How to Apply for Student Loans: Your Comprehensive Guide

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Although it should be considered a last resort, applying for a student loan has become almost a prerequisite for going to college. These days, it’s rare to find someone who doesn’t need financial aid to pay tuition.

The data speaks for itself. In the 2018-2019 academic year, the average full-time undergraduate received $15,210 in financial aid, according to College Board. And Class of 2018 graduates left school with an average student loan debt of $29,800.

In short, if you think you need to apply for a school loan, you’re not alone. But what you know beforehand can change everything. Here’s our guide on how to apply for a student loan.

How to apply for a student loan in 5 steps
How to evaluate private student loans when federal loans aren’t enough
Before you apply for a student loan, see what you can get for free

How to apply for a student loan in 5 steps

The best thing to do when you must 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.

1. Compile all the information you’ll need to apply for a student loan
2. Use these forms to apply for student loans and free aid
3. Fill out the FAFSA and CSS Profile online
4. Review your Student Aid Report
5. Await your financial aid award letter

1. Compile all the financial information you’ll need to apply for a student loan

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 — making the whole application process easier, even if the form itself takes some time to fill out.

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 financial information you’ll need from your parents — besides your info — to get ready for the FAFSA:

  • FSA ID
  • Driver’s license number
  • 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 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.

2. Use these forms to apply for student loans and free aid

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 wishlist offer aid to supplement what you get from the federal government.

The CSS Profile also unlocks access to grants, not just loans. 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 might 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.

3. Fill out the FAFSA and CSS Profile online

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’ve registered, the entire FAFSA can be filled out online and even be edited later if necessary.

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.

Image source: Federal Student Aid

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.

4. Review your Student Aid Report

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.

5. Await your financial aid 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 can vary from college to college. However, if you’ve already received admissions acceptance from a college but no financial aid award letter, you can call their 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.

Although each college formats award letters uniquely, here’s a sample from the Education Department.

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 aid can give you a nicer lifestyle.

After all, considering the years it will take to repay the loans and all the interest that will accrue on them, you might find that the nicer 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 next steps.

How to evaluate private student loans when federal student loans aren’t enough

Unfortunately, there may be times when federal student loans come up short. Expected Family Contribution 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.

If you need to fill the gap, you could apply for a school loan from a bank, credit union or online company (although you should very carefully consider the pros and cons before you act). Here’s what you need to know about this type of student loan.

1. How to apply for student loans from private lenders
2. How to compare offers when you apply for a private student loan
3. Caveats to be aware of when you apply for private student loans

1. How to apply for student loans from private lenders

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 loan lenders 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.

2. How to compare offers when you apply for a private student loan

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. What should you consider before choosing? Are interest rates the most important thing?

Currently, interest rates for private student loans range anywhere from just under 3% to over 11%. That’s a wide range, but rate isn’t the only thing that matters. Here are a few other things to keep in mind:

  • 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
  • Finally, which lender offers you the lowest interest rate?

As easy as this decision seems — choose the one with your best rate and loan amount, right? — don’t jump into your decision. 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, plus responsive customer service.

3. Caveats to be aware of when you apply for private student loans

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 must understand them before you apply for a school loan from a bank or other 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.

Before you apply for a student loan, see what you can get at no-cost

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 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.

Rebecca Safier and Andrew Pentis contributed to this article.

Need a student loan?

Here are our top student loan lenders of 2021!
LenderVariable APREligibility 
1.04% – 11.98%1Undergraduate, Graduate, and Parents

Visit College Ave

1.25% – 11.35%*,2Undergraduate, Graduate, and Parents

Visit SallieMae

1.05% – 11.44%3Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit Earnest

3.84% – 9.40%4Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit CommonBond

1.24% – 11.99%5Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit Discover

1.78% – 11.89%6Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit SoFi

1.21% – 11.53%7Undergraduate and Graduate

VISIT CITIZENS

2.46% – 12.98%8Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit Ascent

* 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.

CollegeAve Disclosures

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.
 
This informational repayment example uses typical loan terms for a freshman borrower who selects the Deferred Repayment Option with a 10-year repayment term, has a $10,000 loan that is disbursed in one disbursement and a 8.35% fixed Annual Percentage Rate (“APR”): 120 monthly payments of $179.18 while in the repayment period, for a total amount of payments of $21,501.54. Loans will never have a full principal and interest monthly payment of less than $50. Your actual rates and repayment terms may vary. This informational repayment example uses typical loan terms for a first year graduate student borrower who selects the Deferred Repayment Option with a 10-year repayment term, has a $10,000 loan that is disbursed in one disbursement and a 7.10% fixed Annual Percentage Rate (“APR”): 120 monthly payments of $141.66 while in the repayment period, for a total amount of payments of $16,699.21. Loans will never have a full principal and interest monthly payment of less than $50. Your actual rates and repayment terms may vary.

Information advertised valid as of 12/14/2020. 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 Earnest.

Earnest Disclosures

  1. Rates include 0.25% Auto Pay Discount
     
  2. Explanation of Rates “With Autopay” (APD)
    Rates shown include 0.25% APR discount when client agrees to make monthly principal and interest payments by automatic electronic payment. Use of autopay is not required to receive an Earnest loan.

    Available Terms
    For Cosigned loans – 5, 7, 10, 12, 15 years. 
    Primary Only – 10, 12, 15 years

    In school deferred payment is not available in AL, AZ, CA, FL, MA, MD, MI, ND, NY, PA, and WA).


4 Important Disclosures for CommonBond.

CommonBond Disclosures

Offered terms are subject to change and state law restriction. Loans are offered by CommonBond Lending, LLC (NMLS # 1175900), NMLS Consumer Access. If you are approved for a loan, the interest rate offered will depend on your credit profile, your application, the loan term selected and will be within the ranges of rates shown.  If you choose to complete an application, we will conduct a hard credit pull, which may affect your credit score. All Annual Percentage Rates (APRs) displayed assume borrowers enroll in auto pay and account for the 0.25% reduction in interest rate. All variable rates are based on a 1-month LIBOR assumption of 0.15% effective Jan 1, 2021 and may increase after consummation.


5 Important Disclosures for Discover.

Discover Disclosures

  1. Aggregate loan limits apply.
  2. Students who get at least a 3.0 GPA (or equivalent) qualify for a one-time cash reward on each new Discover undergraduate and graduate student loan. Reward redemption period is limited. Please visit DiscoverStudentLoans.com/Reward for any applicable reward terms and conditions.
  3. 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 Auto Debit Reward. The interest rate ranges represent the lowest and highest interest rates offered on Discover student loans, including undergraduate and graduate loans. The fixed interest rate is set at the time of application and does not change during the life of the loan. The variable interest rate is calculated based on the 3-Month LIBOR index plus the applicable margin percentage. For variable interest rate loans, the 3-Month LIBOR is 0.250% as of January 1, 2021. Discover Student Loans may adjust the rate quarterly on each January 1, April 1, July 1 and October 1 (the “interest rate change date”), based on the 3-Month LIBOR Index, published in the Money Rates section of the Wall Street Journal 15 days prior to the interest rate change date, rounded up to the nearest one-eighth of one percent (0.125% or 0.00125). This may cause the monthly payments to increase, the number of payments to increase or both. Our lowest APR is only available to customers with the best credit and other factors. Your APR will be determined after you apply. It will be based on your credit history, which repayment option you choose and other factors, including your cosigner’s credit history (if applicable). Learn more about Discover Student Loans interest rates.
  4. Lowest APRs shown for the Discover Private Consolidation Loan are available for the most creditworthy applicants and include a 0.25% interest rate reduction while enrolled in automatic payments.The variable interest rate is calculated based on the 3-Month LIBOR index plus the applicable margin percentage. For variable interest rate loans, the 3-Month LIBOR is 0.250% as of January 1, 2021. Discover Student Loans may adjust the rate quarterly on each January 1, April 1, July 1 and October 1 (the “interest rate change date”), based on the 3-Month LIBOR Index, published in the Money Rates section of the Wall Street Journal 15 days prior to the interest rate change date, rounded up to the nearest one-eighth of one percent (0.125% or 0.00125). This may cause the monthly payments to increase, the number of payments to increase or both. Our lowest APR is only available to customers with the best credit and other factors. Your APR will be determined after you apply. It will be based on your credit history, which repayment option you choose and other factors, including your cosigner’s credit history (if applicable). Visit Discover.com/student-loans/consolidation.html for more information, including up-to-date interest rates and APRs.
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.

6 Important Disclosures for SoFi.

sofiDisclosures

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).


7 Important Disclosures for Citizens Bank.

Citizens Bank Disclosures

Undergraduate Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 1.21% – 11.53% (1.21% – 11.53% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 3.99% – 11.80% (3.99% – 10.92% APR).

Graduate Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 1.39% – 11.43% (1.39% – 11.14% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 4.39% – 11.70% (4.39%-11.39% APR).

Business/Law Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 1.39% – 8.37% (1.39% – 8.07% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 4.13% – 9.84% (4.13% – 9.12% APR).

Medical/Dental Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 1.39% – 8.37% (1.39% – 8.07% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 4.03% – 8.64% (4.03% – 8.34% APR).

Parent Loan Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 2.13% – 7.44% (2.13%-7.44% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 4.69% – 7.83% (4.69% – 7.83% APR).

Bar Study Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 4.49% – 9.63% (4.49% – 9.56% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 7.39% – 12.94% (7.39% – 12.82% APR).

Medical Residency Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 3.58% – 7.08% (3.58% – 6.80% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 6.99% – 10.49% (6.97% – 10.08% 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 December 1, 2020, the one-month LIBOR rate is 0.14%. 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 Disclosures

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.