Enhancing Your U.S. Job Search for International Students, Part 1

By Don Goldstein

Photo of laptop, phone, coffee, pen and pad on a desk

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

This is the first post in a two-part series dealing with international students in the U.S. job market.

I’m not going to sugarcoat this. It is much harder for international students to land a job or internship in the U.S. than it is for American citizens. You have so many more challenges—visa issues, cultural differences, language barriers, differences in U.S. job search norms, and some anti-foreigner prejudices. Difficult yes. Impossible no.

As an international student, you have a lot to offer—your ability to adapt to new and challenging situations; resiliency and resourcefulness; motivation; maturity; the experience of living in different countries; a strong work ethic; multi-language abilities; and your own unique set of skills, talents, and abilities. These are traits that are valued by employers.

I can’t guarantee success, but if you consider and take action on the following 5 elements, your chances to succeed will be greatly enhanced.

5 Points to Succeed in Your U.S. Job Search

1. Expect Different Culture, Customs, and Job Search Norms

In the U.S., we probably do many things differently than the way it’s done in your home country. It’s not necessarily better, but it’s different, and in order to succeed here, you need to adapt to U.S. job search norms. There are so many differences that I can’t list all of them, but over many years of working with International Students I’ve found the following to be the most problematic for international students.


In some cultures, self-promotion is considered to be immodest and boastful. Here, it is expected as long as it’s honest, introspective, and objective. If you don’t promote yourself in networking situations, your resume and cover letter, and in a job interview, no one can do it for you.

Small-talk, Humor, and Inappropriate Words or Terms

In a networking situation or at the beginning of a job interview, some small talk is usually expected in order to break the ice and get the conversation going. Safe topics are the weather, sports, where you’re from, travel, and how you handled the pandemic. Topics to stay away from include politics, religion, and vaccination beliefs.

Humor is very tricky. When handled well, it can be quite charming. However, humor can be risky. What is funny varies from culture to culture, and well-meaning attempts can be misinterpreted and blow up in your face. I say, stay away from humor with people who you do not know.

It’s quite difficult to know what to call someone or what words or terms might be offensive. For instance, referring to a woman as a girl is definitely offensive. In person, you might be given a hint on how to address someone by how they introduce themselves—like “Hi, I’m Professor _______.” I for instance, always ask students to call me by my first name. But when in doubt, err on the side of being more formal. In a formal e-mail or correspondence, you might not know whether to use Mr. or Ms., so a safe way around that is to use Dear their first name and last name.

Age, Gender, Religion, Racial and Ethnic Group, Marital Status

The employment related Civil Rights Laws of the 1960s were aimed at reducing discrimination in the hiring process by forbidding employers from accessing information about the above categories that could be used to discriminate against job candidates. On your resume, cover letter, or in a job interview, never willingly provide any information about these categories. Never put a picture on your resume. The exception to this is LinkedIn as a LinkedIn profile is not considered to be a job application document.

Changing Norms

In career advising, we used to put a lot of emphasis on issues like eye contact, the handshake, and dress codes. A lot of this has changed because of COVID. Since most job interviews, career fairs, and other networking situations are now online, eye contact is no longer that important. While it is possible to approximate eye contact by looking at the camera instead of the screen, it is difficult to do and is no longer expected as long as you aren’t constantly looking down. The strong, firm American handshake probably won’t come back even in in-person situations. Neat, business casual clothing is now appropriate for online interviewing situations rather than formal attire.

So, besides what I have written, how do you know what is appropriate and how do you learn it?

I wish I could point you to a book or a source, but if they do exist, they are most probably out of date. As I just illustrated norms are constantly changing and the best way to learn is to watch, listen, and ask questions.

2. Networking Is Vital

Did you know that according to surveys, 70-80% of jobs in the U.S. are attained through some form of networking that result in referrals and recommendations rather than just applying cold online?

This may be a major difference between here and your home country. It is probably not a very democratic way of doing things, but that’s the way it works. Employers usually covet internal referrals because it helps reduce the pile of applicant resumes, and no one will put themselves out on a limb by recommending someone unless they believe in the candidate. There is a hidden job market of jobs that are filled without being posted, and networking gives you access to those jobs. You might be able to get a job by applying cold online (after all, 20-30% do), but it significantly enhances your chances to land an interview if there is some form of networking in your job search strategy.

There are many forms of networking, but I think the very best one for international students is the informational interview. This involves reaching out to someone who is doing the type of job or working in the type of company that you are interested in. You actually ask questions like: How did you go about your job search? What types of skills are valued among candidates? Can you talk me through a typical day? What do you like/dislike about you job? Is there anyone else that you think I should speak to? Through this method, you are gaining valuable insider information, and you are also creating contacts with people who can help you right now or further down the line.

Informational interviewing might sound strange to you because it is pretty much done only in the U.S. and Canada. I know what the hesitations are: How can I reach out to a stranger—it’s impolite? Why would someone want to talk to me? First of all, it’s very acceptable here, and it’s done all the time. More senior people are often willing to help someone a bit more junior. Possibly, someone helped them in a similar way. Also, people love to talk about themselves, and you are giving them that opportunity. If you have hesitations, start with someone you know or try to identify someone from a similar background to you or a graduate of the Graduate Center or another CUNY school. The worst that can happen is that someone won’t answer or say that they don’t have the time or that they’re not the right person. Just try one. After the first time, it becomes much easier, and it is an interesting and effective way of looking for a job.

To learn more about building and growing a professional network, see our list of past webinars.

3. Improve Your English

I used to do career advising with immigrants from Russia, and the single biggest predictor of their success was how well they learned English. It was very easy to live in a Russian speaking neighborhood, read books and newspapers in Russian, and watch Russian cable TV channels. Unfortunately, the people that did that were only employable in the Russian community.

Obviously, you will need to have well-written resumes and cover letters without any spelling or grammatical errors, and you will need to express yourself well in job interviews. My advice is to make a conscious effort to improve your English. Write down words you don’t know and look them up. Look at doing class presentations as an opportunity to improve your English rather than a frightening chore. Use the GC Writing Center to improve your writing. Do a mock interview with us at the Office of Career Planning & Professional Development. Conduct informational interviews. My daughter, who was not a native English speaker, learned English from watching Full House on TV, listening to the dialogue while reading the subtitles in her native language. While I’m not suggesting that you have to follow the antics of Danny Tanner and the Olson twins in order learn English, what I am saying is that you probably know what ways you learn best and keep at it.

4. Know Your Visa

Don’t assume that a prospective employer knows about OPT, CPT, and Sponsorship. While large well-established employers and universities most likely know the process, you might have to demystify it for smaller employers and start-ups. Also, don’t assume that if you land an unpaid internship that you won’t have to use your OPT. Ask about the company policy. (You can do volunteer work without using OPT.) For any visa issues, you have a wonderful service at your disposal at the GC, the Office of International Students.

5. Research Your Field, Join Your Professional Association, Read Job Descriptions, & Attend Career Fairs

Do as much online research as possible on your prospective field. Besides googling, there is also a very useful Department of Labor website, CareerOneStop, as well as Glassdoor. The appropriate professional association for your field provides a tremendous source of information as well as myriad networking opportunities. Reading job descriptions on Handshake or general or specialty job boards gives you great insight as to what employers are looking for and whether there are any skills gaps that you need to address. Attend online career fairs not only to look for jobs, but also to practice your English and your networking skills.

Continue reading the second part of this series.