Top 3 Occupational Therapy Schools in the San Francisco Bay Area (Northern California): Written By A San Francisco Native



Are you looking to apply for an Occupational Therapy program in the San Francisco Bay Area? If you are a California native, it would make the most sense to attend an Occupational Therapy Program in the state to reduce tuition and out-of-state living expenses. This post will highlight my top 3 picks for occupational therapy schools to attend. First, a little about me.

I was born in San Francisco and have worked as an EMT in the North Bay (Sonoma & Marin Counties), East Bay (Alameda & Contra Costa Counties), and South Bay (San Mateo & Santa Clara Counties). As an EMT, I really got to know and experience the neighborhoods that I worked in. This is convenient because the 3 occupational therapy schools are located in 3 different counties and parts of the bay area – north bay, east bay, and south bay. None of the occupational therapy schools actually reside in San Francisco.

Disclaimer: I attended one of the schools (Dominican University) in this top 3 list. However, I was not paid or endorsed by any program to write this post.

Beautiful cityscape of Sausalito Resort town for San Francisco people in North California.

Top 3 Occupational Therapy Schools

  • Dominican University – San Rafael, CA (North Bay)
  • San Jose University – San Jose, CA (South Bay)
  • Samuel Merritt University – Oakland, CA (East Bay)

Scroll to the end of the post to see my top pick for the best Occupational Therapy school to attend in the Bay Area.


History of OT Programs

San Jose State University

San Jose State University Graduation

The Occupational Therapy Program at San Jose State University (SJSU) was founded in 1943 as one of the first occupational therapy programs in the West. It is the oldest accredited Occupational Therapy program in the California State University system. Our national reputation for excellence is based on a superior academic curriculum, distinguished faculty, and accomplished graduates.

The Occupational Therapy Program at San José State University is accredited by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE) of the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA).

During the 2015-2106 academic year, our program underwent the careful and comprehensive process of reaccreditation. This required us to submit evidence that our program met the 189 standards established for occupational therapy academic programs. We are very happy to report that the Accreditation Council of Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE) awarded us a 10-year accreditation based on the strength of our academic program! This is the longest accreditation period awarded and we are very proud of the accomplishment!

Dominican University

Dominican University Mansion
OT classes are held in Meadowlands Hall – an elegant Victorian mansion that is located on the Dominican University campus. Originally built in 1888 as a summer home for Michael H. de Young, founder of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Dominican University of California is a private university in San Rafael, California. It was founded in 1890 as Dominican College by the Dominican Sisters of San Rafael. It is one of the oldest universities in California.

Dominican is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). More than 45 undergraduate and graduate degree programs are offered with an average class size of 16. In 2019–2020, total enrollment was 1,783 students. Ninety-one percent of students are from California, 6% are from other states and 3% from other nations. In Fall 2019, 100% of incoming first-year students received financial aid, 68% came from ethnically diverse backgrounds and 23% are the first in their family to attend college.

Dr. Ruth (Sander) Ramsey ’81 was appointed dean of health and natural sciences at Dominican University of California on Jan. 4, after serving as the interim dean since Feb. 1, 2017. She was the founding director and chair of the university’s department of occupational therapy.

Dr. Ramsey earned a master of arts degree in dance at UCLA, a master of science degree in occupational therapy from San Jose State University, and a doctor of education degree from the University of San Francisco.

Samuel Merritt

Samuel Merrit OT Lab
OT Adult Clinic Participants Share Their Experiences. Credit:

On January 26, 1909, Samuel Merritt Hospital opened its doors—along with a new School of Nursing. During its first 75 years, the Samuel Merritt School of Nursing prepared hundreds of women and men for nursing careers.

A new era of program expansion and enrollment growth began in 1990 when the college diversified its programs beyond undergraduate nursing by establishing an entry-level master of physical therapy degree program. In 1992, the college began offering a master of science in nursing degree, which developed several specialty tracks to prepare nurse anesthetists, family nurse practitioners, and case managers. The institution admitted its first master of occupational therapy students in 1994. In 1999, it established the first master’s degree program for physician assistants in the western United States.

McCormack started SMU’s Master of Occupational Therapy program in 1994. After leaving for several years to teach at the University of Missouri, he returned to SMU to help develop the Doctor of Occupation Therapy program that launched last year.

“He’s a down-to-earth guy, but his vision is very lofty,” said OT Assistant Professor Beth Ching, who was McCormack’s student at San Jose State University in the 1980s and later became his colleague and longtime office mate at SMU. “He’s always been a visionary in looking at where we’re going in healthcare.”

Public vs. Private

When it comes down to comparing public vs. private, the biggest difference will be cost of attendance. San Jose University is a public college, whereas Dominican and Samuel Merritt are private colleges.

Current Degree Programs Offered

  • San Jose University: Master’s OT (OT Doctorate planned)
  • Dominican University: Master’s OT (OT Doctorate planned)
  • Samuel Merritt: Master’s OT & OT Doctorate

In 2016, SMU transitioned the Master of Occupational Therapy program to the entry-level Doctor of Occupational Therapy program, in response to the American Occupational Therapy Association’s policy shifts to encourage the development of more doctorally prepared occupational therapists. With the repeal of this mandate, The SMU Department of Occupational Therapy has decided to offer both the master of occupational therapy (MOT) degree and the doctor of occupational therapy (OTD) degree starting in the fall of 2020. The repeal of the national mandate for occupational therapy education to move to solely doctoral entry by 2027 has provided us with the option of continuing with the Master’s program. Applicants can determine which program fits best for their specific circumstances and can decide which program more fully meets their goals for the future at the time of acceptance into the program. We recognize that the decision of which program to enter will be based on many factors and we will spend time during the interview process explaining both options to more fully inform our future students. Samuel Merritt University’s Department of Occupational Therapy is proud to be fully accredited for both the MOT and OTD degrees.

August 2017 decision to mandate a doctoral degree for entry-level occupational therapists by 2027.

Program Length

  • Same – 2 & 1/2 years at all 3 schools for the graduate Master’s program.
  • Occupational Therapy is transitioning to a Doctorate’s Degree per ACOTE in the coming years which is expected to be 3-year programs.


The requirements for the 3 schools will be very similar. However, each school may have more specific requirements. Variations may exist between GPA and minimum grades earned for completed prerequisites. As these requirements may change frequently, check with each specific school before applying. In general, the OT programs will require:

  1. Completed OTCAS application
  2. Official transcript
  3. Minimum GPA – 3.0 in recent college units
  4. Personal statement and essay
  5. OT observation and volunteer experience
  6. Resume
  7. Letters of recommendation
  8. Prerequisite courses (with minimum grade and recency)
  9. GRE (optional)
  10. Personal interview (during selection process)


Tuition Costs

Please note: tuition totals are provided from school website and may be subject to change and additional fees. Actual cost will likely vary based on the year you attend the program. These number help to provide a general idea of each school’s tuition.

  • Dominican University: $96,580 total for Master’s OT Program.
  • San Jose State University: $49,010* for Master’s OT Program.
  • Samuel Merritt:
    • $112,746 total for Master’s OT Program.
    • $129,590 total for Doctorate OT Program.

*Estimated based on 6.1 or more units at $7,176 per unit cost.

Overall Difficulty of Acceptance

While I cannot speak to the actual difficulty of getting accepted as this is due to various factors, San Jose University is likely to be more competitive overall. This is due to the program being more established (longer history) and lower cost of tuition – making it more attractive to applicants. However, San Jose University does have more spaces for applicants per incoming year of students than Dominican University and Samuel Merritt. Since Dominican University and Samuel Merritt have less open spaces per admitted year, it can be harder to get accepted statistically in that manner, but it is likely receives less applicants due to higher cost of tuition (unverified(.

Graduation and Board Exam Statistics

Graduate Rates

2019: N/A Samuel Merritt, 94% Dominican University, 94% San Jose State

2018: N/A Samuel Merritt, 94% Dominican University, 93% San Jose State

2017: 100% Samuel Merritt, 96% Dominican University, 96% San Jose State

2016: 97% Samuel Merritt, N/A Dominican University, 97% San Jose State

NBCOT Exam Pass Rate
The pass rates for NBCOT exam are high on average for all 3 schools.

Pass Rates for NBCOT (OT Board Exam) – Study for the NBCOT

2019: N/A Samuel Merritt, 100% Dominican University, 100% San Jose State

2018: 97% Samuel Merritt, 98% Dominican University, 96% San Jose State

2017: 100% Samuel Merritt, 96% Dominican University, 95% San Jose State

2016: 100% Samuel Merritt, N/A Dominican University, 99% San Jose State

Campus Locations & Non-School Experience

Dominican University

Dominican University is located in San Rafael (Marin County), which is about 20 miles north of San Francisco via the Golden Gate Bridge. Commuting from San Francisco or the East Bay is doable, but you will have to pay bridge toll and deal with traffic – and traffic can be very congested during commute hours depending on time of day you commute.

The tolls will increase by 35 cents per year for FasTrak users and regular invoice customers, rising from $7 to $8.75 and from $8 to $9.75 respectively by 2023.

My friend who attended Dominican University did not mind the commute actually as it is a counter-commute (morning workers from San Francisco come from Marin). By the time you get off school, you are also facing a counter-commute (Marin workers returning from San Francisco). If you live north of San Rafel such as Novato, Petaluma, or Santa Rosa, be aware that the commute is quite painful unless you have carpool (I did it for 2 & 1/2 years).

Marin is an interesting county in that it is very divided in terms of socioeconomic and health outcomes. There is a large divide between the wealthy (mostly Caucasian) and the less wealthy who live in the ‘canal’ district and Marin City. The Dominican University campus itself is very nice and maintained. In fact, many locals in the neighborhood go on walks through the university since it is well kept and ‘naturey’. There are some nice hiking trails nearby. Dominican is closest of the 3 to wine country (Sonoma, Napa). You’ll get some good spots to eat (especially ‘wine and dine’) but for more diversity and nightlife, you’ll want to go to a city like San Francisco.

Oakland Bay Bridge
San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge in California connects San Francisco to the East Bay.

Samuel Merritt University

Samuel Meritt University is located in the northern part of Oakland. The commute will depend on where you live. Yes, there are some sketchy parts of Oakland, but there are also some nicer ones. You get a more urban vibe living in Oakland and there is no shortage of good places to eat or things to do, especially at night. Berkeley and San Francisco are also easily accessible. Oakland airport is also very close by for the holidays and vacations. If you are more of an ‘outdoorsy’ person, you’ll have to drive a little further to find hiking trails and activities.

San Jose State University

The least desirable part of San Jose may be the traffic. If you are commuting from out of town, especially San Francisco, you will have to deal with the longer commute and congestion. My friend who lived in San Francisco and commuted to San Jose said it was doable but depends on the time of day and your tolerance. It may help to take the 280 freeway instead of 101. Otherwise, the campus is very nice and there are lots of things to do near SJSU:

  • Go to a San Jose Sharks ice hockey game.
  • See a play at the San Jose Repertory Theater.
  • Watch a San Jose State University Spartans Football game.
  • Explore the San Jose’s Tech Museum and watch an Imax movie.
  • Have fun at Paramount’s Great America amusement park.
  • Shop at the Bay Area Great Mall , Valley Fair Mall and Santana Row.
  • Learn about the ancient past at the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum.
  • Visit the San Jose Museum of Art and see creative works of art.
  • Discover California history at the Winchester Mystery House.
  • Enjoy the latest movie at the Camera 12 Cinema.

My Top Pick for Best Occupational Therapy School in the Bay Area

SJSU Campus
San Jose State University. Credit:

San Jose State University – Occupational Therapy Program

  • Lowest tuition cost
  • Established OT program
  • Distinguished faculty
  • Many fieldwork (clinical) opportunities
  • Great location for housing, entertainment, food, travel, etc.
  • Diverse students and local community
  • No toll to get to San Francisco (compared to Dominican University and Samuel Merritt)

Next Steps

OT Career Choice

Are you deciding if a career in Occupational Therapy is right for you?

We made an Online Course and E-Book to help guide you in making this decision. Another great resource is the Reddit /r/occupationaltherapy.

Undergraduate Pre-OT Programs

Some schools offer a pre-OT program in which you earn a bachelor’s degree in occupational therapy transitions you to the graduate program at the same school. If you have not yet completed an undergraduate program and know that occupational therapy is the career for you, consider applying to an undergraduate pre-OT program at:

  • San Jose University
  • Dominican University


  • Completed undergraduate degree
  • Prerequisites with minimum grade / GPA
  • Volunteer work under the supervision of an OT
  • Personal statement and essay
  • Letters of recommendation
  • GRE (optional) but may make you more distinguished
  • Meeting application deadlines

San Jose University FAQ

Good luck!

Jeff is a licensed occupational therapist and lead content creator for OT Dude. He covers all things occupational therapy as well as other topics including healthcare, wellness, mental health, technology, science, sociology, and philosophy. Buy me a Coffee on Venmo.