Students with scores below 650, the minimum usually required to land a private loan, according to Finaid.org, can start cleaning up their scores by obtaining a free copy of their credit report from any of the three major credit bureaus -- Experian, Equifax or TransUnion -- checking for mistakes and paying off outstanding debts, starting with any accounts that have gone into collection first.
No. 2: Get a partner
"When a student is in their junior or senior year and has established a credit record, we can start to look at them taking a loan for themselves. But almost all freshmen and sophomores are going to need a co-signer," says Jeff Hommes, senior vice-president of loan originations for Wells Fargo.
Parents, family members, even trusted friends can serve as loan co-signers, but Hommes warns that to land a loan with Wells Fargo, co-signers should have a credit score above 680, a low debt-to-income ratio on their accounts and at least a few years' worth of established credit history.
No. 3: Mine your relationships
Hommes adds that your best shot of landing a private student loan is by working with institutions that are familiar with your track record.
"If we know the customer and we know their repayment history, it will be more likely that we'll make the loan," he says. "Students should definitely reach out to banks with whom they have an established relationship."
If you don't have a good relationship with one particular institution, perhaps your school does. Before signing onto one particular loan, shop around with institutions on your school's preferred lender list as well as with local community banks and credit unions.
No. 4: Plead your case
If a bank says no, it might have nothing to do with you at all, says Kevin Michaelsen, director of financial assistance for Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C.
"Some of the lenders out there are not approving loans for institutions that have a historically high default rate, especially for-profit schools," he says. "It might be very difficult to get a loan to attend a school with a low graduation rate, too."
For students who attend red-flag institutions as well as those who attend community colleges and low-cost schools that won't require enormous student loans, Michaelsen recommends directly addressing the situation with your lender and asking if a compromise can be made.
No. 5: Think outside the big guys
Of course, you don't have to go to a bank at all. To find the best loan package, Erin Wolfe, the associate director of financial aid for Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa., suggests investigating organizations that don't evaluate credit scores.
"For students that have a gap between their financial aid, their federal loans and the cost of college, we have small institutional loans that have been established by donors. Emergency loans are often available at private and public institutions," she says. "There are also certain Web sites that will put you in direct contact with ordinary people willing to fund educational loans."
While institutional loans frequently don't require a credit check, some peer-to-peer lending sites such as Lendingclub.com and Prosper.com do. One of the few sites that doesn't is GreenNote.com -- a peer-to-peer site devoted exclusively to student loans. It provides an infrastructure where friends, family members and benevolent strangers can fund low-interest microloans for needy students, the sum of which should add up to the cost of college. Students get a fixed-rate loan capped at the same interest rate as a federal unsubsidized Stafford loan without a credit check, co-signer or restrictions on where they can attend school. Friendly funders get a legally binding agreement that they will be repaid bit by bit starting six months after the student graduates.