6 Tips to Survive Occupational Therapy School

Here are 6 tips for occupational therapy students to survive school.

#6. Use technology to your advantage

Technology is your friend. While there is no wrong way to do things, there are certainly more ‘efficient ways’ to do things. Studying and doing well in OT school is no different.

While technology may have some learning curve (some more than others), it is oftentimes worthwhile to adopt such technologies to make your life easier. The Pareto Principle or 80/20 rule really says that you need to learn about 20% of something to get 80% of the benefit.

So if you are allergic to technology, you will be put at a major disadvantage in OT school and especially in the workplace if you do not make an effort to adopt some of it. One excuse that older adults may make is that technology such as computers are “new” and were not around before. If you think about it, Bill Gates is 65 years old – the same age group of many older adults!

While there is no “wrong” way to study, some students prefer certain methods – pen and paper for notes, flashcards, highlighting, etc. But many of these techniques have been digitalized to be more efficient. You can take notes on your computer. There are flashcard apps. You can highlight e-books.

My top technology recommendations for occupational therapy school are:

  • Backing up your data (either offline or on the cloud).
  • Using a password manager (this will literally save minutes for you every day, now multiple that by how many days you live – that’s a lot of time saved). The time it takes to set up may be an inconvenience, but you have the added benefit of security.
  • Organizing all your work and making it easier to find (folders, tags, search feature).
  • Syncing your schoolwork on the cloud so that it is accessible also on your phone (studying on the go).
  • Getting the eBook version if possible (CTRL + F, CMD + F is your friend).
  • Using cloud services such as Google Docs for group work.
  • Studying with flashcard websites and apps like Quizlet.
  • Taking notes on your computer or tablet along with the lecture.
  • Recording lectures and listening to them on commutes.
  • Consuming the material in other ways, e.g. video, podcast.
  • Using Google Scholar for academic research first, then your school’s library database. The algorithm of Google is much better at finding relevant results.
  • Consulting with your school’s librarian for digital research.
  • Using video, e.g. cell phone to record skills for visual/auditory feedback such as how you do transfers in OT fundamentals.
  • Using group chat or online conferencing for group work where appropriate.
  • Using productivity apps, e.g. Pomodoro Timer.
  • Journal your thoughts on a blog or Google Doc for lessons learned in school and fieldwork.
  • Using screentime apps to limit screen time or digital distractions, e.g. social media or video games.
  • Connect with peers on social media (even those outside of your cohort) for additional resources and networking.

#5. Improve your writing

Writing is a skill. You likely had to really flex your writing muscles when you worked on your resume and wrote your personal statement. Writing does not end after OT school. You’ll be writing e-mails, documenting, creating projects – and if you hoping to start a private practice, you may need to write business plans, employee manuals, copywriting for marketing, etc.

The more you practice your writing now, the better your overall communication will become to produce better client outcomes, get what you want (including more money), reduce unnecessary back and forth, and wasted time.

How do you improve your writing? You likely have schoolwork that involves some level of writing. Follow your teacher’s recommendations. See how other people write. Reading more books also will improve your writing.

My tips for successful writing – no matter what the purpose:

  • Write with a purpose.
  • Consider the audience (who is usually VERY busy – we all are busy, are we not?).
  • Write for your audience (age, culturally appropriate).
  • Write concisely.
  • Consider use of line breaks, bold, italics, bullet points, etc.
  • Proofread before you click send.
  • Find the happy medium between informal and formal.
  • Consider your biases, be politically correct, and culturally sensitive.
  • Most importantly – don’t post stupid stuff on social media or the Internet that may get you in trouble.
  • Don’t reprimand via e-mail, text, or even video (all can be recorded and used against you someday). Reprimand in person.
  • Don’t cheat or plagiarize your schoolwork.

How else can you improve your writing? Start a blog or journal. I am serious. Starting OTDUDE has helped me improve my writing significantly because 1.) I write for fun 2.) I write to help people. 3.) I write almost every day.

Other suggestions include writing e-mails to friends or finding an online penpal and writing an eBook. It’s always a good idea to work on your resume and keep it updated as well. You’ll need to do it when you apply for your first job.

So while there is nothing wrong with leisurely activities and being social, spend some time improving your writing skills. Your older self will thank you for it!

#4. Build your non-OT skills / Stop Wasting Your Time

Similar to #5 is building your skills, and I don’t just mean studying for occupational therapy. Learn better soft skills such as communication, productivity, time management, conflict resolution, listening skills, empathy, and patience. I doubt that you are 100% in all of these areas. Many jobs that hire these days send out character evaluations to references and they ask about these types of skills. And guess what they do? They don’t allow you to answer 5/5 in all of these areas for the applicant! In the eyes of these employers, no one is “that perfect”.

  • When you are young, time seems to go very slow.
  • When you become a working adult with responsibilities, time seems to fly by.
  • In your retirement years, time may go slow, but you have very little left.

You can never stop learning.

If I could trade time that I spent watching TV or playing video games when I was younger for learning any useful skill in life or knowledge, I would trade it instantly. Sure you can use these things for relaxation and to reduce stress, but it should not be 100% of the leisurely time you have available. That’s the reason I don’t watch TV anymore. I have become that much more productive with the time I get back. I don’t think I am missing out on much from re-watching the entire season of [show] for the 3rd time. Because it is so easy to become addicted to things like TV, you can make it a rule to not watch TV by yourself, for example.

Dedicate some of your time to learn something that may help you in your future – photography, web design, video editing, copywriting, marketing, personal finance, cutting hair, cooking, business, management, parenting, real estate, playing music, speaking a foreign language, or whatever you are interested in. You shouldn’t even have to pay a single penny. Before, we had to spend money for courses or purchase a book, but the power of community-created content cannot be underestimated. Where can you learn? It’s all at your fingertips: YouTube – the power of technology (point #6).

#3. Set functional goals

You learn how to create and write awesome goals in occupational therapy school.

  • RUMBA Goals
  • SMART Goals

Whatever memory trick or technique you learned, apply it in your own life! OT is all about function. Your goals should be too. Break down long-term goals into short-term, more achievable goals. Both are important to being successful in occupational therapy school.

Set goals not only academically, but for overall health and wellness. It’s so important that in the OTPF-4 we have this as an occupation now. Sure, becoming an occupational therapist is one of your goals, but if you have other goals that strengthen other areas such as your physical fitness, your stress management (e.g., meditation), and work-life balance you will more likely to succeed and be happy. It’s up to you to set these goals, not someone else. This will take some reflection of where you are and where you want to be 1 year from now, 5 years from now, and 10 years from now. Goals can change as demonstrated by how our lives have been impacted by the Pandemic – so be flexible and kind to yourself with this. Some things may just take time and hard work!

#2. Channel your stress

Stress is often seen as a bad thing. I see it as both good and bad. Stress is what makes you prepare for things like an exam. Realize that when you have stress that you can channel it into productive outlets. Sure, there is academic stress, but you’ll encounter other life stressors too – some which may not be under your control. And an occupational therapy job can be stressful. The earlier you learn ways to manage and cope with stress, the less likely you are to get burned out, injured, and so on. Some ideas include:

  • Breathing techniques
  • Meditation and relaxation
  • Exercise for health and wellness
  • Dietary changes
  • Social activities
  • Distractions (if purposeful and education, even better)
  • Hardwork, e.g. yardwork, cleaning
  • Music (while you are productive, even better)

Try to prioritize and do the easy and most important things first, especially things that do not take much time, e.g. a minute or 2.

#1. Remember your ‘Why’

The number 1 tip for occupational therapy school is to remember “your why”.

Why did you choose to become an occupational therapist? Remember what you said in your personal statement or in your interview? Those reasons are what will ground you. Sure, they may have changed or you may have lost sight of them, but you probably still want to help people, advocate and do something meaningful.

During a visit to the NASA space center in 1962, President John F. Kennedy noticed a janitor carrying a broom. He interrupted his tour, walked over to the man and said, “Hi, I’m Jack Kennedy. What are you doing?”

“Well, Mr. President,” the janitor responded, “I’m helping put a man on the moon.”

To most people, even perhaps employees in the same building, this janitor was just cleaning the building. In the eyes of the janitor, he was helping to make history.

We are motivated by purpose. Humans are social. We build relationships. We relate to one another. As much as you may not think is the case, we are driven by emotion. We may not always think logically and critically before we act. And all of this is OK. The cognitive-behavioral theory says we feel emotions, think about them, and act on them. You may doubt your abilities, be unsure if occupational therapy is right for you – even as you are in school.

Whatever the case. You should be proud of yourself because you have come very far. Don’t forget you have resources like your peers, teachers, family, and friends. Social media is a great way to connect too if you do not have social connections.

Take some time to reflect, recharge, and find your why.