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How to Become an Occupational Therapist (Step By Step Guide)

how to become an occupational therapist

Are you looking for a healthcare role that allows you to take a holistic approach to treating patients? If so, working as an Occupational Therapist could be perfect for you. Commonly known as OTs, this role involves working closely with patients to help them overcome different types of trauma.

This can be a very rewarding career for people who have a lot of empathy and the desire to help others. However, it takes several years to become fully qualified to take on this rather demanding and challenging role.

So, let’s take an in-depth look at how to become an Occupational Therapist and more able what the role involves.

The Main Duties And Responsibilities

Before you embark on this career path, it is important to make sure that you can rise to the challenge. While this career is usually very rewarding, it can also be demanding and stressful. Here are the typical duties and responsibilities that OTs are likely to be faced with regularly. 

Evaluating patients

When you meet with a new patient, it is necessary to perform a range of tests to evaluate their needs. These tests will also give you an insight into the capabilities of different patients as well as their limitations. You need to be prepared to share the information gained from tests with your patients, their families, and other healthcare practitioners. 

Analyzing evaluation results

Once you have received the results from tests, you have to analyze the results carefully. This will allow you to create the most suitable treatment goals for different patients. The results will help to guide you when creating a comprehensive treatment program for patients. 

Selecting and implementing treatment techniques

You need to be well-versed in a wide range of different treatment techniques to do this job well. You must be able to choose the right technique for the particular patient. When making the decision, you will keep the treatment goals and the preferences of the patient firmly in mind. 

Supervising treatment

In many cases, your patients will also be treated by other healthcare professionals such as nurses and physicians. It is important to work closely with these healthcare professionals to create holistic treatment plans for patients. You will also be called on from time to time to supervise appointments with different professionals. 

Creating and providing documentation

Creating and providing documentation

It is important to keep clear and detailed records of the treatment program of each patient. This includes all information on the test results, the treatments used, the patient’s treatment goals, and the results. This helps to create a comprehensive and detailed history for each patient that can be very valuable. 

How To Become An Occupational Therapist – Essential Skills And Attributes

It is necessary to have a range of both hard and soft skills to work as an OT. While the hard skills are taught during your training, the soft skills relate to personal traits. Here are the main skills and attributes you must possess to work as an OT. 

Analytical thinking

It is essential to be able to look at the case of each patient clearly and from different perspectives. Analytical thinking allows you to see the situation more clearly and weigh up pros and cons. This, in turn, allows you to treat patients more effectively. 

Problem-solving skills

When a treatment program is not achieving the desired effects, you need to be able to work out why. Some patients may ask you to change the technique if it is not working for them. Having strong problem-solving skills will allow you to adapt to challenging situations and resolve them. 

Communication skills

Communication skills

It is important to be able to explain different therapy techniques clearly to patients and their loved ones. This often involves finding different ways to explain information to younger patients. You also need to have excellent written communication skills to create detailed reports. 

Active listening

You need to be able to listen carefully to patients when they talk about their issues. It is important to know when to talk and when to simply listen and hold space for patients. Active listening also involves picking up on non-verbal cues from patients and their loved ones. 

Attention to detail

Even the tiniest details can have a significant impact on the overall health of different patients. You need to have a keen eye for detail when interacting with and treating patients. You also need to ensure that your notes and records are as complete and accurate as possible. 


It can take time to get certain patients to trust you and share their thoughts and feelings. Being compassionate and welcoming will help to make patients feel more comfortable. You need to create the feeling of a safe space where patients will not be judged or reprimanded. 


It is essential to be able to put yourself in the place of your patients when they are talking to you. This allows you to understand their experiences more easily and identify ways to relate to them. Empathy also helps you to show patients how to overcome their emotional challenges. 

How To Become An Occupational Therapist

If you are still in high school, you need to focus on getting good grades in math, science, and English. This will help to ensure that you gain admission to the college of your choice. Here are the steps you need to take to become qualified and experienced once you graduate from high school. 

Earn a bachelor’s degree

Earn a bachelor’s degree

The first step is to complete a bachelor’s degree in a subject related to your field. Psychology, biology, and health science are all good subjects to major in. If your degree is in an unrelated field, you can make up for it by completing a short prerequisite course.  

Complete observation hours 

One of the entry requirements for occupational therapy school is completing volunteer or observation hours. This will help give you hands-on experience and solidify your knowledge of different techniques. It is best to complete these hours in a couple of different settings to gain an understanding of various roles.

Volunteering in a pediatric OT clinic or school-based OT clinic is perfect if you want to work with children. Working in a skilled nursing facility will give you an understanding of the needs of older patients. Other options include working in an inpatient rehab facility or an acute care facility.

Most of them don’t pay…

It is important to note that there is not usually a salary for observation hours. This can be tricky if you are already paying for your degree. However, you may receive a base salary if you score some work as a rehab aide or technician. 

Earn an advanced degree

Earn an advanced degree

Once you have completed your observation hours, it’s time to enroll in an accredited university. The best types of advanced degrees for OTs are Master of Occupational Therapy and Doctor of Occupational Therapy. 

Generally speaking, a Master’s Degree will give you access to most types of OT roles. It takes just two years to complete this degree if you attend classes full-time. The coursework includes coverage of all of the main therapy techniques and their practices

Want to lecture?

A Doctorate can be useful if you want to advance your career later in life. This will allow you to become a lecturer in OT at university or to take on a leadership role. This degree takes three years to complete and comes with special credentials that identify you as an expert. 

Obtain OT licensure 

You need to gain a special license before you can start working as an OT. The exact requirements for this will vary depending on the state you live and work in. The main requirement is sitting and passing a special exam set by the National Board of Certification of Occupational Therapy. You also need to complete ongoing education to maintain your license. 

Professional Associations And Groups

Networking forms a large and significant part of becoming and working as an OT. Joining a professional organization provides networking opportunities that can give students access to internships. You can also gain access to a wide range of resources and career advice at all stages of your career path. 

Here are some of the professional OT associations and groups that are open to membership.

American Occupational Therapist Association 

This national professional association boasts more than 60,000 members who work in the OT field. Members are provided with professional support as well as a wide range of resources to take advantage of. These include discounts on continuing education programs, professional certification, and legal advocacy. 

Pi Theta Epsilon 

This national honor society is open to OT students and alumni and is organized by the American Occupational Therapy Foundation. Admission to the organization allows you to connect and collaborate with other students. This can enhance your knowledge and provide you with access to advanced continuing education opportunities.

Washington Occupational Therapy Association 

If you live and work in the state of Washington, joining this association is a great way to make connections. This will help you to collaborate and share information with other OTs in your area. Regular networking events are also organized so that you can interact with OTs of all levels. 

World Federation of Occupational Therapists 

Joining this international association gives you access to the latest OT research and techniques from around the world. This includes bulletin boards, articles, an online forum, and a wide range of other types of publications. There are also regular events such as conferences where some of the most prominent professionals are invited to speak. 

The Benefits of Becoming an Occupational Therapist

The Benefits of Becoming an Occupational Therapist

If you have not yet started on this career path, you may still be wondering if it is the right option for you. It takes a lot of time and commitment to gain the skills and knowledge you need to become a practicing OT. Here are some of the main benefits of choosing this career path.

Career advancement

This career offers a lot of opportunities for advancement. Once you have gained experience, you may be ready to take on a more advanced role. This could include teaching OT at university for a few semesters or even years. There are several different OT specializations, and this gives you the chance to hone your career. 

Gaining an advanced degree and completing advanced certification will make it much quicker and easier to advance. 


One of the great things about choosing this career is that there are lots of available positions. It is possible to practice in any state you choose as long as you get licensed to work in that state. Fully qualified and talented OTs rarely find it difficult to find a suitable job. 


While this is generally a full-time role, there are plenty of part-time positions available. Many OTs who want to start a family have the opportunity to reduce their hours when they need to. It is also possible to connect with some patients via video chat to continue providing them with sessions and treatment. 

If you have a head for business, it is possible to start your own practice and work for yourself. This will give you even more freedom to set your own working hours and choose your patients. This can be very satisfying for people who crave flexibility in their work. 

Read more: How to Become a Therapist

Pass Your Exams With Flying Colors!

And you can with these excellent online study guides! So, let’s begin with the Occupational Therapist Exam Secrets Study Guide: OT Exam Review for the Nbcot Otr Occupational Therapist Registered Test, the National Occupational Therapy Certification Exam Review and Study Guide.

I also found the Occupational Therapist Exam Flashcard Study System: OT Exam Practice Questions & Review and Preparing for the Occupational Therapy National Board Exam: 45 Days and Counting, all available online in 2023.

Next is a great assortment of handbooks, including the Hand and Upper Extremity Rehabilitation, 4th Ed Book – A Quick Reference Guide and Review, the Hand and Upper Extremity Rehabilitation: A Practical Guide, and if you decide to pursue the field, take a look at Pediatric Anxiety: An Occupational Therapist’s Guide.

How To Become An Occupational Therapist – Final Thoughts

Becoming an OT is a great career path for people who have plenty of empathy and analytical thinking skills. 

Once you have earned your bachelor’s degree, it takes up to three years to earn an advanced OT degree. It is also necessary to spend between one and three months studying to pass the NBCOT exam to become licensed.

Working as an OT is a rewarding career that also comes with a competitive salary. The average salary for this role is around $85,000 per year. However, once you have gained experience, your salary could climb as high as $120,000 per year.

Good luck in your new career as an Occupational Therapist!

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