Pim’s Story: Applying and Awaiting for my OPT
Updated: Oct 16
Optical Practical Training (OPT) is a post-graduation period during which students are allowed to work on their F1 visa status. Depending on the degree, this period can be from one to three years. This article will be exploring one international student’s process of applying for her OPT. We encourage you to follow her tips and tricks in addition to doing your own research.
Pim is a longtime member of our ICAway community and has been closely working with Coach Kwan for the past two years. Under Coach Kwan’s guidance, she rewrote her resume and LinkedIn profile, employed best practices when networking, and used proactive strategies when searching for a job as a student.
This past spring, Pim graduated with an M.A in Instructional Technology & Media from Teacher’s College, Columbia University and is now working as an Instructional Design Consultant at Mosaic, a professional training firm. The journey here, however, was not an easy one, so Coach Kwan and Pim sat down for an interview to go over her experience of applying for work authorization.
Coach Kwan: While the process of applying for work authorization is never an easy one, it seems like this year, there were even more complications. Can you share your personal experience with us?
Pim: Yes, absolutely. A lot of international students struggled with visa delays and there was a lot of uncertainty in the air. It was widely understood that the average processing time for OPT applications is 3 months, but I had to wait 4 months to get mine approved. I have heard of others who had to wait even longer. This waiting time can be brutal, and it is something that we all have to power through.
Coach Kwan: What about the application process? What was that like?
Pim: The application process was a struggle in itself. There are many documents and logistics that one has to account for, and unfortunately, the instructions provided on my school’s website were not very clear. Furthermore, the school’s Office of International Students (OIS) was experiencing heavy backlog, so there were an additional two weeks wait, and they finished up my documents during spring break, while I was away, so I was not available to submit right away. I was trying to apply as early as possible, which is 90 days before graduation, but in the end, my application was submitted 70 days before graduation.
One quick tip that I would like to mention is that if you don’t have a social security number (SSN), you can apply for it alongside your OPT application. This will save you a lot of trouble, and you will be receiving your SSN card in the mail alongside—maybe with a few days in between—your Employment Authorization Document (EAD).
Coach Kwan: Once you have mailed your application to USCIS, are you done? Is it just a waiting game from then on?
Pim: After you submit your application, USCIS will mail you back a notice stating they have received your application. That notice will have a receipt number, which you can use to track your case status on this website. You will probably be obsessively checking this link until it says that your application has been approved and that your EAD card is on its way.
Coach Kwan: What did you do during the four months of waiting?
Pim: Personally, I dedicated this time to my job search. The struggle here is that when a potential employer asks you when can you start, you can’t give them a certain answer. Yes, when applying for work authorization you will request a specific date to start your OPT period—which can be up to 60 days after graduation—but regardless of this date, you are not allowed to start employment if you don’t physically have your EAD card. This is why the prolonged wait times that students experienced this past summer where so detrimental in some cases.
Coach Kwan: That was quite a ride! Now that you are on the other side, do you have any additional tips for students who are about to apply for their work authorization?
Pim: I think the most important thing is to be ready. Apply as early as you can - the earliest you can apply for your OPT is 90 days before graduation, but take into account the time that will take you to put your application together. Get all your forms in order beforehand so that when the day comes, you can just drop your application in the mailbox. Applying early is only about getting your EAD card as soon as possible, your OPT period start date is—within 60 days of your graduation date—completely up to you.
Another part of being ready is to communicate with employers. Since you can only begin to work once your OPT period starts and with your EAD card in hand, you need to make sure these align. If they don’t, keep your employer in the loop - let them know about your situation and hopefully, they will be understanding.
Coach Kwan: Thank you so much for all the really helpful advice! Do you have any last words for all the international students out there?
Pim: Being an international student can be really tough - we all know how hard finding a job in a new country can be. I am so glad that I found the ICAway community. What’s especially nice about this community is that it is a hopeful and positive one, and ever since I joined, it has done wonders for my mental health. I think that the members of the ICAway community are very resilient, and they do not let hardships overpower their fighting spirit, so if anyone out there who is looking for an uplifting community, you should come join us!
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About Coach Kwan
Kwan is an experienced human-capital consultant. Her past corporate experience includes global organizations like Deloitte, Accenture, and BMW.
Kwan moved to the U.S. in 2014, earned her Senior Professional HR certification from HRIC and joined one of the world's most prestigious consulting firms as a Senior Consultant of Human Capital Consulting Practice and managed multiple projects for Fortune 500 clients.
Today, Kwan is the CEO and Founder of ICAway, an educational consulting firm based out of Chicago. Our mission is to be an empowering community for international students and light the way for students to find jobs in the U.S.
DISCLAIMER: The OPT information provided in this lesson is general and should not be relied on as legal advice that cannot be given without full consideration of all relevant information relating to an individual situation. This article does not constitute or create a consultant-client relationship for any legal matter.