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How to File Taxes: A Guide for College Students

US_Capitol_from_NW with blue sky

Image by Matt H. Wade.

It’s tax season, and college students and international students are not exempt from participating.

Consider it yet another initiation into the wonderful world of adulthood. Every year between January and April 15, you will have to file your taxes.

We’re no IRS or TurboTax, but we can give you some answers to FAQs by college students confronted with taxes.

(Plus, since you’re probably not earning a lot, you’ll probably get a refund, i.e., money back from the government. Score!)

What should I do first?

Call your parents. They’ve been paying their taxes for years (I hope!), so they are a great resource. Also, if they are paying for more than half of your living expenses (which, unless you have a very generous income, they almost certainly are), then they can claim you as a dependent.

This doesn’t mean you don’t have to file taxes, but it does make things easier.

Do I even have to pay taxes this year?

If you meet any of these requirements, you must file taxes:

1. You earned wages or tips, or did freelance work.

2. You were paid under the table to an amount of $400 or greater.

3. You used scholarship, fellowship, or grant funds to pay for something other than tuition and required textbooks (i.e. meal plan, dorm room, etc.).

4. You are an international student.

I meet one/some/all of those requirements. What now?

Figure out what forms you need to fill out. The IRS actually has a great site for helping college students understand the tax system and determine which forms are right for them. But here is a preliminary outline of forms you’ll probably need to complete:

  • If you meet requirements 1-3, you will most likely need to fill out form 1040, but check to make sure. Do not fill out form 1040-EZ unless you are 100 percent sure you are not a dependent.
  • If you meet requirement 4, you need to fill out form 8843 whether or not you’ve earned money in the US. If you do work, you may need to fill out form 1040NR, as well. But there are a number of other forms to complete depending on your status, so please research exactly what you need to do.

Do I get any deductions?

There are programs that can give you tax credit based on your college tuition. Talk to your parents and see if Hope Scholarship Credit, Lifetime Learning Credit, or higher education expenses deductions fit your situation.

I can submit my taxes electronically, right?

Possibly — it depends on the form. So don’t wait until the last minute because you’re assuming it can be done online. Check ahead of time — like right now!

I’m still confused about what I need to submit! What should I do?

See if your college has resources to help you with your taxes, such as seminars or volunteer tax help services. You can also check with your career services office or the international office (if you’re an international student). If you still can’t seem to find any help, consider a local tax accountant.

It’s a stressful time of year for everyone. College students: you’re not alone! At least the IRS seems to ease you into it – the forms you have to fill out are nothing compared to your parents’ forms. So even if you have to take some time, review your earnings, and fill out some boring forms, being a college student is still one of the best things to be during tax season!

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