Getting into Occupational Therapy School: An Admissions Guide

Take the next step towards your occupational therapy career with the info you need to understand the admissions process at every degree level.

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Written By

James Mielke

- Bio

James Mielke is a freelance writer currently based in Louisville, Kentucky. In addition to higher education topics, other areas of research and writing include food history, cooking, dining, and golf. James has a history degree from Belmont University and is an unapologetic fan of the Grateful Dead.

last updated

12/30/2021

Whether you decide to pursue a master’s or doctoral program to become an occupational therapist, it’s no secret that this professional path provides a lucrative and flexible career. Taking the step to move from occupational therapy assistant to the professional in charge means undertaking a rigorous curriculum focused on building the knowledge and skills needed to gain licensure and find work.

Before any of that can happen, however, you first need to gain admission to a degree program. As you probably already know, admission requirements can vary substantially from school to school and program to program. To ensure you ace the process and get your pick of acceptable programs, you should start learning what to expect early on. Feeling prepared at every turn can help you feel more confident, and in turn, produce a better application. Keep reading to learn what admissions panelists are looking for and how to apply to OT programs like a pro.

General Admissions Requirements

Whether you completed a physical therapy bachelor’s degree or an unrelated undergraduate program, you likely remember varied admissions requirements among schools. Some colleges and universities use a centralized admissions system, meaning you applied directly to the school with all required application materials. From there, you received an admissions letter and started the enrollment process. But if you applied to a school with a blended admissions model, you may remember applying to the school and receiving acceptance before then applying to a specific program.

Whether your OT program uses one of these models or a decentralized approach (meaning you apply only to the direct program), you’ll need to understand the various general and program-specific admissions requirements to excel.

Master’s Degree in Occupational Therapy

While an OT doctoral degree is the highest academic degree for individuals in the field, a master’s in occupational therapy is your ticket to securing your license and gaining the skills needed to provide effective clinical care. Continue reading as we spotlight general admission requirements for OT master’s programs.

University or College Requirements

Even though the nuances of admission requirements can vary between programs, students interested in earning their OT master’s must hold a bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited college or university. And while not all programs require applicants to have a degree in a related field, many require prerequisites in classes like human anatomy, psychology, and statistics.

In addition to earning your bachelor’s degree, graduate programs traditionally expect a cumulative GPA somewhere around 3.0. The specific GPA threshold may vary, but you can anticipate that a C+ or B- average is about as low of a GPA that many schools will accept. Additionally, some schools focus primarily on a student’s last 60 credits of undergraduate coursework. We list some standard requirements below.

  • Bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited school
  • Minimum 3.0 cumulative GPA
  • Provide official undergraduate transcripts

Lining Up the Finances

Earning a master’s degree isn’t cheap, but if you want to begin your career as a licensed occupational therapist, your investment of time and money is required. Like other degrees, before enrolling, students traditionally complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Whether through a federal or private loan, most students can expect that loans will be required to fund their academic journey. Just remember, earning your OT master’s is a career investment that leads to a growing and profitable job market.

That said, while earning a master’s degree can get pricey, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t resources and creative ways for you to mitigate the cost of your degree. In the list below, we highlight ways you can cut costs.

  • Scholarships
  • Grants
  • Loans
  • Buy used textbooks
  • Consider online or hybrid programs
  • Part-time work
  • Employer tuition reimbursement

Identifying Your Prerequisites

Like other application requirements, prerequisite coursework for a master’s in occupational therapy can vary significantly between programs. Standard required courses include topics such as human anatomy and physiology, psychology, and statistics. Additionally, schools such as Shawnee State University have a significant list of prerequisite classes, including abnormal psychology, adult development, cultural anthropology, pathophysiology, neuroanatomy, and kinesiology. These lists can be extensive, so forward-looking undergraduate students should build their schedules around an OT program’s prerequisite checklist.

In addition to completing prerequisite classes, applicants must complete these courses successfully: this means maintaining a 3.0 average in courses that prospective schools identify as mandatory prerequisite learning. Be sure to reach out to program officials if you have any questions regarding prerequisites and other admission requirements.

Doctoral Degree in Occupational Therapy

Students interested in earning a doctoral degree in occupational therapy have access to two academic tracks: the clinical OTD degree and a Ph.D. in occupational therapy. For both degrees, students complete between 40-100 credits over 3-5 years. Admission requirements for these degrees vary, but students can expect some similarities. We highlight some general requirements below.

University or College Requirements

Like most other graduate programs, students pursuing admission into an occupational therapy doctoral program must hold at least a bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited college or university. When students submit official academic transcripts, most schools will look for a minimum cumulative GPA of 3.0. We list some standard requirements below.

  • Bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution
  • Minimum 3.0 GPA
  • Minimum 3.0 in prerequisite coursework
  • Master’s degree (for research-based Ph.D. track)

Lining Up the Finances

Like a master’s in occupational therapy, doctoral students can expect to tackle tuition through federal or private loans, scholarships, grants, and teaching assistant opportunities. While clinical DOT students may be on the hook for tuition costs, many Ph.D. programs provide generous funding for students. While competitive, top-performing students gaining admission into schools like the University of Southern California offer an annual research assistant stipend of $40,000 for 4-5 years.

For students tackling a doctorate in occupational therapy as a licensed OT, online options are available. Online programs can often be less expensive as students can continue working while cutting back on campus-related fees and travel.

Identifying Your Prerequisites

Prerequisites for doctoral programs depend on the specific degree. Students tackling an entry-level DOT program with just a bachelor’s degree must complete various classes similar to master’s-level requirements. These include courses spanning from human anatomy to kinesiology.

For prospective Ph.D. students, prerequisites aren’t typically prioritized as applicants traditionally hold an OT master’s degree. As a result, the admission process focuses on academic achievement, test scores, past research, and letters of recommendation. Continue reading to learn about degree-specific OT admission requirements.

Occupational Therapy Program Admissions Requirements

The following section highlights three specific degrees and their accompanying admission requirements: a master’s in occupational therapy, a doctorate in occupational therapy (DOT), and occupational therapy Ph.D. programs. While admission requirements vary, you’ll notice similarities between these academic tracks. Continue reading as we explore program-specific admission requirements for prospective occupational therapy students.

Requirements for a Master’s in Occupational Therapy

If you want to become a licensed occupational therapist, your licensure hinges on completing an accredited master’s program. In the following section, we spotlight the various application essentials that you’ll encounter. Keep reading to learn more about admission requirements for a master’s in occupation therapy.

Bachelor’s Degree

Your first step in the journey towards occupational therapy licensure begins with earning a bachelor’s degree. While most programs don’t mandate a particular bachelor’s degree, they traditionally specify that applicants must hold a degree from a regionally accredited college or university.

And while your entrance doesn’t rely on a particular undergraduate degree, many programs require various prerequisite coursework that’s generally rooted in the sciences or health-related topics.

Completed Application Form

When seeking admission into an OT master’s program, your application often acts as your formal introduction to the folks making admission decisions. As a result, submitting a fully completed, accurate, and carefully edited application is essential. Take special care to submit an application that’s free of omissions or errors.

The American Occupational Therapy Association allows prospective students to apply to multiple programs simultaneously through their Occupational Therapist Centralized Application Service (OCTAS).

Minimum GPA

Minimum GPA requirements may vary between programs, but as a general rule, you can expect most to require a 3.0 GPA to gain admission. Additionally, some programs require that your GPA for prerequisite courses be as high as 3.5. While GPA requirements may seem strict, some programs offer probationary status for promising applicants that fall short in academic performance.

GRE Exam

Occupational therapy master’s applicants should consider if a program requires GRE scores for admission. As the COVID-19 pandemic shook the higher education landscape, some programs have suspended GRE score requirements. That said, many continue to require GRE scores as part of application packages. If scores are necessary, take time to prepare. High test scores can also help offset the impact of a lagging undergraduate GPA.

Prerequisite Courses

Even though OT master’s programs aren’t necessarily picky about your bachelor’s degree, most programs require a significant list of prerequisites. While many courses are relatively standard general education requirements—especially for science and healthcare undergrads—students with a bachelor’s in a completely unrelated field may find their application contingent upon completing various prerequisite classes.

If you’re unsure whether you’ve met a program’s prerequisite requirements, be sure to reach out to admission officials. We’ve highlighted some typical academic prerequisites for OT master’s programs below.

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Abnormal Psychology
  • Developmental Psychology
  • Human anatomy
  • Kinesiology
  • Medical terminology
  • Sociology
  • Statistics

Statement of Purpose

There’s not much room for you to differentiate yourself from other applicants for most of an application. A statement of purpose or personal essay is your opportunity to lay out your academic, personal, and career goals while expounding upon what makes you a unique candidate. While keeping it tasteful, you can tout your achievements while explaining how your personal, professional, and academic experiences can help you achieve your goals.

Volunteer Hours

It’s pretty common for OT master’s programs to require that you have some hands-on experience volunteering in a professional OT environment. Additionally, schools like the University of Illinois-Chicago prefer applicants to volunteer in at least two different practice settings. UIC doesn’t require a specific number of volunteer hours, but they explicitly note that applicants with more hours tend to be evaluated favorably.

Requirements for a Doctor of Occupational Therapy

Earning a doctor of occupational therapy degree (DOT) offers a clear path towards the top of your field. Whether on-campus or online, these degrees allow both working OTs and bachelor’s degree holders an opportunity to hone their skills while expanding career options. Continue reading to learn more about DOT admission requirements.

Bachelor’s Degree

First thing’s first: before enrolling in an occupational therapy doctoral program, you’ll need to earn a bachelor’s degree. Working and licensed occupational therapists have a clear path towards graduation and can typically complete the degree in just a few years. Students entering a doctoral program with just an undergraduate degree can expect to graduate in about five years.

Even though many programs don’t mandate particular bachelor’s degrees for admission, a hefty list of prerequisites makes the transition to a doctoral track simpler for students with degrees in science or health-related fields.

Completed Application Form

Submitting a pristinely completed application often acts as a formal introduction to an application that takes the admission process seriously. For many programs, you can expect to submit applications through the OTCAS platform—this also allows you to submit multiple applications in one online location.

Minimum GPA

GPA requirements may fluctuate between programs but anticipate that you’ll need to have a minimum cumulative GPA of 3.0 on all previous bachelor’s and master’s coursework. For students applying through the OTCAS portal, they will upload transcripts, and the platform will calculate GPAs.

GRE Exam

When applying to a DOT program, students can expect to submit GRE scores. Prospective DOT programs typically consider a combined GRE score pulled from writing, verbal, and quantitative scores. These scores are often viewed within a larger context, including an applicant’s academic performance and professional experience.

Prerequisite Courses

Completing the specified prerequisite coursework plays a significant role in determining admission outcomes. In addition to cumulative GPA requirements, many DOT programs require similar GPA expectations for prerequisite courses. While a program may require a minimum cumulative GPA of 3.0, some may expect an even higher GPA for prerequisite classes. Be sure to review their GPA expectations when reviewing potential schools. We highlight some standard prerequisite coursework requirements below.

  • Introduction to Psychology
  • Introductory Anthropology or Sociology
  • Physics
  • Biomechanics or Kinesiology
  • Human Physiology with lab
  • Abnormal Psychology
  • Psychopathology
  • Human Anatomy with lab
  • Statistics
  • Human Growth and Development
  • Medical Terminology

Statement of Purpose

When submitting your statement of purpose, recognize that this is your opportunity to personalize your application. In addition to outlining academic and career goals, including unique personal information can help you stand out. Admission officials not only want to know that you’ve got the academic chops to excel in their program, but that your unique traits and experiences can enhance their program.

Letters of Recommendation

Your letters of recommendation act as another opportunity way to personalize an application. Pulling from both academic and professional sources, recommendation letters can highlight academic strengths and clinical skills. At the same time, these letters supply a program with an outsider’s opinion about why you’d be an asset to a DOT program.

Observation Hours

In addition to prerequisite coursework, DOT applicants must submit documentation of observation hours alongside an occupational therapist. When the number of observations hours may vary slightly between programs, expect to complete around 40 hours in multiple clinical settings, including OT clinics, hospitals, and school systems.

Requirements for a PhD in Occupational Therapy

Unlike the clinical DOT doctoral degree, a Ph.D. in occupational prepares students for various careers in research and academia. As a result, the admission requirements vary slightly between these two doctoral-level programs. Continue reading as we highlight admission requirements unique to a Ph.D. in occupational therapy.

Master’s Degree

In addition to requiring students to hold a bachelor’s degree, many occupational therapy Ph.D. programs also require applicants to have an OT master’s degree. Schools such as NYU require prospective students to hold a master’s degree. At the same time, Nova Southeastern University goes a step further, requiring applicants to verify certification through the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy. Similarly, applicants to Texas Women’s University’s program must hold an active OT license.

To ensure you meet a program’s specific academic requirements, reach out to the program to address any questions you may have.

Completed Application Form

Unlike DOT clinical programs that commonly utilize the OCTAS portal for applications, many Ph.D. programs have students submit applications directly. Along with a fully-completed application, students may also need to complete an admission interview as a final step in their process.

Minimum GPA

Like both OT master’s and DOT degrees, applicants to a Ph.D. in occupational therapy program traditionally must hold a cumulative 3.0 GPA to gain admission. Applicants must submit official transcripts from all undergraduate, graduate, and professional institutions.

GRE Exam

While it’s not uncommon to submit GRE scores to gain admission into a Ph.D. program, COVID-19 and a general shift towards holistic admission policies mean that not all programs require standardized test scores. Schools like New York University and the University of Southern California do not require GRE scores for 2022 admissions.

Prerequisite Courses

Unlike clinical paths, OT Ph.D. programs rely less on a list of prerequisite courses. As these programs are primarily research-based, many programs take a holistic approach to the admission process. Schools such as the University of Southern California evaluate applicants based on a clear vision of research interests, knowledge of the field, and past academic performance. Schools also consider a prospective student’s foundational knowledge of occupational therapy along with research and writing ability.

Statement of Purpose

A Ph.D. applicant’s personal statement or statement of purpose carries significant weight in admission decisions. This short written piece allows prospective students to clearly lay out their research objectives while explaining why their particular skills and experiences can benefit the academic department. Applicants may also highlight personal attributes that set them apart from other individuals.

Letters of Recommendation

While letters of recommendation for clinical programs may rely heavily on professional sources, students applying to Ph.D. programs will want to highlight recommendation letters pulled from academics. Prospective students often use past instructors, professors, and mentors as a resource. Applicants should give the individuals authoring letters of recommendation ample time to craft a thoughtful submission.

Admission Interview

For Ph.D. applicants, the final step in the admission process involves interviewing faculty and other admission officials. We’ve highlighted some common interview questions below:

  • Why are you interested in this occupational therapy program?
  • What makes you a desirable candidate?
  • Can you identify some of your strengths and weaknesses?
  • Why do you want to earn a Ph.D. in occupational therapy?
  • What challenges do you expect to face during the program?
  • What are your career plans in the future?
  • Do you have any questions we can answer?

Resume

Submitting a current resume or curriculum vitae is another standard application requirement. Students should highlight academic achievements, academic conferences attended, and research conducted. Applicants should also highlight volunteer experiences, professional work, and memberships to any student or civic organizations.

Other Things to Think About

When applying to graduate school, a seemingly endless list of details gets considered. And while you concern yourself with completing an application, taking the GRE, and writing a perfect personal statement, there’s still a bit more work to do. In the section below, we highlight some additional elements that deserve your consideration.

Transfer Credits

Transferring credits between graduate programs is often more complicated than undergraduate transfer credits. That said, because a master’s in occupational therapy is primarily dictated by professional standards, transferring within accredited master’s programs isn’t uncommon.

On the other hand, transferring credits between DOT or Ph.D. programs can get dicey, especially the longer you progress through your research and coursework. As a general rule, the earlier you attempt to transfer, the better. If you have concerns, open up a dialogue with your advisor.

Accreditation

Earning a master’s or doctoral degree in occupational therapy often requires a significant investment of both your time and money. As a result, you’ll want to ensure that you receive a quality education. Accreditation of colleges and universities essentially means that they’ve been vetted for academic quality, financial stability, and access to student services. There are two types of accreditations to consider: institutional and programmatic.

Institutional accreditation considers the school as a whole. The best institutions hold regional accreditation through agencies such as the Higher Learning Commission, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

Additionally, you’ll also want to consider programmatic accreditation. This is especially vital for clinical master’s and doctoral programs. Accreditation for these programs is conducted through the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA). The AOTA offers an easily searchable online accredited program list if you have questions regarding a program’s accreditation. You can also search the U.S. Department of Education’s accreditation database.

Master’s or Doctoral Degree?

Determining if you want to earn a master’s degree or doctorate in occupational therapy rests heavily on your career goals. A master’s or doctorate in occupational therapy is a relatively clear path for students planning on tackling clinical roles. But as OT master’s programs typically lead to licensure, this is where most students will begin their graduate school journey. While some students may enter a DOT program without a master’s degree, post-professional options are available for licensed occupational therapists.

For students interested in pursuing a career in research or academia, a Ph.D. in occupational therapy is the path to choose. But because many Ph.D. tracks require a master’s degree in occupational therapy or a related field, earning an OT master’s will still be your first order of business.

Resources

Established in 1917, the AOTA is the nation’s largest professional organization for occupational therapists. In addition to accrediting programs, this group lobbies for professional interests and offers scholarships, grants, and various professional resources.

For students preparing for the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy exam, the AOTA’s resource for test prep offers a user-friendly platform that identifies strengths and weaknesses and is fully customizable to your particular test prep needs.

The AOTF was founded in 1965 and supports occupational therapy research while conducting public outreach. This group also offers a variety of scholarships for full-time OT students.

This EduMed article highlights some of the best online OTD and Ph.D. programs in occupational therapy while exploring degree specifics.

The NBCOT is how occupational therapists gain and maintain certification. This group develops, tests, and continuously reviews the certification processes.

Nearly 47,000 strong, this group is open to OT students, assistants, and professionals. This active group offers support, networking, and industry news.

This active Reddit board provides occupational therapy students and professionals with an online space to ask questions, network, and share various resources.

The SOTA handbook is a valuable resource for student organizations to grow and sustain active membership through activities, fundraising, and other operation tips.