So you’ve decided you want to go to school for occupational therapy – congratulations! Now comes the really hard part, deciding where you might like to go to school and to which schools you’ll actually apply. With hundreds of accredited occupational therapy programs in the United States alone, how does one even begin to make such a big decision?
This page is here to help you answer this question and make a decision that will hopefully be right for you down the road. Because making this kind of decision is so personal and individual, the advice I’m offering will be more general and geared toward helping you understand what you want out of a program and what each program has to offer you. I will also include a list of helpful resources you can explore further in your quest to locate the best OT grad school for you.
Basic Tips for Starting the School Search Process
- Be optimistic, but be honest with yourself. TRUE STORY: After reviewing the “profile of accepted applicants” for one of the programs I had decided to apply to, I felt smaller than a grain of sand. It seemed like the people they wanted already had four degrees, a Nobel Prize and multiple publications in the works! Once I calmed down, I realized that I was qualified to apply in many ways, even if I was a little lacking in others. So I swallowed my fear and applied anyway. And now I’m going to the best OT school in the country! ;)What I’m saying is, go ahead and take a leap of faith if you feel like your desire to go to a certain program compels you to do so. But you shouldn’t take a blind leap off a cliff – go ahead and apply to a couple of “reach” schools or ones with intimidating student profiles, but also know what you’re getting yourself into and whether or not you’re setting yourself up for a series of disappointments further down the line.
- Limit yourself. I “only” applied to five OT graduate programs during my senior year of college, and it was a long, stressful and grueling process that took a real toll on my mental, physical and emotional health. I can hardly even comprehend how others found time to apply to 7, 10 or even 12 schools! Using the Occupational Therapy Centralized Application Service (OTCAS) can definitely help cut down on the amount of work you have to do for each application, but it is very expensive to apply to programs and most people don’t have an extra $300 to drop on 4 OTCAS applications – and this doesn’t even include the cost of separate graduate applications each school may require.If you do feel like you want to apply to a number of schools that is in the double digits, take a moment and ask yourself why. Do you feel like you won’t get in anywhere? Are you trying to “diversify” your options? Are your friends applying to a hundred grad programs and you’re trying to keep up? Put some deep, effortful thought into why it is that you are applying to so many programs. If you’re honest with yourself, I think you’ll realize that not all of them are a good fit, or that you’ve chosen four safety schools and four reach schools with no competitive options in between or that you are just not focused enough in your school selection process. Of course, apply to schools to your heart’s content, but remember that the process can get very costly very quickly (sending multiple GRE scores, mailing application components, paying for schools’ secondary applications…) and you don’t want to go broke applying to schools without a clear goal in mind.
- Make a decent spread. While you shouldn’t limit yourself to applying only to places where you feel like you are a “shoo in,” it also doesn’t make a lot of sense to apply to OT programs that are too far out of your range of capabilities. For example, if your best GRE score after the third try is several points below a school’s minimal acceptance score, you may want to consider investing your time and money into applications for programs for which your application and scores will be competitive.
Once you’ve narrowed it down to several programs you might want to attend, make a chart and write in each program. Then compare them across the following areas, prioritizing whatever factors are most important to you. If you have a lot of debt and want to attend a cheaper program, give the less expensive option more “points.” If you want to go to one of the most highly ranked programs out there, assign more value to the big name schools. Balance out your options and then get started on filling out your chart.
Visiting schools can also be very helpful, but if you do not have the time or resources to do this, collect as much information as you can from online and print materials for each program to help make the most informed decision possible.
Additionally, there are thousands of resources online that are very helpful when you are deciding between such concrete factors as the ones listed below, and at the end of this page I’ve included a sampling of websites that I found useful during my application process.
- Program length
- Program ranking
- Curriculum focus
- OTD (Clinical Doctorate in Occupational Therapy) option
- Class format (online/distance vs. on-campus)
- Class demographics (mostly people straight from undergrad, mostly older people with families, etc.)
- Class size
- School location
- Program cost
- Financial aid (assistantships, grants, scholarships, etc.)
- Social setting (local activities, transportation, living areas)
- Geographic region and climate
- NBCOT licensure exam outcomes (You may have to dig for this one, but it’s worth it to do the research!)
- Job placements after graduation
- Program affiliations and extracurricular opportunities for learning
- Alumni activity in the field (research, publications, involvement with other organizations, leadership positions, etc.)
This list is probably not exhaustive, but it is pretty extensive. Once you do the basic research for each program, begin narrowing it down from a broader list to the schools that are the best academic, personal and financial fits for you. And while you’re selecting, just know that a big name may be very appealing and great on paper, but it doesn’t mean a program will be a great fit for you. One of the most important things you should do when comparing each program is to briefly make a note of each program’s philosophy and goals for its students and decide whether or not the information you’re reading is the philosophy you want to live, eat, sleep, breathe and study for the next few years! Also, contacting admissions directors and asking to be put in touch with current students is a good way to gain an understanding of the program’s feel.
Finally, I’ve compiled a short list of some basic resources for choosing schools. Each offers a little something different, so happy clicking and good luck on your search for the right OT program for you!
Websites and Helpful Resources
Basic Program Information & Ranking
- American Occupational Therapy Association: List of currently accreditated U.S. OT programs grouped by degree offerings (http://www.aota.org/Education-Careers/Find-School.aspx)
- U. S. News and World Report: Their ranking system determinants are a bit strange, but the listing seems to be pretty well-agreed upon within the profession (http://grad-schools.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-graduate-schools/top-health-schools/occupational-therapy-rankings)
- Education Portal: The links at the bottom of this article go to other brief, but helpful pages about OT programs – click around and see what you find. (http://education-portal.com/occupational_therapy_graduate_schools.html)
Choosing Where to Apply
- Peterson’s: You can look for schools by geographic area, program/class size, price, ranking, everything! Start here if you really have no clue where you might like to do, or if you want to see which programs are offered in your region or state. (http://www.petersons.com/graduate-schools.aspx)
- Drew University: This site breaks the school selection process into helpful “phases.” Read through the advice offered in all three for great info about choosing programs. (https://www.drew.edu/career/students/graduate-school/identifying)
- U. S. News & World Report: This site has very good strategies to help students choose a great graduate program, and it stands out because it asks the reader to actually contact various programs, visit and be very active in the process. (http://www.usnews.com/education/best-graduate-schools/articles/2012/04/06/7-critical-steps-to-find-the-right-grad-school)
- Campus Explorer: This site asks the reader some pretty insightful questions to investigate about important (but often ignored) topics like program attrition rate, reputation and program emphasis. (http://www.campusexplorer.com/college-advice-tips/CF83FDFF/How-to-Choose-the-Best-Graduate-Program/)
What was the graduate school selection process like for you? Do you have any advice for people just beginning the grad school journey?