in August if you can.

Most programs only take around 30-40 students and may have 400-500 applicants. I learned this the hard way. I was finally able to submit my application in November since I didn’t get all of my letters of recommendation in until then. The majority of the eight programs I applied to had already filled up.

And yes, I applied to eight programs to improve my chances of getting in my first time applying. It was not cheap, with the application fees. But that leads to the next piece of advice.

2. Apply to As Many Programs as You Can (Without Going Completely Broke)

It is frustrating dropping around $50 per program just to apply, but I felt like it would be more frustrating (and devastating) to only apply to three programs and not get accepted at all that year.

Applying to more schools will increase your odds and save you time and money in the long run by not having to re-apply the next year. You may still have to apply the following year, due to the competitive nature of OT schools, but at least your odds are greater with more program applications.

It’s not a bad idea to start saving up for this early on so you aren’t hurt by the high application fees.

3. Get as Many Observation Hours as You Can

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When I was in the process of applying in 2012, most programs were requiring 40 hours. This number can be even higher depending on the schools you choose. Be sure to research each program you’re applying to to keep track of this. 

Either way, do not just do the minimum. So many applicants are doing well over 100 plus hours to stay competitive, and I recommend doing the same, in multiple OT settings. Unfortunately, just getting the bare minimum is not going to cut it. 

Adding in volunteer work related to OT in addition to more than the minimum observation hours will also help strengthen your application.

Getting a job, whether full-time or part-time, in the medical field in addition to extra observation hours is another great way to strengthen your application.

Just a few examples are being a rehab aide, nurse’s assistant or working in a skilled nursing facility. Working in a daycare or as a camp counselor is a great way to gain experience with children if you’re looking to work in pediatrics.

4. Get Your GPA (and Pre-req GPA) as High as You Can

Programs will have “Minimum of 3.0 GPA required.” However, even with a 3.50 you are still competing with tons of other applications with 3.8’s – 4.0’s. But don’t let this completely stress you out.

If you’re about to graduate, your overall GPA is not something you can change drastically. But what you can do to help is to make sure you get A’s in all or most of your OT program pre-requisites like Anatomy, Medical Terminology, Abnormal Psychology, Human Growth and Development, etc.

This will show your program that you can handle the intensity of Gross Anatomy and Neuroanatomy once you get into the program.

If your GPA is the minimum, really get out there and try to make up for it with high observation hours and an amazing personal statement.

5. Take Studying for the GRE Seriously

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This is most peoples’ least favorite part of the OT school application process. While the GRE was not fun, it is a necessary evil of getting into most graduate programs (OT or not). I did study for it, but not nearly as much as I should have.

Had I known how important the scores were to programs, I would have dedicated at least one to two hours a day for 3-4 weeks to really solidify my knowledge.

Since I only spent about two weeks studying, and not very seriously, I got a mediocre score which I think definitely hurt my odds of getting accepted.

Spend plenty of time really getting to know the GRE, because schools do take these scores seriously. Having a great score can also help counteract a less than stellar overall GPA.

Have The Right Expectations

I personally made quite a few mistakes with my OT school application process. I really didn’t realize the competitive nature and figured with a 3.5 GPA and three years of experience as an inpatient rehab patient care tech, I would be a shoe-in.

I was so passionate about being an occupational therapist for several years before I started applying, and thought my passion was all that I needed.

I slacked off on the GRE studying and got less than stellar A&P I and II grades, and I only got the minimum observation hours. I submitted in my application WAY too late. I wasn’t aggressive enough in pestering my professors to turn in my letters of recommendation in a timely manner.

With all of that being said, I am very fortunate to have been accepted into an OT program my first year of applying. But please, learn from me and don’t do what I did! I want you to have a low-stress application process and make sure your odds are much better than mine were.

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

I really hope this post helped you and makes the process a bit less stressful for you! If you’re still struggling, I also offer one-on-one coaching via a 30 minute personalized phone call. I decided to start offering this service since I am so frequently contacted about this topic.

Do you have any words of advice from your occupational therapy school application process that you want to share with others? If so, post them in the comments below, and thanks for your input!

Additional Resources 

What To Do If You Didn’t Get Into OT School (My OT Spot)

OT School Interview Questions & Prep Tips (My OT Spot)

Applying to OT School (Gotta Be OT)

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31 comments

  • Vanessa February 21, 2017   Reply →

    Hi! Thanks for this post; it is full of excellent advice. I am just starting out on my path to become an OT, so I still have a couple of prerequisites to complete. I also have to study and sit for the GRE, and work on getting shadow/observation/volunteer experience in the field. Do you think the best place to begin–in terms of getting hours–would be at a private rehab clinic or at a hospital? I’ve heard that hospitals can be less likely to take on people who want to shadow or volunteer, mainly because they have liability issues to worry about.

    When you were going through the application process, did you happen upon any programs that didn’t require abnormal psychology? I completely understand how the course content would be beneficial to students entering OT programs and the field in general. However, the closest university to me requires a prerequisite (one that seems like it might just be a money-grab) for ab. psych. Plus, none of the community colleges offer ab. psych. I know that I might just have to deal with it in order to complete the requirement for admissions, but I just thought I’d ask to see if you might have come across a program that did not require it.

    Again, great advice! Keep up the posts, as they are awesome and soooo helpful.

    • Sarah Stromsdorfer, OTR/L February 26, 2017   Reply →

      Hi Vanessa, sorry for the delayed response! That’s awesome that you’re already on the path to the application process. I think any OT settings are great for the observation hours, as long as you clock more than the requirement. I shadowed at a hospital but several of my classmates shadowed at clinics as hospitals are getting harder to get into for observing.

      As far as the abnormal psychology, I think many programs require this as there is usually an entire semester devoted to mental health in the OT programs. It’s a really interesting class to take and shouldn’t cause you any issues. Could you find one to take online at an accredited school if you still can’t find one near you? Best of luck and keep me posted!

  • Carrissa April 8, 2017   Reply →

    as of now I don’t really have any questions to post in the comments section but I just wanted to say thank you for making this post!! It has been extremely helpful and answered some questions I had about the grad school application process as I’ve currently been stressing over just the thought of it.. your post has eased my mind a bit!

  • Brissa July 31, 2017   Reply →

    Thanks for the advice!
    I too, have been wanting to switch from being a speech-therapist assistant to an OT.
    I have been doing a lot of research on schools and prerequisites. Sometimes, I just want to give up and say “it’s too late! I have already been doing speech for five years! I’m too old to go back to school and try again! (I’m 27)” So it is nice to hear some encouragement on changing careers.

    • Sarah Stromsdorfer, OTR/L July 31, 2017   Reply →

      I’m glad the post helped give you some encouragement! I have so many coworkers of all disciplines in their 30’s and 40’s switching careers, so don’t let your (young!) age get to you. You still have so many good working years ahead of you. Best of luck with whatever path you end up going down!

  • Elle Bee August 14, 2017   Reply →

    Hi! I have been a dental hygienist for 10 years and am trying to switch professions into OT. Do you think my dental hygiene degree and experience working directly with patients would make me a good candidate for OT school? I am currently working on my prerequisite courses for OT school. I have already completed some of the prerequisites that were also required for hygiene school, but I have a few classes with C grades that I should probably retake. Thoughts? I am also starting with observation hours in a nursing home.

    • Sarah Stromsdorfer, OTR/L August 16, 2017   Reply →

      Hi Elle, I’m not sure if your dental hygienist career would make schools get really excited, since OT is so different. The main thing to focus on is getting as many observation hours as you can in several different settings. Also make sure during the application process you show that you’re really passionate about becoming an OT. I would say to retake your pre-req courses that you got C’s in, since schools are so competitive now and are looking for A’s if possible. Best of luck!

  • Ilyse August 19, 2017   Reply →

    Hi, Thanks so much for all this great advice, I am 31, and changing my career to OT, starting pre-reqs on Monday. When you say “apply to as many schools as possible,” how many is enough? Right now I have a list of 9, cut down from 13, which I thought was perhaps too many to manage. Do you think 9 is an OK number–too big, too small? Thanks!

    • Sarah Stromsdorfer, OTR/L August 20, 2017   Reply →

      I would say apply to as many as you can handle! I applied to eight schools since I didn’t want to have to wait to re-apply the next year due to not getting into anything. You should be fine with 9 if you want to play it safe due to the competitiveness of the programs now. Good luck!

  • Tyler August 25, 2017   Reply →

    Hello, I have been reading your blog for quite some time. Thank you for the excellent information! Do you still offer consultations? I have filled out the OTCAS application, however, I have so many questions and concerns, I am applying to the Brenau University, Hybrid Day, Norcross location which has an early registration of 9-15-17. Let me know, if a consult is an option, I would greatly appreciate it! Thanks!!

    • Sarah Stromsdorfer, OTR/L August 28, 2017   Reply →

      Hi Tyler, I do offer OT school consulting and would love to help you out! You can check it out here: https://www.myotspot.com/product/help-ot-school/ Thanks for being a reader of the blog and looking forward to chatting with you.

      • Tyler September 3, 2017   Reply →

        Hello Sarah, you should be receiving my order for a consultation soon. Let me know when you have a convenient time.

        I look forward to hearing from you,

        Tyler

  • Alex September 6, 2017   Reply →

    Hi Sarah! This was amazing advice. I am an undergrad senior right now and I’m looking at applying to OT school in June- right when the applications open. I have a huge passion for OT and I want nothing more than to get into a school, but I’m worried that if I don’t get in the first time, I’ll end up waiting 2 years before I do. Even then, I’m not guaranteed, you know? I wanted to kind of list you out what I’ll have on my application and see if you have any advice on how I can make it more appealing. I haven’t taken the GRE yet.
    GPA: 3.3 as of now- the only C’s I got was in Anatomy, basic bios 111 & 112. But, the rest are A’s or B’s
    > 80 PT hours in multiple settings
    Working on OT hours because I switched from PT to OT last year.
    And a few random, but maybe helpful things: 1 Medical mission trip, 2 month summer Christian leadership program, Semester study abroad

    • Sarah Stromsdorfer, OTR/L September 7, 2017   Reply →

      Hi Alex, I’d love to help you out with your OT school application process! I offer one on one 30 minute get-into-OT-school coaching sessions here so we can discuss this further. Looking forward to hearing from you!

  • Sher September 8, 2017   Reply →

    What is the best undergrad track to start with? Health Sciences? Many schools offering health sciences are difficult to compare apples to apples as some lead to more of a public education route vs. a clinical route. Any suggestions for schools?

  • Nicole December 31, 2017   Reply →

    Hi! Love all of these helpful tips! I am curious about what you said about applying to as many schools as you can. From my research, I have seen different pre-reqs required from each school. So that would result in more classes to take. My question is, do you have to take every pre-req every school requires?

    • Sarah Stromsdorfer, OTR/L January 1, 2018   Reply →

      You will have to take each pre-req (or be in the process of taking it) once you’re accepted into the program you want to attend, but you can certainly apply to a number of programs before getting all of your pre-reqs done. I do recommend narrowing down your top school choices and seeing which ones have similar pre-reqs so you don’t have to spend a lot of extra time or money taking more classes that maybe only one or two of your choices requires. Most programs are pretty similar with what they require, thankfully. Best of luck to you!

  • Sabrina February 20, 2018   Reply →

    LOVED this post!!! Super helpful and reassuring that I’m not the only one with these types of concerns. If you don’t mind me asking, what school did you get into/attend?

  • Chantal June 6, 2018   Reply →

    Hi there, this is a great, informative blog. Thank you! This may be a silly question but does observing physical therapists qualify as OT observation hours?

    • Sarah Stromsdorfer, OTR/L June 10, 2018   Reply →

      Hi Chantel, unfortunately observing physical therapy hours won’t count towards any occupational therapy hours for your applications (but will still be very helpful for you personally!). I recommend getting more OT hours than the applications suggest and in at least two different settings due to the competitive nature of the application process. Best of luck to you!

  • Kristal Munoz August 26, 2018   Reply →

    To the young lady who said she was too old, you are never too old! I am 35 and am just now working on my bachelors. I chose Occupational Therapy after working as a medical assistant for 8 yrs. I thought i wanted to be a nurse because everyone kept pushing me to be a nurse saying i would be great at it. However, when my son was diagnosed with autism, an OT talked to us about his daily activities and helped us get through the rough stages. I realized that ultimately an OT is what i wanted to be. I know the road is hard, especially being a single mother of three teenage boys, but i am determined to show my sons that it is possible and also prove to myself that I am capable. Thank you for this article, it helps a lot.

  • Maura November 6, 2018   Reply →

    Did you upload individually signed observation sheets from OTs that you shadowed? Did you just find a template? Many of the schools I Ann applying to either don’t say anything about OT hours or do but don’t offer pages to be filled out and signed

    • Sarah Stromsdorfer, OTR/L November 7, 2018   Reply →

      Since I only applied to schools via OTCAS, I just uploaded my observation hours on the OTCAS website’s observation hours form. With the OTCAs system, you don’t need a separate paper sheet at all, since you’ll just log them into your profile. If you’re applying to schools that don’t use OTCAS, they might have their own paper sheet that you can use to submit your hours. Hope this helps!

      • Pat January 22, 2019   Reply →

        Hi Sarah-

        I was wondering if you recommend retaking any courses? For instance, When I took A & P they were separate courses. I received an A in Anatomy, but unfortunately received a C+ in Human Physiology. At the time I was taking Physiology I was juggling too much at a young age – naïve! Do you feel that schools would prefer to see a course retaken with a higher grade? I’m not sure if you have any experience or know anyone who has re-taken courses. I have a health management master’s degree which I received a 4.0 in which shows my dedication at this age, however not sure that would make a difference. I would love your insight – thank you!

        • Sarah Stromsdorfer, OTR/L January 23, 2019   Reply →

          Hi Pat! Normally I do suggest retaking A&P if you happened to have C’s in both courses, however with your circumstances (the A in Anatomy and 4.0 in your Health Management master’s degree, wow!) I don’t think the C+ will hurt you, especially if you have a strong amount of observation hours (100+ in multiple settings is common) and a great personal statement. Just be sure for the schools you apply to that your pre-reqs are still applicable, since some schools have a limit of five years, for example. If you have any other questions please feel free to email me at [email protected]. Best of luck to you!

  • Kashish June 12, 2019   Reply →

    Hi! Thank you for this post. I’m currently an undergrad sophomore right now, and I have very less experience in any OT settings and only have a semester’s worth of extracurricular activities. Plus, my cumulative GPA is 3.4 right now, and it doesn’t increase no matter what I do. Do you think 300+ hours of shadowing in multiple OT settings would help with my application? Till now, I’ve received mostly A-s and B+s in my pre-req courses, would that be acceptable?

    • Sarah Stromsdorfer, OTR/L June 13, 2019   Reply →

      I think your stats combined with that high amount of hours would be great. You should be fine as long as you apply to at least a few schools to increase your chances (which I think everyone should do). Best of luck when you start applying!

  • Noelle August 8, 2019   Reply →

    When during my undergraduate degree should I begin applying? In addition, how should I record my observation hours?

    • Sarah Stromsdorfer, OTR/L August 9, 2019   Reply →

      Hi Noelle, I would not recommend you apply before your junior year. Applying during your senior year is also fine and very typical. You’ll keep track of your own observation hours and then will input them into your OT applications when you start your applications. Good luck!

  • Leigh W October 7, 2019   Reply →

    Hi, I don’t know if you know the answer to this, but I have one more prerequisite that I need to complete and I was wondering if schools accept you before you complete it as long as your grade meets the minimum requirement when I send my grade or will they not even consider me as an applicant until I have completed it. Thanks!

    • Sarah Stromsdorfer, OTR/L October 7, 2019   Reply →

      A fair number of schools will accept you if you just have one or so left, but definitely check with the schools you’re applying to before you submit your application just to play it safe 🙂

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