Occupational Therapy Schools Overview
There are several hundred colleges and professional schools offering training and certification programs in occupational therapy at the undergraduate and graduate levels, according to the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA). Since 2007, practitioners have been required to have master's or doctoral degrees from accredited occupational therapy schools.
The Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE) certifies occupational therapy schools, and there are currently 150 accredited master's degree programs or combined bachelor's and master's degree programs, as well as 4 doctoral degree programs.
Most universities offer full-time programs, although the number of weekend and part-time evening programs is growing. Typical undergraduate programs to prepare students for graduate-level occupational therapy schools include physical, biological, and behavioral science classes together with specific occupational therapy theory and skills training. In addition, most occupational therapy schools require at least 24 weeks of supervised and documented fieldwork.
The National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) is a not-for-profit credentialing agency that provides certification for graduates of accredited occupational therapy schools. Some states also require therapists working in schools or early intervention programs to take additional classes and obtain education practice or early intervention certification.
Occupational therapists earn, on average, around $70,000 per year, and the demand is expected to grow by more than 20 percent per year in the next several decades, much faster than for many other professions, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). This is especially true for certified occupational therapists working with older individuals. The BLS says employment of occupational therapy practitioners is expected to increase by 26 percent by 2018.
Patience and strong interpersonal skills are among the necessary personal characteristics considered important for anyone considering a career in occupational therapy. Because many patients do not show immediate improvement, patience is considered vital, as are good communication and problem-solving skills.
Occupational therapists are regulated at both the state and national level. The NBCOT administers a national exam that graduates must pass to become certified as an Occupational Therapist Registered (OTR). Most states require national certification but also have their own licensing examinations, and continuing education courses and workshops are usually required. Many states require continuing education as a condition of keeping a license.
According to the BLS, graduates from occupational therapy schools are increasingly assuming supervisory roles over occupational therapy assistants and aides as well as taking on more administrative duties at hospitals and rehabilitation centers. Specializing in a clinical area or gaining expertise in treating a certain type of patient or ailment is another way to advance. Graduates of occupational therapy schools may specialize in gerontology, mental health, pediatrics, and physical rehabilitation. In addition, some occupational therapists choose to teach classes in accredited occupational therapy educational programs.
High school students considering careers in occupational therapy should take courses in biology, chemistry, physics, health, and social sciences, but relevant experience in health-related services can be very helpful in getting accepted into occupational therapy schools. In college, undergraduates interested in careers in occupational therapy typically major in biology, psychology, sociology, or anatomy.
A number of scholarships are available for attending occupational therapy schools. The American Occupational Therapy Foundation (AOTF) offers more than 50 scholarships annually, but students must be AOTA members. A number of corporations, charitable organizations, private individuals, and state occupational therapy associations also offer scholarships.
Most students, however, must take out loans to cover tuition. Counselors with special expertise in finding these scholarships and grants can be a big help, especially for students from low- to middle-income families. All occupational therapy schools have staff members who are familiar with available scholarships and grants, both public and private, as well as the requirements for applicants.
The federal government views occupational therapy as a critical emerging health care area and offers a number of grants and scholarships through various agency programs. Also, because of the increasing need for occupational therapists to help wounded veterans, the military is another option for students who wish to attend occupational therapy schools, although a two-year service commitment after graduation is required of Reserves Officer's Training Corps (ROTC) students.
National and state occupational therapy organizations are other sources of tuition aid. The AOTF, for instance, provides grants for students pursuing advanced degrees at occupational therapy schools. Funding is available for graduate students whose dissertation research might contribute to improving practice in the field.
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the government's primary tuition aid program and is the largest source of low-interest loans. Parents with dependent students can take also out personal loans to help pay their children's tuition through the federal Parent Loan for Undergraduate Students (PLUS) program, while both parents and independent students can apply for aid for graduate study through the government's Direct Loan program.
What Makes a Good Occupational Therapy Student?
Academic qualifications and interest in helping others are import in a decision to pursue a career in occupational therapy, but potential students must do some soul-searching about what they expect from the career, and whether they have the right qualities to succeed before they begin.
Most occupational therapy schools look for more than just academic achievement in their acceptance processes. The most important is whether or not an applicant has already spent some time working with patients as a volunteer at a nursing home or hospital. Before applying to occupational therapy schools, students should talk to at least one person who is already working in the field. Most of them are willing to take the time to share their experiences.
Occupational therapy schools also consider a number of other characteristics of applicants before making acceptance decisions. They want to know if a student has demonstrated an ability to be objective and analytical when it comes to helping solve problems individually or as part of a group. Also important is whether an applicant has good communication skills, patience, and a willingness to be part of a team.
Surprisingly little data is available on what qualities good students at occupational therapy schools possess, but a team of Australian occupational therapists recently published the results of interviews with leading academic instructors and admissions personnel on what makes a good student. Because most occupational therapy schools still select students based primarily on academic performance, they developed an interview model that can help schools better assess nonacademic traits and behaviors.
Better-than-average communication and problem-solving abilities, respect for others, and being self-responsible were identified as key traits.
The conclusions are similar to those of the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA), which has reported that students who are good communicators and have an interest in helping others tend to fare better as occupational therapists. Because occupational therapy seldom provides immediate improvement in patients, especially those who are elderly or more severely disabled, they also identified patience and perseverance as integral traits, as well as the ability to be creative in solving problems.
Last Updated: 02/27/2013