So You Didn’t Get Into OT School…Now What?
Not that long ago, you were busy getting observation hours, requesting letters of recommendation, navigating OTCAS, and submitting all your OT school applications. You had grand plans to move to a new town, start grad school, and prepare to join this profession you spent so much time reading, thinking, and learning about! So when you opened your inbox to an unexpected “We regret to inform you…” or “Welcome to the waitlist” email, you probably felt frustrated…disappointed…angry…maybe even heartbroken.
For the next few months, you’re stuck somewhere between hopeless and hanging on – waiting to hear whether you’re off the waitlist, watching other people get their acceptances, wondering whether you’ll ever get your chance. Although I got into OT school on my first try, I had a previous experience with investing a lot of time and energy into an application for a program I was desperate to get into…and then getting rejected. So I know how it feels, and if you’ve had this experience my heart goes out to you!
After getting rejected from that program several years ago, I spent a few days crying and wallowing. And then I picked myself up and tried again. My rejection from that program actually turned out to be a huge blessing in disguise; when I was accepted into a similar program the next year, it ended changing my life, introducing me to people who are some of my best friends today, and giving me opportunities to go places and do things I would never have been able to do otherwise! Life always has a way of working out, and once you get over the initial sting of rejection you will find a way to carry on.
Although it’s disappointing to learn that you are on the waitlist or you weren’t accepted at your chosen school(s), the tips below can help you make the most of this opportunity to strengthen your application and prepare yourself for the next application cycle.
- Retrace your steps. Review your application(s) to determine where the breakdown might have been, and use this information to strengthen your application for the next cycle. Once you have eliminated obvious issues that would have gotten you rejected (ex. GPA or GRE scores below the program’s cutoff, incorrect number/type of recommendations, forgotten application materials, etc.), you can analyze other parts of your application that might not have been as strong. For example, did you have a ton of observation hours and great recommendations, but a boring essay? Did you have a strong essay but lack observation hours in a variety of settings? Were your letters of recommendation weak or unflattering? Retracing your steps to identify problems can help you figure out what to do next.
- Make meaningful changes. Once you have identified the things that might have weakened your application, take steps to improve in these areas. For example:
- Make an appointment with a career counselor to revise your application materials
- Sign up to volunteer at various sites and get more observation hours
- Retake the GRE to improve your scores
- Work to earn stronger letters of recommendation, or seek letters from different people
- Complete your generalized (OTCAS) or program-specific applications with the new information, documents, etc.
- Go straight to the source. If you feel comfortable, you can try contacting the admissions coordinator at the program(s) you applied to in order to get feedback on your application. They may have valuable insight about areas in which they felt you weren’t as strong or tips on how you could improve your application for the next cycle. Just be aware that an application review process is partially subjective in nature, and the feedback you get from one individual may conflict with others. If you already completed the “retracing your steps” process described in #1 above before contacting individual programs, you may be able to identify some common themes based on your own review and the information you collect from admissions staff (i.e. weak essay, low observation hours, poor recommendations, etc.) and work to remedy those specific issues. (Note: Not all admissions staff or program faculty will be open to this. If you do reach out and the individual is receptive to talking with you, ask politely what you can do to improve your application, be patient, remain professional, and thank them for their feedback.)
- Increase your odds. If you only applied to one, two, or three OT programs, you might not have gotten into because of the quantity, not the quality, of your applications. Even if you had the best application ever, the odds were simply not going to be in your favor when applying to so few programs. I know several people who only applied to one program and were accepted, but these cases are the exceptions, and not the rule. While I’m not advocating that you go out and apply to every other program in the country during the next cycle, I recommend that reflecting on why you only applied to so few programs and determine whether you are willing (and able) to apply to more. If there are financial, geographic, or other barriers preventing you from doing so, identify these issues and begin researching ways to overcome them, if possible.
- Use your time wisely. After a rejection, it can be difficult to find the motivation to re-enter the world of applications, essays, and observation hours. However, it is important to make the most of the time you now have to regroup and revise your application materials. Visit a few more programs, talk with more current students/faculty, talk to and observe more therapists, learn more about the profession, or even explore other professions. You can also use your time to explore more practice settings and interventions (ex. pediatric specialties, acute care, burns, inpatient rehab, neuro, ortho…the list goes on!) and use these experiences to strengthen your application. The way in which you spend your time in the months after getting waitlisted or rejected could become valuable material you can use during the next round to describe how you were able to use this extra time to understand more or dive deeper into the profession! Admissions reviewers may be impressed by your positivity and perseverance in the face of adversity.
- Don’t take it personally. Rejection sucks – everybody can agree on that. But not everybody agrees on what would make a great OT student for a particular program. The admissions committee might have had it narrowed down to you and one other virtually identical applicant, and had to make a decision based on something as small as one hundredth of a GPA point. Or they may have had several previous cohorts of mostly female/undergraduate/whatever students like you and hoped to diversify. That doesn’t mean that you didn’t have a fantastic GPA or that you weren’t “good enough” to get in. It just means that your application might not have made the cut for reasons that had nothing to do with you, and there’s nothing you can do about that.
- Evaluate your options and pick a path. Not getting accepted into an OT program after months (or years) of hard work and hundreds of dollars can be a crushing blow to your self-confidence, career commitment, and bank account. If you are in this difficult situation, you are at a crossroads that gives you an opportunity to reflect on your financial, professional, and personal goals and make an important decision about what you see for yourself moving forward. After taking some time to think and discussing it with trusted friends, family members, or even a career advisor you might decide that being an OT might not be the best move for you for personal, financial, or other reasons. Or you might be even more determined to become an OT/A and put in the legwork necessary to improve your application and achieve your dreams! Whatever you decide, make a plan and move forward with confidence that you can achieve your goals.
I hope this post has given you hope after you were rejected from your OT schools of choice! If you are determined to be an OT, don’t let anything stand in the way. Just do your best to focus on the positive, work on revising your applications, and continue pursuing your goals, and you will get where you are meant to be.
Note: I don’t pretend to know what goes on behind the doors during OT school admissions committee meetings. I’m sure that admissions staff take their jobs very seriously, and they do the best they can to review applicants fairly and make decisions they feel are best for their programs and for the profession’s future. If you have specific questions about your application, it is best to reach out to individual programs for information.
Gotta Get Into Grad School Series: I wrote a series about applying to OT school that has helpful advice for every step of the process. Once you’ve identified where your application was weakest, read one of my related posts to learn how to improve your chances for the next application cycle!
Student Doctor Network OT Forums: The SDN Forums can be a good place to go to chat with other people who have had this experience or those who have advice to give. These posts are specifically related to OT school rejections and how people handled it: