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The main difference between federal student loans and private student loans is that the government makes federal student loans (with terms set by federal law) and private student loans come from private organizations (with terms set by the lender). The application process also differs.
Because federal student loans tend to have lower interest rates than private student loans and come with unique perks, it’s a good idea to exhaust federal student loan options before pursuing private student loans.
Ready to take out student loans? Keep reading for insight into how to apply for student loans:
- How to apply for private student loans
- How to apply for federal student loans
- When to apply for a student loan
- Types of student loans
- How to qualify for a student loan
How to apply for private student loans
If federal loans don’t cover all your college expenses, you might need to fill in the gaps with private student loans. Make sure you have any necessary documentation before you explore your private loan options. To apply for a private student loan, follow these steps:
1. Compare rates from multiple lenders
Before you start, it’s important to compare rates from multiple lenders so that you’re confident you’re finding the right loan for your situation. Though you should always take advantage of federal loans first, rates on private student loans can be competitive. Here’s a quick comparison between federal and private loan rates:
|Federal student loans||Private student loans|
|Interest rates||5.50% to 8.05%|
(depending on loan type)
|Fixed rates from (APR):
Variable rates from (APR): 5.36%+
(Private lenders on Credible)
|Fees||1.057% to 4.228% |
(depending on loan type)
|Varies by loan
Generally no origination fees
|Limits||$31,000 for dependent undergrads|
$57,500 for independent undergrads
$20,500 for graduates (unsubsidized)
|Can vary, but typically covers the cost of attendance|
|Offers subsidized loans||Yes||No|
|Terms||Standard Repayment Plans: 10 years|
Consolidation and IDR plans: 10 to 30 years
|5 to 20 years (varies by lender)|
|Repayment Protections||Generous options for deferment, forbearance, and income-driven repayment plans||Limited options for deferment and forbearance|
|Option to change repayment plan or defer payments||Yes||No|
|Requires cosigner||Typically no|
(unless applying for a PLUS loan with adverse credit)
(but might increase chances of qualifying)
|Requires credit check||Only for PLUS loans||Yes|
Comparing private student loan rates with Credible is simple. You can fill out just one simple form and it only takes two minutes. Plus, we use a soft credit check that doesn’t affect your credit.
|Lender||Fixed Rates From (APR)||Variable Rates From (APR)|
|4.50%9 - 15.49%9||6.37%9 - 16.70%9|
your credit score. 100% free!
Lowest APRs reflect autopay, loyalty, and interest-only repayment discounts where available | 10Ascent Disclosures | 1Citizens Disclosures | 2,3College Ave Disclosures | 11Custom Choice Disclosures | 6Discover Disclosures | 7EDvestinU Disclosures | 8INvestEd Disclosures | 9Sallie Mae Disclosures
2. Consider a cosigner
Even if you have little credit history or poor credit, you might not qualify for a private student loan without a cosigner. If you do qualify, having a cosigner can greatly increase your chances for acceptance and even get you a lower interest rate, which could save you money. Nearly 94% of all private student loans are taken out with a cosigner.
How to apply for federal student loans
It’s worth repeating: You should always start with federal student loans if you need to borrow for college. Federal loans come with advantages that include lower interest rates, flexible repayment terms, and the opportunity for student loan forgiveness. And for most federal student loans, you won’t need a credit check.
Follow these steps to apply for federal student loans:
1. Know your federal loan options
One of the first steps to getting a federal student loan is to know which types of loans are available to you. The U.S. Department of Education offers three main types of federal loans:
- Direct Subsidized Loans: This type of loan is available to undergraduate students and awarded based on financial need.
- Direct Unsubsidized Loans: These loans are available to undergrads and grad students. They don’t require proof of financial need.
- Direct PLUS Loans: These loans are available to parents of undergrads, as well as graduate or professional students. The borrower’s credit history is considered for a PLUS Loan. Just keep in mind PLUS Loans have higher interest rates than Direct Subsidized or Unsubsidized loans. It may be worth it to compare private student loans first, so that you can pick the best one for your situation.
Before borrowing, make sure you do your research and understand the limits on student loans.
2. Prepare any documents and information you might need
Before you actually apply for student loans, you’ll need to have some basic information handy. Here are some documents and information you should prepare to have for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA):
- Social Security number
- Current address (for student and parents)
- List of all the schools you’re considering attending, including the school’s information like name, address, phone number, and your major
- Tax returns and other tax information for your parents (or yourself if you’re independent — though that’s hard to qualify for)
- Other income information, like child support, or any other assets, like businesses or investments
- Adjusted gross income from the last two years
- Any gift aid received, like scholarships or grants
You may need other information for your loan application, depending on your situation. Just make sure you have all your important financial papers and information before moving on to the next step.
3. Fill out the FAFSA
Every student borrower should fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Even if you don’t think you’ll be eligible for most federal financial aid, you might be surprised to find that you are eligible for reward money or federal loans.
Even if you’re not eligible for scholarships or loans due to financial need, your school still might offer you a Direct Unsubsidized Loan. It’s important to fill out the FAFSA as early as possible to maximize your funding. Also, speak with your school’s financial aid office for a better idea on what types of loans you’re eligible for.
4. Review your Student Aid Report
Next, you’ll review your Student Aid Report (SAR). If you provided an email address when you filled out your FAFSA, you should automatically be emailed a copy of this report. If not, follow these steps to view it online or print a copy:
- Go to FAFSA.gov.
- Click “Log In.”
- Enter your FSA ID.
- Go to the “My FAFSA” page.
- Click “View or Print Your Student Aid Report (SAR).“
You’ll typically be able to access your SAR within two weeks of submitting the FAFSA. Your SAR will be sent to the schools you listed on your FAFSA. They’ll use this information to decide which types of financial aid you’re eligible for, and how much.
5. Fill out a CollegeBoard CSS profile
To find out if you’re eligible for institutional aid, you should apply on CollegeBoard’s CSS Profile page. Here’s how:
- Sign up for a CollegeBoard account.
- Go to CSSProfile.org and sign in with your CollegeBoard credentials.
- Select “Begin New Profile.”
- Select the schools you wish to apply to.
- Provide any other information the form asks for.
Finish filling out the CSS Profile and submit your application. Though the fees can be waived in certain situations, your first report will typically cost $25, and each additional report will cost $16.
6. Review your financial aid letter
After receiving your FAFSA, any schools you’ve applied and are accepted to will send you a financial aid award letter. Make sure to review the letter thoroughly so you know how much financial aid you’re eligible to receive.
The letter typically includes your total cost of attendance, Expected Family Contribution (EFC), and the loans and other aid you qualify for. Your net cost will be the total cost of attendance, minus whatever gift aid you qualify for.
7. Talk to your financial aid office and accept your financial aid offer
You’ll need to check in with your financial aid office and accept your offer for aid.
Although each school might be different, before your loan funds are disbursed, you’ll typically be required to complete entrance counseling and sign a Master Promissory Note. This is a document stating the terms of your loan and your obligation to repay it.
Contact the financial aid office of the school you’re going to attend to get the exact details of what you need to do to get your funds.
When to apply for a student loan
It’s a good idea to apply for student loans as soon as you know you’ll need to borrow money for college.
Applying early can help you avoid missing tuition bill deadlines. And, for federal student loans, completing the FAFSA earlier could increase your odds of getting all the aid available to you. Some colleges have priority deadlines that can lead to getting the most aid, so check with your school’s financial aid office for its specific deadline.
Both private lenders and the Department of Education will send student loan funds directly to your school to apply toward your on-campus costs, like tuition and room and board. The school will then disburse any leftover funds to you to use for other education expenses, like books.
For both federal and private student loans, it can take a few weeks to a few months for your school to receive the loan funds.
Types of student loans
Federal student loans and private student loans come from different places, and federal student loans are usually the better choice. This is because federal student loans tend to come with lower interest rates and offer advantages, like income-driven repayment plans, that private student loans don’t offer.
Types of federal student loans
Completing the FAFSA could give you access to multiple types of federal student loans, including:
Direct Subsidized Loans:
Best for: Undergraduate borrowers with demonstrated financial need
While you’re in school at least half-time and for up to six months after you leave school, the federal government pays the interest on these loans.
Best for: Undergraduate, graduate, and professional students looking for a low interest rate and flexible repayment terms
You’re responsible for paying the interest on these loans, even while you’re in school. Making interest-only payments while you’re studying could help reduce the amount you’ll owe after you leave school.
Best for: Parents of dependent undergraduate students
The only type of federal student loan that requires a credit check, these PLUS Loans allow parents to borrow for their child’s education.
Best for: Graduate or professional students with good credit and income
These PLUS Loans are for graduate or professional students who need to borrow to fund their higher degrees.
Types of private student loans
It’s possible to find private student loans for virtually every education objective, including:
Best for: Undergraduate students who have access to a cosigner with good credit
These loans are aimed at helping students fund their undergraduate degrees. You’ll generally need good credit or a cosigner with good credit to qualify for one.
Best for: Graduate students with good credit and a steady income
Students pursuing a master’s degree or doctorate can apply for a graduate student loan.
Best for: Parents with good credit and income who are looking for a competitive interest rate on a parent loan
These loans can be a good option for parents who don’t want a federal PLUS Loan.
Best for: Students spending a semester or more in a study-abroad program
Not all colleges and universities around the world are eligible for federal aid, so you might need a private student loan to fund your studies abroad.
Best for: Law students whose federal aid doesn’t cover all their education costs.
Law school can easily cost $40,000 or more per year, and federal aid may not be enough to help pay for it. These loans can help law students cover education expenses.
Best for: MBA students with good credit to help qualify for competitive rates
MBA costs can vary widely, so it’s possible federal aid won’t cover all your costs.
Best for: Medical students
A medical doctorate is arguably the most expensive degree to pursue, and you’ll almost certainly need private student loans.
Best for: Students pursuing a trade
A trade school education can be less expensive than a four-year college degree and lead to a well-paying career in a trade.
How to qualify for a student loan
Not sure how to get a student loan? While the qualification process for private and federal student loans can be a bit different, students and their parents may need to take the following steps to qualify for a student loan:
- Fill out the FAFSA first. This will give you an idea of how much financial aid you’ll receive, and how much you’ll need to borrow in loans. Exhaust federal student loan options first.
- Enroll in an eligible education program. To get a student loan — federal or private — you must be a student. And in general, you’ll need to be enrolled at least half-time.
- Compare multiple lenders. Comparison shopping can help ensure you find the best private student loan for your needs and budget. It can also ensure you meet the lender’s demographic qualifications, such as age and citizenship.
- Polish your credit. While most federal loans don’t require a credit check, private lenders will want to know you have good credit and income — or have a cosigner with both.
Ready to apply for a student loan? With Credible, you can check private student loan rates with multiple lenders by filling out a single form.
Jamie Young contributed to the reporting for this article.