What Education is Needed To Become an Occupational Therapist?

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Updated: February 15, 2024, Reading time: 11 minutes

Education to Become an Occupational Therapist - featured image

Occupational therapists help patients overcome or adapt to the effects of illnesses, disabilities, injuries, and more. They address the psychological and physical barriers that stand between patients and a good quality of life. 

It’s not a surprise that in all types of therapy and counseling, so many people are drawn to such a rewarding profession. For those who are interested in following the career path of an occupational therapist, you have to know what the education requirements are.

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Occupational therapists should be graduates of an accredited occupational therapy program. They need to be licensed to practice and should pass the National Board for Certification in Occupational exam. A master’s degree, therefore, is critical for pursuing a career in this industry.

The quest for a master’s degree begins with getting a good occupational therapy program, a program that will help you build the relevant knowledge and skills as you prepare for the all-important exams that qualify you to become a certified and licensed occupational therapy practitioner.

Types of Degrees for Occupational Therapy

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As you begin to scout for occupational therapy schools, know that there are several degree programs to consider. Enroll in the program that you believe will be relevant to your future career plans. 

Certificate in Occupational Therapy Assisting

This is a very rare, 1-year program that is offered only by a few schools. This certificate will only prepare you to become an OT aide instead of a certified occupational therapist assistant. 

Associate’s Degree in Occupational Therapy Assisting

This is a two-year program that will prepare students to take the national certification exam for occupational therapy assistants.

Bachelor’s/Master’s Degree in Occupational Therapy

Also called 4+1 or 4+2 programs, these joint undergraduate/graduate degree programs will allow students to earn both degrees on an accelerated schedule. 

Master of Occupational Therapy Degree

Also called graduate entry or master’s entry program, direct-entry MOT programs are for students who already earned a bachelor’s degree program in other fields.

This undergraduate program will credit students for completing their liberal arts requirements, thus allowing them to complete a shortened schedule of their undergraduate coursework before they can directly move into their graduate program.

This program prepares students for licensure through advanced training in a graduate-level area. 

Occupational Therapy School Coursework

In occupational therapy school, you will focus on a diverse field of topics, including:

In OT education, students need to complete six months of supervised fieldwork in community organizations or clinics so they will gain hands-on experience before fully completing the program.

On top of this intensive fieldwork that provides students with real-life experience in the actual types of places they will eventually work, they might also need to finish a Capstone learning experience or a master’s project.

Students also need to secure letters of recommendation from science teachers or licensed occupational therapists. 

Occupational Therapy Specialties

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After earning their master’s degree, occupational therapists can add a specialty to their practice. Adding a specialty means earning a certificate through the American Occupational Therapy Association or another certificate-granting organization. 

Today, there are many different types of occupational therapy specialists. Here are some of them.

Aquatic Therapeutic Exercise

OTs working with clients in the water and helping them increase coordination, muscle tone, and mobility may earn the Aquatic Therapeutic Exercise Certification. This certification will prove that the OT already had training in aquatic therapy methods and principles, risk awareness and safety strategies, or movement mechanics. 

Assistive Technology

The ATP (Assistive Technology Professional) certification details the competence of the OT in working with seating products, wheelchairs, and other assistive machinery designed to help patients with disabilities. To become certified, candidates must:


If you are working with people on the autism spectrum, it’s best to earn the Certified Autism Specialist certificate to improve your credentials and knowledge and show your commitment to the area. To get certified through the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards, candidates must:

Brain Injuries

Healthcare professionals working with clients with brain injuries should earn the Certified Brain Injury Specialist certificate. The exam for this certification will cover the different types of brain injuries, brain behavior, how to educate and interact with families/patients, and more. 

To become certified by the Brain Injury Association of America, candidates must: 

Driving and Community Mobility

Occupational therapists can earn a Specialty Certification in Driving and Community Mobility to become skilled at assessing a person’s capacity and potential to drive, providing extensive training and resources when driving is not safe, providing adaptations and education to support driving, and many other forms of community mobility that needs to be explored. 

Some responsibilities of occupational therapists practicing this specialty include helping clients improve their comfort levels with new modes of transportation, evaluating driving readiness in adults, and modifying modes of transportation with adaptive equipment. 


Occupational therapists who hold a Board Certification in Gerontology (BCS) through the AOTA work with older adults in clinical settings or in their homes to work on problems related to:

The AOTA recognizes current OT specialists in this area. However, new candidates will have to wait while the AOTA is currently shifting from the traditional portfolio assessment to an examination-based certification process.

Hand Therapy

A Certified Hand Therapist (CHT) will work with patients suffering from conditions that affect the hands and upper extremities caused by disease or trauma. Candidates will become certified through the Hand Therapy Certification Commission (HTCC). Eligibility requirements include:

Occupational Therapy School Accreditation

The accrediting agency for occupational therapy programs and institutions is the American Occupational Therapy Association. Schools with an AOTA stamp of approval are guaranteed the best coursework as per AOTA standards. 

While certification is voluntary, holding a certificate will show employers that you are serious about your field. OTs must pass the exam administered by the National Board for Certification of Occupational Therapists for them to become certified. NBCOT’s mission is “to provide a world-class standard” in the OT field, which explains why certifications will always come in handy.

NBCOT certification will allow therapists to use the title of OTR (Occupational Therapist Registered). To maintain this certification, occupational therapists must also take continuing education classes. 

As for licensing, all states require every occupational therapist to hold a license. To earn this, you need to earn a degree from an accredited program, plus the NBCOT certification. 

A Master’s Degree Toward Becoming a Licensed OT

A Master’s Degree Toward Becoming a Licensed OT - Image

Beyond your passion, the first step toward becoming a licensed occupational therapist is to earn your bachelor’s degree. Keep in mind, however, that earning a master’s degree is the requirement to become a licensed OT.

What’s great today is that plenty of schools will accept applications from students from different areas of study and backgrounds. The admission requirements of a master’s degree program in occupational therapy are relatively the same as any health care graduate program: completed prerequisite coursework, GRE results, and official transcript of records or work experience. 

Completing a master’s degree program in Occupational Therapy can be done in just two years. Students should expect to come across course subject matters like:

To get the best OT education, students must go to accredited schools that offer dynamic curricula. This means choosing a program that is duly accredited by the American Occupational Therapy Association that offers service learning, collaborative research opportunities, and field experience alongside coursework. 

About the NBCOT Licensure Exam

After earning a master’s degree, the next step is to become a licensed occupational therapist, and this can be done by passing the NBCOT exam.

This exam is created, developed, and reviewed by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy and applies evidence-based standards to guarantee the knowledge and skill of practicing OTs.

How Long Will the OT Education Take? 

To fully practice as an occupational therapist, you need to have at least a master’s degree in the field, and admission to OT graduate degree programs is very competitive. On average, the master’s degree program in occupational therapy takes around two and a half years to complete. 

The first year and a half is dedicated to completing the necessary coursework in a classroom setting. During the last year, students will gain more experience in a clinical setting. If you wish to get admitted to an accredited OT school of your choice, earning a high GPA in your undergraduate degree (ideally, above 3.3 GPA) should be your main goal. 

You should also have worked or volunteered as an occupational therapy aide to increase your chances of admission. In most cases, schools will require up to 150 hours of clinical experience before one gets admitted.

Education to Become an Occupational Therapist - fact

Career Pathways for Licensed Occupational Therapists

After you become a licensed occupational therapist, you have so many career choices available. Here are some of the work settings where you can find employment.

As a licensed occupational therapist, you will also realize that delivering the best care is just one of the many aspects of an OT’s job. It’s expected of licensed occupational therapists should holistically assess the lives of their clients and help them through their daily routines, including eating, leisure, work, sleep, physical activities, and more. 

OTs will develop skills like those of a coach—encouraging, motivating, and engaging clients to reach the best possible outcomes. Occupational therapists may also be working with a range of clientele from all walks of life. Their role usually requires them to interact with the patient’s family members as well, which is why learning efficient communication techniques and refining their “bedside manner” is very crucial. 

Starting As An OT Assistant

Occupational therapy assistants are vital to the process of helping patients heal. Working under the leadership of a licensed occupational therapist provides OT assistants with the experience they need to assess if they really want to further their careers. 

As an OT assistant, you will see plenty of patients with different challenges. Some patients need help with their daily tasks like cooking or getting dressed, and then here come patients needing less tangible skills like memory and decision-making.

As an OT assistant, you can use your knowledge and skills to use in other types of industry. For example, you can work with contractors and architects on how they can improve their building designs and building accessibility, or you can tap companies and discuss ergonomic concerns for product construction. 

To qualify as an occupational therapy assistant, a student should have completed at least two years of study, including the courses below:

Students in an OT assistant program are also required to complete supervised fieldwork in community organizations or clinics to gain real-life and hands-on experience before completing the program.

Most states require OT assistants to pass the national certification exams before they are allowed to practice.

Certification, on the other hand, is voluntary, although earning one will show your commitment and dedication to your work and will become attractive to future employers, as well as reward you with a lucrative salary. Also, doctorate degree programs in the field of OT are available.

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