How to get into your dream OT program

I applied to 8 different programs, interviewed at 6, and accepted my top pick. I would love to share with you what I learned from this process and how you can use these tips when you start applying to programs as well.

Tip 1: Find a great place to shadow

I shadowed with an independent business owner of the only pediatric clinic in our town and with a hand therapist at a PT/OT clinic. My goal was to get a diverse understanding of the profession and these two very opposite settings were great exposure to how varied and comprehensive occupational therapy can be. I also worked as a certified nursing assistant at a long-term care facility and through that I had exposure to another type of setting for rehabilitation. Choose as many settings and as try to get as many hours there as possible. Additionally, make friends with the OT you shadow. They will be writing your recommendation so keep that in mind and always be polite, be courteous of the time that they are setting aside to help you, and be engaged (that means NO CELL PHONES while you are shadowing, don’t be that person).

Tip 2: Create your own recommendation, kind of

The OTs that I shadowed were very busy and had a lot going on, the last thing I wanted to do was to be any more of an additional pain in the butt and have them spend forever on my recommendation. Here is what I did and I highly encourage this: write out a draft of a recommendation based on your strengths and facts for the OT you shadow to edit. It can feel weird writing about yourself, but if they are open to it (and all of my references loved that I did this for them), you know you will have a great recommendation that reflects your hard work and potential in the field. Here is my example letter:

(your name) has contributed over 45 hours of shadowing with XYZ therapy. I was impressed by (his/her) initiative to find a job shadow opportunity and dedicate (himself/herself) to learning from us while employed full-time and also taking 15 credits this semester. (he/she) has been a curious learner and interested in finding out the “why” of many of our activities and therapy techniques. (he/she) has an easy-going attitude and interacts positively with our clients. (he/she) has been an entertaining and helpful addition to our office while (he/she) is here. I recommend (your name) as an occupational therapist because (he/she) shows a legitimate drive to learn about the profession, connect with the patients (he/she) observes, and has a great background for occupational therapy, both professionally and recreationally.  (he/she) always comes to the clinic with a positive attitude, ready and willing to help with the occupational therapy sessions that (he/she) observes.

Tip 3: Use your work experience in your personal essay

I also think that having great work experience was a major asset to my application. I had my certified nursing assistant license and prior to that I had a ton of leadership experience from being in the military. I definitely highlighted these details in my personal essay and discussed the learning aspect of what I gained from these experiences that would contribute towards the occupational therapy profession. Here is an example from my own personal essay:

My desire to become an occupational therapist stems from my current position working as a certified nursing assistant. I consider myself blessed to be doing a job that requires a culmination of skills that continue to improve not only my personal character, but also my ability to enhance my patient’s lives through quality healthcare. Daily I am put in situations that require patience, communication skills, stress management, time management and excellent customer service. My residents have told me how much they appreciate my patience and kindness, and I encourage them to be independent, to do as much of their activities of daily living as they can based on their own abilities. Carrying out their independent tasks keeps them motivated and independent, a goal that enhances their quality of life. When I see our therapy team work with residents, there is a change in them which lights up their life. One incidence that really motivated me to pursue occupational therapy was when a resident who was previously bedridden worked with therapy for several weeks with a goal of becoming mobile and finally was able to use her walker. No other form of care is that powerful. I have a desire to pursue occupational therapy because I want to be that force which empowers individuals to achieve a higher quality of life.

Tip 4: Make sure you meet all of the prerequisites for the program you are applying to. Also, watch those deadlines

Each program seems to have slightly different prerequisites, so be cautious of those and make sure that the classes you are taking will meet your desired program. Also, some programs won’t accept some classes that are more than 4 years old, or 7 years old, etc. so keep an eye on when you took your classes so you are not immediately disregarded from the potential selectees. Deadlines are also very important, OTCAS does a great job with organizing everything you need for prerequisites and deadlines, so make sure to keep note and stay on track with turning everything in!

Tip 5: Practice interviewing

Once you get your invitation to interview, the next steps begin! First, congratulations! Many applicants may not even get that far. If you are a little shy, like I am, start practicing interviewing with some trusted friends. The interview is where schools decide if you’re a good fit for the program and if you have what it takes to make it through a rigorous graduate program. I can’t speak for all programs, but at EWU, the class load is intense and every single school I interviewed at asked me what my time management tools were and how I handled stress. Knowing these for yourself will help with this question and you will be more prepared on interview day. Other questions (if you want to practice what was asked for me, all schools are different so this is not a comprehensive list):

Tell me about a time when you had to make an ethical decision and how you handled it – Ethics are big in OT, there is a lot of documentation and service providing that depends on having a solid character and putting the client first. We have a set of guidelines for ethics that are important to know and understand, if you review these before the interview it may help: https://ajot.aota.org/article.aspx?articleid=2767077
If you could provide occupational therapy services for any Disney character, who would it be and why? – This one threw me off, but it is fun to think about. The best answer they heard was Dory from Finding Nemo
Tell me about a time you feel like you had failed and what you learned from it – Once again, threw me off. Make sure you have a learning moment for it!
What are your greatest strengths?
What is your biggest weakness and how do you overcome it?
How do you deal with stress? – Make sure this is true to you. If you can’t think of anything now, it is good to research stress management because you will need it once you’re in the program
How do you manage your time and obligations?
Why do you want to be an occupational therapist? / Why do you feel you would make a good occupational therapist? – This one should be obvious, but keep it honest to what you want to achieve in the profession.
How did you hear about occupational therapy?
How is occupational therapy different from other types of therapy?
Why do you want to attend this program? – make sure you do your research on different programs! this is important, each program is different and offers unique learning outcomes.

Tip 6: Interview day tips and advice

So half of my interviews were in person, half on zoom. The in person ones (before COVID hit) were obviously different than the on-line format but I’ll try to tell you my best tips for both.
In-person:
*I am very shy and get nervous easily so my first tip is to wear something light and breathable because sweat happens. But for real.
*Socialize, even if you are nervous. This one was hard for me because I get nervous with new people, especially since I really wanted the school to like me. So I worked on trying to get outside of my head and be in the moment. In these social situations, I find it really helps to make it about the other person. Ask about where they’re from, how they learned about OT, things that they like to do. Once you get into the program, you might be surprised how many conversations you will reminiscence about with the people you talked to who also got in!
*Interviewers are looking to see how you connect with other peers and if you are a team player. If you think about it, you will be working closely with the other members of your cohort and the instructors are looking for individuals who will be cohesive and helpful. I recommend being respectful and kind during the interview (but you’re already a kind respectful person so this isn’t a problem), allow other people to speak first and try not to dictate the conversation.
On-line:
*If you are going to be meeting on zoom, still dress nicely and make sure that you are in a calm and quiet spot free of distractions.
*Make sure you have great connection, nothing worse than getting kicked off mid-interview!
*Do try to add some personality, like having a conversation piece mug for your coffee or let your dog or cat in before the interview and play with them to add some character and the interviewers have a chance to ask about it.

I hope these are helpful, comment down below if you have any lingering questions that I might be able to help with! Good luck!

Best,

Amber

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