How To Apply For Student Loans

by TBS Staff

Updated September 12, 2022 is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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This guide offers a quick run down on what you need to know to determine eligibility, apply for, and receive student loans.

Learners wondering how to get a student loan should start by completing a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). In anticipation of filling out a FAFSA, each student should create a username and password, called a FSA ID, that allows them to sign documents online.

Each applicant provides information about their financial situation, plus their date of birth, social security number, and driver's license number. Dependent students may also need to provide a parent or guardian's social security number, while non-citizens must include their USCIS numbers.

Financial information includes federal tax returns, details about loans and related financial holdings, and descriptions of untaxed income. Students also list all schools they have applied to. Learners apply for financial aid either before or after acceptance into a college or university.

Once the Department of Education (ED) evaluates their FAFSA, each applicant receives notice of eligibility for grants, scholarships, and loans. Recipients then accept or decline financial aid, making their choices based on the conditions of each award.

Scholarships and grants provide financial support without having to be repaid, while loans come with repayment obligations. Students should only take out loans once scholarships, grants, and other financial aid awards have been exhausted.

After completing their FAFSA forms, students should contact the financial aid offices at their prospective schools. Financial aid staff can guide students through the application process, offer additional information about potential funding sources, and help them choose the financial aid options that best meet their needs.

Read on to learn more about how to apply for a student loan.


The ED bases eligibility for federal loans on the following criteria:

  • Maintaining satisfactory academic progress
  • U.S. citizenship or status as a U.S. national or eligible non-citizen
  • A valid social security number
  • A high school diploma or GED certificate
  • Certification stating an absence of default status on federal student loans, no money owed on federal student grants, and the promise that all money loaned will be spent on education
  • For male students between the ages of 18 and 25, registration with the Selective Service System for military conscription
  • The absence of a guilty plea in the sale of illegal drugs during the period of federal aid receipt

Types of Financial Aid

Students have several options when it comes to financial aid. Scholarships and grants are typically the best option as they do not require repayment, while loans vary in type and repayment conditions. Learners can apply for federal student loans when they complete the FAFSA.

Federal loans provide financial support through the ED. These loans come with benefits not found with most private loans taken out from banks and lending institutions. There are four types of federal student loans, many of which allow students to delay repayment until after graduation. These loans also offer lower, fixed interest rates and options for loan forgiveness or repayment provisions.

If you find yourself wondering, "how do student loans work?" Find out more with our explanations below.

Federal Student Loans

Direct Subsidized Loans

These loans support undergraduate students enrolled at least half-time at colleges and universities. The ED pays interest on direct subsidized loans while the recipient is enrolled and for at least six months after they leave school. Students may qualify for loan deferment under certain conditions.

Direct Unsubsidized Loans

Both undergraduate and graduate students can receive Direct Unsubsidized Loans. Learners do not need to demonstrate financial need, as schools determine the amount of Direct Unsubsidized Loans offered based on the cost of attendance and other financial aid awards. Students must pay interest on these loans both while enrolled and after leaving school.

Direct PLUS Loans

Direct PLUS Loans are available to graduate and professional students and parents of dependent, undergraduate learners. Direct PLUS Loans have fixed interest rates but are not subsidized. They also include an initial fee, which is deducted from the overall award. These loans serve as supplemental financial aid for costs not covered by other sources of financial aid.

Direct Consolidation Loans

Direct Consolidation Loans allow students to combine their federal loans into one. These loans feature a fixed interest rate determined by the average of the interest rates on all included loans. This means students only need to make a single monthly payment, and it opens access to potential loan repayment plans and loan forgiveness options.

The amount of federal student aid students can borrow each year varies by financial need, program expense, and type of loan. Loan limits and details vary by program, but federal student loans have fixed interest rates and provide more flexible repayment plans than private loans. In some circumstances, borrowers may receive federal student loan forgiveness. Consolidation also helps learners repay their loans with greater efficiency and convenience.

Private Student Loans

Students should only explore private loans as an option for financial aid after all other avenues have been exhausted. Private loans procured through banks and financial institutions may not accommodate the needs of learners, often requiring repayment while the individual is still attending school.

Private loans are unsubsidized, offering no relief on interest rates or payment deferral, and they often have variable interest rates. This subjects students to varying rates of interest at different times and leads to a fluctuating outstanding balance over the life of the loan.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can You Apply for Student Loans Before Being Accepted to College?

Each learner should fill out the FAFSA when applying to college. Students should also list all schools to which they have applied, regardless of whether or not they have been accepted. It is best to understand financial aid eligibility and begin collecting relevant paperwork as early as possible to maximize access to benefits.

How Much Student Loan Debt Is Too Much?

Students need to individually assess how much loan debt they can take on without risking their financial stability and future. Applicants should consider their current financial holdings, potential career earnings, and alternative financial aid options before borrowing only what they need.

Do I Need to Apply for Student Loans Every Year?

Depending on their year in school, the type of program, and overall financial need, students' need for loans may change from year to year. Students must submit a FAFSA every year and should only explore private loans on a short-term basis. This helps ensure that they take out only loans that meet their needs and avoid unnecessary payments on unused funds, which may accrue interest.

How Long Does It Take to Get a Student Loan?

First-time FAFSA applicants may wait as long as 30 days to receive their first disbursement of a student loan. Undergraduate students receiving Direct Subsidized or Unsubsidized Loans must take part in entrance counseling before receiving loan money. Graduate and professional students must similarly participate in entrance counseling in anticipation of PLUS Loan disbursal.

College Financial Resources

Students should explore all available resources as they research loan options. These websites provide information about financial aid opportunities for learners enrolled in both online and on-campus programs. Undocumented, international, and adult learners can also find guidance about how to best apply for and repay student loans.

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