Many people who are in the midst of pursuing academic studies or internships/traineeships, whether that be a master’s degree or a J-1 internship, partake in competitions, industry festivals and other types of activities where awards and accolades are issued to the top participants. When such awards and other types of recognitions and achievements earned while the beneficiary was a student or J-1 intern are included in the petitioning papers, USCIS commonly retorts by way of a Request for Further Evidence (“RFE”) that either such student awards, or awards earned while the beneficiary was pursuing academic studies are not to be considered as counting towards any applicable O-1 criteria that the awards may possibly be credited towards, the reason being that they generally are awarded to students or early professionals in the field and inherently exclude established professionals who are to be deemed as “extraordinary”.

Such patterns seem to illuminate a tendency for USCIS to oversimplify the categorical nature of the significance of an award or achievement, and paint with overly broad strokes in claiming that any award or achievement earned while a person was an F-1 student or J-1 intern/trainee is not a professional achievement.

For example, there are many young, motivated and ambitious professionals who happen to be enrolled in degrees, especially at a masters level or beyond, who have earned awards in a professional capacity during or in between their studies, or say, a post-doctoral or even master’s student who may have published in distinguished peer-referenced journals during their doctoral degrees. By the virtue of being a student alone should not, and does not, disqualify an award or achievement for the evidentiary purposes of meeting any of the applicable O-1 regulatory criteria.

There are three categories within which awards can be separated into –

1)  Awards and achievements that are by their own terms limited to students within an institution. These do NOT meet the regulatory criteria.

2) Awards and achievements from a national/international body for distinguished work in the academic field that merits the funding of further work in that field, such as a Fulbright or Ford Foundation grant, although awarded for the purpose of pursuing graduate work, such awards incontrovertibly indicate outstanding ability in a field. Such awards and achievements show recognition from an impartial body beyond the university level and these DO meet the regulatory criteria.

3) Professional awards and achievements that the beneficiary received while the beneficiary simply happened to be a student when the award or achievement was earned. As long as the competition/activity is not limited only to student participants, these DO meet the regulatory criteria.

In order to distinctly differentiate between a student award, i.e. one where only students participate in the competition leading to the award, from an award where one may be a student but partakes in a professionally acknowledgeable capacity, it is important to include additional evidence, including, but not limited to, documentary evidence demonstrating:

  • The criteria used to give the prizes or awards;
  • Information on the reputation of the organization granting the prizes or awards;
  • The significance of the prizes or awards, to include the national or international recognition the prizes or awards share;
  • The reputation of the organization granting the prizes or awards;
  • Who is considered for the prizes or awards, including the geographic scope for which candidates may apply;
  • How many prizes or awards are awarded each year;
  • Previous winners who enjoy national or international acclaim; and
  • How the award(s) was/were given for excellence in the beneficiary’s field.

Assuming that any award or achievement earned during a beneficiary being in student or intern status disqualifies them as applicable evidentiary materials towards the O-1 criteria is ultra vires. As such, it is important to sort and categorize which awards should be included in the O-1 petition, and when applicable and necessary, also include additional information about the awards as well.

For further information about the O-1 visa, contact our Immigration Practice Group at 718-539-1100 or