Choosing an Occupational Therapy School can be difficult when there are many great choices out there. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the demand for occupational therapists continues to increase among other healthcare professions.1 Many occupational therapists report overall satisfaction with a career in occupational therapy. Occupational therapy is a great investment in your career, but as with choosing any other program, there is an investment in time, money, and effort. A good occupational therapy program will provide you with a rich learning experience, networking, and prepare you to sit for the Occupational Therapy Board Exam (NBCOT).
This post will focus on choosing a program to practice as an occupational therapist (OTR).
Currently, to become an occupational therapist, you are required to complete a Master’s Degree in occupational therapy. By the year 2027, students are required to obtain a Doctoral Degree to practice. Students who complete a Master’s Program will be ‘grandfathered’ and still be allowed to practice.
Cost is a major factor in choosing a school. A master’s degree program is approximately 3 years. Costs can vary widely depending on location (and living expenses), public vs. private, and in-state vs. out-of-state (more expensive). Here is a list of the most affordable occupational therapy school programs.
- Salem State University (Massachusetts) – $2,500-$4,000/year
- Worchester State University (Massachusets) – $3,000/year
- Winston Salem State University (North Carolina) – $3,800-$14,000/year
- Northeastern State University (Oklahoma) – $4,500-$10,000/year
- East Carolina University (North Carolina) – $4,700-$18,000/year
- University of New Mexico (New Mexico) – $5,100-$17,400/year
- Missouri State University (Missouri) – $5,200-$10,000/year
- Augusta University (Georgia) – $5,500-$19,000/year
- Chicago State University (Illinois) – $5,900-$11,000/year
- Universita of Oklahoma (Oklahoma) – $6,500-$21,000/year
- Florida Gulf Coast University (Florida) – $7,000-$28,000/year
- Georgia State University (Georgia) – $7,100-$23,000/year
- San Jose State University (California) – $7,200-$17,000/year
To help with costs, look into loans, scholarships, and benefits for veterans. Some local or state programs may provide additional assistance if you meet certain eligibility such as having a disability. Your local Department of Rehabilitation may help with costs such as supplies, uniforms, books, and job resources. Loan forgiveness may also be available depending on your contract and circumstance.
The key is to get creative and look into different ways of cutting down on costs.
In- vs. Out-of-state
You will most likely save on costs by staying put in your own state. This reduces the need to pay for additional tuition, rent, and other expenses such as transportation. In- vs. out-of-state is usually not a factor for private schools. If you are considering out-of-state programs, other costs may add to your expenses such as flying to tour the campus, attending the school interview, and coming home for the holidays while you are in your program. In-state programs will be much more affordable than out-of-state. If you are looking to be a traveler (and work around the country), an out-of-state program can be a great opportunity for you to explore a new location, network with professionals, and get a feel for the job market.
Personally, I got hired at the hospital where I completed my clinical (also called Fieldwork). Typically, your school will try to find a rotation for you in the same state that you go to school. This does not have to be the case all the time and some exceptions can be made, but most schools have contracts with facilities that are within their vicinity. If you go to an out-of-state school, you may have opportunities to work and get job offers out of state. In contrast, going to an in-state school may increase the chances that you get a job offer close to your hometown.
Avoid schools that are not accredited by ACOTE. ACOTE is recognized as the accrediting agency for occupational therapy education programs. Put simply, attending a school that loses its accreditation may not qualify you to sit for the occupational therapy board exam and could end up being a waste of your time and money.
Board Exam Pass Rates
There are many factors that can affect overall board exam pass rates. NBCOT exam pass rates are reported for every occupational therapy program for the average of each cohort each year. While it still depends on the student to pass the NBCOT, if a school has a trend of lower pass rates, it could potentially indicate a lower quality program compared to another one. Factor in the NBCOT Exam pass rate in your decision for choosing an occupational therapy school.
https://www.nbcot.org/Educators/Home – scroll down to ‘School Performance’ and check each school you are considering applying to.
While this may be subjective, smaller class sizes mean more opportunities to participate and ask questions during lecture, labs, and other school-related activities. Smaller class sizes for your cohort also mean you may get more 1:1 support from your instructors. Public school programs often have larger class sizes and private school programs tend to have smaller class sizes (but tend to be more expensive).
Quality of Student’s Work
Many occupational therapy schools publish their student’s thesis projects and capstone projects on the library website or on their occupational therapy page. Looking at examples gives you insight into the type of work that students are doing, the quality of their work, and the topics that they may be researching and have worked on.
This is important because you will spend several years on your Capstone project so it is a bonus if the topic you get to work on really interests you. For example, my group Capstone project was studying the experience of guide dog owners and how they may or may not faced barriers to daily functioning. We got published in a journal and I attribute a lot of this to the support from my faculty advisor (we worked pretty hard too).
You may be able to find real examples of past students poster presentations, thesis/capstone projects, and other assignments. Each school’s website is different, but you easily find it on Google Scholar if you type in occupational therapy followed by the school’s name. Another place you can find it is on the school’s library page then narrowing down the search to occupational therapy or looking directly on the occupational therapy program page.
- Poster presentations
- Capstone thesis
- Reserach Critically Appriased Paper (CAP) reviews
- Publications in journals on Google Scholar
While you are looking at the school’s program webpage for occupational therapy, pay attention to how it makes you feel. A well-maintained and up-to-date webpage can tell a lot about a program compared to one that seems out-of-date.
- What is the program’s mission statement?
- What does the program offer that makes it unique?
- What ‘amenities’ does the program have such as equipment, classroom materials, and the actual faculty as well?
Just like buying a house, looking online is not enough. You need to experience the actual school in person. With COVID-19, some schools may have switched to virtual tours, but it is still better than applying ‘blindly’. While you are there (either physically or virtually), see what other students are doing. Maybe you can ask a student how they like the school and the program (if they are an OT student). Are the classrooms well-kept and organized? Are the professors engaged? If you need accommodations, is it likely to be met, such as for ADA? If you get a ‘bad vibe’ from a particular school, consider putting it on the bottom of your list of schools you are going to apply to. After all, you will be spending a lot of time, money, and effort at these schools.
Social Media (Yes really)
The last tip is to check out the school on social media such as Facebook or Instagram. What kind of things are they posting? Do they post often? This is not to say that a school is necessarily bad if they are not active on social media. But it can offer additional insight. If a particular school does not have a social media account or if they are not very active on it, consider finding accounts of actual students who are in the program.
Hashtags and search strings such as ‘occupational therapy’, ‘ot student’, and ‘ots’ (occupational therapy student) plus the school’s name can turn up search results of accounts of students who attend particular programs and disclose such information.