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How to Become an Occupational Therapist in 6 Steps

how to become an occupational therapist - child moving pieces working with therapist

Helping people manage cognitive, sensory, or physical conditions is what being an occupational therapist is all about. Many people find rewarding careers in this industry, and you can do the same.

But how do you become one? While you don’t have to go through lengthy medical school or years-long residencies, becoming an occupational therapist is no small feat. It requires a lot of time and dedication, and you have to meet specific qualifications.

Below, we’ve outlined how to become an occupational therapist in six steps. After reviewing this information, you should be familiar with the occupational therapy requirements and feel more comfortable pursuing this career path.

1. Choose Which OT Degree You’d Like to Pursue

As you pursue your dream of becoming an occupational therapist, you’ll discover that there isn’t just one type of OT degree you can obtain. Multiple are available depending on your:

  • Career goals
  • Desired level of education
  • Time commitments

Here, you can review the different types of OT certificates and degrees and determine which one meets your outlook:

Certificate in Occupational Therapy Assisting

This certificate only takes one year to obtain, so it’s perfect for someone who has less time available due to a busy family life or other personal obligations. With this certificate in hand, you can become an OT aide.

Associate’s Degree in Occupational Therapy Assisting

An associate’s degree in occupational therapy assisting typically requires you to complete a two-year program. You can work as an aide, but you can also take an exam to become a certified assistant to an OT.

Bachelor’s/Master’s Degree in Occupational Therapy

Combined bachelor’s/master’s degrees are sometimes referred to as 4+2 or 4+1 programs. Under this type of program, a student will complete both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in OT on an accelerated schedule.

Once a student completes their master’s degree, they will see more occupational therapy jobs become available to them. They can work as an occupational therapist without supervision or guidance from another individual.

The bachelor’s/master’s degree in OT is the most traditional track for a student learning how to become an occupational therapist.

Master of Occupational Therapy (MOT) Degree

An MOT degree is meant for students who hold bachelor’s degrees in other fields. With a bachelor’s degree in tow, you’ll have all your liberal arts requirements completed. You’ll just have to complete an abbreviated list of OT-related classes before you start the master’s program. Most students can complete the extra undergraduate coursework within a semester or two. As a result, the transition from a student’s unrelated bachelor’s degree to an OT master’s program will go swimmingly.

In the rest of this guide, we’ll detail the steps on how to become an occupational therapist. So, our advice will pertain to the latter two tracks (as opposed to the former two). 

2. Determine If You’re Interested in OT as a Career Path

Pursuing a career in OT isn’t a decision you should make lightly. The occupational therapy requirements are intense, so you should feel passionate about what you’re doing.

Before you fully immerse yourself in your plans, consider if OT is right for you. Whether you’re still in high school, planning to enter college, or have a career in another field entirely, you can discover if OT is right for you by:

  • Working at a summer camp for children with disabilities
  • Becoming an active member in a local group for health professions, disability awareness, or health advocacy
  • Volunteering with an organization that champions the rights of people with disabilities
  • Babysitting or nannying for children with special needs
  • Taking a course related to OT practice (something like American Sign Language for Beginners or Aquatic Therapy)
  • Studying literature on OT, including books on the history of the profession and OT journals with updated research
  • Completing a service project related to OT or disability rights

Participating in any of these activities can help you get an idea of the work you’ll complete as an occupational therapist. You’ll become familiar with the kinds of patients you’ll assist and how to help them manage their conditions.

These kinds of thoughtful consideration and exploration are important steps in learning how to become an occupational therapist. If you don’t enjoy engaging in these activities, you’ll have a hard time feeling passionate about your work.

If you immerse yourself in the OT field and feel as if it’s the proper career path for you, you can begin to fulfill the standard occupational therapy requirements.

3. Complete Your Undergraduate Education

One of the first occupational therapy requirements you must complete is an undergraduate degree.

Some students enter college right after high school, complete a bachelor’s degree in Pre-OT, and move onto their graduate education. This kind of clarity and assurance is a reality for some, but not everyone will follow the same path.

Let’s say you got a bachelor’s degree in finance after high school and took on a job as an accountant. Or, perhaps you graduated high school and entered the workforce straight away. Just because you took a different journey doesn’t mean it’s too late for you to learn how to become an occupational therapist.

If you don’t already have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university, you’ll need to earn one. The exact type of degree you obtain is irrelevant. As long as you have a bachelor’s degree, you can continue meeting additional occupational therapy requirements.

But, you may have to complete additional work depending on what subject your bachelor’s degree is in. Students with bachelor’s degrees in subjects like Pre-OT, Psychology, Kinesiology, Education, and Biology will have limited prerequisite courses to take prior to grad school admission.

However, students with bachelor’s degrees in unrelated fields (like Literature or Economics) will have some catching up to do. If this circumstance describes you, there’s no need to worry. Many universities let you take all your prerequisite classes within one or two semesters, giving you an excellent chance to fulfill your undergrad occupational therapy requirements.

Some courses you may have to take to fulfill your undergrad occupational therapy requirements include:

  • Human Development
  • Human Behavior
  • Human Anatomy (with lab)
  • Human Physiology (with lab)
  • Anthropology/Sociology
  • Statistics
  • Abnormal Psychology
  • Physics
  • Kinesiology

Additional Undergrad Occupational Therapy Requirements — GPA

The most important undergrad occupational therapy requirement for aspiring OTs is a well-earned bachelor’s degree. But, there is much more to comprehending “how to become an occupational therapist” in terms of the undergraduate experience.

For example, most schools require you to maintain a specific GPA. The minimum requirements vary from program to program. For example, Advent Health University requires students to have a minimum overall GPA of 3.0. Some schools only ask that students earn a 2.75 GPA, while others demand something much higher (like a 3.2 GPA or even higher).

Even if the graduate school you’re interested in doesn’t require a very high GPA, you shouldn’t aim low. Make the most of your undergraduate experience by earning as high of a GPA as possible. The average undergraduate GPA of admitted OT grad students ranges from 3.5 to 3.8. Do your best to keep your GPA up so that admissions officers don’t dismiss your application because of a subpar GPA.

Sometimes, graduate schools will analyze your OT-related coursework and liberal arts courses separately, while others will lump them together to obtain the GPA they’ll consider for your admission. Learn how your desired grad school accounts for your GPA and keep its weighing process in mind as you complete your undergrad degree.

Additional Undergrad Occupational Therapy Requirements — Observation Hours

Another important occupational therapy requirement for undergraduate students is the completion of observation hours (also called volunteer hours). Most schools will require you to have a certain number of these hours under your belt. Furthermore, each program may ask you to gain experience in multiple settings to fulfill its requirements.

Regardless of a program’s requirements, it’s a good idea to get experience in several fields. This way, you can learn what you’re interested in and what you’d like to pursue in grad school and beyond.

Some settings you can complete your hours in are:

  • An inpatient rehab facility
  • A skilled nursing facility
  • A pediatric OT clinic
  • A school-based OT clinic
  • An acute care facility (like a hospital)

Experience in these environments will expose you to different patient populations and help you determine where your effort will be best focused.

Note: Unless you work as a rehab technician or aide, you likely won’t get paid for your observation hours.

Additional Undergrad Occupational Therapy Requirements — GRE

The GRE (Graduate Record Examinations) is a standardized test for students interested in going to grad school. It’s not just for aspiring OTs; students going to grad school for business, literature, and other subjects must take it and do well. It tests general knowledge in multiple academic areas, including math, verbal reasoning, and analytical writing.

There’s no pass/fail system for the GRE. Instead, the test grants you a score for each section. Most schools expect their applicants to earn a minimum score for each section. 

If you take the GRE and don’t earn a score that aligns with your potential school’s expectations, you can retake it. In fact, one out of every four test-takers retake the GRE, so it’s not as uncommon of an occurrence as you may think.

4. Apply for & Complete an OT Master’s Program

Once you have completed your undergrad occupational therapy requirements, you can apply for graduate school. Some students choose to remain at the same institution they earned their bachelor’s degree from. Others apply elsewhere to pursue new opportunities. Whatever the case may be, we recommend applying to multiple schools. This way, you can have more options available in case you get waitlisted or rejected.

Upon entering an OT master’s program, you should expect a balance of intense academic work and full-time clinical fieldwork. The beginning of your program will involve a lot of science-heavy classes, including gross anatomy, neurology, and kinesiology. Later on, you’ll immerse yourself in theory, research, and lab practicals.

Since you’re here learning about how to become an occupational therapist, you’re likely wondering when the real-life experience will start. During the latter portion of your master’s program, you’ll work full-time in several clinical settings. This time will let you implement everything you’ve learned in a practical environment and demonstrate that you possess the necessary knowledge and skills to succeed in the OT field.

5. Earn Your OT Certification & Apply for Licensure

After completing your master’s OT program, you’ll have a shiny diploma to show for your efforts. But, before you can start working as an OT, there’s one more step in learning how to become an occupational therapist.

You must take a standardized test called the NBCOT (National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy) and achieve a passing score of 450/600 or higher.

With this passing score in hand, you’ll have your OT certificate. At this point, you should apply for a license to practice OT in the state you’d like to work in. The process for acquiring an OT license varies from state to state, so be mindful of your state’s expectations.

6. Find an OT Position

After earning your OT certification and becoming licensed in your state, you’ll have completed all the preliminary occupational therapy requirements.

Your next step will be to find an OT position. You can work in a hospital, school, rehab center, or another facility. Think back to your time in graduate school and consider which settings you liked and disliked. This reflection will help you find a position you can genuinely enjoy and thrive in.

Some states have professional occupational therapy requirements, meaning you’ll have to complete continuing education courses. These courses ensure you’ll be up-to-date on the latest knowledge in the OT industry. In a way, learning how to become an occupational therapist never ends, but the journey is well worth it.

Final Thoughts — Understanding How to Become an Occupational Therapist

After reading through our guide, you should feel more confident about how to become an occupational therapist. It involves a lot of schooling and real-life experience, including the completion of undergraduate school, graduate coursework, and clinical work.

Once you pass the NBCOT and obtain licensure, you can work as an OT. Some OTs take their careers one step further and pursue a specialization. If you have a passion for gerontology, pediatrics, physical rehab, or mental health, you can earn additional certificates after acquiring immense on-the-job experience.

Even if you don’t want to specialize in a particular area, becoming an OT is a very fulfilling career opportunity. Follow the six steps we’ve outlined here to start your academic and professional journey!