Home After School Getting a Feel for the Occupational Therapy Degree

Getting a Feel for the Occupational Therapy Degree

by Caley Coughlan
Getting a Feel for the Occupational Therapy Degree

Health Sciences cover a myriad of interesting fields. One of them is Occupational Therapy, also called OT. Caley, a 2015 UCT graduate, talks about her 4-year BSc in Occupational Therapy and gives you an idea of what to expect from studies in the Health Sciences.

In 2011 I matriculated at Crawford College, North Coast, in Durban. My high school subjects were English, Maths Core, IsiZulu, Life Orientation, Biology, Physical Science and Business Studies. I ended up achieving distinctions in 4 subjects – English, Biology, Business Studies, and LO.

I loved Biology, as I had a keen interest in the human body and the world around me. I also enjoyed my second language, IsiZulu, even though most pupils chose Afrikaans. Despite the challenge of grappling with this language throughout high school, I loved the culture and it gave me the opportunity to communicate authentically with people outside of my own culture.

Figuring out what to study

When I finished school, I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, let alone what to study. I knew that I enjoyed Biology and was good at basic business, but that was about the extent of my career planning. I was under some pressure from my parents to study a degree that would guarantee a job at the end of it and one in which I would be self-sufficient.

To help me figure out what I wanted, I did many aptitude tests. Some were more helpful than others. I went through a 5-hour aptitude test that did help guide me towards medical/health professions, for which Occupational Therapy showed up as a positive correlation.

I also job shadowed a few professions in Grade 11, including an Occupational Therapist, Dietician, Psychologist, and Speech Therapist. Personally, I found the OT to be the most interesting and a profession I could see myself doing for the rest of my life, as it was creative, ever-changing, and practical. It’s a profession with many fields (physical, mental, paediatrics, work related and community development).

And so the decision to study Occupational Therapy came about. Now I’ve completed my OT degree and couldn’t really see myself doing anything else.

The three decisive factors that helped me initially decide were:

  • Interest in the human body and the ability to help others around me
  • Versatility and the space to experiment and find a passion within each or one of the OT fields
  • Money to be self-sufficient when employed and not rely on others

What exactly is occupational therapy?

I’ve always found it difficult to give Occupational Therapy a set definition, as it differs with each client and their specific therapeutic needs. From my experience, put simply,

Occupational Therapy is a rehabilitation service focused on disabled individuals gaining meaning, independence and life satisfaction through doing.

‘Doing’ refers to active involvement in an activity or occupation and is the therapeutic medium for change. The doing should be specific to each patient, and should match what the individual finds meaningful, as well as what they want to achieve.

What does an occupational therapist do?

OT patients generally need therapy to help them overcome, manage or prevent disability. The term disability is quite broad too, and can vary between

  • Physical Disability (e.g. TBI-traumatic brain injury, CVA- Stroke, hand injuries, Cerebral Palsy, amputations, developmental delays, congenital abnormalities, burns, etc.)
  • Mental Disability (e.g. psychosis, dementia, mood disorders, personality disorders, intellectual disability, pervasive developmental disorders, etc.)

Here’s an occupational therapy example:

Take a 6-year old child with spastic cerebral palsy. As an occupational therapist, you would work towards decreasing tone/ loosening muscles and preventing deformities in order for the child to be as functional as possible in daily activities, for example eating independently. Now, what do kids find meaningful? Playing. So in the OT session, the therapist will find a way to incorporate specific movement patterns to help achieve goals whilst doing so through play.

Straight into varsity

Once I had made up my mind about what to study, I applied to varsity right away. There was no gap year for me, as my parents were against it and wouldn’t fund a gap year after school. They said I could go on as many gap years as I wanted after I got my degree.

I suppose continuing to study straight after Matric did help, because it was simple to get back into the study mode of university. I saw many of my class mates from school go on gap years ‘to find themselves’ which turned out disappointing. Don’t get me wrong, I think a gap year is great, but a purpose and a plan to achieve specific goals throughout that year should be made prior to taking one. Looking back, I don’t think a gap year would have been a good decision for me, as I didn’t know enough about myself or life and I hadn’t made any goals at that stage.


Health Science studies launched me into a very different student life than I had expected. Occupational Therapy takes a lot of work, thinking, analysing, planning and sacrifice. It was a lot more work that I initially thought it would be. However, without all that work and reflection, I wouldn’t be where and who I am today.

You need to be prepared for:

  • Group work. My final year thesis was even done in groups.
  • Presentations and practicals.
  • Working with cadavers.
  • Entering hospitals, mental institutions and rural communities, some with limited resources.
  • Pulling all-nighters.
  • Working with babies, adolescents, workers, mentally and physically disabled, elderly and marginalised communities of people.

I didn’t participate in part-time work during my four years of studying. When I had time off, I really just wanted to relax and have some sort of social life (occupational balance). I don’t think I could have handled a job on top of the work and requirements, but it is possible by all means. Many of my class members babysat, housesat, aupaired, or volunteered. Some even participated in weekend SHAWCO clinics – a UCT organisation.

OT will push all boundaries of comfort, but seeing the difference you make in these people’s lives makes all the effort worth every second. OT will teach you to think about life and people in a different light and will broaden your mind to take on the perspective of the people around you.

Working with my hands, my heart and my brain gives me a sense of meaning. OT has provided me the opportunity to work with my mind, body and soul in order to enable, enhance and empower others to live just and meaningful lives.

Using Resources

Using resources was extremely beneficial. I found Vula and the lecture slides to be most helpful when it came to studying for exams. Attending lectures is also very important, as practical learning is best done through doing and not looking at pictures or reading. Extra knowledge is also shared and you can get answers to specific questions when in lectures. I personally found the readers and lecture slides the most useful in terms of my own academic performance. Apart from Vula, lecture slides, and course readers I also watched relevant videos on YouTube, attended study groups, tutorials, and had many missions in the library to assist in my learning.

Personal study notes never really worked for me. I found writing notes to be a waste of time, as I preferred learning from the lecture slides itself. My close friends studied in very different ways using mind maps and drawings, but in the end I found the best way for me to absorb knowledge using the available resources, and I achieved two class medals at the end of my fourth year.

Reflecting on challenges

A big challenge for me was moving away from home in first year. Sadly I didn’t get accepted into a residence but managed to find a single bedroomed flat close to university. I don’t recommend this to future first years as it was hard to initially make friends and know what was going on in O-week at the beginning of the semester. I had no one to guide me or tell me any relevant news regarding varsity or social events.

Living by myself in first year was also a drastic change from home with all the hustle and bustle, and I think living with others, be it in res or a digs, is beneficial emotionally and socially for any first year. However, living by yourself in the latter part of your degree is beneficial too.

In terms of studies, my advice would be to pace yourself throughout this degree.

As they say,

‘Work hard and play hard,’

although this was a tough one to balance out in the beginning. Throughout my 4 years at uni I had many a time where I had little to no motivation to continue, but learnt that doing the assigned work days before the due date was a saviour. I (like the majority of students) often left work to the last day and stressed myself out completely, when it was not necessary. I know it’s tough to do work when there is no pressure to get it done, but my advice is to essentially

Just get it done.’

Do it as soon as possible, because it will save you a lot of sweat and tears.

My degree had many challenges, but I also met some of the best people and got to live in the most interesting and beautiful city: Cape Town. Without either of these, uni wouldn’t have been the same. I love seeing the difference in how studying OT has changed the way I think and act, and how I know I have an exciting future awaiting me.

Current endeavours – community service

Currently, I am working in Manguzi Hospital, KZN for my compulsory community service year, and I’m LOVING IT!

Everything has just come together so beautifully. I finally get to practice my IsiZulu again and am learning from a very experienced multidisciplinary team. I am living in the most beautiful rural town with so much to offer, and gaining confidence as a qualified Occupational Therapist.

I’m currently working in the malnutrition pediatric and MDR TB wards which will be swopped with male surgical and medical wards next semester. I attend 3 clinics a month which have varying diagnoses, as well as run groups and see individual out-patients daily.

Now I have realised how every prac, every lecture, every tut was so relevant and necessary to attend as it all comes out in the real world.

I am learning something new every day and have to constantly check back on varsity notes to see if I’m on the right track, so NB don’t burn or throw away anything after graduation!

It feels great to finally be in the real OT world without being marked on my critical thinking, assessment and treatments. I am guided by my supervisor and have learnt so much from my colleagues and patients thus far.

Occupational Therapy has given me opportunity to help others achieve their dreams and in doing so I’m living mine.

Admission Requirements for BSc in OT at the UCT

  • English (HL or FAL) min. 50%
  • Maths Core min. 50% or Maths Lit min. 60%
  • Physical Sciences or Life Sciences min. 50%
  • 3 other subjects with min. 50% (excluding LO)
  • APS of min. 340 points
  • Write the National Benchmark Test

EduConnect 2cents

Everyone expects to feel a sense of personal fulfillment on the day of graduation. However, if at the end of your degree you still kind of feel as if you don’t know enough, or as though you are waiting for that elusive ’AHA moment,’ that is normal. We tend to feel like we will never know enough, but what’s important is that we keep learning something new every day.

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