International Students

Top 5 Job Search Tips for International Students

Whether you are searching for a position in the U.S., in your home country, or elsewhere, it is important to be familiar with recruiting practices of the country.

Here at Illinois, the busiest recruiting takes place in the fall semester.  Although some employers recruit for summer interns in the spring semester, others begin looking for candidates in the fall. If you plan to seek full-time employment after graduation, having an internship in your sophomore or junior year is a prerequisite.  In other words, obtaining a full-time position in the U.S. requires early engagement with employers. Here are five suggestions to get you started:

Tip #1: Grades Matter, but Get Out of the Classroom

Employers repeatedly tell us that they look at more than a student’s GPA when screening applicants. While most positions ask for a minimum 3.0 cumulative GPA (some positions require a higher minimum), employers also look for non-technical skills.  According to the Job Outlook 2015 report by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), employers look for the following attributes on a student’s resume:

  • Leadership (77.8% of respondents)
  • Ability to work in a team (77.8%)
  • Communication skills (73.4%)
  • Problem-solving skills (70.9%)
  • Strong work ethic (70.4%)

To build these skills, it is necessary to get out of the classroom and participate (not just attend meetings) in extracurricular activities.  You can join a professional student organization that is affiliated with your major, be active in a social or cultural group, or volunteer for a local community organization.  You should also take the brave step of meeting people from different cultural backgrounds, not just from your own home country.

Each department hosts at least one student chapter of a professional national organization associated with your major.  For instance, the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering hosts around 28 student organizations.  If your Primary area is Construction Management, you should strongly consider becoming involved in the Construction Management Association of America (CMAA).  Through this organization, you have access to various professional resources from the national chapter, including their national conferences, which is a great way to network with potential employers.

Explore the different student organizations affiliated with your department and get involved in their projects!

Tip #2: Understand What your Target Employers Want

In the Job Outlook 2015 report by NACE, employers were asked to rate the importance of a candidate’s skills and qualities.  The top five results are as follows:

  • Ability to work in a team structure (4.61 out of 5.00)
  • Ability to make decisions and solve problems (4.61)
  • Ability to verbally communicate with persons inside and outside the organization (4.60)
  • Ability to plan, organize, and prioritize work (4.59)
  • Ability to obtain and process information (4.57)

Once again, employers want to see that you have demonstrated these skills and qualities beyond academic work.

Aside from the skills mentioned above, it is also important to develop an understanding of your target employers’ business needs.  Some questions to consider when familiarizing yourself with an employer:

  • What products and/or services does your target employer manufacture/sell/provide?
  • In what direction is the company heading?  Is it planning to sell off particular divisions to specialize in certain areas or are they looking to expand and acquire new subsidiaries?
  • Where does the company generate the majority of its revenue and profits — is it in the U.S. or another region outside the U.S.?  Is the source of revenue and profits changing?  If so, where is the new source of revenue and profits?
  • What is the organizational culture of your target company?  What kind of people do best in the company’s environment?  What kind of talent does the company seek — in terms of both technical and non-technical skills?

While you can gather some of this information from websites, a better way is to get in front of recruiters during information sessions and tech talks that are taking place on campus.  If a student organization, your department, or Engineering Career Services is offering a company visit or job shadow, sign up for those opportunities and learn about the company for yourself firsthand.  Use these events as opportunities to make a face-to-face connection with employers.

Tip #3: Know and Speak Your Brand

Do you remember the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”?  This question is still relevant in your job search.  When speaking to employers, be able to share the reasons for choosing the major that you’re in, be willing to talk about your professional goals and the industries that you are interested in.  How does a particular position align with your long-term career path?

Most importantly, you’ll need to begin identifying how your skills meet the needs of your target employers.  Once you develop that list of skills, highlight them in your resume.  Demonstrate your skills through out-of-class projects and extracurricular activities.  Use LinkedIn, Weebly or GitHub to visually showcase the work that you have done.  Finally, write up an elevator pitch and practice delivering your pitch in a casual, conversational tone.

Tip #4: Talk to People

Submitting applications to online job boards or company websites is convenient, but is not an effective way to secure positions.  Making in-person connections and developing an understanding of a company’s needs is much more effective. In a 2014 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and MIT, candidates who were referred to a position and who interviewed were found to be 40% more likely to get hired than candidates who merely submitted applications online.

To make actual connections with individuals within your target companies, make use of events, such as company information sessions, company-led career development workshops, tech talks, department seminars, talks by visiting alumni, company visits, job shadow programs, externships, case competitions, and other professional networking events.

Another tool that is often underutilized is informational interviews.  Informational interviews are conversations you have with individuals where you seek to learn more about a particular industry or company.  The purpose of an informational interview is NOT to ask for a job, but is meant to help you build the resources for your own career path.

Tip #5: Don’t Limit Yourself to the U.S. Job Market

Each year, the U.S. Federal government allocates 65,000 H1B visas for the hire of temporary foreign talent, plus an additional 20,000 for Master’s and Doctoral degrees.  Over the last few years, this quota has been met within the first week of applications being accepted.  With over 800,000 international students in the U.S. each year, some employers face a challenge to secure H-1B visas for foreign talent. Consequently, many employers are not willing to risk hiring international students for fear of not getting a return on their investment, where they have trained a new hire only to have them not be approved for the H-1B visa.

Besides visa quotas, some companies are limited to hiring only U.S. citizens because these companies receive funding from the Federal government and/or are involved in security-related projects.  That said, the percentage of employer indicating that they are willing to hire international students has grown from 18.8% in 2010 to 34.2% in 2015 (NACE Job Outlook 2015).

Another trend we have been observing is an increasing number of U.S. companies who are growing their operations in Asia.  As a result of this business need, these companies are looking for talent who can serve as a bridge between the U.S. and Asia.  In addition to technical skills, these employers are looking for candidates with proficiency in both English as well as an Asian language (most commonly Mandarin).  These companies also want students who have familiarity with U.S. and Asian cultures.  As a result, these companies are looking to recruit international students studying in the U.S. for home country placements.  Some of these companies seek to groom such new talent into future managerial roles within companies.  If you take a long-term view of your career, this is an excellent option to accelerate your career path.

Whether you choose to remain in the U.S. or work overseas or in your home country, it is important to be proactive and utilize the resources available to you here on campus and in the College.

Work Authorization in the U.S.

If you are on an F1 Student Visa, you have two options for work authorization in the U.S.:

  • If you are still a student, you can apply for Curricular Practical Training (CPT).  Find out more information here. CPT requires an offer of employment before application.
  • If you are planning to work after graduation, you will need to apply for Optional Practical Training (OPT).  Find out more information here.  As an Engineering student, you could be eligible for the STEM extension, which permits you to stay in the U.S. for an additional 17 months.

NOTE: Having work authorization does not automatically qualify you to be employed by a company in the U.S.  Companies may still not be able to hire students who are not U.S. Citizens or Permanent Residents.

Next Steps

  • Identify companies that hire international students, and target these companies. The U.S. Department of Labor maintains statistics on employers who have petitioned for H-1B visas in the past. INTLconnect, a website for international students, also keeps a list of companies that have sponsored international students from Illinois.
  • Reach out to international and domestic alumni for career advice specific to your needs and skill set, and information about opportunities with their companies.
  • Participate in job shadow, leadership program, or community volunteer opportunities that could lead to an internship.
  • Leverage your background and previous professional experience. Those are your greatest assets.
  • Utilize job boards to identify opportunities with unfamiliar employers. Start with Handshake @ Illinois
  • Conduct your search for both U.S.-based and overseas positions simultaneously, so you don’t miss application deadlines.
  • Schedule a Mock interview with Engineering Career Services so you are prepared and confident when invited to interview.


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