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5 Crucial Tips for Starting OT School

by Jasmin Torres


Congratulations, my friend, you’ve been accepted to an occupational therapy graduate program! You’ve conquered the first step in a long and rewarding journey of pursuing your dream job. All of the blood, sweat and tears that went into studying for the GREs, typing up personal statements and paying application fees has finally paid off. Whether it took you one application cycle or three, you certainly deserve to celebrate – which brings me to my first unofficial piece of advice for those of you recently accepted students.

Give yourself a pat on the back and enjoy whatever time off you have before embarking on the next journey.

While there are plenty of challenges to overcome over the next few years, you have proven that you have what it takes to be a great healthcare professional. But as you know, the hard part isn’t over. Your focus and time commitment will likely be challenged more than ever before. So, what’s a guy or gal to do? Here are 5 pieces of advice to help you successfully navigate your first semester of OT school.

1. Mentally prepare

In order to succeed in graduate school, you have to be in the right mindset. Once you’re in the thick of the semester, it can be hard to stay in a positive mindset if you go into the semester already feeling high-strung.

For some people, the best way to prepare is a mental break; a mini vacation. Take a trip with friends or loved ones and spend time with those who put your mind at ease. If you are working full time prior to starting OT school, you might want to consider taking some time off before devoting everything to a program. While this may not be financially ideal for many, it could mean benefitting you more in the end.

If a mini vacation is not written in your stars, consider getting a head start on organizing your agenda in advance so that you don’t feel so overwhelmed at the start of your first semester. If you plan on holding a job, figure out what your schedule will look like once classes begin. Whatever helps you clear and organize your mind, do it.

If you know this is something you struggled with before graduate school, find ways to help you plan ahead. OT programs are small and your professors will know if you aren’t putting in the time that they expect you to be putting in. Plus, putting in more time into your studies will make you a better practitioner in the end.

2. Find your study buddies

One of the best resources in OT school that you can have are your own peers. Everyone takes in information differently, so having different perspectives will help expand your horizon. Plus, a study group can expose you to different study habits and techniques that will potentially improve your own habits.

Over time, you will find like-minded people in your program who in many ways think just like you. That being said, it’s okay if the people you choose to study with are not your closest friends. It’s important to ensure that whoever you spend your time studying with challenges rather than sets you back.

3. Be as well rounded as possible

While being a well-rounded human in OT school might seem like an oxymoron, it is perhaps the most vital piece of advice that I can offer. Many students get dragged into a funk when every waking minute of their day is spent focusing on school and work. There are other things in life that matter.

Whether it be maintaining contact with loved ones or going out for happy hour, try to find your balance. Develop healthy habits such as a regular exercise routine, a balanced diet, and getting enough sleep each night. While achieving this balance might seem impossible at times, it will keep you on a regular schedule and will force you to get things done well before the deadline.

In many ways, a well-balanced schedule can actually reduce your stress and anxiety since you will have a more structured day filled with far less distractions (such as Netflix). If you find yourself idly going through your day when not in class, consider adding something productive into your routine to promote overall wellness.

Many times in graduate school, we become more vulnerable to all types of stressors that seem to pile up. If you are struggling with any mental health condition, you want to find ways to healthily manage your triggers before the chaos begins. Otherwise, you could end up struggling more than you anticipated.

4. Learn to manage your finances

Graduate school is expensive, especially if you are living on your own and supporting yourself. The last thing you need on top of the demands of being in a rigorous program are financial stressors.

Establish a financial plan for yourself before you begin your program. Sit down and create an estimate of your expected costs so you don’t end up blowing all of your money the first month of school. There’s a lot of excitement in starting a new program, so it’s easy to end up overspending when you go out for food and drinks with your new classmates.

You will definitely want to consider the cost of living if you are moving to a new town, state or city since costs can vary drastically from place to place. More likely than not, you will be spending more on books in graduate school than you did in undergraduate school – and these books will most definitely not spare your wallet’s feelings.

5. Find a hobby

Find something that can be an outlet to relieve your stress. This might include volunteering, photography, reading, coloring, hiking, working out or really anything else that you can think of. Some of us have established many hobbies over the years while others might have to work a little harder to think of something that we enjoy outside of class. So, here is a piece of advice for both types of people.

Looking for some hobbies? This could require some soul searching. Find activities that can ease your mind and engage it enough to leave your stressors on the backburner.

The truth is, grad school can be all-consuming, but you will definitely find that you have time on your hands to spare. For some people, too much time off can cause them to shelter themselves and exclude everything and everyone around them, so do your best to avoid doing this.

Have a whole resume of hobbies? If you are one of those people who takes time out of your busy life to embrace some much-needed “you” time, don’t lose that! Your interests and hobbies make you the person you are, and in many ways will help you become a better occupational therapist.

I only caution you that you may find yourself sacrificing some of your hobbies for the sake of time management. Keep those hobbies that you rely on when your schedule gets hectic. Consider how you could modify those hobbies that require traveling or extensive amounts of time.

You might also want to consider a low-stakes job that will take your mind off of schoolwork for some time. Try to find a job that has flexible hours in case you underestimate how much time is needed to devote to your school work (i.e. babysitting and dog walking).

Starting a new program can be intimidating and downright scary, especially if you’ve been out of school for some time.

At the end of the day, be confident in yourself and what you are capable of. It can be easy to lose sight of your own worth in OT school or any competitive graduate program. Know that you can rely on those close to you, especially those in your cohort who are going through a similar experience. At the end of the day, someone had faith that you have what it takes to succeed, so go in with the confidence to prove them right!

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