8 Tips for Students Filing Taxes for the First Time

Tax season can be a headache for many adults, but for college students on the brink of adulthood, it’s important to start thinking about filing taxes sooner than you might expect. Mastering the art of tax filing may seem daunting at first, but with the right guidance, you can navigate this challenging transition into the real world.

We have gathered advice from university experts to make the process easier for college students filing their first tax returns. In this comprehensive guide, we will cover everything from knowing when to file to avoiding common mistakes and maximizing deductions. So let’s dive in!

1. Always File if Taxes are Withheld from Your Paychecks

Knowing when and how to file your taxes is crucial for college students. If you earned less than $12,950 as a dependent student in the tax year, you may not be required to pay taxes. This threshold may vary each year, so it’s essential to stay updated with the latest IRS guidelines.

However, even if you fall below the income threshold and are not required to file a tax return, it is still a wise decision to do so if income taxes were withheld from your paychecks. Many college students have part-time jobs, and taxes are often automatically deducted from their earnings. By not filing a tax return, you essentially donate that money to the IRS instead of potentially receiving a refund.

Filing a tax return can also be beneficial if you are eligible for certain tax credits or deductions. For example, if you paid for your education expenses, you may be eligible for education tax credits or deductions, which can help lower your tax liability or even result in a refund. Additionally, other credits and deductions, such as the earned income tax credit, can potentially increase your refund or reduce the amount of tax you owe.

To begin the process of filing your taxes, you’ll need to obtain your W-2 form from each employer you worked for during the tax year. Typically, companies are required to send out W-2 forms by January 31st. However, if you haven’t received yours by then, it’s important to reach out to your employers directly and inquire about it. The W-2 form provides essential information about your employment and income, which you’ll need when filling out your tax return accurately.

Remember, filing your taxes, even if you are not required to, can have financial benefits such as potential refunds and can help you fulfill your tax obligations responsibly.

2. Understand Your Dependent Status and Exemptions

Understanding your dependent status when it comes to filing taxes is crucial. The IRS has specific criteria for determining whether you are considered a dependent on your parents’ tax returns. Being classified as a “qualifying child” or a “qualifying relative” is dependent on meeting certain conditions, including age requirements, income level, and full-time student status.

For college students, it’s important to note that dependents cannot claim any exemptions on their own tax returns, even if their parents do not claim them as dependents. This means that if you are considered a dependent, you cannot claim your own exemption when filing your taxes. This is a common situation for most college-age students, as they usually fall into the dependent category.

To determine if you qualify as a dependent, you need to consider factors such as your age, whether you provide more than half of your own financial support, and whether you live with your parents for more than half of the year. Additionally, if you’re a full-time student under the age of 24, your parents may be able to claim you as a dependent. However, if you provide more than half of your own financial support, you may be able to claim yourself as an independent.

It’s important to understand your dependent status because it can impact your tax liability, potentially affecting your eligibility for certain tax credits and deductions. When filing your taxes, be sure to accurately report your dependent status based on the IRS guidelines. If you’re unsure about your situation, it’s always a good idea to seek guidance from a tax professional who can help you navigate the complexities of the tax code and ensure you are filing correctly.

3. Utilize Free Tax Assistance Programs at Your College

One of the biggest obstacles students face when filing taxes is a lack of familiarity with the process. Navigating the official IRS website can be challenging and understanding the various forms and instructions can be overwhelming. However, there are resources available to help simplify the tax preparation process and set you up for success.

Many universities recognize the difficulties students face when it comes to filing taxes and have established self-help student groups and professors who are willing to guide students through the process. These groups often host workshops or provide online resources that explain the basics of tax filing, clarify common misconceptions, and answer frequently asked questions. They can walk you through the process step-by-step, making it easier to understand the various forms, deductions, and credits that apply to your situation.

In addition to university resources, numerous colleges participate in the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program. VITA offers free tax assistance to students both on-campus and in their communities. This program is run by trained volunteers who can provide personalized assistance and help you navigate the complexities of tax filing. They are familiar with the tax laws and regulations applicable to students and can help ensure that your tax return is accurate and maximizes your benefits.

The VITA volunteers can assist you in preparing and e-filing your tax return at no cost. They can guide you through the process of gathering the necessary documents, filling out the required forms, and understanding any credits or deductions you may be eligible for. By taking advantage of this program, you can receive expert assistance while saving money that would otherwise be spent on professional tax preparation services.

To locate a VITA location near you, check with your university’s financial aid office or visit the IRS website to find a list of VITA sites in your area. It’s crucial to schedule an appointment early, as these services are in high demand during tax season. The volunteers will work with you to ensure that your tax return is filed correctly and on time.

By utilizing the support from your university and the VITA program, you can simplify the tax preparation process and gain confidence in your ability to file taxes independently in the future. These resources are designed to help students like you overcome the challenges of filing taxes and ensure that you fulfill your tax obligations accurately and efficiently. So don’t hesitate to seek assistance and take advantage of the guidance available to make the tax filing experience a more manageable and successful one.

4. Start Preparing Early

Starting the tax filing process well in advance of the April 15th deadline is a smart approach for college students. By beginning early, you can avoid last-minute stress and give yourself ample time to gather all the necessary documents and information.

Filing your taxes alone as a college student, especially if you’re still learning the process, can be challenging. Seeking guidance from your parents or tax professionals can be immensely helpful in ensuring accuracy and maximizing potential refunds or credits.

If you choose to seek advice from your parents, they can provide valuable insights based on their own experiences with tax filing. They may be able to offer guidance on important documentation and deductions specific to your situation. Additionally, they can help you understand the overall process and address any questions or concerns you may have.

Alternatively, consulting with tax professionals can provide you with expert advice tailored to your unique circumstances. They have the knowledge and expertise to interpret tax laws and help you navigate complex situations. They can guide you through the process, ensuring you understand your rights and responsibilities as a taxpayer. Additionally, they can assist you in identifying any tax credits or deductions for which you may be eligible, potentially reducing your tax liability or increasing your refund.

Ultimately, seeking guidance from your parents or tax professionals can give you confidence in the accuracy of your tax return. They can provide reassurance that you are fulfilling your tax obligations appropriately and taking advantage of all available opportunities to minimize your tax liability or maximize your benefits.

5. File Your Taxes for Free

Good news for college students and anyone else with an annual household income below $73,000: you are eligible to use the IRS tax filing software at no cost. This free option provided by the IRS is known as Free File, and it allows eligible taxpayers to prepare and file their federal tax returns online for free.

By using the IRS Free File software, you can save money that would otherwise be spent on paid tax filing services. These services often charge fees based on the complexity of your tax situation, which can add up quickly. However, with Free File, you can access the same tax filing software used by professional tax preparers at absolutely no cost.

The IRS Free File software is designed to guide you through the tax preparation process, helping you accurately report your income, deductions, and credits. The software automatically performs calculations and checks for errors, reducing the likelihood of mistakes on your tax return. This can provide peace of mind and help ensure that you are filing your taxes correctly.

In addition to the convenience of online filing, the IRS Free File software also allows you to electronically submit your tax return. This helps expedite the processing of your return, potentially resulting in a faster refund if you are eligible.

6. Don’t Overlook Education Deductions

When it comes to paying for your education, there are several deductions and tax credits that you may be eligible to claim on your tax return. These deductions can help reduce the amount of tax you owe or increase your potential refund, saving you thousands of dollars. It’s important to explore these options and ensure you’re not leaving any money on the table. Let’s take a closer look at two specific deductions: education tax credits and the earned income tax credit.

Education Tax Credits

Education tax credits are a type of tax benefit designed to help offset the cost of higher education expenses. There are two main credits available: the Lifetime Learning Credit and the American Opportunity Credit.

  • The Lifetime Learning Credit allows you to claim up to $2,000 per year for qualified education expenses. This credit is available for undergraduate, graduate, and professional degree courses, as well as courses to acquire or improve job skills. It’s important to note that this credit is non-refundable, meaning it can only reduce the amount of tax you owe and cannot result in a refund if it exceeds your tax liability.
  • The American Opportunity Credit is another valuable tax credit available to eligible students for the first four years of post-secondary education. This credit allows you to claim up to $2,500 per year per student. Unlike the Lifetime Learning Credit, the American Opportunity Credit is partially refundable, which means that if the credit reduces your tax liability to zero, you may be eligible for a refund of up to $1,000 per year.

To claim these credits, you must meet certain eligibility criteria, such as being enrolled at least half-time in an eligible educational institution and not having a felony drug conviction. Additionally, there are income limitations that determine your eligibility for these credits. It’s important to review the specific requirements outlined by the IRS and consult with a tax professional to determine if you qualify for these credits and the amount you can claim.

Earned Income Tax Credit

In addition to education-related deductions, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is a valuable benefit designed to assist low-to-moderate-income individuals and families. This credit is refundable, meaning that if the credit exceeds your tax liability, you can receive the remaining amount as a refund.

The EITC is based on your earned income and the number of qualifying children you have. The credit amount increases as your income rises until it reaches a maximum, after which it gradually phases out. The qualifications for the EITC can be complex, so it’s important to consult the IRS guidelines or seek assistance from a tax professional to determine if you are eligible and the specific amount you may be able to claim.

It’s crucial to note that education-related expenses, such as tuition, fees, and required course materials, can make a significant impact on both education tax credits and the earned income tax credit. By claiming these deductions, you can potentially reduce your tax liability and receive a higher refund, allowing you to allocate additional funds towards your educational goals.

To ensure you’re taking full advantage of these deductions, keep detailed records of your education expenses and consult with a tax professional. They can guide you through the process, help maximize your tax benefits, and ensure you’re accurately claiming all available deductions and credits based on your unique circumstances.

Remember, exploring education tax credits and the earned income tax credit can help alleviate the financial burden of higher education and potentially save you thousands of dollars. By taking the time to investigate these deductions and seek the appropriate guidance, you can make the most of your educational expenses and optimize your tax return.

7. Stay Vigilant Against Scams

As tax season approaches, it’s crucial to prioritize your online security and be vigilant against potential scams and identity theft. With technology playing a significant role in tax filing, it’s important for college students to take precautionary measures to protect their personal information and financial well-being.

One of the best ways to minimize the risk of falling victim to scams is to file your taxes electronically using the official IRS website or authorized tax software. Electronic filing not only offers convenience and efficiency but also adds an extra layer of security compared to traditional paper filing.

However, it’s important to exercise caution even when using the official IRS website for e-filing. Be mindful of phishing attempts, where scammers impersonate the IRS to trick unsuspecting individuals into revealing sensitive information. These scams can occur through emails, phone calls, or even fake websites that resemble the IRS’s official site.

To protect yourself, always be skeptical of unsolicited emails or calls claiming to be from the IRS. The IRS rarely initiates contact through email, so be cautious of any messages requesting personal information or payment. Remember that the IRS will never ask for sensitive information, such as your Social Security number or bank account details, through email or phone calls.

If you receive an email or call that seems suspicious, do not respond or provide any personal information. Instead, take the time to independently verify the legitimacy of the communication. You can directly visit the official IRS website or contact the IRS through their official phone number to confirm if the communication is genuine.

It’s worth noting that the IRS has implemented various security measures to ensure the safety of taxpayers’ information when using their online services. These measures include encryption technology and multi-factor authentication to protect sensitive data from unauthorized access. By utilizing the official IRS website or authorized tax software, you can have confidence that your information is being transmitted and stored securely.

In addition to vigilance against scams, it’s crucial to safeguard your personal information throughout the entire tax filing process. Create strong, unique passwords for your online tax accounts and avoid using easily guessable information such as your name or birthdate. Regularly monitor your financial accounts for any suspicious activity and promptly report any unauthorized transactions to your bank or credit card provider.

By remaining proactive and cautious, you can significantly reduce the risk of falling victim to scams and protect your personal and financial information during tax season. Remember, the IRS will never initiate contact through email or phone calls requesting sensitive information, so always verify the legitimacy of any tax-related communication independently. Prioritize your online security and enjoy a safe and smooth tax filing experience.

8. Sign and Double-Check Your Tax Return

One of the most common mistakes people make when filing their taxes is forgetting to sign and date their tax return. While e-filing your taxes can help reduce errors by double-checking your return, it’s still essential to proofread your tax return for any mistakes or omissions. Here are some key points to consider when reviewing your tax return:

  1. Sign and Date: After completing your tax return, make sure to sign and date it. This applies whether you file electronically or mail a paper return. For electronic filing, you will typically use a Personal Identification Number (PIN) as your electronic signature. If you are filing a paper return, sign and date it using black ink.
  2. Proofread: Take the time to carefully read through your entire tax return, including all the forms and schedules you have filled out. Check for typos, misspellings, or any other errors that may affect the accuracy of your return. Make sure all your personal information, including your name, Social Security number, and address, are correct.
  3. Read Instructions: Familiarize yourself with the instructions provided for each form or schedule you are using. The IRS provides detailed instructions for every form, and it’s crucial to follow them carefully. Different forms may have specific requirements and guidelines, so be sure to understand them before completing your return.
  4. Math Accuracy: Double-check all the calculations on your tax return to ensure they are accurate. Simple mathematical errors can lead to incorrect amounts, which may cause delays, audits, or penalties. Use a calculator or tax software to assist you with the calculations. If you’re using tax software, it will typically perform the calculations automatically.
  5. Crosscheck Numbers: Review all the numbers you entered, such as income, deductions, and credits, to ensure they are entered correctly. Incorrect numbers can result in discrepancies and may lead to IRS inquiries or audits. Double-check that you have entered the correct amounts from your tax forms, such as your W-2s or 1099s.
  6. Attach Required Documentation: If you are filing a paper return and have any supporting documents or schedules, make sure to attach them as required. This includes documents such as your W-2 forms, 1099 forms, or any other forms that show income or deductions. Keep copies of all the documents for your records.
  7. File Electronically: Consider e-filing your tax return instead of mailing a paper return. E-filing can help reduce errors and increase the speed of processing. When you file electronically, the software will often catch common errors, such as missing or incorrect information. It also provides confirmation that your return has been received by the IRS.

By following these tips and taking the time to proofread and double-check your tax return, you can help ensure its accuracy and minimize the risk of errors. Remember, even small mistakes can have significant consequences, including delays in processing, audits, or penalties. If you are unsure about any aspect of your tax return, consider seeking advice from a tax professional to ensure you file correctly and accurately.


Filing taxes for the first time as a college student can be a valuable learning experience that sets you up for financial success in the future. It’s important to remember that tax laws and regulations can change, so staying informed and up to date with the latest guidelines is crucial.

As you gain more experience with tax filing, you will become more confident and knowledgeable about maximizing deductions, understanding your dependent status, and utilizing available resources. With each year, you’ll become more adept at handling your taxes, empowering you to make informed financial decisions and pave the way for a successful financial future.

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