Three Curricular Practical Training myths debunked

By Desiree Jaeger-Fine

There are a number of myths concerning Curricular Practical Training (CPT) which I seek to address. 

Myth #1: “CPT is before graduation and Optional Practical Training (OPT) is after graduation.”

This statement is true, but only half-true — and half-truths can be quite misleading. The statement leaves out a crucial fact, namely that OPT is also available pre-graduation. An international student can get OPT before graduation (Pre-OPT) and after graduation (Post-OPT).

CPT and OPT have different effects on the student’s ability to work after graduation. OPT is limited to 12 months, and any OPT time taken before graduation (Pre-OPT) will be deducted from the available 12 months. Therefore, students want to take CPT instead, which does not affect the OPT limit.

Let us stop and think about this for a minute. The government provided two pre-graduation work authorizations. One that does not eat away on one’s post-graduation work authorization and another one that does.

Did the government try to be particularly helpful to students by giving them two options among which they can choose? Why would a student ever choose CPT?

The point is that it is not up to the student to choose between the two. CPT and OPT have distinct purposes. OPT stands for “optional practical training” and CPT for “curricular practical training.”

The word “curricular” in CPT is crucial. It means that the student’s off-campus work must be an “integral part of an established curriculum.” “Integral” means making something whole and “established” means having been in existence for a long time and is therefore recognized and generally accepted.

In other words, the curriculum must include a course that requires students to work, and that course must be an integral part of the degree without which the study would not be made whole. The school cannot create courses ad hoc or upon the student’s initiative. The course must be part of the established curriculum before the student approaches the international office with a request for work authorization.

Many students interpret this a bit differently and argue something like this: “work experience is vital for my resume and, therefore, important for my career, hence curricular.” Nope! That is not CPT but does justify OPT.

CPT is only for those limited cases in which the school’s curriculum requires students to gain experiential learning. In this case, it would be unfair to require students to use Pre-OPT and lose the precious time allowed under OPT. Only when the established curriculum requires work experience can a student get CPT. For everything else, she will have to use Pre-OPT.

 CPT Myth #2: “I can get CPT as long as I also do something in my school.”

“But what if I write an independent study while I work and receive credit for it? Doesn’t this justify CPT” If, and only if, the independent study requires off-campus work and only if that independent study is an integral part of an established curriculum, can a student receive CPT.

The independent study cannot be used to give off-campus work the shine of legality. We are in putrid waters if the student commits to working for an employer and afterward approaches the international office to be enrolled in an independent study to receive CPT.

 CPT Myth #3: “My friends are getting CPT. Therefore, so should I.”

It is very dangerous to base one’s knowledge of immigration laws on what others do. Immigration laws are very complex and can be quite unique in different circumstances. Just because someone else does something does not make it legal or applicable to your situation. International students should educate themselves about current immigration laws and always talk to the international office at their school before making any commitments to work.

Desiree Jaeger-Fine is director of International Programs at Brooklyn Law School and author of "A Short & Happy Guide to Networking" (West Academic Publishing) and "A Short & Happy Guide to Being Hired" (West Academic Publishing).