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Underrated Majors for OT School

by Julie Wolfman, OTD, OTR

There’s no such thing as “pre-OT”!

Applying to OT school and not quite sure if your major relates?

Ready to declare in undergrad but not sold on the popular majors many people choose before pursuing OT?

Or are you in a “not-really-sure-what-I-want-to-do-with-my-life-and-heard-of-OT-before-and-that-sounds-inspiring-but-just-want-to-keep-my-options-open” kind of place?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then this article is for you, because #same.

I’m not convinced that any 18-year-old knows what they want to do with their life when they enter undergrad. I sure didn’t.

Fortunately for me, I didn’t have to declare a major until the end of my sophomore year. Unfortunately for me, even as a 20 year-old, I still had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.

I ultimately declared a major in global studies, which at the time satisfied my acute curiosity about the world and its emerging connectedness. That being said, it became a harsh reality that there is no such thing as a Global Studies Store.

And so, as any panicked and unemployed soon-to-be-graduate would do, I turned to my network. With a light push in the direction of OT, I immediately fell in love. I fell in love with the idea of helping people do what they love.

Fast forward many sleepless nights living that grad school life, and here I am as a soon-to-be-graduate once again, this time excited and eager to explore the many doors that are open within OT. Hidden in this flash-forward was just about every human I knew (and some I didn’t) telling me that OT was a complete 180 from global studies.

Yours could be one of the many underrated majors for OT school!

On one hand, you’re totally right: on the surface, global studies and OT are about as similar as apples and airplanes. And you’re right, I certainly had a different experience learning about the cortical homunculus than my peers with neuroscience degrees, but by no means did I feel unprepared or unqualified.

The beauty of OT is that you can make just about anything relevant. When broken down, occupational therapists help people participate in activities that occupy their day. To do that, OTs use therapeutic use of self, therapeutic use of everyday activities, and clinical reasoning to consider the person as they function in their physical/social/cultural/political contexts and environments.

To prepare for OT school, many people major in biology to understand the inner-workings of the human body, or psychology to understand the inner-workings of the human mind.

But what if none of the classics motivated you to pay attention in 200-person lecture halls?

Here’s where you get to get creative, because there’s no one “pre-OT” major.

I could argue that majoring in environmental studies could expand your knowledge of how humans interact with and within complex environments. I could argue that political science would inform you of relevant policies and the skills to navigate the complex insurance system that everyone (somewhat) knows and (hardly) loves. Even theme park engineering would equip you to crush documentation and treatment planning, which requires someone who is detail-oriented and interested in improving enjoyable (read: leisure) experiences. TBH, the list is endless.

So long as you address something about humans, interactions, daily activities, environments, or anything that builds your skills to do so, any major can be “pre-OT.”

You’ll meet fellow OT students with unique perspectives because there is no one “pre-OT” major. With many OT schools adopting a team-based learning approach, you might have one group member with extensive experience using reflective listening in social work classes, and another who can articulate the relationship between a p-value and an alpha level. Working with these classmates will allow you to learn from and share unique perspectives, just like you will with your future patients and interprofessional colleagues.

This isn’t to say you should intentionally choose the most seemingly unrelated major in the course catalogue. But if you’re already on track for a Bachelor of Arts in Global Studies (for example), or re-careering from being a marine biologist, it’s not impossible to pivot to a Masters or Doctorate in Occupational Therapy.

Thinking strategically

For me, pivoting to OT meant taking a gap year to take prerequisite classes and really beef up my application. Once I got here, it meant learning from the ground up what the heck a lever arm is, when it was common knowledge to many of my classmates. But it also served as a means to individualize my experience in an otherwise structured lock-step curriculum, and capitalize on skills I learned from taking courses in liberal arts.

Global studies was writing-heavy, focused on globalization, and encouraged international travel. Once I got to OT school, I did switch gears to focus on concise documentation and think more about the individual rather than the world as a whole. But I did so laced with my global studies background: I was constantly applying sociological and anthropological concepts to better individualize my treatment plans; I jumped on the opportunity to travel to India and explore what individual, client-centered care looks like in the Global South vs. the Global North; and I willingly and lovingly accepted the switch from MLA to APA formatting.

No matter what your major is or was, the trick is being able to articulate how your time in undergrad prepared you to one day be a competent and compassionate OT. Think about what you learned, how you learned it, and what skills you gained from doing so.

With the right attitude and motivation, any major is relevant. It’s not that you’re ever really “switching gears”; your undergrad major simply serves as a lens that filters your practice as an OT.

Be ready to defend it when everyone and their brother ask why you made the “switch”, but ultimately celebrate whatever distinguishes you from the rest, and use it to bring yet another unique perspective to this incredibly unique field.


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