It’s that time of year again. Colleges and universities in America usually have an academic year consisting of a fall (autumn) semester, and a spring one. Summer classes are often available too, as are semesters or courses abroad, but most students pursuing four-year undergraduate degrees start in a fall semester and graduate at the end of a spring semester.
So the spring semester is the second half of the academic year, although it is the beginning of the calendar year, which, in my experience, anyway, has meant focusing on three paperwork-intensive things:
2) Financial aid
Before coming to the States, what little I knew about U.S. taxes came from TV and movies, where it seemed like a terribly painful process, involving massive paperwork that had to be handed in by tax day, sometime in April.
As it turns out, dealing with the IRS as an international student is not as complicated as all that. Colleges and universities usually have an office to help you navigate the necessary paperwork and bureaucracy. Most F-1 and J-1 students are classified as “non-resident aliens” for tax purposes and are hardly taxed at all, as long as their income in the country is less than a certain, pretty high threshold.
All international students have to send in a document (called form 8843) stating your presence as a student in the country and exempting yourself from taxation if you haven’t earned any money. If you have earned income from any source, you will probably have to also fill in another form to declare what you have earned and see if you owe taxes on it.
It can get a little complicated to figure out, but what greatly helped me last year was simply calling the Internal Revenue Service helpline. A real, live human being (and not a recorded machine) told me exactly which forms I needed to complete and what amounts I had to declare as income (remember, in 2011 you’d be filling in information about the calendar year of 2010; so, note how much money you made, for example, from January to December, see the exact dates of your exit and entry stamped in your passport, etc.).
I don’t claim to be an expert in tax laws, and they can always change, so check with the international students office and/or the IRS itself to be sure you’re meeting all the requirements.
The second bit of paperwork this time of year involves financial aid. Most students have to renew their grants and other support each academic year, and colleges may make adjustments based on things like the status of the student, his or her performance, and other criteria.
So, now would be a good time to get in touch with the financial aid office to fill in the necessary forms and attach whatever documentation they require, as this sort of thing often takes place early. Higher educational establishments are legal entities, after all, which must plan on their budgeting in advance just like any other establishment.
As a side note, I must say that local, American students have much to be envious of the internationals for when it comes to the financial aid process. At least in my experience, the financial aid forms for foreign students has consisted of just a few pages of items to be filled out, whereas students who are citizens or legal residents have miles and miles of tax-related paperwork, including all sorts of information that has to be declared by themselves and, often, their parents.
[Related: The Financial Aid Battle]
Finally, external scholarships also tend to have application deadlines early in the spring semester for the following fall.
Since money is usually one of the biggest concerns for international students looking to study in the United States, research as much as possible for scholarship opportunities at home, by your government, for example, or U.S.-based organizations, which could favor certain ethnicities or nationalities, religious groups, or provide financial assistance based on other criteria, such as subject of study.
[Related: Exploring Financial Aid and Funding Options]
I’d highly recommend pursuing the above as early as possible. Don’t wait until April to submit your IRS forms, and definitely don’t wait until the deadlines to ask for letters of recommendation for scholarships. I found that the longer time I’ve spent in the country and the more I have shown myself to be a good student, the more opportunities have come through. So, hang in there, even if the first year or two ends up being more expensive than you’d otherwise like it to be.