Occupational Therapy Professional Development Committee

10 Tips for Thriving in OT School

Hello and Welcome First Years! First off, congratulations on getting into the program! I’m sure for many of you this was probably the most exciting thing that happened to you all summer (if not in your life), so huge congratulations to all of you! We are super excited to have you in the program and hopefully can be of assistance throughout your first year. 

As you will experience, the first semester of the program can be overwhelming. This blog post is intended to provide you with some tips that us second years wish we had known when we started. Each of you will experience your first year differently, but there are some things that all of you will be subjected to (your first OSCE, or Objective Structured Clinical Examination, for example) that can take a toll on your stress levels. So, without further ado, here are some first year tips we hope you find helpful.

1. Stay away from the rumor mill
I know, it sounds silly right? You’re probably thinking, rumors are ‘so high school,’ but, you’re wrong. For some odd reason, the OT program attracts more rumors than most of us would like to admit. I guarantee, during your program, you will hear things like, “last year everyone failed this course” or “20 people dropped out of the program after this exam.” Ironically, NONE, I repeat, NONE of the rumors you hear will be true. In fact, they are almost always the opposite of the truth. Engaging in the rumor mill will not only cause your professors to become frustrated, but will also negatively impact the well-being of you and your classmates. So, please, if you hear a rumor, ignore it. If you have a question, ask it! I cannot emphasize how much happier you will be if you avoid participating in this form of gossip.

2. Stop worrying about grades
I think it took me a full year to accept this statement. After all, grades are the entry-ticket to graduate school and, for many of us, it is how we define our success. However, graduate school is different because, for most students, it is the end of their formal academic career. Those who do not choose to pursue further education, will never again be evaluated based on their grades. When applying for jobs, employers are not interested in GPA scores, but rather, the candidate’s knowledge and skills as an OT. So, instead of memorizing the course content to obtain a ‘good grade,’ focus on understanding the material. Information is not knowledge. This is especially true in the OT profession where you are required to apply your learnings to a number of different persons and contexts.

3. Be a colleague, not a competitor
Naturally, graduate school attracts driven, strong-willed, and competitive personalities and while these traits have their advantages, they can also be a barrier to relationship formation. As I mentioned, in grad school, grades no longer matter and you are not competing against your classmate for a place on the academic hierarchy. There is therefore no reason to ask people for their exam grade (unless they express a willingness to share), provide classmates with false information, or exclude others from your assignment group (yes, unfortunately, these things have happened). Rather than competing with your classmates, work with them to become a better student. The relationships you build in OT school will have a much more profound impact on your life than grades ever will.

4. Skip some of your readings
Now, I am not saying how often, how many, or which readings to skip. What I am trying to highlight is the importance of ‘reading smarter, not harder.’ Like many first year students, I initially attempted to complete all of the assigned and recommended readings for each class. Unsurprisingly, I was burned out by the end of the first month and had hardly retained any information. So, from that moment on, I began to prioritize my readings. I identified gaps in my knowledge and chose to read articles that would help to solidify course concepts that I had not yet grasped. To note, although this method was very beneficial for myself, prioritizing readings may look differently for someone else. My overall point is, students should approach the readings strategically to make the most of their time and efforts.

5. Take time to care for yourself
As [soon to be] OTs, we preach the importance of finding time in everyday day to do the things you love. Despite this, many of us fail to practice what we preach. Too often, the all-consuming nature of grad school leaves little ‘me time’ for students. Learning to carve out space in your life for yourself is therefore a difficult, yet, essential skill. Whether it is exercise, making use of student counselling services, or spending time at a coffee shop with friends, set aside some non-negotiable time every week to take care of your mental health. You’ll thank yourself for it later.

6. Be Flexible
Nobody enjoys a last minute change in plans. However, responding to change in a calm and positive manner is part of being a professional student. Because the OT faculty at U of A are continuously striving to improve the content of the program, unexpected changes do occur. While the faculty does their best to advise us of these changes in advance, unforeseeable circumstances can sometimes impede this process. As students, it is our job to remain respectful and willing to accommodate these changes. Responding in a negative manner will only increase stress and anxiety amongst yourself, colleagues, and professors. Learning to ‘go with the flow’ will benefit you long into your OT career.

7. Get organized
In my first semester of OT school, there were 30+ assignment due dates. I can’t tell you this number of assignments isn’t significant, but I can tell you it’s manageable. Unlike undergrad, where last-minute paper writing and studying was the norm, OT assignments and exam preparation take time…lots of time. In order to ensure you are able to successfully complete all assignments, it’s important to prioritize and divide your time accordingly. Strategies such as using an agenda, creating a ‘to-do list,’ and organizing those messy folders on your desktop are all effective organizational tools. Ultimately, staying organized will help to keep your stress levels at bay, while simultaneously increasing the amount of leisure time in your schedule.

8. Broaden your support system
Graduate school can be an isolating experience, especially for those living away from friends and family. It is important that students broaden their existing social support system to buffer the adverse feelings associated with grad school and moving away from home. Luckily, both the OT program and U of A campus are excellent resources for meeting new people and developing relationships. Yes, making new friends can be awkward, overwhelming, stressful, but those feelings are only temporary and short-lived negative emotions are a small price to pay for friendships that will last a lifetime.

9. Practice Gratitude
Graduate school is hard work and during the process it can become easy to forget that being an OT student is an immense privilege. The burden of debt, due dates, and exams tend to become students’ primary focus, which contributes to a cycle of negativity and personal dissatisfaction. Although it’s okay to feel stressed, it’s imperative that we, as students, take time within our busy schedules to be thankful for the opportunity to pursue a career that we’re passionate about. Spend less time worrying about unavoidable circumstances and, instead, strive to be a proud and grateful ‘OT student.’

10. Tell yourself: “I will graduate”
You will graduate and you will get a job. You have chosen an excellent program and a profession that is in high-demand. You made it into this program because you were a qualified student and you will leave this program as a qualified OT.

-Written by Karisa Teindl with contributions from Allwyn Merrit

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