Everything you need to know about becoming an occupational therapy assistant

Last updated: February 21, 2024
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Everything you need to know about becoming an occupational therapy assistant
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Are you looking for a career in which you can help people live their best possible lives? If so, an occupational therapy assistant (OTA) position might be right for you.

Every day at work, you'll help people improve their quality of life and achieve their personal goals. From young kids to older adults, you can work with a wide variety of individuals in an occupational therapy assistant role.

Is this the right career path for you? In this article, we'll explore what it takes to become an OTA and how to pursue — and excel in — this rewarding career.

What is an occupational therapy assistant?

An OTA helps people of all ages overcome physical ailments, mental health conditions, and developmental issues to improve their quality of life.

An OTA works together with an occupational therapist (OT) to set goals, provide therapy, and monitor clients' progress. While the OTA does not create a treatment plan, they are responsible for carrying it out and informing the OT of the patient's progress.

Treatment interventions look different for each client. As an OTA, you'll help clients complete daily activities designed to help them achieve their goals. Each work day varies depending on the occupational therapy services your clients need.

For example, an OTA might start their day working with an overweight patient to help them make healthy food choices, establish an exercise plan, and create a food journal to log their daily calorie intake.

Later that day, the OTA might see a young child with sensory processing issues and teach the child's parents about therapeutic activities the child can complete at home.

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That's the beauty of being an OTA — every treatment plan, client, and work day will be different. And since OTAs can work in a variety of healthcare settings, including nursing homes, rehabilitation facilities, and outpatient clinics, your career opportunities are endless.

How does an occupational therapy assistant differ from other occupational therapy careers?

There are three different career paths that prospective occupational therapy students can take:

  • Occupational therapy aide

  • OTA

  • OT

An occupational therapy aide sets up therapy equipment, completes essential paperwork, and escorts patients to the therapy room. These professionals require a high school diploma or equivalent and do not perform therapeutic interventions.

An OTA, on the other hand, performs therapy with clients, takes detailed session notes, and communicates patients' progress with the head therapist. This position requires an associate's degree from a college approved by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education.

Lastly, an OT supervises aides and assistants, assesses clients for potential issues and current progress, and creates treatment plans. This position requires a master's or doctoral degree and, like the OTA position, requires graduation from a college with accreditation.

At times, an OT may also run a therapy session, although assistants typically perform the majority of therapy hours with clients.

Ultimately, OTAs spend the most hands-on time with clients.

How much do occupational therapy assistants earn?

On average, OTAs earn $29.58 an hour or $61,730 a year. In fact, OTAs are one of the best high-paying jobs for individuals who hold an associate degree.

Your salary as an OTA depends on your location. Working in a major city comes with higher salaries — and a higher cost of living, so you might have to pay more for daily expenses.

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According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, California, New Jersey, Texas, Maryland, and Delaware are the top-paying states for OTAs. In these states, you can earn anywhere between $71,000 and $80,000 a year.

Your salary will also depend on the type of healthcare facility in which you work. Those who work in nursing care facilities earn an average of $34.26 an hour or $71,250 a year.

On the other hand, OTAs who work in elementary and middle schools earn an average of $27.74 an hour or $57,700 a year.

What are the responsibilities of an occupational therapy assistant?

One of the most important qualities an OTA should have is the ability to form and maintain relationships. In a survey on patient experiences, 49% of participants reported feeling that a good physician-patient relationship contributed to their health and wellness.

But providing an excellent patient experience doesn't stop at that — it also includes communicating with the head OT.

Since OTAs run most of a patient's therapy sessions, it's important to discuss the patient's progress with the rest of the occupational therapy team. So not only should OTAs document every therapy session with detailed notes for their coworkers, but they also need to work closely together to evaluate the quality of patients' treatments.

Sometimes, if a patient is struggling, the OTA and the head OT will need to modify the treatment plans. These changes are completely normal but require effective communication and understanding among everyone involved.

How to become an occupational therapy assistant

Are you interested in helping others by becoming an OTA? Use the following step-by-step guide to achieve your OTA career goals:

Step 1: Enroll in a college with courses by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE)

Finding a college approved by ACOTE is essential to becoming an OTA.

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ACOTE-approved schools have distinct course schedules designed to train occupational therapy students. Graduates from these schools have ample training and education to become knowledgeable OTAs.

When researching potential colleges, ask the admissions team about their ACOTE accreditation status. If the school reports they are in pre-accreditation status, that means the school has met some of the criteria for approval, and the program is awaiting an on-site evaluation from the ACOTE team.

However, pre-accreditation status doesn't guarantee approval from the ACOTE team. So unfortunately, if you attend a college that fails its accreditation, you won't be eligible to take the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) exam. The best course of action, in this case, is to transfer to a new school that holds accreditation status so you may sit for the exam.

Potential students can find more information on ACOTE-approved schools here.

Step 2: Graduate with an associate degree

After acceptance into an OTA program from an ACOTE-approved college, you'll need to follow the educational requirements and pass your classes. Typically, this process takes two years of full-time coursework.

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If you can't commit to two years of full-time school, you can consider attending college part-time. While this makes the process longer, it can be a good option for people who have children or other life commitments.

Currently, 92% of OTAs hold an associate degree. While OTA bachelor's degree programs exist, it's uncommon for OTAs to pursue this educational route. Typically, a bachelor's degree program is a stepping stone to obtaining a master's degree and becoming an occupational therapist.

Step 3: Complete the required fieldwork

Most, if not all, ACOTE-approved colleges include fieldwork within their curricula. However, this step is crucial when applying for the NBCOT exam. Potential OTAs must be supervised for 16 weeks in an occupational therapy placement before taking the NBCOT exam.

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The American Occupational Therapy Association provides an in-depth description of supervision requirements and what students can expect during their fieldwork experience. Follow these guidelines, and you'll be prepared to sit for the NBCOT exam.

Step 4: Study for and take the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) exam

It's now time to take the NBCOT exam. While this can feel intimidating, creating a solid plan can help ensure your success.

First, estimate how long you anticipate studying the exam materials will take for you. Some people take the NBCOT exam immediately following graduation from an ACOTE-accredited program, whereas others may take a few months to prepare. Only you know which path will be best for you.

Second, focus on the difficult material — these are the topics that may not have been as easy to learn as others. While you should ultimately review everything that you learned ahead of the exam, dedicating extra time to challenging material will help you succeed.

Third, prepare a study schedule. How many hours a week can you dedicate to studying for the exam? Do you plan on taking practice exams?

Passing the NBCOT exam is crucial to receiving licensure and finding an OTA job, so this is not an exam to take lightly. The application fee is $515, and students who fail the exam will have to pay $385 to retest.

Once you pay the application fee, you'll need to submit a transcript from your ACOTE degree program. After your application is approved, you'll be able to schedule your exam date.

Finally, take the NBCOT exam and await the results!

Step 5: Apply for state licensure

After you pass your NBCOT exam, your official title will be Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant (COTA). Now you'll be eligible to apply for state licensure.

Each state will have different rules and regulations for applying for licensure. If you know which state you'd like to practice in, research their requirements ahead of time so you're prepared to submit a licensure application after you take the NBCOT exam.

Most licensure applications require a criminal background check and a transcript from your ACOTE degree program.

Step 6: Find an occupational therapy assistant job

Following an ACOTE education program, graduation, fieldwork, the NBCOT exam, and state licensure, it's time to start applying for OTA positions.

With Jobcase, you can start searching for available OTA positions immediately. Simply enter your job title and location, and Jobcase will show you nearby job openings.

Just remember that before you start applying for positions, you'll need an updated resume and CV. Check out our tips for creating an excellent resume to secure that dream OTA job.

FAQs about occupational therapy assistants

What's the difference between an occupational therapist and an occupational therapy assistant?

The main differences between an OT and an OTA are their education requirements and responsibilities.

Occupational therapists must complete a master's or doctorate degree, whereas an OTA is only required to complete an associate degree.

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Additionally, occupational therapists create treatment plans and supervise clients' progress. These professionals are also responsible for managing the occupational therapy team, including OTAs.

On the other hand, OTAs are tasked with running therapy sessions, accepting direction from the head therapist, and providing detailed progress notes. This position works closely with the client, which means head therapists rely on OTAs for frequent updates on clients' progress.

Is the occupational therapy assistant exam difficult?

The NBCOT exam is a cumulative exam that'll test you on all the coursework you will have completed in an ACOTE-approved occupational therapy program. If you performed well throughout your degree program, you'll likely do well on the NBCOT exam, too.

However, you still need to study. “Cramming” before such a major exam isn't recommended. Instead, create a clear study plan spread out over a few weeks or months. That way, you can refresh your memory on previously learned topics, ensure that you retain particularly challenging lessons, and feel confident about your abilities and knowledge as a whole.

Is becoming an occupational therapy assistant a good career?

As one of the 15 top associate degree jobs, OTAs have an excellent job outlook and high salary. However, you should only enter this profession if you enjoy helping people.

OTAs work with clients of all ages to help them improve their quality of life and gain independence. This job is incredibly rewarding when clients succeed and meet their treatment goals.

Start your occupational therapy assistant career journey

Becoming an OTA takes time, education, and a love for helping others. But if you complete the course requirements through an accredited program, sit for the NBCOT exam, and obtain state licensure, your hard work and dedication will pay off.

With the freedom to work in healthcare clinics, hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and early education programs, OTAs are in high demand. Start your search for job openings through the Jobcase job board today to find the perfect position for you!

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