5 Big Mistakes I Made
When Applying to OT School

Hey to all you pre-Occupational Therapists currently or soon to be applying to OT school!

This post is just for you.

It was inspired by my trials and tribulations of the OT school application process and the stresses I went through.

I’m sharing from a point of view of a pre-OT student who had no clue of what school she wanted to go to and what she needed to do to succeed.

If you’re in this situation right now, there’s hope for you!

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You’ve Decided You Want to Be an OT

But have no clue where you want to go? Want to stay in your home state, but your home state’s programs are too expensive and/or competitive?

I’ve definitely been there, and I recall the year of applying for OT school absolute pain and torture spending hours upon hours combing through the (what seemed like) hundreds of programs and their curricula. (It was probably more like 50-60.)

The Application Process is Intense

You are typically required to send these pieces of information:

  • Submitting Transcripts
  • GRE Scores
  • Letters of Recommendation
  • Personal Statements

I only applied to schools that were part of OTCAS, also know as the Centralized Application Service for Occupational Therapy.

You send EVERYTHING to them, and when you’re ready to apply to programs they blast it out to all of your chosen programs.

It’s extremely convenient once you get everything in and OTCAS (finally) verifies everything. This way you don’t have to send out everything over and over.

Applying to non-OTCAS schools would have been way too much of a pain in the tuchus for me personally. But if your dream program isn’t part of OTCAS, it won’t be that big of a deal to send everything separately one or two times.

Once You Find The Programs You Want to Apply To:

1. Don’t Wait To Apply

Applying to OT school.I can’t stress this one enough. Occupational therapy school is SO competitive, so 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 starts accepting applications in August.

Submit your app in August.

Most programs only take 30 students and will have 400-500 applicants at times. I learned the hard way. I was finally able to submit my application in November after the delay in getting my letters of recommendation in at a quick pace. The majority of the eight programs I applied to had already filled up.

And yes, you heard that right. I applied to eight programs. 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 super frustrating dropping $50 per program just to apply, but what I think would be more frustrating and soul-crushing would be to only apply to three and not get accepted.

Then you would have to wait another full year to re-apply. This may happen anyway with the nature of how competitive it is, but if you can do your best to increase your odds the first go around. And by all means, you should do just that.

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3. Get as Many Observation Hours as You Can

When I was in the process of applying in 2012, most programs were requiring 40 hours. It may be even higher now. It is best to make sure you thoroughly research each program you apply to.

Either way, do not just do the minimum. So many applicants are doing 100 plus hours to stay competitive, and I recommend doing the same. The minimum is not going to cut it.

Also, adding in volunteer work related to OT in addition to more than the minimum hours will also help strengthen your application.Applying to OT school.

Working in the medical field in addition to extra shadow hours is another way for the programs to see you actually know what OT is. It shows that you’re able to handle working in the medical field.

So many programs get applicants that have 4.0 GPA’s and book smarts but are completely clueless when it comes to working with patients.

4. Get That 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.

Yikes.

So your overall GPA is not something you can completely change. But what you can do to help is to make sure you get A’s in all 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, just really get out there and try to make up for it with volunteer and observation hours.

5. Take Studying for the GRE Seriously


Ugh, this was, in my opinion, the worst part about the whole application process. This exam seemed so pointless to me. All I recall studying for it was a ton of weird vocabulary no one uses and high school geometry (seriously).

Applying to OT school.There is of course more to this, including an essay portion that I must have blocked out of my mind because I can’t even tell you what it was on.

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 hour a day for 3-4 weeks after work to really solidify my knowledge.

Since I only spent about two weeks studying, I got a mediocre score which definitely hurt my odds. Big time.

Spend a solid amount of time really getting down and dirty with the GRE, because schools are very picky about their scores.

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Have The Right Expectations

I made quite a few “mistakes” with my OT school application process. Starting with the fact that I thought I would be a shoe-in based solely on working as a nurse’s assistant in inpatient rehab and having a decent overall GPA.

I knew for several years that I wanted to be an OT, and thought my passion was all that I needed. I only got the minimum shadow hours (40).

I had a 3.5 GPA which was good, but I got C’s in A&P I and II. This mainly happened because of my being lazy at the time that I took them. I was already accepted into a nursing program at the time and just wanted to pass.

I slacked off on the GRE studying, and turned in my application WAY too late. I wasn’t aggressive enough in pestering my professors for the letters of recommendation.

I am super fortunate to have been accepted into a program on my first year of applying. At one point after I started getting denial letters, I was fully expecting that it would take me another year and re-doing pre-reqs.

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I hope this helps you raise your odds and makes the process a bit less stressful for you. Another resource to help guide you along is the blog called Gotta Be OT. It has TONS of other useful information on applying and getting into grad school in a series of posts called Gotta Get Into Grad School.  

You’ll also see a few “Help” links in this post for one-on-one coaching with me. 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!

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25 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!

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