Recently I got to represent Occupational Therapy at a postgraduate event, and it was great being able to help future OT students by offering some advice here and there. A lot of them commented that it was really helpful having current students there, as well as the University’s admission tutors, and it made me cast my mind back to the stressful months & weeks before my interview when I’d have sat through the every episode of Big Bang Theory in return for a student godmother to ask three questions to.
Below are some of the most common questions together with the advice I gave:
How do I get OT shadowing experience?
You can try contacting local hospitals’ OT departments and asking them. However in my experience, the success rate for people obtaining shadowing experience this way is low. A better way is to use your existing contacts, and think outside the box. By this I mean think about who you already know, and think about all the places where OTs work (clue: it’s not just hospitals).
Some ideas are:
Traditional settings– hospitals, outpatient clinics, schools, nurseries, supported living facilities, day centres for people with learning disabilities, community health teams, hand clinics.
Non-traditional settings– mental health/psychiatric facilities, equine therapy/animal assisted therapies, assistive technology centres, research labs, prosthetic/orthotic clinics, chronic pain management clinics, palliative care/hospices, oncology depts, military hospitals/rehab centres, private schools, independent practitioners, prisons/criminal justice system, vocational rehabilitation, community-based or mental health outreach teams, A&E.
OTs are generally acknowledged to be the nicest people you’ll ever meet. The ones that I contacted ranged from willing-to-help to bent-over-backwards-to-offer-clinical-contact-and-photocopied-relevant-book-pages-for-me. Even if you don’t have a family member who’s an OT, ask around if anyone knows of one and you will be surprised. Then be shameless in approaching them directly for help! The worst they can do is politely decline, but I guarantee they won’t.
As an example to give you encouragement, I didn’t know any OTs and none of my family even knew what one was. It turns out I found OTs in the following places: someone in my sister’s team at work, his wife was an OT; someone I bridesmaided with at a wedding worked at a private special needs school; a friend of a friend (who I hadn’t met before but asked my friend for their contact details) was a community OT; a friend who worked in healthcare put me in touch with the OT in the chronic pain management dept at her work, the girlfriend of one of my boyfriend’s school friends is a learning disability OT…..you get the picture.
Before my interview, I shadowed one community OT, and spoke to two others on the phone who worked in pediatrics and rheumatology. Remember to reflect on what you learnt from each experience – it’s not a competition where the most number of locations wins you a place. I also recommend getting as many OTs (as well as friends and family) as possible to proof read your personal statement draft, and suggest improvements.
What type of experience do I need?
The more the better, but try to get experience in the different patient group areas, or at least in both physical and mental fields. Broadly speaking the different areas are children, mental health, physical disability and learning disability but for a more detailed idea, look at the College of Occupational Therapists’ list of specialisms.
In my case I gained employment at a learning disability charity (where I learnt basic Makaton) and volunteered with visually impaired people. I had also previously worked in mental health and as a support worker for people with learning disabilities.
What do they ask you in the interview?
Obviously, I can’t tell you exactly what happens as that wouldn’t be fair, plus I’m also pretty sure they mix the questions up year-to-year. However I will recommend that you should know what the NHS constitution values are and how they relate to OT, what you learnt from your shadowing/work experience, what you think the core skills of an OT are and examples of when you have demonstrated these, a basic understanding of OT theory.
A good place to start might be to look at a popular model like the Canadian Model of Occupational Performance & Engagement (CMOP-E), the theory behind it (biopsychosocial), and how you would apply this to a case study. Also consider what makes an OT different to say a physiotherapist or counsellor. Why do you want to be an OT and not a physiotherapist or counsellor?
Personally, I read books on introductions to occupational therapy, reflected on how this related to my shadowing and work experience, and thoroughly researched the NHS values plus the task we were given for our interview day. I also thought about examples of when I had demonstrated what I thought were the most important skills needed to be an OT.
How do you find time to work/how do you fund yourself when the Masters course is full-time?
The qualification route to becoming an OT is currently either via a BSc or MSc programme. The MSc course is an intensive two years (meaning three years is squished into two) so it is equivalent to full-time job hours. You should probably accept you’re not going to be going for weekend breaks to Prague or shopping at Zara while you are studying (unless the Bank of Mum & Dad is substantially payrolling you). Having said that if you are efficient with your time management you can find time to work one day a week or at evenings/weekends. UK students will have their fees funded by the NHS, and can also apply for a means-tested grant (not a loan- you don’t have to pay it back). It won’t be an easy couple of years financially but I try to bear in mind the big picture that at the end of some short-term financial struggle, I’ll be a qualified professional for life!
How ‘intensive’ is the Masters – do you actually get time to have a life and/or work?
The course is full-time five-days-a-week in the sense that when you’re not on campus in lectures, you will be doing homework. And you WILL actually need to do the homework (homework is what I like to call the extra reading/projects/essays…it makes them seem less scary). However, if you are ruthlessly efficient with your time (for example setting yourself six hours to complete your presentation AND NO MORE meaning you can then go to work/the pub; rather than procrastinating and then taking two days to complete it leaving no time for the pub and becoming miserable) then you will have time to have a social life or work. Most people on my course work in some way and they all seem to find time to play sports and go out. If you don’t already possess dazzling time management skills, I guarantee you will very quickly after commencing an OT MSc.
What does ‘pre-registration’ or ‘pre-reg’ mean in the course title?
This means that the course has been quality assessed and will teach you to a high enough standard to be able to register as a qualified Occupational Therapist health professional with the HCPC once you’ve passed. Registration means you can legally use the title of ‘Occupational Therapist’. Any courses that aren’t ‘pre-reg’ means that they may teach you about OT, but not enough so that you can qualify or legally practice as one afterwards. A list of all UK universities that offer official pre-reg courses is on the back page of the COT’s career handbook.
What should I know for the interview day?
Arrive early. Personally I went up the night before (as I was travelling a fair distance) to avoid any potential transport issues on the morning. Be friendly, chat to other candidates and people there. Try not to be too nervous 🙂 There is usually a literacy and numeracy test (practice some of these online beforehand to highlight any gaps in your knowledge), a group task and an individual interview with an admissions tutor, an OT and/or an NHS health education representative.
Is there any benefit to applying sooner rather than later?
For Masters courses, each university has different a system and the deadlines are all different. For some, applications are on a first come first served basis so obviously there is a benefit then, but for some such as the University of Essex you must just ensure you submit by the deadline. Don’t rush to submit your application early if you haven’t got enough experience yet. Admissions tutors do start sifting through applications submitted before the deadline but so long as you submit before the deadline, your application will be accepted.
I don’t have a standard entry route. Will I get still on the course?
Yes, a non-standard route will not stop you but may mean you have to do slightly more to reach the entry criteria. Myself, I had completed my undergraduate studies over a decade ago when I decided to apply for an OT MSc. Each university is different, but the majority will want to see evidence of recent study, normally in the last five years, in which case you just need to complete a course with assessable components in your spare time, eg with the Open University. In addition, your first degree doesn’t necessarily have be in the life sciences. Occupational Therapy’s roots come from a wide range of disciplines (sociology, philosophy, psychology, biology, anthropology, economics etc) and so people from all backgrounds have something to offer the field of OT. On my course there are students with backgrounds in social care, art, media, personal training, & psychology to name but a few.
Of course, these opinions are my own and you should always critically evaluate any information before basing a decision on it! See here for more information on this and the importance of evaluating information sources.