How to get a student loan


Paying for college is a challenge for many students. Grants and scholarships are only expanding so far, so borrowing money may be the only way to afford higher education.

a person holding a bookshelf: a woman studying in the college library.

© Tatiana Frank / Shutterstock
A woman studies in the college library.

You can get a student loan from the federal government by completing your Free Application for Federal Student Assistance (FAFSA), or you can apply from a private lender to get the financing you need. Here’s what you need to know about the process.


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How to get a federal student loan

Because federal student loans come with generous protections for borrowers and no credit check, it is best to apply for these first, especially if you are an undergraduate student.

To release federal student loans and federal student assistance, you must first complete the form FAFSA Form. It’s free and comes out in October of each year. Complete it the year before you intend to go to school and reapply with a new FAFSA form every school year.

When you get your results, you will know if you are eligible for subsidized or unsubsidized federal student loans. Subsidized loans are for undergraduates with financial need. If you qualify, the US Department of Education will pay your interest charges while you are in school and during deferment. You pay all the interest charges with an unsubsidized loan.

Here are the steps in the application process:

  1. Create an account. Students will create a Federal Student Aid (FSA) account to complement the FAFSA.
  2. Gather your documents. You can get an overview of the FAFSA on the worksheet provided by FSA. Compile a list of schools that should receive your FAFSA form and gather your social security number, driver’s license number, federal income tax return, proof of income (usually with W-2 forms) and current bank statements . If you are registered as a dependent, you will also need to collect these documents from your parents.
  3. Fill out forms. The FAFSA takes about 30 minutes to complete.
  4. Review your SAR. After you submit the FAFSA, the Department of Education will send you a Student Assistance Report (SAR), which shows you a summary of all the information you entered. Check the accuracy of the SAR.
  5. Receive your offers of financial assistance. The colleges that you have listed on the FAFSA will calculate your financial aid and send you a financial aid letter, which can include a mix of loans, grants, and work-study options.
  6. Accept financial aid. Your financial aid offer may vary depending on each school. Once you have compared the offers and chosen a school, contact the school to accept the financial aid. If it includes federal student loans, the school will tell you how to accept them.

How to get a private student loan

If you’ve reached the borrowing limit on your federal student loan or are not eligible for federal financial aid, you may need to cover some school fees with a private student loan. These come from banks, credit unions and online lenders.

Here’s how to get student loans from a private lender:

  1. Shop around for several lenders. Compare loan amounts, interest rates, fees, and repayment plans. Because you will likely have a relationship with this lender for several years, it is also a good idea to assess their hardship options in case you run into financial problems later. The lender should also have good reviews and responsive customer service.
  2. Check your eligibility. Before you complete an application, determine if your credit history and income meet the lender’s criteria. Most lenders offer prequalification, which lets you see if you qualify and what potential rates you will receive without hurting your credit. If you do not meet the conditions, you will need a co-signer who can.
  3. Complete the request. You will usually need to accept a credit check and provide details such as your school, tuition fees, type of degree, citizenship information, social security number, proof of income, and debts.
  4. Wait for verification. The lender will confirm your tuition fees with your school, which may take a few weeks. Once your school has verified the information, the lender usually pays the funds directly to the school.

Considerations before borrowing

Since student loans are a multi-year commitment, it’s important to allow time to develop a long-term plan. Here are some things to consider before applying for a loan.

Exhaust other resources first

Student loans, whether federal or private, have to be repaid at some point, and all loans come with additional fees in the form of interest. Grants and scholarships, on the other hand, should not be refunded until you meet the conditions.

Some colleges, universities, and vocational schools offer their own financial aid, so find out about your options. You can also apply for scholarships and grants offered by private organization websites like and Fastweb maintain databases of millions of help opportunities. You can also take a part-time job while in school to help defray school fees or rent.

Borrow only what you need

Borrowing the minimum amount you need to pay for your education allows you to lower your monthly payments after graduation. Most schools help you estimate the cost of tuition, fees, and room and board each year.

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Use this information to create a budget to determine how much money you will need. Then subtract the funds you hope to get from scholarships and grants, as well as part-time employment, if applicable. Then consider adding a small tampon on top of that.

If you’re worried about not being successful, the good news is you can change your mind later. As long as it is still the same academic term, you can request the reinstatement of part of your unused student loan allowance.

Think about the long-term impact on your finances

Before applying for a loan, analyze the numbers to understand what you are getting into. Use a student loan calculator to determine what your monthly payments will be after graduation and whether you are comfortable with the amount. Also check how long it will take to pay off the debt and how much interest you will pay over the life of the loan.

Private loans are subject to reservations

Even if private student loans can be a great option when you don’t qualify for sufficient federal help, it’s important to understand the downsides. For starters, private loans don’t qualify for some of the borrower protections that come with federal student loans, such as loan cancellation and income-driven payment plans.

Postponement and tolerance options may also vary depending on the lender. And if the loan has a variable interest rate, it can increase at any time during repayment.

Therefore, it is usually best to consider private loans as a last resort after you have exhausted your federal credit and taken advantage of other forms of assistance.

Other ways to pay for college

Before applying for student loans, which can be extremely expensive, check out your other resources for paying for your education.


Scholarships can come directly from your school or from an outside organization. In most cases, you don’t have to repay this money. Exceptions can include dropping out of college, failing to meet a minimum GPA requirement, or changing major if the scholarship is from a specific program.

Find out what your school has to offer and use scholarship search engines to make the most of the opportunities available to you.


Like scholarships, subsidies generally do not need to be reimbursed, although some may have requirements that you must meet to avoid this. The federal government offers grants to students in financial need, and you can also get one through your school or a private organization.

Work study

Federal work-study program offers part-time jobs to students, both on and off campus. In some cases, schools may have agreements with third party employers to allow you to find employment as part of your studies. The available work-study opportunities will be listed once you have completed your FAFSA.

Part-time work

If you want more flexibility than the work-study program offers, you can consider finding a part-time job on your own. Just make sure you find a job that fits your schedule, and try to avoid conflicts with your lessons and homework.

Benefits for the employer

Some employers offer tuition reimbursement as a benefit for employees. Depending on the employer, there may be conditions. For example, you may need to be with the business for a while before you are eligible. The benefit is also usually capped.

The bottom line

While it’s a good idea to exhaust your grant and scholarship options first, knowing how to get a student loan is an important part of planning for college. Start by filling out the FAFSA to see how much federal help you can get, then look for private student loans to cover your funding gaps.

The work you now put into your student loan applications can help lower your tuition fees so you can focus on your studies and postgraduate career.

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