Occupational Therapy Pre-Healthcare Pathway

What does an Occupational Therapist do?


Occupational Therapists (OT) work with people of all ages who have temporary or permanent disabilities, illnesses or injuries in performing daily activities in a therapeutic setting. OT’s may work in hospitals, schools, at patients homes, or skilled nursing facilities. The end goal is for the patient to function effectively in performing everyday activities. 

The employment outlook for this line of work will increase by about 16% by the year 2029, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Some typical responsibilities of a Occupational Therapist: 

  • Evaluate a patient's medical history and current needs for daily functioning
  • Develop a treatment plan with the patient (and possibly family) which identify goals, benchmarks and timeframe of treatment. 
  • Guide patients on how to perform daily activities (for example, putting on shoes and getting dressed)
  • Survey and provide recommendations for the patient of modifications of their work/home/transportation environment for mobility purposes
  • Assess a patient's progress completing daily activities 

Earn a bachelor’s degree

The first step to becoming an occupational therapist (OT) is to complete an undergraduate degree and completing any prerequisite coursework required from the OT program of your choice. What major you choose is not as important as making sure you complete the prerequisites required to be admitted into the OT program. Examples of what students have majored in at the undergraduate level include biology, kinesiology, psychology, sociology, anthropology, liberal arts, and anatomy. It is important to contact the programs to which you are interested in applying and make sure you have taken the necessary prerequisites for admission.

Complete Volunteer/Observation

While volunteering or completing observation hours in the OT field may not be required for admission, having experience may increase the likelihood of getting into a master’s program. While you are working on your undergraduate degree, you’ll need to start getting your volunteer/observation hours for OT school. Each program has its own requirements but you’ll generally want to work in at least a few different settings and explore different types of patient populations. It is recommended to contact local facilities such as hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, or school systems. These requests are made more often than you think and you will find most places are accommodating.

Decide between an OT Masters and OT Doctorate

There are two routes you can take to becoming an OT and you’ll need to decide whether to pursue your master’s degree (MOT) or a doctorate degree (OTD). In August 2019, a joint statement by the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) and the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE) determined that occupational therapists may enter the profession at the master’s or doctorate level. (Stay updated on any changes here

Both routes will be competing for the same clinical jobs but pursuing an OT Masters will probably end in acquiring less debt. The average master’s degree program takes about two-three years to complete. The first half is usually devoted to completing required course work in a classroom setting. In the second half students gain experience in a clinical setting where they’ll be working as an occupational therapy student (OTS) under the supervision of a licensed OT.  https://www.aota.org/Education-Careers/Considering-OT-Career/FAQs/Planning.aspx

A doctorate might open doors for you down the road, especially if you want to work in academia. The doctoral degree offers additional semesters of study focusing on clinical practice skills, research skills, administration, leadership, program and policy development, advocacy, education, and theory development.

The United States Department of Education defines a professional doctorate as “a doctorate that is conferred upon completion of a program providing the knowledge and skills for the recognition, credential, or license required to enter professional practice. The degree is awarded after a period of study such that the total time to the degree, including both pre-professional and professional preparation, equals at least six full-time equivalent academic years".  Many of the existing master’s programs meet or exceed the USDE minimal requirement for a professional doctorate.

Pass the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) certification exam


Once you complete your occupational therapy degree, you’ll need to pass the national board exam (NBCOT). The exam is designed to evaluate a candidate’s ability to make conclusions about client needs, get information about a client’s occupational performance and the factors that play into it, choose appropriate therapies and manage and direct occupational therapy services. In Cal https://www.bot.ca.gov/

Obtain Licensure

You’ll need to apply for a licensure in the state in which you seek to practice. https://healthsciences.pacific.edu/healthsciences/programs/doctor-of-occupational-therapy/admission Each state in the US has its own rules and regulations for practicing as an OT. You need to get an OT license for any state in which you want to practice in and each state does have its own unique requirements for initial licensure. You will then need to take continuing education courses throughout your career to keep your license active.  AOTA is working on creating an interstate professional licensing compact for occupational therapy to address licensure portability. https://www.aota.org/Advocacy-Policy/State-Policy/Licensure/Interstate-Professional-Licensing-Compact.aspx

There are a variety of factors that go into choosing which OT programs are best for you to apply to, including tuition, location, environment (i.e. urban), class size, focus or mission statement, etc. Spend some time researching schools online and create a spreadsheet that tracks the factors most important to you. 

Remember that OT is a licensed profession and ALL programs will cover the required content to prepare you for the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) certification exam https://www.nbcot.org/en.  If you plan on attending school in a state that is not the state you want to practice in, check out this website. https://www.aota.org/Advocacy-Policy/State-Policy/Licensure/Interstate-Professional-Licensing-Compact.aspx

National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy: https://www.nbcot.org/en

California Board of Occupational Therapy: https://www.bot.ca.gov/

American Occupation Therapy Association: https://www.bot.ca.gov/

As you explore the programs around the US make sure you are researching accredited programs which can be found here. Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education: https://acoteonline.org/all-schools

There are 9 OT Master’s programs in California:https://acoteonline.org/schools/ot-masters/?cn-cat-in%5B%5D=&cn-cat-in%5B%5D=15&cn-region=CA

  1. CSUDH https://www.csudh.edu/ot/
  2. San Jose State University: https://www.sjsu.edu/occupationaltherapy/
  3. Samuel Merritt: https://www.samuelmerritt.edu/programs/doctor-and-master-occupational-therapy
  4. Dominican University of California: https://www.dominican.edu/academics/graduate-programs/master-science-occupational-therapy-msot
  5. Loma Linda: https://alliedhealth.llu.edu/academics/occupational-therapy
  6. Stanbridge University: https://www.stanbridge.edu/program/msot
  7. University of Southern California: https://chan.usc.edu/
  8. University of St. Augustine: https://www.usa.edu/
  9. West Coast University: https://westcoastuniversity.edu/programs/ms-occupational-therapy.html

There are 3 OT Doctorate programs in California

  1. Samuel Merritt: https://www.samuelmerritt.edu/programs/doctor-and-master-occupational-therapy
  2. University of St. Augustine: https://www.usa.edu/
  3. West Coast University: https://westcoastuniversity.edu/programs/ms-occupational-therapy.html

When starting to prepare for which prerequisite classes to take before graduation, always consult the admissions criteria for the OT program you plan on applying to in the future. You can also email the admissions counselor of that OT program to double-check on the courses you plan to take if you are unclear about transfer agreements. 

Many of the programs require prerequisite courses such as: human anatomy/physiology with labs, introductory psychology and abnormal psychology, human development, statistics, sociology or cultural anthropology, medical terminology.


(be sure to select “Accreditation” when using the search criteria)


Many programs require the Graduate Record Exam (GRE®) general test. https://www.ets.org/gre/test-takers/general-test/about.html Take the GRE early in case you want to retake the exam.

To find free on-line GRE prep info go to this link. https://www.ets.org/gre/test-takers/general-test/prepare/khan-prep-videos.html






You may also find it helpful to speak with one of our career advisors at AACE. You can do so by booking an appointment through AACE. 

Phone: (510) 885-3621

Email: aace@csueastbay.edu

  • Build partnerships with AACE, Community Engagement Office and Internships Coordinator Mariaelena Marcano
  • Topics that students might need guidance on: 

Students pursuing a career in occupational therapy are encouraged to do one or more of the following:

  • Conduct an informational interview, shadow or observe an occupational therapist. Exposure to a number of different areas may help you with clarity of career choice. 
    • Become involved in pre-health on-campus student organizations.
  • Find healthcare related volunteer opportunities.  
  • Non-OT volunteer experience is a good way to add another layer to your application. It’s another way of demonstrating that you have the qualities the profession is looking for by volunteering for community events.
  • Find a healthcare related Internship or Job.