This detailed guide will provide you with tips, do’s, don’ts, examples, and other helpful things along the way to write your personal statement for OT school.
You may be thinking:
- Where do I even start with writing a personal statement?
- Maybe I can look for some more examples online.
- My story does not seem as exciting as these examples.
- These examples don’t really relate to me.
- I don’t like the writing style or “feeling” that these examples give me.
- How do I even go about this?
Or maybe you didn’t have any of these thoughts and you are just looking for some extra tips to polish up your personal statement before you send it to the world. This guide will still help!
While this guide was written with Pre-OT’s for occupational therapy personal statements in mind, it of course can apply to other professions such as physical therapy, speech therapy, PA, RN, even undergraduate programs.
I am not part of any admissions committee or affiliated with them in any way. However, as a graduate of an occupational therapy program, I also read and edited many other personal statements for friends and family. This guide is not a guarantee that you will get accepted or a guarantee that you will produce the best personal statement. This is just my opinion and unfortunately, the writing is all up to you!
Fortunately, you already have the hard part done – building your education, experiences, personal character, and goals!
Not quite there yet, that’s okay too – this guide will give you a preview of how to prepare to write your personal statement.
The process of writing a personal statement may involve something like:
Reflecting, getting something typed on the screen, getting writer’s block, getting distracted, taking a break, editing it, reflecting, typing some ideas, deleting those ideas, repeat, have it proofread, reading it out loud, reflecting, make more edits, and you’re done! While this sounds like a lot, it’s doable.
Set-up and Preparation
When you feel like you are ready to write your personal statement, start writing! Don’t wait until the last minute to write. Personal statements require editing, giving it some time for your mind to clear to re-read, having it proofread by someone else, and making more edits.
We use Grammarly as a browser extension for its spellcheck and grammar check. It is really good at catching mistakes as you go and the free version is all you really need to get some basic editing done. This allows you to focus on the writing and not the spelling. Software like Grammarly also helps if you especially have a hard time with writing in general. While it can suggest edits for errors, it is up to you to write the content. AI is not quite there yet, but we are close!
Cheating & plagiarizing
I just have to say it. Don’t cheat or plagiarize. Don’t hire someone to write for you. I hear stories of students cheating here or there, so it must still be happening. Grad school is not the time to jeopardize all the hard work you put in.
Have a back-up system for your document
It would be a huge set-back to lose all your hard work. These days, you can easily use the cloud such as Dropbox or Google Drive/Docs for storing your files. This goes for your personal statement document as well as your graduate school application files such as notes, deadlines, resumes, etc. All it takes is a coffee spilled on your laptop for you to lose all your hard work (it happened to my classmate in OT school). Better yet, back up all your data that is important to you. Lectures, recordings, assignments.
Write in a place you feel productive
It doesn’t have to be a quiet library. It just has to be what works. If it’s a coffee shop, then go there. Write in a place you associate with positive work (but also don’t get distracted too easily, e.g. a cat cafe) – like to your favorite study area.
It’s okay if it doesn’t seem perfect or even good at first
After all, you are writing something like this probably for the first time, with a unique set of experiences for a specific intention of impressing the OT’s admissions panel. It can be difficult for artists to create art or music, or write a book in one session. So don’t stress it!
- Re-research the profession, job description, duties, etc. BLS.gov is my favorite go-to for profession research. We have a video on it here.
- Follow the personal statement prompt and instructions. Read it several times to make sure. If there is a word limit, don’t go over. Double-check before you submit.
- Pay attention to the file format that is requested from the programs. Word doc? PDF? Make sure your file actually opens after you upload it and is not corrupt, if possible. If you are uploading to a central application like OTCAS, make sure you meet those guidelines.
- Write in the same tense and person throughout (“I”, first-person is fine).
- Write in an order that makes sense and flows to the reader, e.g. chronologically.
- Write with a purpose. Each sentence should be there for a reason and not be filler. Exclude extra information or too specific of information that doesn’t contribute to your story.
- Write succinctly and don’t be too wordy. This is a skill you will develop on your capstone project and hone in on in OT school and especially on the job. What do I mean?
- Example: Nowadays, I want to be an occupational therapist first and foremost because I want to help people and really make a difference in each of their lives.
- Better example: My goal is to become an occupational therapist who makes a difference in people’s lives.
- Warning: I wouldn’t you use this specific example in your personal statement because it’s probably been overused. Try to be creative by saying how you want to “help” people in other ways.
- Be honest, try to copy an example’s voice, do not write over-the-top or fabricate the story.
- Be politically correct and culturally sensitive.
- Write something you would read (days, months, years) later. If you are having writer’s block, take a break and write when your thoughts or sentences come more naturally to you.
- My personal statement didn’t have big GRE words or fancy syntax. It told a great story that was (in my opinion) to the point, compelling, persuasive, and driven.
- Describe your values and goals while highlighting your strengths.
- Don’t include an autobiography, only include what’s relevant. If what you did in high school or even grade school inspired you to become an OT then it could be included. Maybe you received OT services personally when you were a child – include it. If you overcame a hardship in your childhood that is relevant, then include it as well. Otherwise, leave the extra stories out.
- In my opinion, it is best to talk about college, work, and other achievements and experiences in your “adulthood”.
- Even traveling experience (shows cultural awareness) as an adult is more noteworthy than say winning a basketball game in high school (less relevant to OT)
- Tip: think about when you first were motivated to become an OT and start from there, not earlier.
- Don’t use cliches or minimize them as much you can. Readers see this a lot and it does not make a big impact on their impression of you.
- Don’t use slang/informal speech, e.g. “sticking with it” -> perseverance.
- Don’t make jokes and be careful if you decide to use humor (what may be funny to you may not be to the reader). It’s safe to leave humor out and just get to the point.
- Avoid being sarcastic.
- Don’t overuse abbreviations. I know I am guilty of this too.
- Pay attention to your use of OT – it can be occupational therapy or occupational therapist, but personally, I get confused when people use “OT” interchangeably.
- In my final submitted personal statement, I only abbreviated “MSOT” and “EMT” and did not “OT” once.
- Don’t have mismatching verb tenses.
- Example: I got accepted to shadow at [facility] and
was observingobserved patients do their rehab exercises.
- Pay attention to these verbs in sentences that run longer. Consider shortening them to make it less tiring to read,
avoidingavoid run-on sentences. (see what I did there?)
- Example: I got accepted to shadow at [facility] and
- Don’t abbreviate or hyphenate too often or incorrectly. If you do it one way, be sure you are at least consistent throughout. e.g. evidence-based, not evidenced based.
- Don’t capitalize nouns incorrectly (proper vs common nouns).
- Occupational therapist is capitalized like this correctly.
- However, an Occupational Therapist is not correct if capitalized like this.
- This is the correct capitalization for an occupational therapist.
- The same goes for the field of occupational therapy.
- Occupational therapy is capitalized correctly in this sentence.
- Abbreviations are always capitalized, e.g. OT.
- Don’t write anything negative about anyone, organization, place, etc.
- Don’t write in a negative tone, be a “Debbie Downer”
- Don’t be too arrogant/grandiose/assuming/inappropriate/rude/offensive.
- “OTs make a lot of money.”
- “I will be the best occupational therapist because…”
- “I am the best candidate because”
- “Since I am… , therefore”
- “Unlike others”, or
- “Other professions” talking down, avoid talking about other professions in general. No one profession is better than another, the same applies to OT. Think about why OT over other professions leading to your decision to become one).
- Think about how someone in another profession, say a PT would feel after reading your personal statement. They should not feel offended after reading your personal statement, but instead think, “wow, such and such would make a great OT.” Not that OT is better than PT, that kind of thing.
- Don’t try to predict the future.
When I become an occupational therapist.If I become an occupational therapist.
- Don’t repeat yourself, you only need to say something once in its context. Of course, the bigger message can be repeated, e.g. intro and conclusion. Just don’t sound repetitive.
- Don’t use the same phrases (especially close to each other), try using different words. That doesn’t mean you should just look up words in a thesaurus. Really think about what’s the point you are trying to make.
- Don’t use profanity.
- Don’t use labels, judge, stereotype.
- In everyday speech we say things like, “that’s crazy”. Someone with a mental illness who really is crazy could be offended. I had a teacher whose pet-peeve was people who said things were crazy. Remove crazy from your personal statement.
- “He probably was abused since he was in a recovery program/”
- I would avoid using “normal” too.
“Occupational therapists help patients get back to their normal.”This implies the patient was abnormal before. Better words: recover, improve, rehabilitate, strengthen, adapt, overcome, etc.
- Other labels: retarded, slow, crippled, mental, insane
- Don’t violate HIPAA or any privacy by including personal information, patient names (just say patient or client), or even sentences that could lead the reader to find out specifics based on context, e.g. the CEO of Apple – there’s only one, you can Google this
- You can include a facility name, e.g. Standford hospital – as long as you don’t talk about it in a negative context.
“Standford hospital treats a lot of poor patients.”Standford hospital is a valuable asset to the community for the underserved.
- Don’t include anything that can be seen as a weakness, e.g. low GPA, took a semester off, DUI, unexplained career changes.
- Don’t talk about your job, GPA, college – items that are already mentioned in your resume already.
- This is your chance to “say” what you want to say and include your story that is not apparent in the other pre-requisites. All the other candidates likely have high GPAs and had to take the same pre-requisite courses, but they did not shadow at your facility with your patient, so here’s your chance to distinguish yourself.
- What experience may be unique to you?
- For example, I included my experience of being an EMT to make myself stand out.
- Don’t assume your experience is the same for everyone in different settings. For example, a skilled nursing facility is different than hospital, than a pediatric clinic, than school setting.
- This could backfire and show your lack of research into how broad OT can be. Don’t forget about mental health too! OT’s study to be generalists, not specialists.
- While it’s okay to want to work with a specific population as a goal, don’t accidentally make it sound like you think OT’s only do one thing. Hope this one makes sense.
Question’s to address or reflect on
Reflect. Write. Take a break. Repeat.
- What is your experience with other backgrounds and cultures in your pre-OT journey?
- How did you realize that OT was for you? Why not PT? (Reflect, but don’t answer this directly.)
- What or who were the influence(s) or influencers?
- How did your shadowing experience contribute to you wanting to be an OT?
- This is a rich opportunity to mention your specific OT shadowing experience at the stage in which you want to be an OT.
- I would include at least 1 example from this, 2 is better, but not too much either.
- What is your goal after becoming an OT?
- Not just becoming an OT (graduating) but afterwards. e.g. 1 year post-grad, 5 years, where you see yourself 10 years out.
- What challenges did you overcome in your
- What sets you apart from other applicants? Why should I not pick person A or person B over you?
- If applying to a specific program – Why would you be a valuable asset to the cohort, program, school, faculty? What is your fit?
- Tip: research the school’s website for their mission statement, OT program background, etc. to get familiar with the specifics. If you can include and relate to some of this, even better!
- “My motivation to help others and my passion for occupational therapy will guide me to be successful in the [program].” or
Since [school] strives to “[OT program mission statement]”, I firmly believe that [school] will help me reach my goals of becoming a successful occupational therapist.
- Talk about why you want to be an OT, but not just to “help” people. How? Which population/community/background? Conditions? Why? Tip: three major categories of OT are: mental health, pediatrics, and adults/older adults. Nurses help people too. How is OT different for you?
- Why are you applying to an OT program and not say PT or PA? While you shouldn’t compare to other specific programs, try to highlight why OT is unique as a profession and why it appeals to you above all the others.
- Show your understanding of what OT’s do – and how your story and examples lead you on a path to becoming an OT. Sure, your narrative could fit a doctor, nurse, social worker. So you’ll have to wrap it all up to fit OT.
- Reflection tip: other professions may be based on the medical model or helping people become healthy, but OT is different because…
- Check out AOTA.org for some phrasing of the profession to inspire you.
- If you are comfortable, use OT related terminology or phrases, but don’t go overboard, e.g. occupation, intervention, treatment, activities of daily living, evidence-based, collaborative, interdisciplinary, client-centered, holistic, functional. Plain English is fine, you don’t have to sound like a journal article.
- As mentioned, highlight why you would be a valuable candidate (fit) to their program. Think about not only your experience but your character and quality traits. Examples: creativity, leadership, patient, resourceful, reliability? Teamwork and communication?
- Show indirectly through your stories or experiences why you will be successful in the program and not “drop-out”. Perseverance.
- End strong and on a high note. Be sure to think big picture and not be too specific in this last part. Something along the lines of wanting to be or why you’ll make a great OT may be effective.
- Psychologically, readers tend to remember the beginnings and end more than the middle.
- How will being an OT help you achieve your goals, career? Not just short-term, but think bigger. While this sounds cliche – OT is not just a job, it will become your life. A person’s job (and career) is a large part of their identity.
- The reader should feel like they read about a person they would want to meet in the program and in real life, someone who can contribute something to the cohort, school, faculty, alumni – long term relationship. You will not only graduate as a student but a colleague in the field of occupational therapy to the faculty.
Here is a template I created to get you started. This is of course not a magic template that works for everyone or neither was it created by any OT entity for students. Copy & paste this into your favorite word processing program and write away.
Sentence 1: Attention-grabbing sentence. Hook into your story.
Supporting sentences: Support the above story with specifics.
Concluding sentence: “Thesis statement” stating why you chose (or) may be a successful OT.
Body Paragraphs (2, 3, 4, 5, etc.)
Opening sentence: As a [student experience, job, volunteer, shadow, OT-related], I [did this, and that] at [place or company or school]
Supporting sentences: strengthen your narrative in the opening sentence. These sentences should not deviate from the opening sentence topic or story, otherwise start a new paragraph. Should answer a [Question’s to address or reflect on] section (see above).
Concluding sentence(s): wrap everything in this story up, optionally include a transition sentence.
Opening sentence: restate why you will be a successful OT.
Supporting sentences: start wrapping things up. Big picture. If applying to a specific program, consider answering why this program (e.g. does its mission statement appeal to you?).
Final sentence: end strong stating that you want to be an OT. Mention because it is in your long-term goals. Consider ending everything with the words “occupational therapist” (identity), e.g. “…be a successful occupational therapist” OR “occupational therapy”, e.g. “… to pursue a career in occupational therapy”.
Here are some examples. All identifying information and some facts were fabricated for example sake.
- This excerpt, although really did happen, sounds cliche with phrases like soul searching, take it to the next level.
- While the reflection part and figuring out what to do may seem important, it can be shortened to and still get the message across.
- Using the family member is a good example especially since it related to a story with an occupational therapist.
- The last two sentences highlight that I know what OT is (and why I want to become one) but can be cleaned up.
- Mentioning ADL’s shows I know what OT’s do.
- Shows my direct involvement with OT intervention.
- Shows my understanding of OT’s holistic approach.
- Words like “value” are strong. The word caregiver is often used in OT documentation.
- How would you improve this example?
- Lots of specifics can be taken out like employer name, city.
- Role as EMT is well-known, better to include more significant things such as experience, outcome, or relevance to OT.
- Being bilingual is nice, but more for a resume than a personal statement as it does not add to the story.
- Leave out specific thought process of thinking about quitting (weaknesses). Perseverance was also already shared in a previous example – talk about another quality instead, e.g. stress management, working with diverse population, fast-paced environment, patient education as an EMT and how it translates to OT.
- Reflect on how one story can share multiple strengths you have not mentioned so far in previous examples.
- The example does not translate or relate back to OT in a clear manner, but alludes to the qualities of one. This can be written to be more obvious because EMT and OT have very similar qualities that are needed to be good practitioners.
Much shorter, to the point, and use of effective words that highlight what OT’s also do – educate, doing it safely, prevention of disease and injury, and meeting client’s goals.
FAQ and Self-Doubt
Addressing negative self-talk and negative beliefs about yourself.
“This is my 100th time applying…”
Maybe it will be your 101st that you get in. You see this all the time with graduates taking the board exam who fail X number of times. Don’t give up!
“I was never good at writing.”
Writing takes practice. I never liked writing in grade school. Now I enjoy writing about OT. So use your resources, e.g. spell-check, someone to proof-read, reading other examples. You CAN do it.
“My experience is not that special.”
Not everyone did CPR on their patient, observed a miraculous rehab recovery, etc. It’s what you make of the moments, how you interpret it, become inspired by it, how it changes you, and make you want to be an OT. It’s all from YOUR perspective. You can take 2 people who watch the same movie. One person could be moved by it and the other not be interested, right?
“The more I read this, the more I feel like it is not good enough.”
Take a break, put it down, and come back to it. Have someone else read it and get their opinion. Sometimes, we get stuck in our own thoughts and they can trick us and lead us down a negative path of thinking.
“I have the opposite problem, I have too much to write about and not enough room.”
You can probably take our your younger experiences. Leave the “resume” stuff out. Try to pick the most “OT” related or healthcare moments. If you do not have these examples to draw from, choose ones that fit the characteristics of a good OT. Each example should not be a repeated theme of another and highlight something profound.
“Now I am not so sure what OT’s do anymore, after writing all this.”
Go on BLS.gov for OT’s, listen to OT podcasts (to become inspired), watch some YouTubers on OT.
“I am having doubts about OT vs. (other profession)”
Avoid reading forums, facebook groups, Reddit for OT. These are often skewed towards OTs who may be burned out (which could happen for any other profession on social media). Dig deep into why you wanted to be an OT in the first place! If still in doubt, maybe you should observe some more, talk to some more OT’s and listen to some OT podcasts (because they are positive about the profession usually). I would avoid YouTube as many who are burned out could make videos.
“No one can proofread my personal statement.”
Try writing workshops, a school or public library, or similar resources. A simple google search could help and you won’t necessarily need to pay. Avoid suspicious websites and uploading your work to avoid others from plagiarizing you. Use people or resources that you trust.
“This is my 100th draft, it’s not perfect yet”
Deadlines will often help with this. Don’t let them catch you off guard. Consider going back and making an outline and seeing if you covered everything you want to talk about. A timer may help. Get the approval of at least 2 readers to give you support for how awesome your personal statement is.
“I don’t know where to start in writing”
That’s okay, start writing about a story or experience you have in mind and build around it. Start in the middle as intros and conclusions can be very difficult to begin writing.
- Read some other examples online, but don’t stress about it. If possible, have someone who may have been accepted to a graduate program send you theirs. You can use it as a template or for inspiration to the types of stores, tone, conclusion paragraph used, etc.
- Set a timer (e.g. Pomodoro method) so you won’t stress out and remind yourself to take breaks, move-on, just get something out and fix it later. Exact grammar, spelling, and other “writing” can be fixed later – focus on content.
- Get into a habit of writing, set a schedule…or do it randomly, no-schedule (whatever works for you). Maybe it’s writing every other day in the morning, after a nap, after playing video games, after a meal, after walking your dog, or whatever sets you up for success.
- Have at least 2 people read (and edit) your personal statement. Don’t take it personally and not all suggestions are necessarily correct.
- In the earlier stages of writing, if deciding between two stories or segments in your writing, consider having two drafts and see which one your proof-readers prefer.
- Read your personal statement out loud, spaced out, e.g. 1 week later (when it is no longer fresh and you forgot some of what you wrote). Make edits as needed.
- Candidates come from all walks of life, have different personalities (e.g. type-A vs. B), extroverted vs. introverted, outspoken vs. quiet – so some of these tips (or your editor suggestions) may not appeal to you or seem unnatural, etc. This can be your strength. Follow your gut. It’s not like OT schools are only looking for outspoken, extroverted candidates. It’s how you use those qualities to better the world with OT. This is what makes you unique, special, and distinguished. Highlight those features!
- Take care of yourself – eat well, exercise, manage your stress, breathe.
Thank you for reading this long guide. I wish you the best in your journey to becoming an occupational therapist (or whatever career). See you all in the field!