Honest thoughts on OT school and 5 pieces of advice for prospective students

After my first semester of OT school, I was ready to quit. 

I hadn't thought about that sentiment in a while until I saw some questions from a prospective student on a fellow-blogger’s site. It reminded me that one of the reasons I had started blogging in the first place was to find out if anyone else felt like me. Now, five years later, I feel like I can look back on the time with a new appreciation for the positives and see, with more clarity, the forces at work that made for frustrations.

Here are the questions the student asked and my honest responses to her questions:

What was the most challenging part about OT school? 

Definitely the first semester. I was frustrated by the style of teaching and the content we were learning. It was difficult for me to transition from a liberal arts religion major to the objective of meeting proficiencies. There were a lot less papers and a lot more fill in the blank.

Rote memorization has its place and the highlights of the first semester were courses like biology and neuroscience, where there is a large body of very established knowledge that quite simply just has to be memorized. Where memorization to meet proficiencies became a real frustration was during what we called the “fluff” classes. 

Here it felt like they were trying to test OT knowledge like it was a cadaver, when in reality it is fluid and changing. I left my first semester feeling like I had no idea what OTs actually do. Now I realize that I had been swept up in the larger waves of a young profession trying to establish what distinct service it offers. 

It was clear from listening to our different professors that everyone had a slightly different idea of what OT is. This means that classes felt like they were about learning your particular professor and the circles she would like to have scribbled in on the tests. I would get excited in one class about a concept like “occupational science” only to have the movement discredited by other professors. I also kept waiting for concrete depth to the subjects we were memorizing, but instead I felt like I was being trained to be a "jack of all trades, master of none." 

What was most rewarding? 

I can’t chose one thing. 

Here are a couple. 

Toward the end of the program, two great things happen: fieldwork and more specialized classes. During fieldwork you start getting a taste of what other professionals are doing in the field. In your classes you start to learn more precise techniques and you finally get to dig into some of the evidence surrounding treatment. There will not be as much evidence as you might hope, but at least it is a beginning. 

Another rewarding component is the potential relationship you can develop with professors, guest lecturers and fieldwork supervisors. There are amazing specialties OTs can pursue, if you are open to continually growing and learning after OT school. My professors embodied this and I have great respect for them. 

How do you balance school and social life? 

Not a problem. This was definitely something that I worried about at the time, but in retrospect I look back on OT school as an amazingly social time. You get to be in a classroom filled with people who have similar interests and values to you. The rhythm of school gives you things to commiserate about and celebrate over. 

What advice would I give to someone looking into OT schools? 

1.) Know who you want to serve

My friends who did the best in OT had a population in mind that they were hoping to serve. This helps you filter and focus through all the information that you will receive. Keeping these people at the forefront of your mind can also help you wade through the aforementioned frustrations.

2.) Develop yourself 

Volunteer. Seek out new opportunities. Try something and fail. Every new experience and challenge will bring added richness to your practice.

The next three pieces of advice stem for the fact that not all OT schools are created equal. If you have the option to move to the school that would be a good fit, I would definitely do some exploring. It can be easy to forget in the application process that you are a consumer of the institution where you get accepted. You are making a huge investment in school and there are some things you can look into early to make sure you get a good return on the investment.

So on with the list! 

3.) Find out what the pass/fail rate is for the NBCOT exam

Remember what I said early about OT being a growing fluid profession? It seems like it can be easy for curriculums to get caught up in bunny trails and forget to really teach core competencies. If your school does not prepare your to obtain a license, it is not a good investment. 

4.) Read the professors’ bios

Remember what I said earlier about classes really being professor driven? This can be a huge positive, if you really like your professors. Look into their career paths. What they are researching now? What fields they have worked in? Ideally at least one of the faculty will have worked with your passion population. 

5.) Look into the course offerings

This may not be a fool-proof test, but you can sometimes identify fluff courses just from the title. Iknow some schools combine their first year with PT programs, which seems like a great way to ensure that you are getting foundational knowledge and not getting caught in bunny trails. 

I am already planning my next post, “The unforeseen reasons I am happy to be an OT.” I would love to hear about your questions and experiences and keep the conversation going.

Will OT become extinct?

How do you talk about self-care?

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