Note that the situation for student loans has changed due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and relief efforts from the government, student loan lenders and others. Check out our Student Loan Hero Coronavirus Information Center for additional news and details.
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If you need to borrow money for college, your first step is learning how to apply for student loans the right way.
We recommend exhausting your options for federal student loans before turning to private sources. Since federal loans tend to come with lower rates and more flexible repayment terms, they should be your first stop as a borrower. But if you need additional funding, it could be worth applying for student loans from a private lender.
The process varies, so we’ll walk you through how to apply for a student loan from the federal government, before looking at how to apply with a bank or other private lender.
- How to apply for a student loan in 5 steps
- How to evaluate private student loans when federal student loans aren’t enough
- Before you apply for a student loan, see what you can get at no cost
- FAQs: Applying for student loan
The best thing to do when you need to apply for a student loan is to get going as soon as you can. Federal student loans are borrowed on a first-come, first-served basis, so you’ll have the most access to financial aid the earlier you apply.
What’s more, the first time applying could be a bit overwhelming, so the more you can get ahead of the game, the easier the whole process will be to handle.
- Compile all the information you’ll need to apply for a student loan
- Use these forms to apply for student loans and free aid
- Fill out the FAFSA and CSS Profile online
- Review your Student Aid Report
- Await your financial aid award letter
To obtain federal student aid, you’ll have to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, otherwise known as the FAFSA. As the name implies, the form is free and puts you in the running for financial aid for college, including federal student loans.
The FAFSA comes out in October each year, and you’ll need to apply the year before you’re planning on attending school — and then reapply each year until the year before you graduate.
Since there’s a lot of information on the form, it might be ideal to start compiling what you need in September. That way, you’ll have everything you need to apply the day the application comes out.
Here’s a list of some of the information you — or your parents — will need from to get ready for the FAFSA:
- Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID
- Driver’s license number (optional)
- Social Security number or Alien Registration Number
- Federal income tax returns, plus records of untaxed earnings, including private financial aid
- Statements for bank and investment accounts and other assets
- List of up to 10 schools where you want your FAFSA submitted
Think you shouldn’t have to use your parents’ information on the FAFSA? Even if your parents don’t intend to help you pay for college, or if you live on your own, you might still be required to include them. Double check with our guide on FAFSA dependency status.
Finally, if you want to see for yourself which questions might be asked on the FAFSA, here’s a worksheet provided by Federal Student Aid to help you prepare.
As you can probably already see, the FAFSA is your only path to applying for federal student loans. If you don’t fill out your FAFSA, you can’t get federal student aid for college.
However, there’s a lesser-known form that might be of use to you. It’s called the CSS Profile, and it helps you obtain institutional aid from specific colleges. You can fill this out to see if some of the colleges on your wish list offer aid to supplement what you get from the federal government.
The CSS Profile also unlocks access not just to loans, but also to grants. That means you might be able to take out even fewer loans for college, reducing the amount of debt you have to pay back.
But the CSS Profile isn’t free — there’s an initial $25 fee, plus an additional $16 for every school you add to the list (although there are also fee waivers for those who qualify).
An advantage of the CSS Profile is that colleges you thought were out of your reach financially could suddenly become a real option if you qualify for their aid. In that case, the small fee for the application might be worth it in the end.
When it comes time to fill out your FAFSA and — if you so choose — your CSS Profile, it might be easiest to do so electronically.
You or your parents can register for access to the FAFSA through fafsa.gov. After you’re registered, the entire FAFSA can be filled out online, and even edited later if necessary. You can also apply via the FAFSA mobile app.
While you’re at it, you can skip some of the steps above by using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to autofill much of the necessary financial information. However, it can’t hurt to gather the paperwork in advance anyway, just in case you run into issues using this tool.
And if you choose to fill out the CSS Profile, you can do so via College Board. To make sure your desired colleges are included, review the list of participating schools before you pay to fill out an application.
After you fill out your FAFSA, you’ll receive what’s called a Student Aid Report, showing you a summary of all the information you’ve entered. It can take from three days to three weeks to get this report. It’s important to review it for accuracy as soon as possible and edit your FAFSA if necessary.
Remember, aid is first-come, first-served — don’t delay on fixing any errors that might exist on your FAFSA.
There might also be times when the school you included on your FAFSA selects you for verification. If that happens, you might simply need to provide extra documentation to confirm what you entered on your FAFSA. According to Federal Student Aid, this isn’t something to worry about — some schools might do this randomly, while others require it for everyone.
The most important thing is to provide whatever documentation you’re being asked for on time, as missing the deadline could mean not getting any federal financial aid.
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, you can call its financial aid office to inquire about the letter’s status.
Your financial aid award letter will tell you everything you need to know regarding what you qualify for. If you qualify for grants or a work-study opportunity, for example, that information will be there. If you only received an offer for student loans, then you didn’t qualify for free aid.
Among the loans offered to you, you might see a mixture of subsidized and unsubsidized loans. Subsidized loans don’t accrue interest while you’re in school, so it’s best to use those first (but only after applying for scholarships and grants and accounting for work-study program earnings).
Remember that you don’t have to take all the aid offered to you. Scholarships and grants don’t have to be repaid, but student loans do. Only take what you need, even if accepting more assistance can afford you a nicer lifestyle.
After all, considering the years it’ll take to repay the loans and all the interest that will accrue on them, you might find that the alluring lifestyle in college wasn’t worth it. Cover your tuition, room and board and books. Then use part-time work for other living expenses if you want to keep your student loan debt as low as possible.
And if you received award letters from more than one school, make sure you compare aid packages before deciding on your next steps.
Unfortunately, there may be times when federal student loans come up short. Expected Family Contribution (EFC) plays a big role in how much you’ll be approved for — whether or not your family can or will help you pay for your tuition.
Note that the term “EFC” will be going away in the 2022-23 application cycle. It will be replaced by the term “Student Aid Index” or “SAI”, which, though similar to the EFC, will be calculated somewhat differently. This Student Aid Index will still be the benchmark for determining how much financial aid you receive, but it will no longer suggest that your family is “expected” to contribute a certain amount that they may or may not be able to afford.
Whether your EFC was too high or you ran up against the limits of federal student loan borrowing, you could fill a gap in funding by applying for a school loan from a bank, credit union or online lender. Here’s what you need to know about this type of student loan:
- How to apply for student loans from private lenders
- How to compare offers when you apply for a private student loan
- Caveats to be aware of when you apply for private student loans
Private student loans come from lenders outside of the government. You can apply for a student loan directly through those lenders the same way you’d apply for many other types of loans. As a first step, check out our guide to how some of the top private student loans stack up.
When you apply, there’s a good chance you’ll need a cosigner. That’s because, at your age, you probably haven’t had an opportunity to build credit or a solid income yet — two factors that determine your chances of approval for a loan.
You might seek out a parent or family member to become your cosigner, but know what you’re getting them into, as well. If you default on your loan at any time in the future — even a few months away from total repayment — the loan will become their responsibility.
In other words, if you think the loan is too much for you ever to repay, don’t borrow it with a cosigner either.
Let’s say you and a cosigner have applied for a few different private student loans to see which one gives you your best offer.
Currently, interest rates for private student loans range anywhere from as low as 1% to as high as 13%. Checking your rates with a few different lenders will help you find a student loan with the lowest long-term costs of borrowing.
However, there are a few other things to keep in mind when searching for a lender:
- Which lender offers you enough to fill your tuition gap?
- Does the lender with your best offer also have benefits such as deferment or forbearance?
- What do reviews of the lender have to say?
- Does the lender offer a soft credit check to apply for a student loan?
While finding the lowest rate is certainly a priority, don’t forget these other factors, as well. This is a lender you’ll likely have a relationship with for one or two decades. Be sure they have good reviews and options to help if you hit some financial bumps in the road.
When you’re comparing offers, use our student loan repayment calculator to crunch the numbers and see exactly what repaying your loan will look like.
Private student loans can seem like a miracle tool when federal student loans come up short, but they’re not without risks. Here are a few issues to be aware of before you take on a private loan:
- Private student loans aren’t eligible for federal student loan forgiveness.
- Private student loans don’t come with income-driven repayment plans.
- Some private student loans have deferment or forbearance as an option, but this can vary by lender.
- If you take on a private student loan with a variable interest rate, that rate can jump up at any time — remember, you might be paying for 10 to 20 years, so that’s a definite risk.
- Private student loans aren’t regulated by the government the way federal student loans are, which can mean fewer protections for the borrower.
- Taking on a cosigner for a private student loan puts your cosigner’s finances at risk if you should ever pay late or default.
While these factors by no means have to be deal breakers, you’ll need to understand them before you apply for a school loan from a bank or another private entity. These are real financial products with real financial consequences (a fact that is also true of your federal student loans), so choose wisely.
There’s one important question to ask yourself before you apply for school loans and accept one (or more): Have you done all you can to obtain money for college?
Filling out your FAFSA is a great start to seeing what kind of federal scholarships, grants and work-study programs you can qualify for — not just student loans. But don’t stop there.
Here are a few more ways to get money for college:
- Apply for grants. You might find some specifically suited to your own situation, such as where you live or the subject you want to study.
- Look for scholarships. You don’t have to be a star student to get a scholarship. You can find them based on activities you do, things you’re interested in and even your heritage.
- Search for colleges with the best financial aid. Some schools, especially so-called no loans colleges, pride themselves on being able to offer aid to students in need. Give them a try, even if you think they won’t be able to help you.
Before you apply for a student loan, learn as much as you can about how and when you’ll receive funding for school. Here are some frequently asked questions that could inform your decision:
- How much can I borrow in student loans?
- How long does it take to get a private student loan?
- How can I get a student loan fast?
The highest amount of student loans you can borrow depends on your loan type. For federal loans, your allotment also depends on your year in school and your dependency status. For instance, undergraduates can currently borrow between $5,500 and $12,500 in Direct Loans per year. Graduate and professional students, meanwhile, can borrow up to $20,500 in Direct Loans before covering any additional need via Direct PLUS Loans or private loans.
For private student loans, lenders generally allow creditworthy borrowers to receive up to 100% of their school’s annual cost of attendance. Keep in mind that aggregate loan limits apply, however. Your overall loan limit could hinge upon your degree program.
Applying for federal student loans occurs almost automatically after completing the FAFSA. It works differently with private loans: You must apply on schedule to ensure funding arrives in time to pay for your next year of school. Even beyond the application process, it can take days or weeks for you to gain approval, have your loan certified by your college or university, and see the funds delivered. With that in mind, reputable lender College Ave recommends applying with potential lenders no later than a month before starting a new semester.
To get a private student loan on a speedy timetable, it’s wise to find a cosigner ahead of time, shop around with lenders that offer prequalification (via a soft credit check, as noted above ), and have all your financial information handy for applying.
There may be other times when even thoughtful planning could leave you needing last-minute loans. Perhaps your federal and institutional aid surprisingly falls short of your cost of attendance or your finances take a hit in the middle of a semester. Fortunately, there are emergency student loans for these scenarios. Your college or university may offer such emergency loans of smaller amounts to at least help while you wait on greater funding from a private lender.
Need a student loan?Here are our top student loan lenders of 2021!
|1.04% – 11.98%1||Undergraduate, Graduate, and Parents|
|1.13% – 11.23%*,2||Undergraduate, Graduate, and Parents|
|1.24% – 11.99%3||Undergraduate and Graduate|
|1.78% – 11.89%4||Undergraduate and Graduate|
|1.05% – 11.44%5||Undergraduate and Graduate|
|2.76% – 7.14%6||Undergraduate and Graduate|
|2.46% – 12.98%7||Undergraduate and Graduate|
|* The Sallie Mae partner referenced is not the creditor for these loans and is compensated by Sallie Mae for the referral of Smart Option Student Loan customers. |
1 Important Disclosures for College Ave.
College Ave Student Loans products are made available through either Firstrust Bank, member FDIC or M.Y. Safra Bank, FSB, member FDIC. All loans are subject to individual approval and adherence to underwriting guidelines. Program restrictions, other terms, and conditions apply.
Rates shown are for the College Ave Undergraduate Loan product and include autopay discount. The 0.25% auto-pay interest rate reduction applies as long as a valid bank account is designated for required monthly payments. Variable rates may increase after consummation.
Information advertised valid as of 4/22/2021. Variable interest rates may increase after consummation. Lowest advertised rates require selection of full principal and interest payments with the shortest available loan term.
2 Sallie Mae Disclaimer: Click here for important information. Terms, conditions and limitations apply.
3 Important Disclosures for Discover.
Lowest APRs shown for Discover Student Loans are available for the most creditworthy applicants for undergraduate loans, and include an interest-only repayment discount and a 0.25% interest rate reduction while enrolled in automatic payments.
4 Important Disclosures for SoFi.
UNDERGRADUATE LOANS: Fixed rates from 4.23% to 11.26% annual percentage rate (“APR”) (with autopay), variable rates from 1.88% to 11.66% APR (with autopay). GRADUATE LOANS: Fixed rates from 4.13% to 11.37% APR (with autopay), variable rates from 1.78% to 11.73% APR (with autopay). MBA AND LAW SCHOOL LOANS: Fixed rates from 4.30% to 11.52% APR (with autopay), variable rates from 1.95% to 11.89% APR (with autopay). PARENT LOANS: Fixed rates from 4.60% to 10.76% APR (with autopay), variable rates from 1.88% to 11.16% APR (with autopay). For variable rate loans, the variable interest rate is derived from the one-month LIBOR rate plus a margin and your APR may increase after origination if the LIBOR increases. Changes in the one-month LIBOR rate may cause your monthly payment to increase or decrease. Interest rates for variable rate loans are capped at 13.95%, unless required to be lower to comply with applicable law. Lowest rates are reserved for the most creditworthy borrowers. If approved for a loan, the interest rate offered will depend on your creditworthiness, the repayment option you select, the term and amount of the loan and other factors, and will be within the ranges of rates listed above. The SoFi 0.25% autopay interest rate reduction requires you to agree to make monthly principal and interest payments by an automatic monthly deduction from a savings or checking account. The benefit will discontinue and be lost for periods in which you do not pay by automatic deduction from a savings or checking account. Information current as of 11/04/2020. Enrolling in autopay is not required to receive a loan from SoFi. SoFi Lending Corp., licensed by the Department of Business Oversight under the California Financing Law License No. 6054612. NMLS #1121636 (www.nmlsconsumeraccess.org).
5 Important Disclosures for Earnest.
6 Important Disclosures for Citizens Bank.
Citizens Bank Disclosures
Undergraduate Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 2.76% – 7.14% (2.76% – 7.14% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 3.01% – 7.50% (3.01% – 7.50% APR).
Graduate Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 2.19% – 6.73% (2.19% – 6.73% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 2.89% – 7.09% (2.89%-7.09% APR).
Business/Law Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 1.36% – 9.54% (1.36% – 8.82% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 4.13% – 9.84% (4.13% – 9.12% APR).
Medical/Dental Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 1.36% – 8.34% (1.36% – 8.04% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 4.03% – 8.64% (4.03% – 8.34% APR).
Parent Loan Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 2.10% – 7.41% (2.10%-7.41% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 4.69% – 7.83% (4.69% – 7.83% APR).
Bar Study Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 4.45% – 9.60% (4.45% – 9.53% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 7.39% – 12.94% (7.38% – 12.81% APR).
Medical Residency Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 3.55% – 7.05% (3.55% – 6.77% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 6.99% – 10.49% (6.97% – 10.07% APR).
Variable Rate Disclosure: Variable Rates are based on the one-month London Interbank Offered Rate (“LIBOR”) published in The Wall Street Journal on the twenty-fifth day, or the next business day, of the preceding calendar month. As of March 1, 2021, the one-month LIBOR rate is 0.11%. Variable interest rates will fluctuate over the term of the loan with changes in the LIBOR rate, and will vary based on applicable terms, level of degree and presence of a co-signer. The maximum variable rate is the greater of 21.00% or Prime Rate plus 9.00%.
Fixed Rate Disclosure: Fixed rate ranges are based on applicable terms, level of degree, and presence of a co-signer.
Lowest Rate Disclosure: Lowest rates require a 5-year repayment term, immediate repayment, a graduate degree (where applicable), and include our Loyalty and Automatic Payment discounts of 0.25 percentage points each, as outlined in the Loyalty Discount and Automatic Payment Discount disclosures. Rates are subject to additional terms and conditions, and are subject to change at any time without notice. Such changes will only apply to applications taken after the effective date of change.
Federal Loan vs. Private Loan Benefits: Some federal student loans include unique benefits that the borrower may not receive with a private student loan, some of which we do not offer. Borrowers should carefully review federal benefits, especially if they work in public service, are in the military, are considering possible loan forgiveness options, are currently on or considering income based repayment options or are concerned about a steady source of future income and would want to lower their payments at some time in the future. When the borrower refinances, they waive any current and potential future benefits of their federal loans. For more information about federal student loan benefits and federal loan consolidation, visit http://studentaid.ed.gov/. We also have several resources available to help the borrower make a decision on our website including Should I Refinance My Student Loans? and our FAQs. Should I Refinance My Student Loans? includes a comparison of federal and private student loan benefits that we encourage the borrower to review.
Eligibility Criteria: Applicants must be a U.S. citizen, permanent resident, or eligible non-citizen with a creditworthy U.S. citizen or permanent resident co-signer. For applicants who have not attained the age of majority in their state of residence, a co-signer is required. Citizens Bank reserves the right to modify eligibility criteria at any time. Citizens Bank private student loans are subject to credit qualification, completion of a loan application/Promissory Note, verification of application information, and if applicable, self-certification form, school certification of the loan amount, and student’s enrollment at a Citizens Bank participating school.
Loyalty Discount Disclosure: The borrower will be eligible for a 0.25 percentage point interest rate reduction on their loan if the borrower or their co-signer (if applicable) has a qualifying account in existence with us at the time the borrower and their co-signer (if applicable) have submitted a completed application authorizing us to review their credit request for the loan. The following are qualifying accounts: any checking account, savings account, money market account, certificate of deposit, automobile loan, home equity loan, home equity line of credit, mortgage, credit card account, or other student loans owned by Citizens Bank, N.A. Please note, our checking and savings account options are only available in the following states: CT, DE, MA, MI, NH, NJ, NY, OH, PA, RI, and VT and some products may have an associated cost. This discount will be reflected in the interest rate disclosed in the Loan Approval Disclosure that will be provided to the borrower once the loan is approved. Limit of one Loyalty Discount per loan and discount will not be applied to prior loans. The Loyalty Discount will remain in effect for the life of the loan.
Automatic Payment Discount Disclosure: Borrowers will be eligible to receive a 0.25 percentage point interest rate reduction on their student loans owned by Citizens Bank, N.A. during such time as payments are required to be made and our loan servicer is authorized to automatically deduct payments each month from any bank account the borrower designates. Discount is not available when payments are not due, such as during forbearance. If our loan servicer is unable to successfully withdraw the automatic deductions from the designated account three or more times within any 12-month period, the borrower will no longer be eligible for this discount.
7 Important Disclosures for Ascent.
Ascent Student Loans are funded by Richland State Bank (RSB), Member FDIC. Loan products December not be available in certain jurisdictions. Certain restrictions, limitations; and terms and conditions December apply. For Ascent Terms and Conditions please visit: www.AscentStudentLoans.com/Ts&Cs
Rates are effective as of 12/01/2020 and reflect an automatic payment discount of 0.25% on the lowest offered rate and a 2.00% discount on the highest offered rate. Automatic Payment Discount is available if the borrower is enrolled in automatic payments from their personal checking account and the amount is successfully withdrawn from the authorized bank account each month. For Ascent rates and repayment examples please visit: www.AscentStudentLoans.com/Rates
1% Cash Back Graduation Reward subject to terms and conditions. Click here for details.