As a student under the Optional Practical Training (OPT) Program, I experienced a huge struggle trying to land my first job. I faced a lot of rejected applications, companies who denied me because they couldn't sponsor work visas, and ultimately some emotional breakdowns. The reality was that I had a lower chance of landing my first job faster than the average American student. When I was already halfway through my 3 month unemployment period, I was applying to multiple companies, doing interviews, coding challenges, and I still wasn't getting any job offers. At that point I was terrified and worried that I wasn't going to get any job offer. I tried to make use of every connection I had within my network, asked for advice, and even joined Outco - a career accelerator program.
After applying and tracking over 600 different job applications, I was able to land my first Associate Software Engineer job at my current company who was OPT friendly and also sponsored work visas. Imagine this: out of the 600 applications I sent, only 1 company got back to me. It was basically a miracle. With that said, there are a few things that I wish I could've done back when I was starting out my job hunt. Here are the top 6 things I should've done as an OPT student:
- I should have started my job search a lot earlier
I started my job search as soon as i graduated. Instead, i should have leveraged the contacts that i networked with in 2016, and built a referral network through there.
There are also 'waves' of hiring that I needed to be aware of. I should have also known about companies that are OPT-friendly.
2. As an OPT student, you can volunteer or be self-employed. This also prevents your 90-day unemployment timer from running out.
This is also how I started Makisu to begin with. You can even ask to volunteer at your professor's research lab to buy yourself more time.
3. I should have joined a community of OPT students looking for jobs. How come there isn't one?
My college career counselors were really not that helpful. Most were looking for really low-salaried jobs like $60-80k. I was aware that some companies take advantage of OPT workers to hire them for cheap. Someone recommended me a job offer but the salary was low-balled way too much especially in the position I was applying for.
4. I should have Leetcoded harder
I should have studied algorithm problems near the end of college. Thing is, I was more interested in solving unique and interesting problems rather than doing algorithms which is probably why I was more inclined to starting a business. I was more interested in building teams rather than being knee-deep in code even until now.
5. I should have found someone to do mock interviews with
I did my mock interviews with my friend's dad. My soft-skill interviews were really bad. So, I wish that I picked up a soft skills interview book (like Cracking the Coding Interview) and did some interviews with friend or even utilized the resources at my college to do so. I thought it was going to be too easy and was way too confident in securing a job.
6. Should've done a US-based internship
This was probably a the few main reasons why my chances of landing a job were weak. Although I had internship experience back in the Philippines, I should've done more US based internships. It would have given me more leverage because I could've gotten an internship to full time offer + make more connections.
In conclusion, the reality there's a big struggle for OPT students especially finding a job in a really competitive US job market. I know there's a lot that I could've done aside from what I mentioned, but honestly, sometimes its really just luck-based over pure skill. Out of the thousands of companies, there is always that 1 company that saves you at the end. Just don't give up.