How To Become an Occupational Therapist: 4 Steps You Must Take Get Your License

Looking to join a growing career by becoming a licensed occupational therapist (OT)? We thought it would be helpful for you if we could break down the exact steps you need to take in order to do that and what you can expect for one. 


We reached out for advice from licensed OT, Sarah Tucker, who’s the OTA Program Director for Brown Mackie College in Birmingham, AL and a board member of her state licensing board. She said “the first step is to get in your higher education and graduate from an accredited OT school.” Next she goes on to say is, “you’ll have to take the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT). Upon passing the NBCOT, you’ll need to apply for licensure within your state.” To get a better understanding of each step, we broke down each one into more detail below.

Step 1: Earn a Associate’s or Bachelor’s Degree

Earning an associate’s degree is the first step toward becoming a successful occupational therapy assistant (OTA). There are about 175 accredited programs approved by the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) for an associate degree. You only need to earn an associate’s degree if you plan on remaining an occupational therapy assistant. If you plan on continuing your education, you will need to attend accredited programs throughout your educational career in order to become licensed. To earn an associate’s degree, one must complete a two-year program at a community college or technical school. Students who focus on health and biology in high school, and who volunteer in various OT settings such as hospitals settings or rehabilitation facilities, often have a better chance of getting into an OTA program.  See our complete list of all Occupational Therapy Assistant Schools. If you do not plan on continuing your education to become an occupational therapist, and prefer to remain an occupational therapist assistant, you may apply to take the NBCOT exam (see Step 3).

After earning an associate’s degree and becoming an occupational therapy assistant, you must enter a bachelor’s degree or combined bachelor/master’s degree program. Depending on the requirements of your graduate school and licensing board, you may need to earn a bachelor’s degree in a particular area. For example, some graduate schools require you to earn a degree in biology, while others may require occupational therapy. However, a bachelor’s degree in a field such as in psychology, sociology, or liberal arts is also commonly accepted. While earning your bachelor’s degree it’s important you know which prerequisite courses you need to complete in order to get into a master’s program. You should also do volunteer work, which helps to prepare you for the job, and is also valuable when applying to master programs.

Step 2: Earn a Master’s Degree

In the past most states only required you to obtain a bachelor’s degree to become a licensed OT, but in 2007 all states (except Colorado) began requiring a master’s degree. As of 2013, Colorado is still in the process of developing regulations to require licensure. However, because Colorado is a deregulated state through former Governor Dick Lamm, chances are Registration, not licensure, will be all that is required for a long time to come. Also note that Colorado does not require occupational therapy assistants to register with the state at this time.

A master’s degree must be earned from an accredited university or college. Once they have earned a master’s degree, students may either apply for licensure or continue their education by pursuing a doctoral degree. As of now, no states or territories require a doctoral degree to practice.

Master’s programs typically include classroom work combined with field work. Field work is usually performed in hospitals, private homes, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, and clinics, under the direct supervision of an occupational therapist. Students are encouraged to perform their field work in various settings throughout their two-year master’s program to help them decide where they fit best in the field. See our complete list of Occupational Therapy Schools

Step 3: Pass the NBCOT exam

Taking and passing the National Board for Certification of Occupational Therapy exam is a necessary step toward becoming a licensed occupational therapist. Once you have passed this exam, you may apply for licensure in your state. If you fail the exam, you must wait forty-five days to retake it. The cost to take the test is $540 for the paper application and $500 for the online application. Some states require a score report (which costs an additional $40) or confirmation notice ($45 per notice), so make sure you check with your state licensing board to ensure that you meet all requirements when applying for licensure.

Step 4: Apply for Licensure

Applying for licensure will vary state to state. Most states require an application fee, the submission of all official transcripts, a background check, and the submission of NBCOT results. Many times there is a waiting period between the time you submit a completed application with all requirements met until you receive your license and are able to practice. See our complete list of all OT Licensing Boards in the United States

Most states require a licensed occupational therapist to continue their education in order to maintain their licensure. The number of continuing education units (CEUs) one needs varies from state to state. Alabama requires fifteen continuing education hours, while Iowa requires thirty. Colorado, Michigan, and the District of Columbia do not require continuing education. It’s also important to renew your license on time. Late renewals may result in a penalty fee or delayed renewal. See our Chart of Licensing Requirements for each State to determine how many continuing education hours you need, how much the application costs, where to send your application, and who the contact person for the state board is.

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