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For the vast majority of college students who need to borrow, getting a student loan through the federal government is almost always the best choice. But if you're a graduate student or a parent trying to help your child get through school, you may also want to consider private student loans.
Depending on which type of loan you're going for, here's how to get both federal and private student loans.
How to Get a Federal Student Loan
Federal student loans are offered as financial aid through your school. Because they are funded by the U.S. Department of Education, federal loans come with certain benefits you won't get with private student loans.
Here's how to apply for federal student loans:
- Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).You'll share financial information about yourself and your family to help your school's financial aid office determine how much aid you qualify for in the form of student loans, scholarships, grants and work-study programs. The FAFSA becomes available each year on October 1, but the deadline can vary by state.
- Review your financial aid award letters. If you're an incoming freshman or transfer student, you may have applied to multiple colleges. In that case, you'll receive financial aid award letters from each. Review each one and compare the offers, which include federal student loans, to determine which school to attend. If you're already in school, review the award letter from your college.
- Reply to your aid offer. The award letter will provide you with details on how to respond to your award letter. Note that the student loan portion of the offer is the maximum you qualify for, but you don't have to accept the full amount. You may also be eligible for subsidized student loans, which can save you money on interest. Max out those loans before accepting unsubsidized loans.
- Sign the loan agreement. Once you accept your loan offer, sign the agreement electronically to complete the process.
- Complete entrance counseling. If this is your first time receiving a direct loan, the Department of Education requires you to complete a 30-minute entrance counseling session, which you can do online.
Considerations for Federal Student Loans
Most federal student loans don't require a credit check, so you can even fill out the FAFSA with bad credit or no credit history. Only direct PLUS loans, which are available to graduate and professional students and parents, require a credit check. Even then, the government will only look for very specific negative items, such as defaulting on a loan or declaring bankruptcy.
If you qualify for federal student loans, the terms—including the interest rate, loan fee and repayment period—are standardized, which means everyone who qualifies for a specific type of federal loan gets the same terms.
For example, subsidized and unsubsidized federal loans issued to undergraduates from July 1, 2022, to June 30, 2023, have a fixed interest rate of 4.99%.
How to Get a Private Student Loan
Private student loans are generally less appealing than federal loans because they don't come with loan forgiveness programs, typically carry higher interest rates and rarely have the benefit of income-driven repayment plans.
But if you've maxed out your federal loan limits—there are annual and aggregate caps—or you're a graduate student or parent, they may be worth considering (especially if you have great credit). Here's how to get started:
- Check your credit. Most private student loan companies require a credit score in the upper-600s or higher to get approved. You can check your credit for free with Experian to get an idea of whether you have a good chance of getting approved. If not, you may consider asking a parent or other loved one with good credit to cosign your application.
- Get prequalified with multiple lenders. Most private student loan companies offer prequalification, which allows you to get a rate quote without impacting your credit with a hard inquiry. Go through this process with a handful of lenders, so you can compare interest rates, repayment terms and other features side by side.
- Choose a lender and apply. Once you've determined which lender offers the best mix of terms for your needs, apply directly with that lender through its website. You'll typically need to provide some basic information about yourself (and your cosigner, if applicable), your school, your degree program and how much you want to borrow.
- Review and accept the loan offer. If you're approved, the lender will provide you with an offer based on your creditworthiness—the terms may or may not be the same as the quote you initially received during prequalification. If you agree to the terms, sign the contract electronically, and the lender will disburse the proceeds directly to your school.
Considerations for Private Student Loans
Private student loan terms and features can vary significantly depending on the lender. If you don't have a parent or loved one who can cosign your loan, there are lenders that specialize in working with independent students. However, the interest rates can be significantly higher, especially if you don't have an established credit history.
In addition to interest rates and repayment terms, you may also want to compare cosigner release policies, forbearance options, customer satisfaction ratings and any other feature that's important to you.
Alternatives to Student Loans
While student loans can be a convenient way to help you get through school, reducing how much you borrow can make a huge difference for your financial security down the road. Here are some other ways you can pay for college that don't require you to pay the money back at a later date.
- Scholarships: Check your school's website to see whether it offers scholarships for academic, athletic or other reasons, and if you're eligible. Also, search private scholarship databases on websites like Scholarships.com and Fastweb.
- Grants: Part of the financial aid process includes grants for students who have financial need, so filling out your FAFSA is always a good idea, even if you don't plan to borrow money. You may also be able to find grants through private scholarship databases.
- Part-time work: If your class schedule allows it, search for on-campus or off-campus jobs to help you pay for tuition, fees or other educational and living expenses. Even if you only work a handful of hours a week, your income can add up over time and help you avoid thousands of dollars in debt over the course of your college career.
It's also important to keep in mind that picking a less expensive school and looking for other ways to keep your costs down while you're in college can go a long way in helping you reduce your reliance on student loans.
Build Credit for Future Borrowing Needs
Your time in college is an excellent time to start building your credit history. The sooner you start, the better equipped you'll be to get financing after graduation, whether to buy a home or a car or to qualify for a credit card.
While student loans can help you build credit, they won't do much until you start making payments, which won't happen for most until after graduation. Student credit cards can be a great way to build credit because, as long as you keep your balance low and pay your bill on time and in full every month, you can avoid interest charges.
While you work to build credit, monitor your credit score regularly to keep track of your progress and address any potential issues as they arise.