How to Get Student Loans Before Starting Grad School

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If you’re planning on attending graduate school, it’s never too early to start thinking about how to pay for it. While scholarships and grants should be your first choice of funding, student loans can help fill in any gaps. You can get a student loan before school starts to make sure you can cover your cost of attendance.

If you’re borrowing federal student loans, this means submitting the FAFSA as close to the date it opens (Oct. 1) as possible. For private student loans, applying early is also a good idea, as it can take several weeks for your application to be processed and your money to be disbursed.

If you’re wondering how to get student loans for grad school, these four steps can help:

1. Estimate the costs of attendance
2. Compare your options for graduate student loans
3. Fill out your FAFSA in October
4. Apply for private loans

1. Estimate the costs of attendance

First things first: You’ll need to figure out how much grad school will actually cost you. And it’s not just tuition you have to worry about — you also need to think about room and board, books, transportation costs and other living expenses.

Most graduate schools have helpful charts on their websites that make it easy to estimate the total cost of attendance. These estimates typically include all school-related costs, in addition to general costs of living on or off campus.

Adjust the school’s estimates to apply to your own situation. For example, if you’ll be living at home, you might not need to include the cost of room and board in your final estimate.

Once you’ve got a good idea of what your costs will be, subtract any scholarships, savings, family contributions, income you’ll earn from working and other sources of funding. This will give you the total amount of money you’ll need to borrow.

2. Compare your options for graduate student loans

Once you know how much you need, you’ll need to figure out where exactly you’ll borrow the money from. When you’re exploring how to get student loans for graduate school, you’ll find you have three primary options:

  • Federal direct loans
  • Grad PLUS loans from the Department of Education
  • Private loans from online lenders, banks and credit unions

Federal direct loans often have the lowest interest and the most flexible repayment terms, so you should first borrow the maximum available to you from federal loans. However, you may not receive enough money from federal direct loans alone, so it’s important to compare other options. The table below gives you a snapshot of each loan’s key features:

Federal Direct Loans Grad PLUS Loans Private Student Loans
Maximum Amount You Can Borrow Annual limit of $20,500. Your school’s financial aid office also imposes limits based on need, which may be lower. Up to the cost of attendance, minus other financial aid you’ve received. Varies by lender. Usually up to the cost of tuition, minus other available financial aid.
Credit Requirements There is no credit check, and your credit score doesn’t determine eligibility. Your eligibility to borrow will be determined based on your credit. You may require an endorser if you can’t qualify based on your credit score alone. Your eligibility to borrow is based on credit and income. You may need a cosigner if you can’t qualify based on your credit score alone.
Interest Rates Fixed rate of 4.30% for loans disbursed between July 1, 2020 and July 1, 2021. Fixed rate of 5.30% for loans disbursed between July 1, 2020 and July 1, 2021. Fixed or variable rates, varies by lender.
Origination Fees 1.057% for loans disbursed between Oct. 1, 2020 and Oct. 1, 2021. 4.228% for loans between Oct. 1, 2020 and Oct. 1, 2021. Varies by lender; many loans have no origination fees.
Repayment Terms Multiple repayment options, including a standard 10-year repayment plan; graduated repayment; and income-driven repayment plans. Multiple repayment options, including a standard 10-year repayment plan; graduated repayment; and income-driven repayment plans. Varies by lender. Terms typically range from five to 20 years.
In-School Repayment Plans You do not have to make payments on your loan while in school. You do not have to make payments on your loan while in school. Varies by lender. Many allow you to defer payments while in school and for up to six months after, or pay interest only while in school.

When you compare loan options, consider not only which loan will cost you the least over time, but also which loan options offer the best borrower protections. You can also use this database from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to find out if there have been complaints about any private lender you’re considering.

3. Fill out your FAFSA in October

Because federal direct loans are often the most affordable source of funds, it’s important to apply for these loans first. Your eligibility to receive federal loans is determined by your Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

The FAFSA becomes available each year in October. If you’ll be attending school in the 2021-22 academic year, you’d fill out the FAFSA that became available in October 2020.

Federal aid is limited, so act as soon as possible. Individual schools and states may also set earlier deadlines by which the FAFSA must be completed, so ensure you meet any deadlines specific to your situation.

When you complete your FAFSA, you’ll provide personal and financial information, including your tax information and details about your savings. Your FAFSA details will be sent to the schools you’re interested in, which will put together a personalized financial aid package and send it to you.

Many schools send financial aid award letters around the same time acceptance letters are sent out. You don’t have to accept all the funding the school offers, but you do need to respond and indicate what types of aid you want to receive.

If you accept federal aid, the funds will be disbursed to the school before the semester begins so your tuition can be paid.

4. Apply for private loans

Figuring out how to get student loans from private lenders can be a bit more complicated, mostly because there are lots of private student loan lenders to choose from. Shop around to see which provider offers your best interest rate and terms.

Consider applying for loans with many different financial institutions including:

  • Online lenders: Check out these private student loan lenders to decide which one(s) to submit an application to.
  • Local and national banks: Visit the websites of banks you’re interested in doing business with to submit an application.
  • Credit unions: Contact credit unions in your area for more information, or use a service such as LendKey, which makes it easy to submit applications to national credit unions and community institutions.

Submitting multiple applications to different lenders is a good idea to comparison shop, but first check if lenders do a soft or hard credit pull. Many lenders allow you to check rates with a soft credit pull that doesn’t affect your credit. A hard credit pull, however, is posted on your credit report — and too many hard inquiries could hurt your credit score.

When you apply for private loans, be prepared to provide:

  • Basic personal information, including your name and address
  • Information about the school you’ll be attending and other sources of financial aid available to you
  • Details about your income and assets
  • Information about any cosigner who will be signing for the loans with you

Many lenders approve or deny an application within a few minutes after submission. The timeline for loan disbursement varies depending upon how quickly your school provides the necessary information to the private lender, though you could get student loans before school starts as long as you apply early.

Now you know how to get student loans before school starts

Now that you understand how to get student loans for grad school, you can secure the funding you need. Just remember not to borrow more than you need, and explore scholarships, grants and other non-loan sources of funds first, so you can minimize the amount you’ll have to pay back after graduation. These scholarship search tools are a good place to start.

Rebecca Safier contributed to this report.

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