How to Apply for a Student Loan

Federal or private, learn about the student loan application process

A college student looks over student loan deadlines.

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Federal student loan and private student loan applications are similar, but each requires that certain steps be taken before students or parents will know if they qualify. From forms to deadlines, the process to apply for a student loan may differ depending on the type of loan and the lender. And if you’re planning to pay for several years of college with student loans, you may need to apply for them each year that you or your child plans to attend school. Here’s what you need to know about applying for federal student loans and private student loans.

How to Apply for a Federal Student Loan

Applying for a federal student loan begins with filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, better known as the FAFSA. This application is the basis by which schools put together your financial aid package, which may include grants, work-study programs, and student loans.

You can fill out your FAFSA at or by downloading the myStudentAid app on your smartphone. Also, you can order a paper copy of the application by phone or print a PDF version to submit by mail.

You can start filling out the FAFSA as of October 1 every year, which applies for the following school year. The deadline to submit it is June 30.

Many states have earlier application deadlines to be eligible for their own grant and scholarship programs. You can find your state’s deadlines on the first page of your FAFSA.

If you meet a basic series of requirements, you can fill out the FAFSA and may be eligible to receive aid even if you don’t think you’ll need it. Some of those requirements include:

  • A valid Social Security number
  • High school diploma or GED
  • Enrolling in a degree-seeking program and maintain progressing
  • Staying current (and not defaulting) on other federal student debt

The FAFSA form will take a bit of time to fill out, but you may be able to complete the application in less than one hour. Thankfully, you can save your progress and come back to it later if you use the online application. To speed things along, you’ll want to have the following information handy:

  • Your Social Security number
  • Your Alien Registration Number, if you are not a U.S. citizen
  • Driver’s license, if you have one
  • Your federal tax return and W-2 forms
  • Bank statements
  • Documentation of income
  • All of the above from your parents, if you are listed as a dependent

As you go through the form, you will fill in details on the student’s high school education, all forms of income, assets, and schools they’d like to attend.

How Your Aid Is Calculated Based on Your FAFSA

Within three to five days after you finish the FAFSA (seven to 10 days for a mailed application), the U.S. Department of Education will email you a Student Aid Report (SAR) that includes your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Your EFC is the number the government uses to assess how much financial aid you can get.

The EFC will be phased out beginning with the 2023-2024 award year and replaced with the Student Aid Index (SAI). The SAI is a new name, but the concept is the same: to indicate a student's eligibility for the distribution of funds. The change is part of the FAFSA Simplification Act.

The Department of Education subtracts your EFC from the cost of attendance of the schools you listed on the FAFSA. The difference between those two numbers will be the amount of need-based aid you qualify for. Funding that’s considered “need-based” includes: 

  • Federal Pell grants
  • Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG)
  • Direct subsidized loans
  • Federal work-study

The colleges you list on your FAFSA will then be responsible for offering you a financial aid package. You’ll need to contact the financial aid office to see if they have any additional steps for you to take.

You will then have the opportunity to accept the different forms of aid the schools offer you. The Department of Education recommends that students or parents take the free money first (scholarships and grants), earned money second (work-study), and borrowed money last.

If you still need more money to pay for school after you accept scholarships and need-based aid, you’ll have to get “non-need-based aid.” The maximum non-need-based aid you can get is equal to the cost of attendance minus your need-based aid and scholarships. Your school’s financial aid office will help you obtain non-need-based aid, which comes in three forms of federal aid: 

  • Direct unsubsidized loans
  • Direct PLUS loans
  • Teacher Education Access for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grants

If you accept a loan amount lower than what you were approved for, you can increase your loan later if your expenses are higher than anticipated.

How to Apply for a Private Loan

If you need loans to pay for school, the Department of Education recommends you start with federally-backed student loans. However, if you hit your federal student loan borrowing limit—which starts at $5,500 for a first-year undergraduate student—or you do not qualify for financial aid, you may need to turn to private student loans to help cover the cost of college.

Private student loans are issued by banks, credit unions, and other lenders based on your credit profile and other factors. That means the lender will do a hard credit check before deciding if you qualify for a student loan. Private lenders tend to be more expensive than federal loans and may not offer the same types of deferment, forbearance, and income-driven repayment programs that federal loans do.

The application process is set by the lender, though they’ll likely ask for a lot of the same personal information that you’ll need for the FAFSA. Many lenders offer online applications, which make it easy to apply right from home. You may be able to apply in person at a branch of the bank or credit union of your choice, too.

Pay attention to your repayment options. Some private student lenders allow you to make interest-only payments while you’re in school, or wait until you’ve graduated to start paying them back. The option you choose will impact how much you end up paying overall.

Your private student lender will ask you to specify how much you’d like to borrow, though some have minimums. For example, SoFi has a minimum loan amount of $5,000, while Citizens Bank has a minimum loan amount of $1,000. Some private lenders also may require a co-signer. The good thing is that there is no deadline to apply.

If you’re applying for private student loans, you may want to shop around. In most cases, you’ll be able to find the rate and terms you qualify for online.

Key Takeaways

  • Federal and private student loan applications require similar information, though deadlines and requirements may vary.
  • The FAFSA is the first step in applying and potentially qualifying for federal student loans, as well as grants, scholarships, and work-study programs.
  • Private student loan lenders may have no application deadlines, but qualification is based on your credit profile and some may have minimum loan amounts or co-signers required.