Career Tips for International Students

CPT and OPT (Do’s & Don’ts)

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When should I apply for the OPT? What should be the start date? I’m not sure if I can get a job within that 90-day allowance timeline, what should I do? What are the common errors that lead to OPT denial? What should I watch out for?

At this time, many international students are now preparing for a summer internship or a full-time position after graduation. As CPT and OPT filing could be so confusing and chaotic, international students should be well-informed about things that they should and shouldn’t do when it comes to CPT and OPT.

We want to help you avoid making common mistakes and be able to prepare for this in a more strategic way. Coach Kwan has invited Dr. Michael Elliott, the Director of the International Student and Scholar Services at the University at Albany, State of New York, to share with us some common mistakes that students normally make during their CPT and OPT applications.

Episode Transcript:

[00:00:00] Coach Kwan: Welcome everyone to our special podcast, Meet the Mentor. This podcast is designed to help international students in the U.S. with their career search. My name’s Kwan Segal, I am the CEO and founder of International Career Advisory, or ICAway. We are an empowering community for international students. And we provide different coaching programs to support international students at different stages of their career search in the U S in this meet the mentor podcast, I will be speaking with a US professional who I truly admire their career search journey.

[00:00:38] Coach Kwan: Most importantly, they are compassionate leaders who want to help younger generation become professionally successful. My guest mentor today is Dr. Michael Elliott, the Director of International Student and Scholar Services at the University at Albany, State of New York. He is also the co author of the book called [00:01:00] From Departing to Achieving, Keys to Success for International Students in the U.S. Colleges and Universities. At ICAway, we are very fortunate to receive Mike’s support in the past years as our advisory board member. Mike has brought 25 years of experience in the field of international education. And today, Mike will be sitting with me to discuss some common mistakes that international students normally make when it comes to applying for CPT, Curricula Practical Training, and OPT, Optional Practical Training, which are the work authorizations for F1 students.

[00:01:41] Coach Kwan: Talking about some of your journey. To get to this point where you serve international students population and become the leader of the large public university.

[00:01:56] Dr. Michael Elliott: Sure. Well, I think like a lot of other [00:02:00] professionals in our field, a study abroad experience is very interesting. Influencing and the direction people go in terms of their careers.

[00:02:13] Dr. Michael Elliott: So I studied abroad my junior year in my undergrad college, University of Colorado in Boulder. And went to Germany for a term and decided that after I graduated, I just had to get abroad again and do some kind of work. That’s it. Probably in my field, so I did some research and ended up deciding that the Peace Corps would be the best option for me.

[00:02:43] Dr. Michael Elliott: So I went to Kenya and taught physics and biology to high school students and really enjoyed it. And I think the interaction with students and supporting them in their student success was the, I think, the biggest [00:03:00] impact. That I made as well as students made on me, and I decided really to redirect myself out of the science field and into international education.

[00:03:12] Dr. Michael Elliott: So from there, I did my master’s In Ohio and my Ph.D. in North Carolina, both of which helped build my skills and experience within the field of international education. And so I’ve been in international ed for more than 25 years. And really, the majority of that is working with international students and scholars.

[00:03:38] Coach Kwan: So from the past 25 years, all the international students that you’ve got a chance to work with, how many of them so far?

[00:03:47] Dr. Michael Elliott: Oh, I’ve worked at three, I’ve worked at three main major institutions. And at each institution, there was at least 500 international students. And at my [00:04:00] current institution, we work With enrolled and graduated students on OPT at about the rate of, um, about 2000 international students.

[00:04:13] Dr. Michael Elliott: So, okay. Yeah, I’ve, I’ve probably impacted in different ways and, come across and interacted with several thousand international students.

[00:04:25] Coach Kwan: I’m, so sure that you have seen all you know the success stories and also some common mistakes that many international students normally make when it comes to CPT and OPT. What are some common mistakes that you have seen in the past?

[00:04:42] Dr. Michael Elliott: Well first, when you review Research out there surveys and questionnaires on why international students study in the U.S. One of the major reasons that respondents say is that to boost or [00:05:00] improve their career. Opportunities. So when you think about career OPT and CPT are excellent ways as benefits for F one students to start to gain that experience.

[00:05:15] Dr. Michael Elliott: And so 11 of the things that we encourage students as soon as they arrive on the campus is to begin planning for a CPT experience because CPT is an excellent stepping stone. Curricular practical training while students are enrolled. Great stepping stone to OPT opportunities after they graduate.

[00:05:46] Dr. Michael Elliott: So one of the, I think the. Mistakes that students might make is waiting too long or not taking advantage of the CPT opportunity, even if it’s not [00:06:00] required within their major to do an internship, they should work to try and incorporate a. a non required And even a non credit based internship into their academic tenure

[00:06:19] Coach Kwan: Right because not all majors offer CPT, correct

[00:06:25] Dr. Michael Elliott: Well, not all majors require an internship But many majors have internships as an option.

[00:06:33] Dr. Michael Elliott: So because our institution requires students to have some kind of credit. Bearing experience, they could just do an independent study if they get support from their academic advisor at our institution to do some type of internship or paid work or even non paid work. CPT is required. For non paid work [00:07:00] as well, volunteer experiences in the field, they they can do an independent study, one credit, and be able to, you know, get out into the working world and start building some experience.

[00:07:14] Coach Kwan: That’s so true, because actually when it comes to experience, it does not need to be all the paid job, right? Student can gain that through so many channels. And you recommend that even though the major does not have any credit requirement for CPT, they can also talk to the advisors to gain that independent studies.

[00:07:40] Coach Kwan: so much.

[00:07:41] Dr. Michael Elliott: Right. Academic advisors are typically the ones who have to support the student and supervise the student during this experience. Because if it’s for credit, it’s usually a graded kind of academic experience

[00:07:57] Coach Kwan: if they want to work outside campus, [00:08:00] let’s

[00:08:00] Dr. Michael Elliott: say like

[00:08:01] Coach Kwan: for profit organization, then they will, they will require that CPT.

[00:08:07] Dr. Michael Elliott: That’s right.

[00:08:09] Coach Kwan: Excellent. And what about when it comes to OPT, what are some common mistakes that students normally make from your experience?

[00:08:19] Dr. Michael Elliott: Well, for OPT, I think and in contrast to CPT, where The ISSS office processes and approves the CPT for OPT, the government actually adjudicates those applications.

[00:08:35] Dr. Michael Elliott: So it can take three to four months, sometimes more for the processing to happen. So planning early is, is always highly encouraged when applying for OPT. Some students, they wait. Well, they’re stressed. They’re very busy with their academic courses in their final semester, and they don’t may not get around to [00:09:00] getting this application in early.

[00:09:01] Dr. Michael Elliott: And if they don’t get it in early enough, they may actually lose some of their time of the one year, twelve months benefit, so definitely starting early in the application. They can apply as early as 90 days in advance of the end of term, the end of the semester.

[00:09:23] Coach Kwan: Completion or 60 days after, but always recommend them to do that before.

[00:09:29] Dr. Michael Elliott: Right, right. They can do it up to 60 days after, but they’re going to probably lose some of their 12 month time.

[00:09:36] Coach Kwan: Yes. That comes to another question. Can you please describe again the end date of the OPT?

[00:09:45] Dr. Michael Elliott: So in our office, we use a graphic. It’s a timeline that helps students to understand the different due dates and requirements around [00:10:00] starting and ending OPT.

[00:10:02] Dr. Michael Elliott: So You can apply for OPT, as we mentioned, 90 days in advance to graduating and 60 days after, but you have to start your OPT, or OPT, the authorization card, will begin sometime in that 60 day window after graduating, so that within 14 months of graduation, OPT has to be completed and it’s a 12 month long opportunity.

[00:10:38] Coach Kwan: Right, right. So it comes to a myth. Some students, they believe that they should apply for the OPT as late as possible. In order to have more time to look for jobs because they are afraid of that 90 day unemployment timeline.

[00:10:56] Dr. Michael Elliott: That’s a good point. And sometimes [00:11:00] there are good reasons to delay applying for OPT.

[00:11:04] Dr. Michael Elliott: For example, if you’re a PhD student and you haven’t quite gotten your defense date selected You may decide, and on our campus, a PhD student doing a dissertation can use their end date as their defense approval date or the end of that same term. So, because they can choose between the two They may decide that they need to apply a little bit later, or a student who thinks they may fail a course, a required course, and have to retake it.

[00:11:39] Dr. Michael Elliott: Sometimes they may wait a while to determine whether they’re going to do well in that course or not. And so we used to advise like that, but we’re advising less and less with those options because of the higher delays and even denial rates with OPT within the last [00:12:00] four years approximately. So we’re really telling all students, you should know when you’re going to graduate.

[00:12:10] Dr. Michael Elliott: If you don’t know that you’re going to graduate, don’t apply. Just wait. Otherwise, if you know you’re graduating, apply 90 days in advance. Take advantage of that full 90 days.

[00:12:23] Coach Kwan: That’s a great advice. So just the only reason that you can delay the OPT application is when you’re not sure if you are going to complete your program.

[00:12:35] Dr. Michael Elliott: Right, and if it turns out you’re not going to complete the program or you have to retake a failed course, it’s better that you did not apply, that you actually waited and apply for the next semester.

[00:12:51] Coach Kwan: That’s great. But then if you are so sure that you will definitely finish your program, but then you want to have more [00:13:00] time looking for jobs.

[00:13:01] Coach Kwan: Do you recommend that they start the application early, but then they put the date, the start date in the application close to that 60 day time frame after

[00:13:13] Dr. Michael Elliott: graduation? That’s right. So what we. Advise students and of course, this is a single institution and we may advise a little bit differently than other institutions might advise, right?

[00:13:27] Dr. Michael Elliott: Because all ISS offices have some room for interpretations and differing Yeah, Sarah. Processes. So what we would advise students is if you have not found a job or you have not had time to even start looking for a job because you’re so busy finishing your thesis, for example, then choose a start date.

[00:13:51] Dr. Michael Elliott: That is later. Into the 60 day time frame. So if you’re graduating on May 15th, maybe [00:14:00] choose July 5th as your start date that gives you more time to get your job search underway and to hopefully land something in your field. But if you don’t find that job, then you do have the option of volunteering in your field.

[00:14:25] Dr. Michael Elliott: At least 20 hours a week and that is always an option we give to students It’s better to have a backup plan because you don’t want to build up too much unemployment Right.

[00:14:37] Coach Kwan: No, not at all. So they can do a volunteer job, get an unpaid internship at least 20 hours a week to fulfill that requirement and stop the clock.

[00:14:49] Dr. Michael Elliott: Yeah. And sometimes students are thinking volunteer. What could I do in my field that’s volunteer? Well, sometimes we suggest working with one of their academic advisors or [00:15:00] professors and doing research in their field because many professors They Much appreciate having a research assistant to help them on their research.

[00:15:11] Dr. Michael Elliott: So that’s a possibility. There are a lot of nonprofit organizations out there that depend on volunteers to do much of their work. So if you’re an accounting student, or you’re a communication student, or, or Even even a biology student, biology major, you might find a non profit organization that needs your expertise and your skills in that field for, for non pay.

[00:15:44] Dr. Michael Elliott: And that could be, you know, a backup plan in case you don’t find the job paid job right away.

[00:15:51] Coach Kwan: Excellent advice. And actually, when you get a chance to get into the door and just volunteer your time and expertise, sometimes when [00:16:00] they really like you, they also want to employ you. And that can come out from the volunteering

[00:16:06] Dr. Michael Elliott: experience.

[00:16:07] Dr. Michael Elliott: Right. Or you’ve at least gained some experience that will help you on your resume as you’re looking for this particular full time job.

[00:16:19] Coach Kwan: Excellent. That’s so true. Filling that gap of unemployment gap and have more experience in the resume.

[00:16:27] Dr. Michael Elliott: That’s right.

[00:16:28] Coach Kwan: That’s so great. And you mentioned a little bit about the past four years that it has been tough and the denial rate of OPT has been increasing.

[00:16:38] Coach Kwan: Can you please give us some, you know some examples of the cases that got denial?

[00:16:44] Dr. Michael Elliott: Well, the denial rates have increased slightly, but it’s mostly the delays that have increased. Right. More and cause a very [00:17:00] stressful situations for students. So delays might be the fact that the student submits the application.

[00:17:12] Dr. Michael Elliott: The application is being processed, and two months later, the student receives a RFE or RFI. That’s Request for Further Evidence or Request for Further Information. And the government, USCIS, who is processing the application, wants to have you know, towards, Additional documentation or they want to, you know, have some further proof that that the students met a requirement before they move further on their adjudicating of the application.

[00:17:48] Dr. Michael Elliott: And that can again cause a delay of a couple months or more.

[00:17:54] Coach Kwan: So, all students need to have that into consideration into that timeline [00:18:00] when they apply for the OPT. There could be possible delays at any point.

[00:18:05] Dr. Michael Elliott: Exactly, not only the timeline, but making sure the applications done correctly. The 1st time

[00:18:11] Coach Kwan: advice.

[00:18:12] Dr. Michael Elliott: Yeah. Yeah.

[00:18:12] Coach Kwan: And what are the things that student normally skip or missed to send it out to the U.S. C. I. S. and normally get the RFP about?

[00:18:22] Dr. Michael Elliott: Well, 1 of the. Biggest well one of the more common mistakes and it’s not really that common, but when it happens, it’s it’s detrimental because The student is issued an i 20 Once they meet the requirement for opt the iss office issues them an i 20 and our University the students mail their own application to uscis They have to mail that application and have it received within 30 days of the signature date on the I 20.[00:19:00]

[00:19:00] Dr. Michael Elliott: We’ve had some students that have waited and it’s not received within the 30 day period. And at that point, They are no longer eligible for O. P. T. So you can imagine that that can make a huge adverse impact on a student’s life. If they’re not no longer able to, or they’re no longer eligible for O. P. T.

[00:19:28] Coach Kwan: Exactly. So get your application.

[00:19:31] Dr. Michael Elliott: What’s that?

[00:19:32] Coach Kwan: They wasted the money on that application too. Yeah. So the future is.

[00:19:38] Dr. Michael Elliott: Yeah, and their future is, you know you know,

[00:19:42] Coach Kwan: right as we can come back to that the beginning that you mentioned from the survey, majority of the students said that they want to come here to study abroad because they want to have a career development opportunity.

[00:19:57] Coach Kwan: But then if just because that I I [00:20:00] 20 is not complete, then they miss. That chance, so it’s very unfortunate. What could be the ways to prevent this errors? Do you recommend that, you know, have a clear understanding when to the workshop?

[00:20:16] Dr. Michael Elliott: Well, that’s a good suggestion. Our university, we require the student to attend a workshop.

[00:20:23] Dr. Michael Elliott: Before they can apply for OPT, and if they can’t attend a workshop, they have to view the PowerPoint with a voiceover that one of our staff members does so that they, they do understand and are responsible for knowing those important requirements.

[00:20:42] Coach Kwan: Excellent. And do, do they have, okay, please go ahead, Mike.

[00:20:47] Dr. Michael Elliott: And some other common mistakes might be if they’re handwriting their application and their name, for example, is not legible enough, the [00:21:00] adjudicator could make a mistake and misspell their name or if the date is written Hmm Incorrectly. Sometimes students will be thinking about putting the day before the month, where in the U.S. You put the month before the day. And if they, you know, if they invert that, that could cause an EAD card to be printed incorrectly. And if it’s printed incorrectly, you’re supposed to send it back for a correction. And those corrections can take weeks. Right. And sometimes months, so you want to try to avoid those, those issues.

[00:21:40] Coach Kwan: Right. It took me a little bit time to adjust that months and dates thing to Mike. Cause it’s only in the U.S. Here that you use, but now I’m better, much better now. Okay. Great. We got lots of great advice from you today. [00:22:00] Recently, like all the winter graduate, they asked me what should be the start date of my OPT and then we got that question answered, right?

[00:22:08] Coach Kwan: We, we said that if it depends on that prediction, first of all, need to apply as Early as possible, but then you can put the date later on in that 60 day time frame, some students even surprised me so much when they thought that OPT will automatically start when they graduate. They didn’t know that they have to apply for OPT.

[00:22:34] Coach Kwan: Okay, I think we got lots of great ideas here. Is there anything else that you would like to say to international students who are reading this article or listening to you right now?

[00:22:45] Dr. Michael Elliott: Well, I think a couple of things. One is if you’re at a university or college that You know when you go to their website, they may not have as much information Make sure you visit an advisor and talk about your own [00:23:00] vision and goals And what benefits there are for you to reach?

[00:23:05] Dr. Michael Elliott: those goals Mention OPT , mention CPT and get the conversation started. Don’t wait necessarily to receive information about it

[00:23:17] Coach Kwan: Great advice

[00:23:19] Dr. Michael Elliott: And then the second thing is just stay positive and focused on the job search. I know that’s one of the most stressful transitions, sometimes even more stressful than the incoming transition for students.

[00:23:32] Dr. Michael Elliott: I had a student, for example, this last semester, she graduated in the in the spring, actually. And she was a master’s in computer science student and she did the thesis options. So she was very busy trying to get her final project to work the way she wanted to for her thesis. And [00:24:00] didn’t have a lot of time to apply for jobs.

[00:24:02] Dr. Michael Elliott: So she got her thesis done and then started hitting the ground and sending out a lot of applications. , she got kind of discouraged. She would come in and visit me and I would say keep your, keep your energy and attitude optimal levels. Just keep applying. You’re gonna get some more interviews and sometimes it just takes a little bit more effort and Right.

[00:24:29] Dr. Michael Elliott: Right. And, and a couple of months later, she came to visit me probably three months. And she said, Mike, I was offered like three different, I was given three different offers in the same week, and they were very competitive offers. And she ended up choosing the one that took her to Silicon Valley in California at the highest pay rate.

[00:24:55] Dr. Michael Elliott: And she was just so excited, but. It kept [00:25:00] it required her to keep that energy level high and treat her job search like a full time job in itself. Right? Right. Yeah,

[00:25:11] Coach Kwan: so true, Mike. Job searching is not an easy task for anyone, even a domestic student, right? Or even a US citizen and for international students, you have to go through lots of hurdles like immigration questions, screening questions.

[00:25:29] Coach Kwan: Not all employers would like you to pass to the next job interview opportunity just because you require work sponsorship in the future. And that’s right, but you need to keep forward moving forward and that situation, just like your student, three different offers three months later.

[00:25:50] Dr. Michael Elliott: Yeah,

[00:25:51] Coach Kwan: excellent.

[00:25:52] Coach Kwan: Excellent. And this is the same situation that many students that I have coached experience as well. Have a winner’s attitude. [00:26:00]

[00:26:00] Dr. Michael Elliott: That’s right.

[00:26:02] Coach Kwan: Wow, this is amazing. Thank you again, Mike, for your time.

[00:26:07] Coach Kwan: I’m sure that students that listening to you right now they’ve learned a lot from you today.

[00:26:12] Dr. Michael Elliott: Excellent. Well, I wish them the best of luck and I think the the outcomes that you receive are a direct correlation to the input that you give.

[00:26:26] Coach Kwan: Excellent. Thank you for tuning in to our podcast. Make sure to visit our website,, and let us know if you have any questions about this, or what else you’d like to hear in the next episode. If you found this helpful, please tell your international student friends about this, as we all need to help each other.

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