OT school is hard work. And life outside of school doesn’t exactly stop.
To thrive in OT school, you definitely need to keep your nose to the grindstone.
But, at the same time, it’s worth coming up for air to explore the best occupational therapy resources for students. Many weren’t around when I was in school and, trust me, they can save you tons of time and frustration.
It has been eight years since I (Sarah Lyon, OTR/L) was in OT school, and I can remember those years as the busiest time of my life.
In retrospect, I spent the entire time in survival mode, and I did not invest time in figuring out how to simplify and streamline processes.
This article contains my own advice, along with the advice of a current student, Andy Nielsen, OTS. In it, we attempt to gather the best resources for OT and COTA students in one place.
But, before we get started, I want to point out that technology is helpful on so many levels—but some people still prefer to learn and stay organized by using old-school methods. As you make your way through this article, feel free to cherry-pick the strategies that will help you most!
1.) Staying organized
Please, don’t be like me.
I paid for my disorganization in school for years afterwards.
I found myself hauling boxes of scattered papers and disorganized notebooks each time we moved because I wasn’t sure what was important.
And forget about finding something to reference when I actually needed it!
Here are some practical organizational strategies I have collected from forums over the years:
- Buy three-inch binders for each course. You can use these to organize all of your papers, handouts, PowerPoints, etc.
- Tab out your PowerPoints. You can use those dividers that have reinforced holes and erasable tabs. (This can be done the night before the class so you can hit the ground running.)
- Buy a folder for each class. You can keep returned assignments, tests, and other important documents in that folder; this makes them easy to reference when needed.
- Use Google Drive. It will help you keep all your digital documents organized.
- Buy lots of notecards and highlighters. You can never have enough of these!
- Buy a daily planner. (Now in my professional life, I love the Get to Work Book. If only I had found it sooner!)
- Use Workflowy to stay organized. Workflowy is an “infinite document” that can be incredibly helpful when you’re writing a long paper or trying to keep track of multiple resources for a single project.
- Consider digitizing your materials. If you’re the type who loses physical paperwork, keep a Dropbox or Google Drive folder where you can scan and store all your old course materials.
- Explore using Rocketbook. It can preserve the kinesthetic learning aspects of taking notes, while allowing you to store and access your notes in a digital format.
- Use a digital calendar. Google Calendar is my calendar tool of choice. It is simple to use, syncs well with most phones, and is free. The ability to set notifications to occur at specific times before important events such as exams or big projects is very helpful. You can also categorize items by color, which helps you distinguish between upcoming assignments, events, or tests.
2.) Improving your study habits
Part of improving your study habits simply involves keeping your nose to the grindstone.
But, you can also leverage these practical strategies to set yourself up to study well in the first place, so you can get the most out of your study time.
Here are some tips I’ve gathered from fellow practitioners:
- Take your notes for anatomy on graph paper. Drawing the material can help tremendously.
- Take handwritten notes as often as possible. Studies have indicated that taking handwritten notes improves your ability to learn and maintain the information. Andy reminds us that Rocketbook is a great option to take those handwritten notes, but then store them digitally!
- Record every class—and I mean every single class. Then listen to them constantly, especially when driving. (Keep in mind that you need to obtain permission from the professor in order to legally record classes.) Andy points out that some schools automatically do this, using a tool called “Echo.”
- Take the VARK Assessment. It will help you determine your learning style and explore study strategies that will work best for you. Andy recommends doing this before school starts, if possible 🙂
- START STUDYING FOR THE NBCOT EXAM NOW! Make flash cards and, as each course is taught, pay attention to HOW particular questions are worded. Andy points out there’s an app called “NBCOT OTR,” which makes studying quick, convenient, and doable by providing “bite-sized” questions that don’t overwhelm you on a daily basis.
- Utilize your school’s resources. Many schools have people designated to help students understand their learning styles and practice good study strategies. Make an appointment to go to one of these sessions early in your OT school experience. Many schools also have resources for you to access practice questions for various courses. Some have great anatomy resources like “Winking Skull,” where you can toggle between labeled/un-labeled structures for practice. Library staff are typically best suited to help you navigate school resources like this.
- Draw diagrams whenever possible. Drawing helps you retain memories and solidify what you’re learning. I find that my performance on tests is better if I can create a mental image in my head based around the question being asked.
- Watch relevant videos. You can often find them on YouTube, and they’ll help to clarify confusing concepts.
- Print out blank templates of confusing structures and processes. Make multiple copies, then label the pages time after time until things stick.
- Attend anatomy lab open hours whenever possible. The key here is just practice, practice, practice. Keep going to the open labs until you feel very confident in content areas. Bring a friend and quiz each other until you aren’t getting anything wrong.
- Break seemingly insurmountable tasks into smaller chunks. Once content is categorized into smaller elements, set aside dedicated time to study that material. I’m a fan of 40-45 minutes of studying, then taking a 10-15 minute rest break.
- Review material to ensure it sticks. If you study something today, then focus on a new chunk of information tomorrow, that’s great. But make sure you also spend 10-15 minutes tomorrow reviewing today’s content. It can be challenging to keep yourself motivated to do this when the work is piling up, but it’s extremely effective if you remain consistent.
- Consider concepts like the Pareto Principle and Parkinson’s Law. Explore how they affect how you approach studying.
- Don’t spend every moment of your free time studying. There is a point of diminishing returns with this strategy. Incorporating exercise, meaningful activity, time with friends/family, etc. will help your brain “refresh” once you’ve hit a “mental wall” while studying. Don’t try to push through the feeling of the mental wall. Instead, take a break and do something active to recharge your mental batteries.
- Collaborate with your peers. Organize small study sessions with one or two other students, then practice teaching each other what you have studied. Attempting to teach the content will help you see what you understand well—and which areas will need more attention.
- Practice as many study questions as you can. You can ask professors where to locate practice questions. Also, use your textbooks, ask library employees if there are tools that provide extra questions, use Quizlets you’ve created based off course content, use others’ Quizlets, and use questions from other online resources (if you search a specific anatomy content area online followed by “and quiz” in your search terms, several free quizzes will pop up).
- Consider using paid resources. I bought Kenhub as an extra digital anatomy study resource. There are several other sites, apps, and resources that may be worth their price tag in exchange for the extra knowledge you’ll gain from using them.
- OT Flashcards – Quizlet. This can be used at doctor’s appointments and other scenarios where you have down time. The pro subscription lets you record audio (not just text) with flashcards. This enables you to study more efficiently during commutes. You can also share usernames, so you can swap your study materials with classmates to make sure you’ve covered all the bases.
3.) Improving your writing
In OT school, you will likely find yourself undertaking much more technical writing than you did in your undergraduate program. The amount of writing only increases when you become a practitioner. You will have to write efficiently and accurately.
I cannot imagine life without my Grammarly subscription. For $11 a month, it checks all of my writing, including emails, Facebook posts, and blog articles.
Citation Machine has also come in handy to give a starting point in creating references.
If you haven’t read the book “On Writing Well,” I highly recommend it for general writing style guidance.
- Explore your school’s resources! Our school has a writing center that edits our papers and sends back recommendations, including technical edits. This resource is very nice, but likely underutilized by most students.
- Be proactive. Whether you go with something like Grammarly or an onsite service, be proactive. It makes all the difference.
- When using citations, better safe than sorry. I had trouble using Citation Machine, so I used my own school’s online writing center for help. I also used my required writing textbook. I think there’s a lot of value in knowing how to cite references in common formats, such as APA, by memory.
- Build your own editing team. You might also want to find one or two friends who will review your papers if you do the work to review theirs as well. You can catch a lot of errors this way!
4.) Connecting with fellow students and OT practitioners
The OT network you establish in school will become one of your top resources as you head into practice.
Eight years after graduation, my former classmates are often still the first people I call if I need to talk through something.
If there isn’t a Facebook Group (or some other group communication option) set up for your class already, take the initiative to do it!
For a list of pre-established OT communities you can plug into, check out our post: OT Forums and Communities.
- Connect with classmates via social media and texting. You can use texting threads with a few classmates or class Facebook groups. These tools provide great ways to confirm date/location changes, ask questions, and give/receive support.
- Strive to create value for fellow students whenever possible. Sometimes, we hide behind social media and lose out on creating deeper relationships. Invite a few people in your class over for dinner or an activity of some kind. Develop friendships. Friendship with classmates will often organically transform into a situation where you can turn to each other for support on various challenges you might face during school.
4.) Staying abreast of therapy and general healthcare trends
Your success as an OT will depend on your ability to navigate the larger healthcare system, and to stay abreast of its constant evolution.
Don’t get OT tunnel vision.
Make a point to keep up with general healthcare trends starting now, and you’ll already be ahead of the curve when you graduate.
Here are some of my favorites avenues to do so:
- Keep your AOTA membership active. This helps you stay in tune with the latest changes in OT. Sometimes you’ll also hear about changes in healthcare as a whole.
- Listen to general healthcare podcasts. OT podcasts are always great, but don’t get tunnel vision and forget to explore the bigger picture of the healthcare world.
- Keep tabs on influencers. I follow influencers who are authorities in their respective fields or specialties. Whether it’s on Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube, keeping tabs on what influencers are saying is helpful to stay on top of all sorts of updates in the profession and healthcare industry.
- Use social media to find the areas of the profession that interest you. It’s easy to go to something like twitter.com/search and type in a particular aspect of healthcare that interests you. You can do this with other platforms like LinkedIn, YouTube, and Facebook as well. Some people refer to this as “social listening.”
5.) Dealing with frustrations
After my first year of OT school, I was ready to quit.
I was frustrated, and I couldn’t really seem to find a good outlet beyond talking to my parents. If you are dealing with frustrations, talk to fellow students and professors. And again, don’t underestimate the value of looking for online support.
No matter what the root source of your frustration may be, there is probably an online conversation happening about the topic.
- Seek support early. Don’t wait to reach out to professors, peers, other school resources, and even outside resources for the support you need. Sometimes, students avoid asking for help in a timely manner because they feel a sense of embarrassment or don’t want people to know they are struggling. Waiting to reach out for support will lead to increased stress and usually result in a decrease in school performance.
- Understand school resources. My OT school offers helpful resources such as mental health support at no additional cost to students. Some classmates also utilized learning specialists to help them identify effective study strategies to learn complicated course content. Each school is a little different, so pay close attention to the resources mentioned when you attend orientation.
6.) Thriving during your fieldwork
After helping supervise students, I now have a new appreciation for the challenge of quickly learning the ropes in a new facility, not to mention the nuances involved with navigating the supervisory relationships.
Lean in on your aforementioned support networks; chances are others are dealing with similar scenarios. Here are some additional fieldwork resources to help you along the way:
- Articles on Fieldwork – Student Pulse
- Answers to Your Fieldwork Questions – AOTA
- 10 Tips for Navigating a Non-Traditional Fieldwork – Gotta Be OT
- Look for time-saving resources. I purchased tools that were specific to the fieldwork settings in which I worked. I used materials from Pink Oatmeal and Tools to Grow OT so I had more ideas for treatment sessions during my first pediatric fieldwork. Free Facebook groups are also a great source of support to fieldwork students. There are so many terrific resources out there; don’t limit yourself to what you’re provided in OT school!
- Listen to OT podcasts: The OT Potential Podcast is a great place to start. But, also search for other OT podcasts that have episodes on fieldwork or fieldwork-related topics.
- Keep reading blogs like OT Potential: I really enjoy reading blog posts from OT Potential. In addition to gaining new knowledge on specific topics like fieldwork, I’m also able to learn about useful outside resources to help me succeed in school and beyond.
7.) Preparing for the NBCOT exam
Ultimately, school is preparing you for the NBCOT exam. NBCOT has an awesome suite of resources to assist you when that time does come.
I have never used Pass the OT, but this resource is also worth checking out.
Ultimately, this is when your aforementioned organization will come into play big time. It will be WAY easier to review your course content if it is organized.
8.) Managing your finances
Managing your debt should technically start before OT/COTA school even begins, and I encourage you to continue thinking about debt management during school.
Gotta Be OT has a good list of steps you take to secure funding while you are in school.
To keep your eye on the big picture, here is my post on occupational therapy and student debt.
- Pick an inexpensive OT school! This is one of the most effective ways to keep your debt burden under control. Consider other factors such as degree type (MSOT vs OTD), length of school required, and cost of living when making your decision.
- Seek advice from your school’s financial office. They often have many helpful resources to help you manage your debt.
- Read articles from Fitbux. Most students understand little to nothing about the loans they’ve acquired during school. Some of the most informative financial posts I’ve read have come from Fitbux blog posts.
- Stick to a budget. Tools like EveryDollar from Dave Ramsey can help you make sure you’re not overspending on unnecessary things. Be mindful of what you spend money on, and consider how each purchase might impact your future financial health.
9.) Planning ahead for job searching
I had my first job lined up before I even headed into to my second fieldwork placement!
This is a unique circumstance, but it is honestly never too early to get a pulse on the job market.
I’ve also seen this book, Occupational Therapy Student to Clinician, come highly recommended.
- Keep a pulse on jobs in your desired area before you graduate. I periodically search jobs on Indeed, LinkedIn, Glassdoor, and a few other sites. Even if I’m not ready to apply for jobs, it’s nice to get a sense of what to expect when it’s time to look for jobs.
Bonus: discounts for OT students!
Oh, how I miss the days of student discounts! Please enjoy these discounts on my behalf!
MedBridge student discount (You pay $100)
MedBridge is a continuing education resource that many OT practitioners use and love. I wish that I had signed up for continuing education courses when I was still a student, so I could have referenced them during fieldwork and my first year as a new practitioner. (I love MedBridge and am an affiliate.)
General student discounts
Last, but not least, here are some general student discounts you can take advantage of:
- Explore unconventional options. It’s helpful to look into whether you can qualify for Medicaid and even use food stamps when you’re in school. Some OT students do qualify for this, but it’s best to check early so you can save the most money if it’s an option for you. Medicaid can also really help with family finances if you are having a baby while you’re in school.
- Look for big-brand discounts. The Apple store often gives good student discounts. I got a free pair of BEATS headphones when I bought my laptop through Apple as a student! Amazon Prime is also much cheaper for students.
- Experiment with tools that aren’t required: I purchased tools like PhysioU to help me better understand certain concepts relevant to OT. They have discounts for students who want to try their platform out. Another tool I would consider purchasing that comes at a discount for students is YouTube premium. YouTube premium is more than just ad-free viewing. My favorite feature is being able to download videos for offline viewing. Whether you’re traveling, in between errands, or simply waiting in line for something, you can quickly pull out your phone and get an extra 15-20 minutes of studying in.
OT Potential Club
At OT Potential, our passion is connecting occupational therapy practitioners with evidence. In the OT Potential Club, we review on influential OT related article each week, and share monthly bonuses, such as documentation examples to help you streamline your practice.
It is only $25/year to join and students can save 50% off this already low price, when you use the code: “otstudent”!
What about you? What OT resources would you share with fellow students? I would love to make this post stronger with your input!
About the Authors
Andy Nielsen, OTS, is the founder of Pre-OT Success and OT Growth. Prior to OT school, Andy graduated with a degree in business management and worked for several small-to-medium sized businesses. He’s passionate about helping more OTs pursue entrepreneurial adventures. When Andy is not learning more about how to become a better occupational therapy student or come up with new business ideas, he enjoys spending time with his wife and two young children at home or in the great outdoors.
Sarah Lyon, OTR/L, received her MS in occupational therapy from NYU in 2011. Since 2012, she has been writing about occupational therapy on her own site, OT Potential, as well as other sites such as VeryWell Health, WebPT, and MedBridge.