Five Back-to-School Tips for OT and OTA Students
By Shannen Coley, MS, OTR/L via AOTA.org.
’Tis the season for back to school! My hope is to provide you with useful tips to store in your growing OT toolkit, whether you are in the midst of applying to OTCAS for next year’s admission entrance, or you are making the most out of your last few weeks of freedom before starting your first year as OT/OTA students.
These five tips will hopefully maximize the excitement for newbie students like you, while also providing a little dose of reality about what is to be the most exciting, stressful, difficult, worth-it, and transforming experience in your scholastic career so far.
Are you ready to step with your best foot forward to make this OT/OTA school terrain a little easier to navigate?
1. Make Friends
Take the initiative to find a few key friends within your cohort.
Honest confession: I went into OT school thinking that because all of my classmates have the same interests (not true) to do the same career (also not true because OT is so broad), then I will surely have 29 new best friends right? Ehh, no. But your classmates are your cohort—regardless if you have one to two great buddies or 10—and y’all should feel some type of camaraderie to support one another. When you go to dinner or catch a movie with your new friends, make a valiant effort to limit talking about school or anything else OT related!
2. Do the Finance Dance
Get your finances together before you get sucked into thinking only about the brachial plexus, reflexes, and 22 group projects on topics that you have not yet learned. If you are one of the fortunate individuals with a scholarship, go ahead and confirm your OT school start date for that specific calendar year. If you are taking out loans, which will be the vast majority of you, bite the bullet and write out as well as verbalize the number you owe back per semester to help hold yourself accountable. Loans are very funny in that they feel like make-believe money. From time to time, you may attempt to pretend your loans do not exist, but I am here to remind you that they are a REAL #moodkiller. Make a very basic budget that will help you keep a handle on whether you actually need that venti iced mocha every morning or that ridiculously cute and organized planner you’ll never use.
Take a visit to your school’s financial aid office to see what guidance and types of resources can be provided to boost your loan management and budget planning skills. To increase your financial comprehension skills, dedicate 1 day a week to listen to a finance podcast while commuting to school or performing instrumental activities of daily living tasks, such as folding laundry or planning and preparing meals. Review and seek out scholarship opportunities, such as through the American Occupational Therapy Foundation, your school, or state options.
3. Self-Care Before Health Care
It is really cool nowadays to talk about “wellness,” “self-care days,” “mindfulness,” “intentional living,” and “burnout prevention.” It is also really NOT cool to not implement any of these into your life. You are about to be in a huge transition period. Some of you may have traditional stories in which you completed 4 years of undergrad and immediately were accepted to the school of your choice, and you did not have to move across the country. Some of you completely uprooted your familiar surroundings to move 10 hours away to a city that you did not even know existed until you interviewed for that program! Perhaps a few of you will be in long-distance relationships for the duration of your programs. Some of you may be in your second career with a mortgage and child care needs.
Regardless of any of those above situations describe you, everyone can benefit from learning to choose self-care first—especially when embarking on a season of transitions and change. You know those flight attendants who get on the mic and remind you to put on your oxygen mask prior to helping put on someone else’s? You must take that philosophy and live it as an OT or OTA student and future clinician. Without doing things that fill up your cup, you will simply not be able to serve others.
Summary: Find ways to love yourself always and keep your friends and family close who love you the most! Regularly schedule something to look forward to with your friends—this will work wonders on your spirit.
4. Embrace the Learn Burn
For many of you, this will be the first time you will be in a classroom setting where you are surrounded by the same group of individuals for hours at a time for a few years! There is no running away from your peers! There are also no more (or not nearly as many) 50-minute classes like there were in undergrad. You will agree and disagree with others, but the one constant is that you need to focus on YOU. Your focus needs to be on your learning. You only get one shot to be an OT or OTA student in an entry-level program. Make the most of it.
This is your season to ask questions, to dive deep into the material and not just memorize answers but apply theories you learn to your life outside of OT school, an to truly be a sponge that absorbs experiences to make you not only a better future occupational therapy practitioner, but also a better version of yourself.
5. “It Depends “Will Be Your Mantra
I don’t know what it is exactly about OT and OTA school, but students I have talked to across the nation all agree that the biggest phrase engrained into our brains is definitely, “It depends.” Do yourself a favor and be prepared to hear that phrase 2,392 times during your first year.
“What should we expect from this first musculoskeletal practical?”
“Who is teaching ____ lecture today?”
“How should we prepare for our first Level 1 fieldwork clinical?”
“How do we set up this group research project?”
And so on. Just remember the answer is usually, “It depends.”
Also, and this may be an unpopular opinion, but I believe if you can embrace this phrase, you will less likely get your feelings hurt if and when something changes drastically, such as a Level II fieldwork location (which happened to me and I survived just fine). If you learn to embrace the phrase, “It depends,” then you will spend less time worrying about “what might happen … where I may go … what may be on this exam exactly” and instead learn that OT school prepares you to be a change-embracing, fluid, go-with-the-flow, adaptable practitioner.
I hope you can take at least one of these tips with you on your journey toward becoming your best self and the best OT practitioner you can be. Take what you need from this article as it individually pertains to you.
Looking for more tips to have the best first year as an OT or OTA student? My blog post has dozens of tips from current students and OT practitioners.
A version of this article first appeared on the blog Shannen Marie OT. It is reproduced here with the permission of the author.
Shannen Marie Coley received her Masters of Science in Occupational Therapy from the University of South Alabama in December 2016. Since graduation, Shannen has been working in adult rehabilitation in both hospital and facility settings. She works with individuals from various backgrounds who have diverse neurological, orthopedic, and cardiopulmonary conditions. Shannen is LSVT Big Certified and finds the most joy in working with clients and families with neurological changes. She enjoys writing and creating content for OT advocacy and learning purposes on her blog Shannen Marie OT and on her Instagram @shannenmarie_ot. Shannen considers herself a lifelong learner who seeks mentorship, enjoys being a mentee, hopes to dabble in guest lecturing in the imminent future, and aspires to continue her education with a post-professional OTD or PhD later on in her career. Shannen is supported by her husband, James, whose occupational balance she helps monitor and facilitate during his medical residency training.
SOURCE: Coley, Shannen; "Five Back-to-School Tips for OT and OTA Students" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.aota.org/Education-Careers/Students/Pulse/Archive/school-tips/Back-to-School.aspx