You may find you need to apply for student loans to help cover the rising cost of college tuition. After all, about 55% of bachelor’s degree recipients in 2020 graduated with at least some student loan debt.
This step-by-step guide breaks down how to apply for federal and private student loans, as well as additional funding sources to consider.
Note that federal student loans are generally better than private ones since they offer lower rates and flexible repayment terms. But if you need additional funds, private student loans can help.
Before you begin: Gather the paperwork
You’ll need to gather essential financial information when applying for college loans. The exact forms will vary based on the lender, but preparing in advance can help the process go as smoothly as possible.
If you’re applying for federal aid as a dependent, you’ll likely need to include your parents’ information. The same applies if you’re adding a cosigner to a private student loan.
Here are the basic student loan documents you and your parents/cosigners should have on hand before applying:
- Credit score and history: Federal student loans don’t require a credit check (except for parent PLUS loans), but private student loans typically do. It’s a good idea to check your credit for free before applying for private loans to gauge what rates you can expect.
- Personal information: Such as address, date of birth, phone number and email address.
- Valid identification: Documents to prove your U.S. residency status, such as your Social Security number. You’ll need to provide your Alien Registration Number (or A-Number) if you’re not a U.S. citizen.
- Employment and income verification: Recent pay stubs, W-2 forms or self-employment verification. Since undergrad students are typically unemployed, this info will be relevant for your parents or cosigners.
- Recent tax documents: Make sure to include records of untaxed earnings, such as private financial aid.
- Bank and savings account statements: You’ll also probably need to provide documents showing the value of your assets, if applicable.
- Payment obligations: This usually refers to rent or mortgage expenses, auto loans and other student loans.
- School information: The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) allows you to list up to 10 schools. For private student loans, you may need to list the specific accredited school that you plan to attend, along with the estimated start and graduation dates, cost of attendance and how much you want to borrow.
When applying for private student loans, you must also fill out the Department of Education’s Private Education Loan Applicant Self-Certification form to ensure that student borrowers understand their options for loans. You can get this specific form from your school’s financial aid office.
|Make sure to save all necessary documents to ensure a speedy application next time around, since you have to reapply for both FAFSA and private student loans every year.|
Federal student loans: How to apply
Federal student loans are backed by the government and offer low, fixed-interest rates, several repayment plans and access to loan forgiveness programs. Because of all these perks, it’s usually best to take out as much in federal student loans as you’re allowed before considering private loans.
Federal student loans are issued on a first-come, first-served basis. Because of this, it’s also best to apply as early as possible (applications open in early October).
Here are five steps to follow when applying for federal student loans:
Step 1: Fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)
You or your parents can register for access to the FAFSA through fafsa.gov. After you’ve registered, the entire FAFSA can be filled out online and edited later if necessary. You can also apply via the FAFSA mobile app.
You can use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to autofill much of the necessary financial information. However, it’s best to have the paperwork on hand just in case of any issues.
If you want a sneak peek at the questions you might have to answer on the FAFSA, here’s a worksheet provided by federal student aid. (For more information about the FAFSA, check out our guide here.)
Step 2: Review your Student Aid Report
After filling out your FAFSA, you’ll receive a Student Aid Report, which will show you a summary of all the information you’ve entered. It can take from three days to three weeks to get this report.
In this report, FAFSA will break down your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which is how much you and your family are expected to contribute toward your college expenses.
It’s essential to review this report for accuracy and edit your FAFSA if necessary. Remember, aid is first come, first served — don’t delay in fixing any errors that might affect your award.
Any school you include in your FAFSA may select you for FAFSA verification, in which case you’ll need to provide extra documentation. According to Federal Student Aid, this isn’t something to worry about — some schools might do this randomly, while others require it for everyone.
Most importantly, make sure to provide the requested documents on time. Missing the deadline could mean not getting any federal financial aid.
Step 3: Fill out a College Scholarship Service (CSS) profile
The FAFSA might be your only path to receiving federal student aid, but there’s a lesser-known form that might be of use to you. It’s called the CSS Profile. You can fill this out to see if colleges on your wishlist offer aid to supplement the assistance you receive from the federal government.
The CSS Profile also unlocks access to a multitude of grants, which can help reduce your overall student loan debt.
Unfortunately this service comes with an initial $25 fee, plus an additional $16 for every school you add to the list (although there are fee waivers for those who qualify).
In the end, accessing these extra resources might be worth the fee, especially if a CSS Profile can help you receive additional aid from schools that was previously over your budget.
Step 4: Review your financial award letter
After completing your FAFSA, you’ll receive a financial aid award letter from the colleges you listed on the form. The timing of these letters varies from college to college. However, if you’ve already received admissions acceptance from a college but no financial aid award letter, call the school’s office of financial assistance to inquire about the status.
Your financial aid award letter will outline your aid package, such as your subsidized and unsubsidized loans. Using subsidized loans first is ideal since they don’t accrue interest while you’re in school.
There is a limit to how much federal loans you can receive. For example, an undergraduate’s annual limit is typically $5,500 for subsidized loans and $12,500 for unsubsidized loans. Federal loans also impose a maximum amount you can receive during your college career.
Your award letter will also list any additional support you can receive, such as grants or work-study opportunities. If you only received an offer for student loans, you didn’t qualify for free aid.
Remember, you don’t have to take all the aid offered in your package. Scholarships and grants don’t have to be repaid, but student loans do. Prioritize covering your tuition, room and board and books first. Then use part-time work for other living expenses if you want to keep your student loan debt as low as possible.
If you received award letters from more than one school, use our financial aid letter comparison tool to help decide which offer is better and inform your final choice on which college to attend.
Step 5: Appeal award letter if necessary
If you feel greatly disappointed in your aid package, you can write a letter outlining why you think you deserve more funds. The Department of Education allows the school’s financial aid administrator to make a professional judgment on a case-by-case basis.
You will need to provide adequate documentation explaining your extenuating circumstances. For example, if you or your family have experienced a significant loss in income or have incurred extra expenses for medical care, you may be able to get your financial aid package revised.
Again, make sure to gather all necessary forms to document your situation. This appeal is judged solely by your school’s financial aid administrator. If denied again, you can’t make another appeal.
Private student loans: How to apply
Private student loans can help cover gaps when federal student loans come up short, but they come with certain risks.
Some downsides to private student loans include being subjected to a full credit check, accruing interest upon disbursement, ineligibility for federal student loan forgiveness and income-driven repayment plans and limited options for deferment or forbearance.
While these factors don’t need to be deal breakers, you’ll need to understand them before you apply for a school loan from a bank or another private entity. Again, it’s best to exhaust federal options first. About 54% of undergraduates borrow private loans before they’ve used all of their available federal financial aid.
Here are five steps to follow when applying for private student loans:
Step 1: Calculate how much extra you need to borrow
Unlike federal student loans, private student loans typically allow you to cover up to the total amount of your school’s certified cost of attendance. However, it’s wise to minimize how much you borrow since more debt means more interest in the long run.
First, you’ll want to consider all forms of aid: federal student loans, scholarships and grants, funds from your 529 college savings account and any assistance from your parents, such as a parent student loan.
Next, determine how much extra you’ll need for tuition, books and supplies, housing, meals and general entertainment. Consider implementing some budgeting tips to help stretch every dollar.
Once you’ve exhausted all other funding options, it can be worth exploring private lenders to help cover any remaining gaps.
Step 2: Determine your eligibility
Private student loans don’t require proof of financial need like federal loans do. However, private lenders generally require a good credit score and a low debt-to-income (DTI) ratio.
Since most college students have little or no credit history, you’ll likely need to add a cosigner to your loan. If your cosigner has a strong credit history, you can potentially secure a better interest rate and unlock attractive loan terms.
Having a cosigner doesn’t mean you’re off the hook for repayment. Ultimately, the loan and interest are your responsibility. Missing a payment could hurt your credit, along with your cosigner’s.
Because of this, it’s advisable to sign up for automatic payments, which usually include extra discounts. Additionally, try to find loans that offer cosigner release so you can eventually take over the loan yourself.
If you can’t find a cosigner, some lenders offer student loans for bad credit, but keep in mind that they tend to have slightly higher rates.
Most reputable institutions allow you to check to see if you prequalify, which can give you an idea of expected rates and terms. Doing this won’t affect your credit score but can help narrow your search.
Step 3: Research private student lenders
If you’re looking for the right private student loan lender for your situation, you can start by gathering quotes from our top private student loan lenders. (Our lender marketplace could be one place to start.)
Juno, a collective loan bargaining platform, is another way to search for low-interest private student loans.
You can also ask your school if it has a preferred lender list. Make sure you search for the right loan for your education level, such as undergraduate or graduate.
Once you’ve gathered some options, you can compare the following factors:
- Interest rates
- Origination and prepayment fees
- Repayment options
Ultimately, the goal is to find the most cost-effective loan that suits your particular needs. Try our student loan repayment calculator to see how various rates and terms affect the long-term cost of a private student loan.
Step 4: Time your private student loan applications
Unlike filling out the FAFSA for federal financial aid, there’s no deadline for a private student loan application. You can apply any time during the year, which is helpful if you experience unforeseen costs or hardships in the middle of the semester.
However, here are some examples of when it’s important to pay attention to timing:
- Limit hard credit checks. Submitting a formal application results in a hard credit check, affecting your credit score. You can reduce this impact by submitting all applications within 30 days of each other. Credit agencies refer to this as “rate shopping,” which allows you to check multiple rates for a similar product without your credit score getting dinged for every single one.
- Apply before you need the funds. Don’t wait to apply for a private student loan just days before you need the funds. It can take at least several weeks or months before the funds are disbursed. You want to leave yourself plenty of time before a financial disaster hits.
- Repeat next year. Private loans, along with federal loans, don’t automatically renew every year. If you want to avoid the hassle of reapplying each year, consider lenders who offer multi-year loans. For example, Sallie Mae claims that students have around a 90% approval rate when they reapply with a cosigner. You’ll still have to meet credit requirements for additional years of borrowing, but it allows for a more streamlined process.
Step 5: Fill out private student loan form
Every provider will have a different process on how to get a student loan. Once you’ve selected your top loan provider(s), go to their website and follow their instructions. Submit all required paperwork and agree to the lender’s terms and conditions, such as running a credit check.
Most lenders will tell you the results within three to five business days, although some may let you know as soon as 15 minutes. You typically have about 30 days from there to accept the loan offer. If applying for multiple loans, it’s advisable to wait to see if a better rate comes in.
The final rate might be different than initially quoted, so it’s important to read the small print before agreeing to the loan’s terms.
You will then have to wait for your school to verify things on their end. Disbursement timelines will vary, but the lender should release the funds within three weeks to several months.
Alternatives to college loans
Both federal and private student loans serve their purpose by helping millions of students achieve their educational goals. However, keeping an eye open for other options to help minimize your overall student loan debt is important.
Here are guides to some other ways to potentially lighten your financial burden:
These alternative options, along with low-interest student loans, can help make it possible to earn a college degree without taking on too much debt. Ultimately, it’s best to minimize the high-interest loans and maximize the scholarships, grants and federal aid.