How to Shadow an OT and stand out

How to shadow an Occupational Therapist and stand out from your classmates?

Why is it so important to shadow an Occupational Therapist? Shadowing an OT and having observation hours is required for OT school, but more importantly, it’s an experience that helps you understand if OT is the right career for you.

I would suggest to choose at least 3 or more fields to shadow as it will help you understand the profession better and help you stand out more during your OT school interview.

OT School Coach for students and new grads

What fields can you explore in occupational therapy?

Occupational Therapists work in many different fields. Some are traditional and some are non-traditional. Below are a few fields you might consider.

Traditional OT setttings

  • Acute Rehab
  • Skilled Nursing Facility
  • Acute care (Hospital)
  • NICU (More difficulty to shadow)
  • Pediatrics
  • Outpatient Hand Therapy
  • Outpatient pediatrics

Non Traditional OT settings

  • Driver rehab
  • Low vision
  • Ergonomics
  • Mental health
  • Refugee Resettlement
  • Graduate Professor

If you’re interested in OT, I would first recommend you shadow OTs who work in traditional settings. Next, try to shadow at least one or two non-traditional settings.

The more settings you observe the more you will stand out.

When I interviewed for OT school they didn’t care that I observed at a rehab facility, but when I told them I spent time shadowing an OT in mental health I was able to catch their attention.

It’s important to cover the basic OT settings by job shadowing in rehab or pediatrics, but if you want to stand out, spend time shadowing in non-traditional settings.

How to shadow an Occupational Therapist?

How to Shadow an Occupational Therapist

After you choose a field, call or email the business. Usually you want to ask for the director of rehab if your calling a hospital, skilled nursing facility, or rehab.

If you’re interested in outpatient or pediatric OT, you’ll want to talk to the manager, or you can simply explain that you’re a student and would be interested in shadowing a therapist.

What to wear

Typically you should wear business casual clothing. In a hospital or outpatient clinic, it’s usually okay to wear casual shoes.

Continue reading, for more details.

Volunteer to shadow an OT

Another way you can shadow an OT is by volunteering. Some hospitals won’t allow students to shadow because of HIPPA policies.

My first experience job shadowing an OT was at a hospital that had strict policies. They wouldn’t really allow me to interact with the patients and had me sit in a chair to observe in the rehab gym.

I would avoid these type of facilities, because they don’t really give you the full picture of what an OT does. Most hospitals I’ve worked at have allowed me to take my students into patient rooms and watch a full treatment session.

I’ve even been able to take students with me to the intensive care units.

How to observe an OT

Research the field you’re shadowing before arriving and ask lots of questions. If this could be your future career you will want to know as much as you can.

Questions to ask:

  • What types of patients do you see?
  • How many patients do you see per day and how long is each session?
  • Do have to work weekends?
  • Do you like working as an OT?
  • How did you choose your job?

What to avoid

Mostly just watch, listen and ask questions. You don’t want to ask the patient personal questions or discuss their diagnosis. Also do not assist the therapist with lifting or positioning the patient for liability reasons.

Remember as an observer you are only there to observe and learn about the interventions and environment.

The best way to shadow an OT, stand out, and get paid

If you want to get paid to shadow an OT you can be a therapy technician or aide. Honestly this is the best secret for preparing for OT school because therapy techs spend all day with therapists and learn so much than they would shadowing.

Therapy techs usually work in hospitals, rehab facilities or outpatient clinics. These jobs can be great especially in hospital settings where you will have better pay and benefits. 

If you work as a therapy tech at an outpatient hand therapy clinic you will be doing a lot more work, but also learning a more than any other shadowing experience. 

Outpatient or rehab therapy techs usually setup equipment for patients. They may also assist with scheduling and may help with billing. 

This type of experience will help you stand out from your peers because you will have a better understanding of the field. You will also have more experience from working all those hours.

As a observer or volunteer you’re more of a guest watching how OTs do their job. As a therapy tech you’re a colleague and more likely to learn what OT entails.

You’re also likely to get a letter of recommendation from the therapists you work with. And it’s usually much better than the letter of recommendation you would have received for job shadowing 10-16 hours.

I wished I had worked as a therapy tech before OT school, because they get to see a much clearer picture of what OT is all about. And you get paid!

What should I wear when I job shadow/volunteer?

If you’re looking to job shadow or volunteer you’ll want to dress according to your setting.

I recently wrote an entire post that goes into greater detail here.

If you’re just observing, plan on business casual, but in most rehabs or hospitals you can wear scrubs. I recommend FIGs (expensive) or Cherokee scrubs (Budget) for both men and women.

You’ll feel most comfortable wearing something similar to the person you’re observing. If the rehab or OT practice has a website, see if they have a rehab department photo to see what they’re wearing.

Other ways to get OT hours

AOTA recently wrote a post on 32 creative ways to gain OT experience. This is a valuable resource if you’re preparing for OT school and looking to build your resume.

Some of the best ideas from this article include

  • Work at a camp for people with disabilities
  • Become a member of a health advocacy group in your area
  • Volunteer at a special education classroom
  • Take a course on OT
  • Volunteer in the special Olympics or local events that include people with disabilities.

How to ask about OT salary

Salary is always a touch subject, and it may be intimidating to ask your mentor about OT salary, but a simple way to ask is in an email, so they can feel better prepared on how to respond.

The easiest way to find out how much OTs make in your area is to make contact with them. You can setup up a coaching call with me, and I’d be happy to talk to your more about OT or OTA salary.

Find OTs on social media like instagram or facebook or call up an OTA in your local acute rehab facility and ask for 2 minutes of the time to discuss what it’s like working as an OTA.


Job shadowing can be fun and also boring, but if you’re going to do this for the rest of your life and spend thousands of dollars on a degree, I would get all the experience possible.

I hope this was helpful. For more helpful tips on becoming an OT, check out my course and if you need an OT coach check out my other page here.

Don’t forget to log those hours!

Learn more why I became an OT here.