How to Make Your OT Resume Stand Out

How to make your occupational therapy resume stand out

It’s more important than ever that you create an impressive occupational therapy resume. 

With reimbursements tightening and more and more schools opening, some markets are becoming pretty competitive for OT therapy practitioners—especially if you’re going for the best occupational therapy jobs

And that’s why I wrote this article—I want you to have the best possible OT resume so that you can land the job of your choice.

The basics of a good occupational therapy resume

We’ll start with the basics. Then, we’ll move on to making your resume truly stand out. 

The length

In general, an occupational therapy resume should be informative and succinct, and that’s why experts recommend that you keep the length to around one or two pages

There are certainly exceptions. 

For example, if you create a curriculum vitae (CV), which is generally used for education and research positions, there is no cap on length. In fact, a longer CV is often better, as it indicates that you have accomplished more during your career. 

However, for a standard OT resume, two pages is the recommended maximum length.

The format

In general, OTs should use a traditional (reverse chronological) format for resumes. 

You’ll start with your full name and title in a large font (think Luna Lovegood, MSOT, OTR/L), followed by your city, state, and zip code in a smaller font on the next line. After that, you can add your email address, phone number, and LinkedIn profile link (if you have a LinkedIn account).

Next, you’ll typically have a paragraph-long “Summary” section, where you will create a brief description of your accomplishments. Note that using an “Objective” section is considered old-fashioned and dates you a bit—and the new normal is using a “Summary” section instead.

In many cases, the next section is “Clinical Experience” (you can call it “Work Experience” or “Professional Experience,” etc.), and it’s a reverse-chronological list of the places where you’ve worked. 

However, in some cases, a “Core Competencies” section works well between the “Summary” section and “Clinical Experience” section. If you’re switching into a non-traditional or non-clinical OT role, you might wish to include transferable skills in that “Core Competencies” section. Think EMRs you’ve used, specialized training you have received (e.g. LSVT Big), or software programs you’ve mastered (Microsoft PowerPoint) etc.

In any case, for each job you’ve held in your reverse-chronological list, you’ll want to list the dates you worked there, the job title, the organization name, the city and state of the job, and a few bullet points for your job responsibilities.

If you’re still at the job, you want to use present tense:

  • “Manage a caseload of _____…”

For past jobs, you’ll want to use past tense. 

  • “Managed a caseload of ______…”

You can see that in both cases, the line starts with a “power word” (also known as an “action word.”) You never want to say something like “responsible for” or “duties included” because those are more passive. By saying “manage” or “managed,” you show your initiative.

After you list your current and past jobs, you’ll complete your resume with a few additional sections, including:

“Education,” “Licensure, Membership, and Certifications,” “Continuing Education,” and possibly “Volunteer Work” if you have any relevant volunteer work.

Alternative formats

You might hear people discussing alternate types of resumes like CVs (curriculum vitaes, as noted above)—or alternative types of formats, such as functional (also called skills-based) or hybrid. I won’t get too deep into the weeds with these, but here’s a quick overview.

Curriculum vitae (CV)

As noted earlier, a CV is usually used for teaching and/or research positions. A curriculum vitae is a lengthy summary of pretty much every professional accomplishment from your career, including any research papers you’ve written, any speeches you’ve given, and any awards you’ve won (not to mention, standard resume fodder like work experience). 

Functional/skills-based

A functional, or skills-based, resume is often used for career-changers—or for people who haven’t had much professional experience. This format focuses more on skills and competencies, rather than on work experience. Be cautious using this format in the OT world, as it’s often seen as a red flag.

Hybrid

A popular format is called the hybrid format. This layout pulls elements from a traditional (reverse-chronological) format and a functional (skills-based) format, and it’s recommended for career-changers (those pursuing non-traditional OT jobs, such as utilization review or healthcare recruiter roles) or clinicians looking to move into new settings. The main hallmark of these is that you’ll see the aforementioned “Core Competencies” section wedged between the “Summary” section and the “Work Experience” section.

The font

It’s recommended that you use a popular font that can be found on most computers. Good choices include:

  • Arial

  • Garamond

  • Cambria

  • Calibri

  • Helvetica

  • Georgia

  • Verdana

Do not play around with fancy, unusual fonts because they look cool. No need to go all Elle Woods here! ;-)

While these fancy fonts might technically make your resume stand out, some resume screening software programs (called ATS or applicant tracking systems, in case you care) might not recognize the fonts, causing your resume to get screened right out of the consideration process!

Also, stick to a single font on your resume! Do not get tempted by the lure of using multiple fonts. If you’d like to spruce things up, you can always use the “bold” or “semibold” or “italic” versions of your chosen font family; this helps to delineate sections of your resume and make certain words stand out. 

Considerations for new grads and career changers

Again, most OTs will want to use a traditional resume format. But here are a few notable exceptions. 

If you’re a new grad or student, you’ll want to list your education at the top of your resume, followed by your clinical affiliations. Then you can list additional work experience from prior careers if you need to fill space.

Career changers will likely want to use hybrid resume format, especially when pursuing roles like rehab liaison, where you will want to highlight core competencies such as sales, marketing, care coordination, etc.  

Making your resume stand out

Let’s back up for a minute. 

At the end of the day, as long as you have the length, font, and format correct on your resume, you won’t scare anyone off from hiring you, so that’s the good news! 

But, you still want to make your resume stand out from the competition—at least if you want the best shot at the jobs you want, not the jobs nobody else wants! 

Let’s take a look at an ordinary vs. extraordinary resume to see how it’s done. 

The ordinary OT resume

Most resumes will have a lot in common. Here are a few examples of roles and responsibilities that you're likely to see on a majority of your peers’ resumes.

  • Roles and responsibilities for occupational therapists. Note that most people recognize that you should always start a bullet point with an action-oriented word: 

    • “Managed a caseload of ____ patients”

    • “Examined and diagnosed patients' physical conditions.”

    • “Respected and maintained the privacy and confidentiality of all patients.”

    • “Performed daily bedside ADL assessments and formulated intervention plans with functional outcomes.”

    • “Led quarterly screenings of long-term residents.”

    • “Evaluated acute care patients.”

    • “Assessed clients for custom seating and wheelchair needs.”

Obviously, while these things aren’t surprising or especially strong, you’ll still need some on your resume. But don't overdo it—ordinary OT resumes are filled with that stuff.

The extraordinary OT resume 

To show what makes you special, you need to highlight things that you've done which go above and beyond a typical job description. And you’ll want to write about them in a way that emphasizes value for your employer or your patients. These can be called resume accomplishments.

Resume accomplishments

An accomplishment is something for which you deserve a bonus. (Whether you actually received a bonus or not is an entirely different matter!)

Your accomplishments often substantiate less technical, but highly valuable, skills: leadership, initiative, problem-solving, process improvement, etc. 

When I researched OT resumes, I found that very few had many accomplishments. This wasn’t really a surprise, since that’s the most common weakness on resumes in general. So, if you want a resume that packs a punch, add as many accomplishments as you can.

Here are solid examples to get you started.

Accomplishments to make your resume shine among occupational therapists:

  • Supervised and educated Level I and Level II occupational therapy students: Any sort of training, coaching or leadership is very valuable to highlight. It demonstrates management skills as well as people skills.

  • Initiated the research, design and equipment setup of facility's first sensory gym, which was completed one week ahead of schedule: The word I like the most here is “first”, since it demonstrates a sense of initiative and innovation. You've done things that hadn't been done before. You’re also using the power word “initiated,” and noting that the facility was completed ahead of schedule.

  • Actively participated in new process mapping for reorganization of the service and development of new integrated online system. Following this effort, our assignments became more efficient, allowing the unit to see 2-3 more patients daily: In this example, the value for the organization is very clear. More patients seen every day means more revenue for the business and/or shorter waiting lists. Both are positive from the employer's perspective.

  • Provided numerous specialized equipment evaluations, and prepared numerous justification reports to Medicare, Medicaid, and private insurance companies, with a very good record of clients obtaining equipment: Once again, notice the clear emphasis on value. This time, it's about clients obtaining equipment. It's a concrete result, and very helpful to the treatment process. It also shows that you care, as you go the extra mile for your patients.

  • Introduced checklists to OT team, which helped us achieve systematic documentation required for our long-term monitoring process. From the perspective of the organization, the value here is a working process for long-term monitoring. While all the major pieces are in the original statement, the focus is on the checklists. It would have been better to flip things around, to emphasize where the value is: “Contributed to achieving systematic documentation required for our long-term monitoring process, by introducing checklists to OT team.”

Skills and specialties

There are also specialties and technical skills that deserve your attention. As noted above, these often work best in hybrid resumes in a section called “Core Competencies” that follows the “Summary” section. This section should reflect the patients you've treated, the environments in which you’ve worked, and the tools that you've used in your practice. 

Since these will often be used as keywords by recruiters (searching for people like you), every relevant skill or specialty has to appear on your resume. Note that keywords score higher when resumes are processed by computers if they are used in context (within a real sentence). For example:

  • Highly experienced with providing treatment for patients with autism.

  • Skilled in the assessment and treatment of swallowing disorders in conjunction with speech pathology.

  • Proficient in the use of online documentation systems: Ecare, Casamba, Sigma care.

More on keywords

Keywords are entered by a recruiter and/or hiring manager, and they are used to help the aforementioned resume screening software sort the resumes from most interesting to least interesting. That’s why you should fill your resume with keywords that are specifically used in the job posting for the role you’re pursuing.

Below are a few examples of keywords that I found by looking at job ads. You can also use free keyword cloud software, such as TagCrowd, to help tease out the keywords you should use in your resume.           

Specialties: musculoskeletal; neuromuscular; hand specialist; polytrauma; home-based primary care; post-acute rehabilitation, children, elderly…

Equipment skills: blind/visual rehabilitation assistive technology; orthotics and adaptive/assistive equipment; Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC); low tech and high tech access options; alternative access tools (i.e. switches, joysticks, keyguards, specialty interfaces)…

Other skills: Basic Life Support (BLS) certification; CPR or First Aid training; other languages spoken…

When thinking about keywords, ask yourself what search terms would help you to find a good colleague. It’s doubtful that keywords like therapy plan, treatment program, dysfunction or impairment would narrow down your results, right?

My example OT resumes

Once you’ve pulled all of the elements outlined above (keywords, skills and specialties, formatting, and other best practices) it is time to craft your resume into one that truly stands out, which means you have to look at the final element: design.

For this I thought it would be helpful to look at some resume examples. 

I have had a pretty unconventional career, but I thought it was worth showing you an example of my resume from when I was new grad OT, along with my current resume. This way you can see how my format and content has evolved over the years to reflect my professional accomplishments.

For my new grad resume example, I used a free template from Canva. Canva had some really nice minimalist designs, you should check for a simple resume. 

For my most current resume, I couldn't find an option on Canva that accommodated the longer paragraphs I needed to to describe my recent jobs, so I decided to purchase a template from Creative Market.  

(I am in no way affiliated with either of these resume template services.)

An example of a new grad OT resume

Example of a new grad occupational therapy resume

An example of an occupational therapy resume with diverse experiences

Example of a more recent OT resume from my career.

Conclusion

I provided the resumes above so you could see some examples of various accomplishments in action. I wanted you to see how my wording reflected different aspects of my work as my career has evolved in a more non-traditional way.

And that’s the single most important consideration when building a resume that’s different. You want to create a resume that really tells your story.

If you can add three to five accomplishments to your resume—and, at the same time, try to remove redundant roles and responsibilities—you'll have a much more crisp, streamlined, and hard-hitting document.

While accomplishments and skills are very important on your resume, they're also the key building blocks for your cover letters, interviews, and networking efforts.

By having a clear mental picture of the unique elements that make you stand out, you’ll be much better equipped to apply for the best jobs out there.

Instead of being an occupational therapist with eight years of experience, you’ll be the OT who has trained new members and sharpened processes for efficiency. Or the COTA who can bring in new trends and find creative ways to get the right equipment into patients’ hands.

And that will resonate powerfully with potential employers.

This article was originally written by Richard Poulin, and has since been reworded to reflect the latest resume trends and practices. Richard is a resume writer focused on helping professionals stand out. He created Resume Hacking (www.resumehacking.com), a series of short books that provide tailored advice by profession.