Paying for college is a challenge for many students. Grant and scholarship dollars only stretch so far, so borrowing money may be the only way to afford higher education.

You can get a student loan through the federal government by filling out your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), or you can apply with a private lender to get the financing you need. Many students will finance part of their education through federal loans and apply for private loans to cover any gaps. The application processes for federal and private student loans are separate, and lending terms tend to differ.

Evaluating all of the funding options, as well as their potential benefits and pitfalls, is a smart approach for cobbling together a payment plan. Before borrowing any loan, you may want to use a student loan calculator to know what to expect after graduation when the time comes for repayment.

How to get a federal student loan

Because federal student loans come with generous borrower protections and no credit check, it’s best to apply for these first, especially if you’re an undergraduate student.

To unlock federal student loans and federal student aid, you’ll first need to fill out the FAFSA form. It’s free and opens in October each year. Fill it out the year before you plan to attend school and reapply with a new FAFSA form each school year.

​​When you get your results, you’ll find out whether you qualify for subsidized or unsubsidized federal student loans. Subsidized loans are for undergraduate students with financial needs. If you qualify, the U.S. Department of Education will pay your interest costs while you attend school and during deferment. You pay all interest costs with an unsubsidized loan, and that interest starts accruing at the time of disbursement.

Here’s how to apply for a federal student loan:

  1. Set up an account. Before you apply for a federal student loan, you have to create a Federal Student Aid (FSA) account to complete the FAFSA online.
  2. Gather your documents. You can get a sneak peek of the FAFSA on the worksheet provided by the FSA. Compile a list of schools that should receive your FAFSA form and gather your Social Security number, driver’s license number, federal tax return, proof of income (usually with W-2 forms) and current bank statements. If you’re listed as a dependent, you’ll have to collect these materials from your parents, as well.
  3. Fill out the 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 Aid Report (SAR), which shows you a summary of all the information you’ve entered. Review the SAR for accuracy.
  5. Receive your financial aid offers. The colleges you listed on the FAFSA will calculate your financial aid and send you a financial aid letter, which may include a mix of loans, grants and work-study options.
  6. Complete loan counseling. Before you receive a loan, you’re required to complete loan entrance counseling to learn how your loan works, including repayment terms and how to avoid defaulting. You’ll also be required to sign a promissory note before accepting the loan.
  7. Accept your financial aid offer. The amount of aid you’re offered will vary by school. Once you’ve compared 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 hit your federal student loan borrowing limit or don’t qualify for federal financial aid, you may need to cover the remaining academic costs 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 with multiple lenders. Compare loan amounts, interest rates, discounts, benefits, fees and repayment plans. Because you’ll likely have a relationship with this lender for several years, it’s also a good idea to evaluate its hardship options in case of financial trouble later on. The lender should also have good reviews and responsive customer service.
  2. Check your eligibility. Before applying, determine whether your credit history and income meet the lender’s qualifications. You can check your credit reports for free weekly through Dec. 30, 2023 at To qualify for a private student loan on your own, you generally need to have good credit, which is generally a FICO score 670 or above. Most lenders offer prequalification, which allows you to see if you qualify and what potential rates you’ll receive without hurting your credit. If you don’t meet the requirements, you’ll need a co-signer who can.
  3. Complete the application. You’ll typically need to agree to a credit check and provide details such as your school, cost of attendance, type of degree, citizenship information, Social Security number, proof of income and debt obligations. Depending on the lender, the application process can take a few minutes to a few days to complete.
  4. Wait for verification. The lender will confirm your cost of attendance with your school, which may take a few weeks. Once your school verifies the information, the lender typically releases the funds directly to the school.

Considerations before you borrow

Because student loans are a years-long commitment, it’s important to set aside some time to make a long-term plan. Here are a few things to consider before you apply 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 an additional charge in the form of interest. Grants and scholarships, on the other hand, don’t have to be repaid as long as you meet the requirements.

Some colleges, universities and career schools offer institutional grants, so ask the financial aid office about your options. You can also apply for scholarships and grants offered by private organizations — scholarship search engines maintain databases that list millions of aid opportunities. You can also take a part-time job during school to help defray the costs of tuition or rent.

Borrow only what you need

Borrowing the minimum amount you need to pay for school helps keep your monthly payments lower after graduation. Schools are required to disclose the estimated cost of tuition, fees and room and board each year in the form of the total cost of attendance (COA). This is often found on the school’s website.

Use your school’s COA to create a budget to determine how much money you’ll need per academic year. Then subtract any funds you expect to get from scholarships and grants, as well as from a part-time job, if applicable. The remaining costs can then be financed by private student loans.

Think about the long-term financial impact

Before applying for loans, crunch the numbers to understand the long-term impact of loans on your financial health. Use a student loan calculator to figure out what your monthly payments will be after graduation and whether you’re comfortable with the amount. Also, check how long it will take to pay off the debt and how much interest you’ll pay over the life of the loan.

Private loans vs. federal loans

Although private student loans can be a great option when you don’t qualify for enough federal aid, it’s important to understand the differences. For starters, private loans aren’t eligible for some of the borrower protections that come with federal student loans, such as loan forgiveness and income-driven payment plans.

Deferment and forbearance also vary by lender, and if the loan comes with a variable interest rate, it can increase anytime during repayment.

As a result, it’s usually best to consider private loans as a last resort after you’ve exhausted your federal loan allotment and have taken advantage of other forms of aid.

Other ways to pay for college

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

Unlike student loans, scholarships and grants don’t have to be repaid. If you qualify for them, they can reduce your need to take on loans to pay for college. In addition, if you have some free time outside of studying and completing homework, picking up a part-time job can also help you pay for tuition and other college-related expenses. Some employers may even offer tuition reimbursement as a benefit, though you may have to work for a certain amount of time to qualify.

The bottom line

Knowing how to get a student loan is a crucial part of planning for college, especially if you’ve exhausted your scholarship and grant options. Start by filling out the FAFSA to see how much federal aid you can qualify for. Then assess your aid package, including federal student loans, before determining how much of a gap there may be to cover your total bill.

You may decide to borrow private loans to cover the remaining costs after your aid package and available funding run out. It’s important to evaluate the terms of any loan you opt to borrow, whether public or private, and understand the commitment you’re signing on for in advance. Be sure to have a grasp of repayment options and interest rates as you proceed through the loan application process.