How to Become an Occupational Therapist in 7 Steps

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A career in occupational therapy can be a great choice. Not only will you have personal fulfillment by pursuing your passion and helping patients, but it is also an in-demand and well-paying field. But you’re probably wondering how to become an occupational therapist, and if is this is the only career option when it comes to participating in the occupational therapy field.

We’ll go over the two main career choices in occupational therapy, becoming an occupational therapy assistant (OTA) and becoming an occupational therapist (OT), and the seven steps you’ll need to take to get there.

The Roles and Educational Requirements of OTs vs. OTAs

Occupational therapists are the professionals who meet with clients initially, assess their needs, and develop unique treatment plans. OTs are ultimately responsible for seeing that clients achieve their goals, and for this reason, they are required to hold a master’s degree in occupational therapy. Compare that to occupational therapy assistants, who can practice with an Associate of Applied Science (AAS) in OTA.

Typically, it is the role of the occupational therapy assistant to work with clients to carry out these treatment plans, regularly reporting back to the OT on the progress being made. As a result, it’s common for OTs and OTAs to collaborate on intervention plans, especially when it becomes clear plans must be amended to better accommodate a client’s ability to progress.

OTA as a Steppingstone to an Occupational Therapist Career

It’s worth mentioning that many people decide to become OTAs because they enjoy the position and are not looking to become an OT. These individuals often find themselves interested in the occupational therapy field and choose to become OTAs because of the amount of hands-on time they get to spend with patients.

On the other hand, if you are wondering how to become an occupational therapist, you may be attracted to the OTA career because it will allow you to make an impact in the field sooner. When you go back to school to earn an advanced degree in occupational therapy, the experience and knowledge you gained working in the field will give you an advantage.

Now that you’re a little more familiar with the occupational therapy assistant role, let’s take a closer look at the seven steps you can take to become an occupational therapist, using St. Kate’s online OTA program as a tool to help you achieve your goals.

1. Meet St. Kate’s Admission Requirements

The first step to entering this field is making sure you are eligible for our program. While about half of our students are non-traditional and/or career changers that hold at least a bachelor’s degree, this program is designed to also accommodate recent high school graduates with no previous college education. Our admission requirements include:

  • A high school diploma (or passing GED score)
  • Minimum cumulative high school GPA of 2.5 OR college credits with a minimum cumulative GPA of 2.5

Once you have been accepted into the program, you must successfully complete a series of prerequisite and general education courses. If you already have some college credits, you may want to speak to an admissions counselor about whether any of your previous coursework can cover one or more of these prerequisite courses.

OT students in classroom sitting at desk with computers

2. Successfully Complete Your OTA Coursework

Not everyone has time to spend several days a week on campus studying to become an occupational therapy assistant. OTA students at St. Kate’s can avoid this scenario while also graduating in as little as 16 months. This is possible because our Online OTA program utilizes a curriculum that blends online learning with hands-on experience at one of our many learning site locations at actual rehab facilities.

As a student in St. Kate’s program, you’ll complete approximately 80% of your OTA coursework online. You’ll do the remaining 20% of your coursework in-person at your assigned learning site in either California, Minnesota, Texas, or Virginia. Held once a month on Sundays, these sessions include classroom lectures, hands-on demonstrations, and opportunities to practice the skills you’re learning in a genuine rehab setting.

Rounding out our innovative curriculum is fieldwork, where you’ll get your first taste of real-world practical experience. As a St. Kate’s OTA student, you’ll participate in a variety of fieldwork experiences, ensuring that you graduate ready to step into your first job.

If you don’t live near one of our in-person learning sites, don’t fret. Because labs occur about once a month and the first part of fieldwork consists of just two, three-day sessions (usually the same week as labs), it is possible to travel to these sessions while completing the rest of the coursework online. In fact, many of our students make the decision to travel to attend their sessions without relocating to one of these sites. If you are interested in enrolling in our online OTA program but don’t live in the states listed above, we can connect you with one of our fieldwork coordinators so you can come up with a plan that works for you.

3. Become a Certified OTA and Gain Work Experience

Once you’ve graduated from the program, you will have to sit for the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) certification exam. While you have a lot riding on this exam, NCBOT exam prep is incorporated throughout our program. At St. Kate’s you’ll also have the option of participating in our NBCOT Prep Coaching Program, which is a resource we highly encourage students to take advantage of. Upon passing the exam, you’ll be able to apply for licensure in your state and start seeking employment as an OTA.

4. Decide Your Next Career Move

After spending some time working as an OTA, it will be important for you to evaluate what your next career move is going to be. If you were originally planning on becoming an occupational therapist, be sure to observe the OTs you work with to see what their responsibilities entail. Ask them questions about the things they like and dislike about their positions, what their day-to-day work looks like, etc.

As stated before, many people decide that they enjoy the hands-on aspect of being an OTA, while others want to come up with treatment plans and play a role in the management of their facility. After some reflection, if you decide that you want to become an occupational therapist, you will have to go on to complete some additional schooling.

student helping elderly woman with stretch bands on her feet

5. If You Haven’t Already, Obtain Your Bachelor’s Degree

Because occupational therapy programs are advanced degree programs, you must hold a bachelor’s degree before you are eligible. While many of our online OTA students already hold bachelor’s degrees, some may not. If you have not completed a four-year college program, now is the time.

While you have many options when it comes to majors, there are a handful that will prove to translate well into a career in occupational therapy. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Biology
  • Kinesiology or exercise science
  • Psychology

Majors such as these will provide good foundational knowledge that will help you succeed while earning your advanced degree.

6. Apply to an OT Masters or Doctorate Program

After obtaining your bachelor’s degree, you will be eligible to apply for an advanced degree. You will have the option of applying to either a master’s program or doctorate program. But how do you choose?

Consider your interests, career goals, and financial situation. For example, do you want to do research or focus solely on clinical work? Do you want to teach at some point in your career? Are you prepared for the extra financial burden that comes along with a doctorate program?

instructor lecturing at front of classroom

If you want to do research or teach and are in a good financial situation, you may want to consider pursuing a doctorate program. On the other hand, if you are more interested in the clinical side of occupational therapy and are looking to make a more conservative financial move, a master’s program may suit your goals better.

7. Gain Licensure and Begin Working as an Occupational Therapist

Lastly, after completing your advanced degree program you’ll have to take another NCBOT exam before you can apply for licensure. After you complete that final step, you’re ready to begin your exciting career as an occupational therapist.

Benefits of Becoming an Occupational Therapist

Aside from being a fun and rewarding career, being an OT comes with some other perks. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the OT profession is expected to grow 14% from 2020-2030, which is much faster than the national average. Additionally, the median salary for OTs in 2021 was $85,570. Clearly, now is a great time to become an occupational therapist.

Earn Your OTA Degree and Start Making an Impact

Now that you know how to become an occupational therapist, take your first step with our Online OTA program at St. Kate’s. Thanks to our convenient curriculum of online coursework and hands-on labs, and our ability to identify fieldwork opportunities around the country, we make it possible for more people to enter this growing field sooner.

Give us a call today or fill out the form to talk to an admissions counselor about whether our program is right for you.

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