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No matter what year of college you’re in — just starting as a freshman or continuing your education in a second or third year — there’s always that one thing standing between you and your future: Figuring out how you’ll pay the hefty price tag that comes with a college education.

Scholarships and savings are initially helpful, but they only go so far when the average college education costs over $39,000, according to most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education.

You might already know how much you will need from your financial aid letter, but understanding what your options are can help put your mind at ease. Here’s a step by step guide on how to apply for student loans.

1. Know your federal loan options

One of the first steps to take to secure a student loan is to know which type of loans are available to you.

  • Direct subsidized loans: This type of direct 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.

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 (FASFA):

  • Social Security number
  • Birthdate
  • 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
  • AGI from the last two years
  • Any gift aid received like scholarships or grants

There might be other information needed for your loan application process, depending on your situation. But just make sure you have all of your important financial papers and information before moving onto 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 are not eligible for scholarships or loans due to financial need, you still might be offered a direct unsubsidized loan through your school. It is important to fill out the application as early as possible to maximize your funding. Also, try talking with your school’s financial aid department for a better idea on what type of loans you are eligible for.

4. Review your Student Aid Report

Next, you’ll want to 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, just follow these steps to view it online or print a copy:

  1. Go to FAFSA.gov
  2. Click “Log In”
  3. Enter your FSA ID
  4. Go to the “My FAFSA” page
  5. Click “View or Print YOur Student Aid Report (SAR)“

Typically, you’ll 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 type of and how much financial aid you’re eligible for.

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. To do so:

  1. Sign up for a CollegeBoard account
  2. Go to CSSProfile.org and sign in with your CollegeBoard credentials
  3. Select “Begin New Profile”
  4. Select the schools you wish to apply to
  5. 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, typically your first report will cost $25 and each additional report will cost $16.

6. Review your financial aid letter

After receiving your FAFSA, any schools you applied to will send you a financial aid award letter. Make sure to thoroughly review the letter so you know how much financial aid you’re eligible to receive. The letter includes your:

  • Cost of attendance: This is an estimate of what you’ll have to pay for one year of school.
  • Expected Family Contribution (EFC): This number determines how much financial aid you’ll receive.
  • Federal student loans: The letter will outline the federal loan amount you’re eligible to take out (which you’ll have to pay back with interest).
  • Grants and scholarships: The letter will outline the amount of gift aid you’re eligible to receive (free money you won’t have to pay back).

To get an idea of how your award letter might look, check out this sample financial aid award letter as an example.

7. Talk to your financial aid office and find out how to get your funds

Although each school might be different, before your loan funds are dispersed, 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.

But be sure to check in with the school’s financial aid office (at the school you’re going to attend) to get the exact details of what you need to do to get your funds.

8. Consider applying for private student loans

If a federal loan doesn’t cover all of your college needs, then you might need to fill in the gaps with a private loan from a private lender. Even if you have excellent credit, you might not qualify for a student loan without a cosigner. Even if you do qualify, having a cosigner can greatly increase your chances for acceptance and most private student loans are signed with cosigners.

Credible makes it easy to compare rates from multiple student loan lenders with or without a cosigner. You can fill out just one simple form and it only takes two minutes.

Interest rates can be higher with private loans, but variable rate private loans currently offer very low interest rates. It’s important to remember that private loans are not usually eligible for a loan forgiveness program, federal income-driven repayment plans, or other federal repayment options.

Find Your Student Loan

Don’t borrow more than you need

Knowing how to apply for student loans can help you get the funding you need for your degree. But always remember to be smart about your student loans — understand all of the terms and expectations before borrowing and don’t borrow more than you absolutely need.

If you need some more ideas on affording school, check out some of the best ways to pay for college.