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Tips for Occupational Therapy Students

ot students Jun 22, 2023
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Tips for Occupational Therapy Students



**This is NOT meant to discourage you! This is meant to give you the reality so we can change it! You can rock OT school and become a leader in your profession! The profession is young enough that it's still moldable!  

Let’s be honest, the temperature room where occupational therapy is concerned has grown a little chilly! This isn’t going to be a venting session, I promise! But I need to set the stage. As an occupational therapy student in or around 2022, you need to know the facts. And the facts that your programs may or may not be telling you is that reimbursement rates are down for all therapies, employment is down, salaries are down, and occupational therapy practitioners all over the united states are being hired as part certified nursing assistants to help with self-care to unburden nursing. Whole hospital systems employ 2-3 full time occupational therapists, outpatient clinics employ 1-2 occupational therapy practitioners to 20-25 physical therapy practitioners, and people generally don’t know what you do or why you needed to go to years of university to do it. So, this is the problem that we are facing right now in the clinical world. 

So, what is the solution? The solution is you! The solution are the next generation of occupational therapy practitioners who are going to begin doing better from their very conception. The solution is a universal collective student body that agrees to outdo, outlearn, out-advocate, and outperform their teachers and the practitioners who came before them. From the current circumstances we find ourself, it is very very clear that we need to course correct!

So, what would be my top advice for occupational therapy students? 


Advice for Occupational Therapy Students


  1. Join the OT conversation in the clinical realm immediately.
  2. Read the ACOTE standards listed at the front of your course syllabi and know the difference between what the school “interprets” as meeting this requirement and what ACOTE actually “requires”
  3. Read your textbooks to actually understand the information and how it applies to the occupational therapy process
  4. Create Systems, Structure, and Organization from Day 1
  5. Developing effective study habits 


Join the OT Conversation! 


I remember the first time I told my program director (when I was adjunct) that I highly advise that OT students get out into the community and on social media so they can find a strong source of encouragement and realistic feedback as soon as possible. She looked me square in the face and said, "I do not recommend this and you should not be telling students to do this. What happens is they start hearing what's actually going on out there and they are discouraged from staying in the program. It's best just to wait. If you don't tell them, they won't think about it". Not okay. 

Get plugged in to social media accounts (facebook groups, Instagram accounts, twitter, etc). Always have your finger on the pulse of what is actually happening in your profession. Many professors are academics and have fallen out of touch with what is actually happening in the clinical space, protect yourself from the shellshock of graduating to a profession you were prepared to enter! Better to understand so that you are immediately prepared to join the conversation and have developed a strong voice to explain your value in a world that questions it!  Take it from experience! Secondly, although we may have qualms with big organizations, joining AOTA and following the latest news bulletins of the profession help you to know how to exist and thrive in the model of practice we find ourselves in. This drives my recommendation to stay a member of AOTA– They are still your governing body in the United States!! 

Another sidebar discussion on joining the conversation – begin building your lexicon immediately. Replace your “common words” with medical words! Always use medical terminology for everything! Yes, it may annoy people initially – but you have 2-5 years to transform yourself into a medical professional with an entirely different vocabulary as your common language. The only way to do this is to begin immediately speaking in elevated language…all the time.



Read the ACOTE standards listed at the front of your course syllabi


Know the difference between what the school “interprets” as meeting this requirement and what ACOTE actually “requires”


These are the ACOTE STANDARDS.  (They are currently being updated. The drafts are rolling this year (2023) and will be finalized in December. 

Every school interprets ACOTE standards differently. They go through an incredibly rigorous process. I don’t envy them! They must ensure that all of these standards are addressed and documented. They do the best they can – but, this ALSO implies that there is room for grace on the student! If you have an issue with a course requirement or the way the course is structured, review the ACOTE Standards, schedule a meeting with your program director, and just ask! Ask where they are coming from – seek out solutions. Don’t assume that ACOTE has explicitly told them what requirements to include in the course. I’m thinking specifically regarding fieldwork and the requirement to take classes while in active fieldwork! That’s a whole different conversation. 

I just want to be clear, I am not telling you to be a comparative or ornery student! I am, however, recommending that you be an active participant in your education. You are paying a great deal for your education – don’t blindly go through the program



Read your textbooks to actually understand the information and how it applies to the occupational therapy process


From a professor’s perspective, I don’t understand why students don’t read the text. There is so much to learn that your professor simply does not have time to teach you. Most of the information is brand new. The text will guide the your processing and reasoning as you make the information more familiar. DO NOT just depend on powerpoint slides and handouts! Do supplemental reading and read the required text and always….I mean ALWAYS….read/study to understand! Everything you learn in your program is meant to be a continuum of learning. It builds off each other. The biomedical classes DO connect with your occupational therapy classes (even if your professor doesn’t help you make this connection). 

The best recommendation I can make regarding this point is do your best to learn as much as you can in each class regardless of your professor’s abilities to teach. You have access to the text, extra training online, mentorship–use them! Don’t just “get through” a class. If you “get through” a class, you are setting yourself up to fail when you graduate and need to integrate that particular knowledge into your clinical practice.  

Learn as much as you can and always figure out how it integrates with your other classes…then take it a step forward and envision how you would apply this to clinical practice! 

While we are on the topic of textbooks – please stop giving away your textbooks and burning your notes when you graduate. I can’t tell you how many times saving these things have gotten me out of a pinch!!!! PLEASE save these materials that are going to drive your ability to offer excellent clinical interventions.



Create Systems, Structure, and Organization from Day 1


This piggy backs on the last point, but it still deserves its own attention. Figure out how to save all of your study materials and important stories your professor gives you. I use google drive features for EVERYTHING. It’s timeless and easily exported. 

My suggestion is to begin keeping track of your entire program in one google doc using the “table of contents” feature! Hopefully, the links in the blog will help you organize your thoughts! Begin organizing your thoughts regarding how it all connects to your eventual practice. It will greatly benefit your future self – just trust me! If you don’t want to create a “master” resource for yourself, you can create folders for each year, semester, class, topic. The opportunities for organization are endless! 

Creating systems, structures, and organizations will help you to “put it all together”. We are “big picture” analysts as occupational therapy practitioners. Train your brain to see the big picture while you are working with all of the small parts!



Developing effective study habits 


Figure out what kind of learner you are!! Take this quiz! When I took it, the results were spot on. I am equal parts of all!  In school, I would write everything down, make notecards and outlines, draw pictures and diagrams, talk myself through the information as I walked around, and then I would teach an invisible classroom. These methods were how I got through my OT program, and these methods are what I still use today! 

It’s important to understand how you learn so that you can give yourself the best chance of learning and integrating all of the knowledge you will receive as quickly as possible. You will also continue using this or these styles of learning for the rest of your life. Occupational Therapy school is just the beginning. Occupational Therapy practitioners are lifetime learners! Because we are evidence-based practitioners and it’s our job to help improve health literacy in our patients regardless of diagnosis or status. In order to do this, we have to learn it first! 

I hope this advice helps you! I wish you the best of luck as you begin or continue your journey in occupational therapy school! Take it one day at a time. One step at a time. Most of all, give yourself and professors grace upon grace. Occupational therapy school is aggressive and intensive. It is straight up hard. If you give yourself a chance, you will witness one of the greatest evolutions of you!

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