Spring can be a stressful time for the college seniors as they start to think about what they’ll do upon graduation. Even more so for the thousands of international students studying at colleges and universities in the Northwest.
Options are limited. Only an elite few will find an American company willing to sponsor them for a skilled worker visa. The rest will have to go back to their home country within a couple months of graduation.
But there is a third option:
Optional Practical Training (OPT) is a permitted 12-month working period for undergraduate and graduate students on F-1 visas who have finished their degrees or have studied in the U.S. for more than nine months. During this year-long period, graduates are allowed to actually work and be paid (something that’s heavily restricted while they’re still studying)
OPT opportunities can sometimes lead to a H1B working visa and ultimately a green card — though the chances are slim. Either way, working in the U.S. for a year is still an invaluable experience that can open doors anywhere in the world.
If you are an international student planning to apply for OPT, here are 3 key tips to set yourself up for success:
Get an early start
Most students graduate in the spring. That means if you toss your cap in June, you’ll be facing a lot more competition for jobs, and OPT positions. Take some summer classes and see if you can graduate a quarter early. USCIS officers, advisors and employers are a lot less busy during winter, so your application will get processed a lot faster.
Also try to get an internship as soon as you can. Every job will be looking for U.S. work experience, but there’s no legal way for you to get it! But you’re allowed to do unpaid internships, and they’ll make your resume look so much better.
Apply the first day of your last quarter in school. Don’t wait around until you get a job. You can apply before you even start looking for your position, and up to 90 days before you finish school.
USCIS is receiving applications from across the nation, which means the process will take a long time — maybe three months or even longer. In some rare cases, the application might even get lost or hit some other snag. Therefore, applying early is key. You can read more about the application process here.
Choose your work start date wisely
You are allowed to choose your OPT start date. Bear in mind that with OPT status you can stay in the U.S. for 90 days while unemployed, and the 12-month work period begins on the start date you choose on your application. If you are going on a graduation trip or vacation, do not set the start date for the day you graduate. You need some time to find a job, so set it for the date you anticipate starting work.
Filing an OPT application is just the first step. Now you need to find a position. Here are a few things you can do during your last year in school to improve your chances:
Be honest with yourself
Let’s be realistic, employers like long-term employees with local knowledge and connections. U.S. laws that prohibit discrimination between job applicants don’t necessarily stop them from picking an American citizen over you for those reasons.
Connections are much more important than your grades. Get an internship, go to events, volunteer, meet professionals, throw yourself out there and don’t be afraid to ask them for help. There is nothing to lose when people don’t know you. If they think you’re cool, they will help you with their connections; if they think you’re a fool, they won’t remember you.
Bottom line: pass all of your classes and meet graduation requirements, but don’t let that stop you from getting out there and building connections. (P.S. this is not an excuse to party every day!)
Practice applying for jobs
Go to careerbuilder, craigslist and indeed. Look at all the job requirements and start applying for jobs right now! You have to wait until your EAD card arrives to start working, but you don’t need it to apply for jobs. It’s not illegal to start interviewing just for the experiences. Take every chance to polish your cover letter and resume, and be prepared when the chances come.
When it comes to actually landing that job that will allow you to complete your year of Optional Practical Training, there are some things you need to pay attention to. Here are a few tips to increase the odds of getting a job offer:
Did I say this already? Is there an echo in here? Applying early is key, especially when you don’t have a lot of experience.
Bianca Chan, an international student who graduated from the UW in fall of 2013, says she sent out over 100 applications until she got her first non-paid internship. But with the internships she had, she was able to get a job within two weeks after graduation.
Look for contract jobs
Once again, employers tend to like long-term employees — they usually don’t want to train someone who’s only going to leave after a year. But a job that’s on a year-long contract would be a perfect fit for you. There are a lot of contract job offerings from big companies like Microsoft.
What happens if you fall? Get back up! Ask any American and they’ll tell you how hard it is to get a job. As a foreigner, things could be ten times harder. It may take you 20 applications to get an interview, and another 20 interviews to get a job, but that’s okay. You already beat the odds to get to the U.S. to study. Be proud of what you have achieved and present your best to everyone that is watching.
Do you need help?:
Most of the H-1B employers and employees will hire a lawyer to assist with applications and ensure that they follow all the USCIS conditions and regulations. But OPT is a lot simpler and students normally do not need a lawyer. If you’re a UW student, advisors in International Student Services are there to help, and many other schools have similar services.