Female therapist working at a rehab clinic

How to Prepare for OTA School

The Complete Study Guide to Help You Prepare for OTA School and Pass the COTA Exam

Female therapist working at a rehab clinic

If you’re thinking about a career as an Occupational Therapy Assistant (OTA), you’re not alone. Many prospective OTAs are attracted to a career that allows them to help patients gain or reacquire the skills they need to work and perform their daily activities. Appearing in spot 4 in our list of 17 Best Entry-Level Medical Jobs in 2022, a career as an OTA offers an attractive average salary* and a much higher-than-average job outlook (more on that later). Although this work can sometimes be demanding, it can also be highly rewarding.

But the first thing you need to do to become an OTA is to learn how to prepare for OTA school—including how to choose one, what to expect, and how to study to pass the necessary licensing exam. That all starts with finding the right accredited school and program.

This guide provides you with essential tips, steps, and resources you’ll need to choose an OTA school with total confidence. As you consider your options for OTA school, you may want to read about what makes the OTA program at Brookline College a great choice.

Why Become an Occupational Therapy Assistant?

If you find satisfaction in helping adults and children to learn or relearn the skills they need to thrive in their everyday lives, working as an Occupational Therapy Assistant may be a career path for you. Most OTAs perform their jobs in skilled nursing facilities, schools, home health, outpatient clinics or hospitals. Here are some of the tasks OTAs may perform:

  • Help people overcome physical challenges
  • Work with children to improve cognitive and motor skills as well as sensory processing
  • Help people with Down’s syndrome learn self-care skills to gain independence
  • Work with people who have experienced a work-related injury to regain their strength and abilities through exercises and reconditioning

For more details on this career, read our article on How to Become an Occupational Therapy Assistant.

Although the work can be rewarding, another reason to choose this growing medical career is its positive job outlook. That’s because overall employment for OTAs is projected to grow by 25% over the next decade, much faster than the average for all occupations. In May 2021, the average salary* for OTAs was about $64,000, and the top 10 percent earned more than $80,000.

Find the Right OTA Program for You

If this all sounds interesting, you first need to understand how to get into OTA school. Finding the right school for you requires some careful consideration. First, you’ll want to choose a school approved by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE).

By searching the ACOTE website, you can find OTA schools based on degree level, institution type, accreditation status, and state. A listing for each result includes the school contact information, the date of the last on-site evaluation, and the date of the next scheduled evaluation. This will help you narrow your search for an institution that meets your desired OTA school requirements.

Once you identify a few schools, you’ll want to find out more about their programs and which might fit best based on your preferences—like if you wish to attend a large university or if a smaller school is more your style. You can make an appointment to talk to someone about financial aid options, how long the program usually takes to graduate, and what student life is like.

The length of OTA programs can vary, but most are about two years. You can start your career after earning an associate degree. But you can also choose to complete a bachelor’s program. Some accelerated programs can be completed in a shorter time. For example, the accelerated OTA program at Brookline College can be completed in as few as 96 weeks.

Female therapist assisting elderly patient

How to Get Into OTA School

Applying for an OTA school program involves a typical application process where you provide your personal information, official transcripts, completed prerequisites, and GPA requirements. Thanks to the Occupational Therapy Assistant Centralized Application Service (OTACAS), prospective students can apply to multiple OTA programs through a single application process.

Some schools may require prospects to apply by certain deadlines to get into programs that start only once or twice a year. For instance, at Brookline College, courses are only offered once a year, so all OTA students must start the program on the same date, take the same sequence of classes, and complete the program together.

If you don’t get accepted to your desired program, don’t worry. You can apply again at the following program deadline or consider other programs.

What Are the OTA School Prerequisites?

The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) states that completing an associate degree is required to enter practice as an Occupational Therapy Assistant in the United States. Most OTA associate degree programs require graduation from high school, completion of GED/HSED, or completion of an associate degree.

You may also wonder what to study before OTA school. The requirements for prerequisite coursework (and GPA minimums) will vary by school but may include passing classes like English, psychology, and anatomy and physiology. Ask a school counselor or program advisor at each prospective school for a complete list of prerequisites.

Is OTA School Hard?

How hard is OTA school compared to other degrees? Like most programs, OTA school programs require a commitment to attend classes, study, and take exams. On top of that, OTA school also includes a couple of other components—like time spent in the lab and performing required fieldwork. It can seem like a lot, and it will be challenging. But it’s designed to be doable.

You’ll find support in many ways. AOTA provides a toolkit for first-year students (see more in our tips below). You’ll find additional help in their online community. But don’t worry if things don’t go as planned at first. You can even fail a test and still recover. When prospective students ask, “Is OTA school hard?” the answer is that it’s challenging. But you’ll have access to the resources you need to succeed. Read about some of them in the next section.

How to study for OTA school

Surviving OTA school is easier when you make a success roadmap. That means choosing the right school for your needs, getting familiar with the school’s program format, and creating a study plan to navigate your way through. Following are seven study tips for OTA students.

1. Get the First-year OTA Student Toolkit

Your first step should include getting this resource from the AOTA website. They offer a First-year OTA Student Toolkit that can guide you through basics, like how to manage your assignments, what to expect with fieldwork, and how best to interact with your instructors.

2. Establish a Work-Life Balance

Although OTA school will become a big part of your life, it’s not the only thing in your life. You’ll still want to connect with family and friends, take breaks from studying, and even take vacations. To find balance, you’ll need to set limits on how much studying you’ll do every day and leave time for other activities. On the flip side, you’ll need to set aside time for studying and lab work for a balanced approach.

3. Network with Other Students

One big help is connecting with other students. You may want to join AOTA as a student member and become active on the CommunOT online platform. You can chat with peers to share thoughts with other students and practitioners. You can also form positive relationships with the students in your cohort and find ways to support each other.

4. Get to Know Your Faculty

You chose your school for a reason, and one reason was no doubt to learn from an experienced faculty with valuable insights and advice. Don’t be afraid to ask questions in class and make appointments with instructors or assistants. They’ll be a great resource to find out what an OTA career is like.

Therapist assisting patient with a hand weight

5. Be Prepared for Fieldwork

Your OTA program may take place in the classroom. Or you may choose a program where some of your work is completed online. But either way, you’ll most likely be expected to complete a certain number of lab hours and several months of fieldwork as part of your program requirements. This is an excellent opportunity to get hands-on experience in various settings and can be a significant part of your OTA school experience.

6. Stay Healthy and Get Enough Sleep

If you think this suggestion doesn’t belong in a list of study tips, think again. Your ability to manage a full class schedule and outside-the-classroom fieldwork depends on your ability to focus for many hours. If you neglect sleep and a healthy diet, you’ll be at a disadvantage. OTA school requires your physical strength and mental alertness. Good health habits make everything else in your day much easier.

7. Organize Your Work

Stay on top of your weekly schedule with your choice of tools for calendars, taking notes, and studying. Your OTA schoolwork will include lectures, assignments, tests, labs, and more. You may want to download apps to help you manage everything. The AOTA offers apps that can help you manage your studies and fieldwork.

How to Study for the COTA Exam

Once you graduate from an ACOTE accredited program, you’ll be eligible to take the exam to become a Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant (COTA). This exam is offered by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT).

The COTA exam has three parts. About 28% of the exam deals with collaborating and gathering information. The majority of the exam, 55%, covers selecting and implementing interventions. The final portion, 17%, tests candidates on upholding professional standards and responsibilities. The exam consists of 200 multiple-choice questions and must be completed in four hours.

To prepare for the COTA exam, NBCOT’s Aspire study tools provide students with a comprehensive method for learning and studying. Once you review the Exam Outline, you can use the included StudyPack, Knowledge Match Game, flashcards, study guide, and practice tests to help you prepare for the exam.

Note that NBCOT certification is granted for three years. Those who complete the certification renewal requirements by the scheduled renewal date are granted “Active in Good Standing” certification status for another three-year period.

Get Started on Your OTA School Search Today

If you’re still interested—and maybe even a little excited—about a potential career as an Occupational Therapy Assistant, then it may be time to start your search for an OTA school. Many tips and resources mentioned in this article will help you begin your journey. Once you’ve done your homework on this unique career choice, you’ll have the background and confidence you need to succeed.

To start right away, take a few minutes to read about what makes the OTA program at Brookline College a great option.