How to Become an Occupational Therapy Assistant

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You can become an occupational therapy assistant in as few as 16 months by applying to St. Kate’s online OTA program. You’ll need to speak with an admissions counselor, complete any needed prerequisites and pass the NBCOT exam before you can apply for state licensure to practice as an OTA.

OTA with patient in kitchen

Chances are you already know about the great work occupational therapy assistants do helping people of all ages live their lives to the fullest. You’ve also likely heard that the OTA profession offers one of the best-paying careers requiring an associate degree and is in high demand.

All of this makes this the perfect time to start your career in occupational therapy. Today, we’ll discuss how to become an occupational therapy assistant — from finding the right program to applying for licensure as a certified occupational therapy assistant (COTA).

Occupational Therapists are responsible for helping people lead independent and meaningful lives. Often, this requires creative problem solving, adapting treatment plans to fit client needs and a great understanding of how the human body functions. As such, you’ll need training and experience to be a great OTA — not to mention certification and a state license. Here are 8 steps you’ll need to take to become an OTA.

1. Find the Right Program for You

Becoming an OTA begins with finding the right program for your needs. Put some thought into what you are looking for in a degree program at an OTA school. This way you’ll know what to search for — and what is most important to you — when you begin researching OTA programs.

Questions you should ask yourself about choosing an OTA program include:

  • Do you prefer the convenience and flexibility of online coursework, or is a lecture-based, on-campus approach to learning the fundamentals of occupational therapy more your speed?
  • Do you intend on working while studying to become an OTA?
  • Do you have previous college experience?
  • Are you looking to start as soon as possible or down the road?
  • Are you looking for an accredited program that meets high standards?
  • Is relocation for OTA school possible or do you need something that allows you to learn where you are (with some travel)?

2. Talk to an Admissions Counselor

Before you apply for OTA school, you need to talk to an admissions counselor. Your counselor will walk you through the admissions process from start to finish, so there are no surprises, as well as discuss your previous education, reasons for wanting to become an occupational therapy assistant and finances to ensure a good fit for the program. This will also give you a chance to ask any questions you have and get to know your counselor, as you will be in regular contact throughout the process.

3. Apply for the OTA Program

Once it has been determined that you are a good fit, you can begin the formal application process. Keep in mind that it is not a requirement that you have already completed your prerequisites. After completing and submitting your application, you’ll need to send over your official transcripts from any post-secondary institution you attended. (This includes transcripts for any advanced placement courses you took during high school.)

Your admissions counselor will then review your previous course history to determine which, if any, of the four prerequisite courses you’ll need to complete to be eligible to begin the program. He or she will also evaluate whether you will need to take any of the six required Liberal Arts & Sciences (LAS) courses, which may be taken before or during your time in the Online OTA program.

When choosing your curriculum path, keep in mind that these courses involve a lot of reading and writing. For this reason, we recommend taking your LAS courses prior to beginning the OTA program. these will help prepare you for your occupational therapy education.

4. Fulfill any Prerequisite Courses

Once you and your counselor have agreed on a plan for tackling any prerequisite or LAS courses, he or she will assist you with signing up for these courses, which can be taken online through St. Kate’s. To be eligible for the Online OTA program, you must complete the four prerequisite courses with a minimum cumulative GPA of 2.5.

two OTA students studying together with books and laptops

5. Complete the Program

Following the satisfactory completion of your prerequisites, you’re ready to start your Online OTA coursework. If you already meet the LAS course requirements or plan to take your LAS and OTA courses concurrently, it’s possible to graduate from St. Kate’s Online OTA program in as few as 16 months.

6. Take the NBCOT

As with many other healthcare professions, earning a degree is a major milestone on the way to professional practice, with successful completion of the program allowing you the opportunity to sit for the board exam to become a COTA. In the case of occupational therapy assistants, that exam is the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) Certification Exam.

While this may seem intimidating, you should feel good knowing that St. Kate’s has built extensive NBCOT prep into the Online OTA program — something most programs do not offer. As part of the non-required NBCOT Prep Coaching Program, you will take a 200-question practice exam.

Following this practice exam, we’ll develop a unique seven-week study plan for you based on your test results. You will also have one-on-one meetings with a licensed OT practitioner coach to go over test prep, as well as participate in weekly virtual group study sessions. This is also a great networking opportunity if you plan on pursuing continuing education.

7. Apply for COTA Licensure

After graduating from an accredited OTA program, completing the fieldwork requirements, and passing the NBCOT exam, the only remaining step toward becoming a COTA is to apply for licensure in your home state (or any state you wish to practice in) and pay any associated application fees. Keep in mind that every state has its own regulatory body, so the application process will vary from state to state.

8. Apply for OTA Jobs

Once you obtain your state license, you’ll be able to start work as an OTA. Don’t be afraid to cast a wide net as you begin your OTA job search, as OTAs can work in a variety of workplace settings, including:

  • OT offices
  • Schools
  • Private settings
  • Client homes
  • Nursing care facilities
  • Hospitals
  • Workplace environments

What Will Your Job Duties Be As an OTA?

Based on where you choose to work, your day-to-day duties will vary. You may even work in a combination of these locations. As an OTA, you’ll be carrying out plans you create with an overseeing OT, helping patients adapt to be able to complete tasks, working with adults and children to navigate social situations, and much more. Put simply, OTAs help clients to maintain or develop the skills needed for daily activities.   

Woman assisting elderly woman with a puzzle

How Much Do OTAs Make?

While your pay will vary depending on location, as a certified, full-time OTA, you can expect to make a comfortable salary. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for occupational therapy assistants was $62,940 in May 2020.

As an OTA, you can also expect job security. Employment of occupational therapy assistants is slated to grow 34% from 2020 to 2030.

If you are a compassionate, qualified student, there’s a spot for you in the St. Kate’s Online OTA program, and there’s a spot for you in the field. In fact, 8,800 openings for occupational therapy assistants are expected to open each year, on average, over the next ten years.

Certified OTAs are needed in the healthcare field, and you could be the one to step up and change someone’s life. So, what are you waiting for?

Become an OTA

Now that you know how to become an OTA, find out whether the St. Kate’s Online OTA program is right for you. Give us a call today to talk to an admissions counselor.

outside shot of st. kate campus

The Ultimate Guide to Occupational Therapy and OTA

Get answers to your questions about the field, about the OTA career path, and about St. Catherine University’s Online OTA program.

book with cover title: Occupational Therapy Assistant Explained