Over the past decade of recruiting and career coaching, I have enjoyed helping international students land internships and full-time opportunities in the US. I know moving to a new country is challenging, and finding an organization to call your new home after graduating can be even more challenging, especially as you compete with thousands of candidates who are not barred from requiring any type of sponsorship in the future.
But the good news is this: you can absolutely land a position in the US for the duration of your OPT-status and very well can set up yourself for H1-B sponsorship success.
In this article, I’ll break down:
- What is the F-1 Visa and what are your requirements on OPT status
- What are the main challenges for F-1 visa jobseekers
- How can you increase your odds of landing an OPT eligible opportunity
- Why it’s an advantage for employers to hire OPT students
You can continue reading along or watch the video below instead.
How to Land a Job in the United States on OPT Status
What is the F-1 Visa and what are your requirements on OPT status?
F-1 Visa Designation Meaning
F-1 Visa holders are student visa holders who are obtaining a degree in the US. These non-immigrant students are working towards a specific degree (e.g. BA, MA, PhD, MD) and some exchange programs.
The benefit of F-1 Visa holders is that they do not require any type of sponsorship as they are eligible to work in the US. Unfortunately, not many hiring managers and recruiters understand this as they are not employment law experts, so this is where job seekers have the most difficult time persuading employers to provide an interview.
F-1 Optional Practical Training (OPT) Designation Meaning
OPT is a type of F-1 work authorization that allows students to legally work for an organization without sponsorship. Here is what you need to know:
- No employer sponsorship is required.
- Students apply for OPT designation 90 days before graduating.
- When applying for OPT, you can decide your start date which can be up to 60 days after your anticipated graduation date.
- Students must be enrolled for one year in academic study before applying for OPT.
- OPT may be used before or after a student completes their degree.
- OPT acquired before degree completion is referred to as Pre-completion OPT.
- OPT acquired after degree completion is referred to as Post-completion OPT.
- Allows part-time and full-time work; students on Post-completion OPT are required to work at least 20 hours per week.
- Eligible students have a maximum of 12 months of OPT; students who have earned a degree in a STEM-designated field may be eligible for an additional 24 months under the OPT STEM Extension.
- Job offer is NOT required for application.
- Students must work in a job that is directly related to their degree program.
- Student must file for the application which is authorized by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and takes 3-4 months to be approved. USCIS does not expedite applications). THe OPT approval comes in the form of an Employment Authorization Document (EAD). This card will state the specific start and end dates for OPT.
What are the main challenges for F-1 visa jobseekers?
I want to go over some of the main challenges F-1 visa jobseekers encounter so you know how to prevent them.
Mistake #1: Waiting to job search until AFTER you receive your OPT status
As a career coach that has helped countless OPT status students, one of the things many have said to me is, “I have only (insert up to 90 days) left to find an offer! If I don’t secure an offer, I have to leave the country!”
These students usually wait until after they have received their approval letter (the one that takes 3-4 months) before they start their job search process.
I want to emphasize that it is important you job search while you are filling out your application (or even before!) as the average job search process in the US takes 5 months, according to recent studies.
By the time you create your personal brand materials, you start to build and form networking connections and relationships, you complete your first interview, second, and final interview, this process can very well be a few months. (P.S. – if you need help with all the stages of job searching, consider joining my signature job search program with unlimited support, Happily Hired Formula).
It is far better to get an offer before your approval letter arrives, because you can complete the background check, any drug testing, and negotiate your start date. Employers are often able to onboard you at a later date or budget your role for a future month if they are excited about your candidacy.
Mistake #2: Having typos, grammatical errors, and mistakes in your correspondences and materials.
As an OPT status jobseeker, your job search process will require a bit of effort and extra attention on your materials as you want to leave a positive first impression more than ever. Some employers will see hiring you as taking a greater chance knowing that you may need to be replaced when your visa ends. This means that you will have to present yourself as such an irresistible candidate that employers will be willing to undergo the extra effort required to secure you as an asset to their company. Note this is completely possible when you cater your materials and messages to your audience. Triple check everything you send out and if you have not yet already downloaded Grammarly, I highly recommend you do so.
Mistake #3: Not announcing ‘No sponsorship required’ at the top of your resume and on your LInkedIn profile
I mentioned earlier that most hiring managers, HR professionals, and recruiters are not employment attorneys and are actually unfamiliar with what the F-1/OPT requirements are. Many will assume you require sponsorship and simply pass on your application as they conclude you are unauthorized or ineligible to work.
You can combat this by spelling it very clearly at the top of your personal branding materials “No sponsorship required.”
How you can increase your odds of landing an opportunity on OPT
Strategy #1: Educate your employer
Fun fact: I recruited for 6 years for Fortune 500 organizations all the way to tech startups. It wasn’t until my 6th year of recruiting that I learned what OPT/F-1 visa status is. Jobseekers would be surprised at the limited knowledge we learn about various visa requirements. For this reason, it’s very important that as a job seeker, you learn how to educate yourself and your employers during interviews when they ask, “What is your current work authorization status?”
A response you can share is this:
“I’m approved and eligible to work in the US without requiring sponsorship. Currently, I’m on an F-1 OPT approval which means all I will need from you as an employer is an employment verification letter which I can provide an easy-to-fill template if it helps. Once this is filed, I am eligible to work until Month Year and am fully aware after this time there is no guarantee of sponsorship. My number one priority is to join so I can contribute my and help for the next [#] months. If there’s a mutual interest, please let me know if I can offer any additional information to make this hiring decision an easy one.”
You can see this message allows you to politely share your status, but also elaborate on why that is a win-win situation for the organization. I highly recommend coming up with your own script and practicing it until it feels very comfortable for you to explain and share during your interviews.
Strategy #2: Target companies familiar with H1-B Visa Sponsorships
There are companies out there that are known to provide H1-B sponsorships. While the H1-B is a lottery, there’s actually a database of companies that have historically been successful in hiring immigrants. Putting these companies on your target list is a great strategy if you are hoping for H1-B visa sponsorship in the future. But also, their HR/recruiting teams are likely familiar with hiring various employees with different visa designations and thus may not be as confused by your F-1 visa status.
If you’re ultimately looking to stay in the US, your best strategy is to get your foot in the door of these companies. Tony Le, Head of Global Talent Acquisition at Contentful says, “Luckily the new H-1B ban doesn’t affect F-1 Visa holders but with so many applicants every year, H-1B becomes a lottery and often F-1 OPT trying to apply for a new H-1B have to try at least twice to try to get a chance. The challenging part is getting the timing right as their status only gives them a finite amount of time to work on their OPT.”
This being said, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is for you to continuously network with your dream companies, even if there isn’t a job posting available. If you need help with just networking, check out the Ultimate Networking Playbook if this is a targeted area of your job search you need support around.
Why it’s advantageous for employers to hire OPT students
In closing, I also want to share a perspective of why it’s actually a value add to hire F-1 visa / OPT status jobseekers like you.
I have guided enough job seekers to know there are some common fears that come up particularly around language and cultural gaps. Many of the job seekers I’ve worked with feared that they weren’t great communicators because English was not their native language. Yet I want to give you the perspective that these same job seekers landed amazing job opportunities at top companies like Tesla, Facebook, KPMG, and Blizzard!
What you bring to the table is a unique perspective and new ideas. Companies value diversity because the benefits allow the companies to perform better as a whole. Take heart in this and focus on the tremendous skills, experience, personality, and work ethic you know you’ll bring to the table when given an opportunity.
Le mentions as a Head of Global Talent Acquisition, he recommends any jobseeker to showcase your energy, passion and excitement on why you ultimately landed on this path. He emphasizes “Showcase as much prior experience, internship, project work and examples of your ability (code, portfolio, etc.) that sets you apart from other candidates. Find a company that understands immigration law (usually larger corporations with immigrant leaders) because every year matters trying to work towards your H-1B.” There are many companies out there that are very immigration friendly.
If you’re needing holistic guidance and support in your job search, be sure to check out the Happily Hired Formula here.