Getting into Grad School: How to Ace Your Occupational Therapy Program Admissions Interview

Learn how to stand out and get accepted with expert advice and resources for making an impact in your occupational therapy school admissions interview.

MEET THE EXPERT

Keena Hoyle
Keena Hoyle

View Bio

Keena Hoyle has been a licensed Occupational Therapist for 20 years. She is a graduate of Chicago State University’s Occupational Therapy program and also holds a B.S in Allied Health. She has worked in hospitals, skilled nursing, home health, and school settings but her specialty is in pediatric therapy. She has held a contract with the School City of East Chicago for the past 11 years. She recently began working to create a new subfield within occupational therapy focused on professional sports. She established her company, Off Season, in 2019 to provide therapies, mental health, financial, educational, and personal care services to professional athletes and their family.

With more than 46,000 occupational therapy students applying to master’s and doctoral programs each year, and only 8,000 students receiving admissions letters, there’s no hiding that OT school is competitive. Between working toward an impressive application and cramming in as many extracurriculars as possible, preparing for your admissions interview may seem low on your list. But your admissions interview is your time to make a personal impact on the panel that decides your admissions fate. It’s your chance to shine beyond your GPA and test scores and show your future teachers, peers, and possible employers that you were meant to be an amazing OT.

Yet for most, it’s not as simple as just showing up and shaking hands. To really stand out, you need all the preparation and practice you can get. From understanding the set up and making a good first impression, to nailing every question they ask and leaving a lasting impression, learn how you can ace your OT school admissions interview.

Your OT School Interview 101: Essentials for Success

Getting to grips with the nuts and bolts of the interview process can set you up for success and help you feel more comfortable. Interviews look different at each school, but these tips can ensure you thrive in any environment.

Know the Interview Format

It’s important to remember that not all interviews are created equally. Depending on the specific school, the people who interview you, and how many sit in on the interview, your experience can be vastly different from one interview to the next.

Oftentimes schools rely on faculty members, current students, program alumni, and admissions counselors to conduct these interviews. Some may take place in a one-to-one format while others may include a panel. Some interviewers may have previously read your application while others may be coming to you with no background information. If the school doesn’t volunteer details on the format beforehand, it’s best that you prepare for every eventuality.

Showcase Your Personality

Throughout this process, interviewers speak to a lot of prospective students. At some point, it’s natural that candidates start to blend together – especially those who do nothing to set themselves apart from the competition. When crafting your interview game plan, remember that your personal experiences and attributes are unique to you. Ensuring the panel has a real sense of who you are, why you want to attend, and how you plan to use your degree in specific ways can go a long way.

Showcasing your personality also means being aware of how you present yourself. Professional yet open body language, appropriate gestures, and thoughtful responses all help give interviewers a more thorough understanding of who you are as a candidate.

Study Your School

Just like in a job interview, it’s important that you do your research. Interviewers like to hear that you’ve taken the time to get to know the unique qualities of an individual program – just as they are getting to know the unique qualities of you.

Spend time on both the university and program website. Develop a firm understanding within yourself of why you like that particular program, what specific aspects appeal to you, and why you want to attend. If you see something that interests you but needs further clarification, use the Q&A portion at the end of the interview to learn more.

Getting Familiar with the Question Categories

Interviewers usually ask a series of questions designed to help them better understand who you are, what drives you, and what you can bring to the program – both during your time of enrollment and as an alumnus. Below are a few of the most common questions categories for you to become familiar with.

Biographical Questions

These types of questions give the interviewer(s) a better sense of who you are, how you see yourself, and how your life experiences have shaped you. They want to understand what sets you apart from other candidates and what unique qualities you will bring to the cohort.

Question examples

What made you want to become an occupational therapist?

What type of community service do you do?

What are three favorite things about yourself?

The interviewer is trying to determine the following

The interviewer wants to get a fuller understanding of what makes you different from the last person they interviewed. They want to see how your history has shaped you and what you bring to the table in terms of personality and life experience.

How to answer

This is your opportunity to expound upon and bring to life the biographical questions posed in your application. Rather than rehashing that same information, use the time to provide a more complete picture of how you differ from other candidates. These questions are sometimes open-ended, helping the interviewer better understand what you think is most important about yourself.

“Tell me about a challenge you faced and how you handled it.”

Sample answer:

“In 9th grade, I lost my grandfather suddenly and it caused me to lose focus on my schoolwork. I really struggled to get back to where all my classmates were in terms of progress, but I realized it would only get worse if I didn’t focus and put in the extra time needed to catch up. This experience taught me that life can sometimes bring unexpected events but it’s up to me to figure out how to best respond to them and move forward.”

Motivation Questions

Motivation questions exist to help interviewers get a clearer sense of why you want to work as an occupational therapist and what drives you to do so. Answering these types of questions successfully requires you to dig deep and think about what will propel you through late nights and hard exams to reach the other side.

Question examples:

Where do you see yourself in five years?

What do you do when you’re having a hard time grasping a concept?

What made you choose to apply to this particular program?

The interviewer is trying to determine the following

The interviewer wants to understand what drives you. OT school can be tough and there are limited positions available for new students. If they’re going to give you a spot, they want to see that you have a clear motivating force for being there.

How to answer

The goal with these questions is to show that you’ve really thought about why you want to attend OT school, how you plan to excel, and why you feel strongly that their school is the best fit for you.

“What unique contribution do you think you can make to this program?

Sample answer:

“I understand that applications must blend together after a while, but I do believe I bring a unique drive towards harnessing the knowledge I gain and utilizing it in creative ways. In my undergraduate degree, I developed new programing for the Healthcare Student Club, worked with faculty to identify new ways of attracting a more diverse cohort of students, and used my fieldwork experience to challenge myself in ways unafforded in the classroom.”

Outcome Questions

Outcome questions are used to better understand how you plan to use the degree you receive from the institution. They help the school ensure that you have a plan for your education.

Question examples:

Where would you like to work after graduating?

What type of occupational therapist do you see yourself as?

How do you see yourself representing the school as an alumnus?

The interviewer is trying to determine the following

The interviewer wants to see that you’ve thought about life after school. They want to ascertain whether you have a plan for your life beyond being a student and make sure you have concrete ideas for your career.

How to answer

Answering these questions well requires you to actually have a plan. Prior to the interview, you should sit down and think about next steps after graduating and consider the type of employer you’ll seek out and the population you’ll work with.

“Where do you see yourself in five years?

Sample answer:

“I hope to be using the skills and knowledge learned in this program to support, educate, and advocate for my clients. Being five years out, I would like to be in a position that has allowed for continued professional growth and development with potential for taking on a leadership role or the opportunity to mentor recently minted occupational therapists.”

Academic Questions

Academic questions help uncover how you will fair in a rigorous educational setting. They help interviewers understand the type of student you will be and how you will respond when the learning gets tough.

Question examples

What type of research are you interested in pursuing?

What appeals to you about being a student?

What is your plan for excelling while enrolled?

How do you learn best?

The interviewer is trying to determine the following

The interviewer wants to see that you have the acumen, fortitude, and determination to complete all the schooling required to work as an occupational therapist.

How to answer

You should think long and hard about other times in your academic journey when you faced challenges. Think about how you handled those situations and why you feel you have the can-do attitude needed to make it through OT school.

“How do you handle pressure or times when you’ve felt overwhelmed?”

Sample answer:

“Anytime this has happened in the past, I tried to step back and assess the situation. I often created an action list with the most pressing items at the top. From there, I created a schedule, blocked off my time, and got to work. Through experience I’ve learned that positivity is often the best solution to these problems and staying calm helps far more than wasting time by getting flustered.”

Ethical Questions

Because occupational therapy sits within the healthcare field, ethical questions are necessary to ensure you are a candidate with a moral compass. OTs can sometimes face ethical, and even legal, questions in the process of treating patients.

Question examples:

When was a time you had to make a moral decision and how did you go about it?

What would you do if your personal feelings fell outside the established legal requirements?

Has there been a time when you feel you made an unethical decision?

The interviewer is trying to determine the following

Asking these types of questions allows the interviewer to see how you respond when faced with a tough decision. Do you lean on your ethical training and follow established regulations or go rogue?

How to answer

While it’s important to answer these questions truthfully, you also need to take time to ensure you have a guiding moral principal. Once you establish that you want to treat all patients fairly and kindly, or that your goal is to always respect the wishes of your patient, you will find it easier to answer any type of question thrown at you.

“What is your guiding philosophy as a healthcare professional?”

Sample answer:

“More than anything, I believe in protecting and advocating for the dignity of all patients. For instance, I would never proceed with any type of therapy or treatment plan without explaining it to them fully and knowing that they were on board with it. I would also never refer them to a care provider that I felt had a different ethical standard in this area.”

5 Ways to Impress the Panel

Admissions panels can interact with hundreds of candidates during a traditional intake cycle, making it important that you find ways to stand out in their memories. Here we look at a few ways you can put your best foot forward during your OT school interview.

1

Ask unique, insightful questions

There are some questions that admissions panels have likely answered thousands of times. What do you think I should know? Is there anything else I can do to show my interest? And so on. While these questions are well and good, they do not take any effort. Asking truly insightful questions requires you to conduct deep research into the school, its occupational therapy program, the faculty members, and the type of students it attracts. Spend your time doing this and jot down points of interest as you go along. From there, craft two or three unique questions.

2

Highlight significant turning points

These don’t have to be life-altering international trips or near-death experiences, but rather moments in your life that helped you better understand the person you want to be. Think about times that shaped your life and how you see the world: was it a volunteer job collecting non-perishable food for the homeless? An after-school job in a multicultural neighborhood? Even these simple, humble moments can change your perspectives and the admissions panel wants to hear about them.

3

Don’t do things for appearance

While it may be tempting to join six student clubs and spend all your free time volunteering so you can put it on your college application, don’t do these things if they don’t represent your true interests and passions. If you would rather spend a few years working with one or two clubs/organizations in a deeper way, do that. If you thrive on being busy and like to work on a lot of different topics, do that. Whatever you decide, remember that admissions panels can see straight through appearances and attempts to impress.

4

Be nice to everyone

Did you know that all your communications with the entire admissions department is tracked from start to finish? How you treat the student who gives you a tour or the admissions assistant who helps process your application matters. They may not bring it up in your interview, but your behavior will certainly influence how they see you as a candidate and whether they choose to offer you a spot. Be sure to thank everyone for their time, assume they are doing their best, and don’t get flustered if something goes wrong.

5

Demonstrate forward-thinking

Rather than focusing all your efforts on learning everything you can about a school/program or impressing the admissions panel with your knowledge, take time to think about what you bring to the table. How will you contribute to the departmental ethos and mission as both a student and alumnus? What would you like your lasting contribution to be to the school or the occupational therapy profession? Where would you like to see yourself five years after graduation? Admissions panels are impressed by students who think into the future rather than focus only on getting into a program.

Insight from the Expert

Keena Hoyle

Keena Hoyle has been a licensed Occupational Therapist for 20 years. She is a graduate of Chicago State University’s Occupational Therapy program and also holds a B.S in Allied Health. She has worked in hospitals, skilled nursing, home health, and school settings but her specialty is in pediatric therapy. She has held a contract with the School City of East Chicago for the past 11 years. She recently began working to create a new subfield within occupational therapy focused on professional sports.  She established her company, Off Season, in 2019 to provide therapies, mental health, financial, educational, and personal care services to professional athletes and their family.

1. Why are occupational therapy programs notoriously competitive and what can applicants do to stand out?

OT programs are notoriously competitive due to the size of the programs and the two-year time span one has to not only learn but master a tremendous number of skills. Most programs usually admit 40-50 students a semester, so they want to ensure that as many will not only complete the program but also be able to pass the national board examination.
Occupational therapy uses a holistic approach which means we don’t break up a person or specialize in one area as most think;  we only work on fine motor skills.

Occupational Therapy programs are looking for people that can learn critical thinking as this is one of the main skills taught and it drives the profession. The occupational therapy national board examination that one must pass in order to become a licensed occupational therapist is extremely difficult. Examinees must choose the best answer as two answers are correct, but one answer is better than the other. This is where the critical thinking comes into play.

2. What are some of the biggest mistakes potential students can make during this process?

One of the biggest mistakes some individuals may make is not taking every step of the application process extremely seriously. Everything you submit, every observable thing is being observed from the moment you begin applying. Admission coordinators will look at where you chose to do your volunteer services and the evaluation from that entity.  They will observe how you performed while participating during group sessions with others applying for the program. Everything you do is being observed including when you turn in your application; did you turn your application packet in well ahead of the deadline date or close to deadline, was it neat, free of spelling errors etc.

Another mistake commonly made is not being prepared to fully articulate during the personal interview what the profession of occupational therapy truly is or why you even want to be an occupational therapist.

3. What are some things these learners may not know about how the admissions panel decides who gets a letter of acceptance and who doesn’t?

When it comes to the admission process, the occupational therapy program will give you a rubric for how the scoring goes. Most of the criteria is objective such as minimum GPA and the minimum number of volunteer hours. The subjective part is where the applicant should pay close attention. Examples include the personal interview and the group activity that one usually has to participate in with all the other applicants.

All volunteer work is not looked at equally. One applicant may have volunteered at two or more places that use different models such as medical, school, and community and another applicant may have volunteered at a skilled workshop. Applicants’ letters of recommendation should come from those that can create a very vivid narrative of who they are as a person, their communication skills, and interpersonal skills.

4. What advice do you have for these students?

Some advice I would give anyone applying to an occupational therapy program is to contact a current student in that particular program and ask them about the process. You should also always be an active listener and active participant when in the presence of members of the occupational therapy program that you are applying to.

Resources