How To Get a Student Loan

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Paying for education is never easy. Some families and employers cover the costs, but not everyone is so fortunate. If you need to come up with more money to pay for college, you’ll need to know how to get a student loan.

Key Takeaways

Federal vs. Private Loans

When borrowing for education, you have several options. Make sure to consider all of them, and choose the one that fits you the best. Be sure to consider:

  • Loans offered under government programs: Generally the best option because interest rates are contingent on credit scores, and you have multiple repayment options, and deferment and forbearance periods.
  • Private student loans: Interest rates are influenced by your credit scores, and there generally are not

In addition to loans designed specifically for education funding, you might use:

  • Loans or gifts from family members
  • Home equity loans (if you own a home)
  • Credit cards (for books, groceries, etc.)

How to Get a Federal Student Loan

Federal student loans will generally have lower interest rates, and some of the interest may be paid (subsidized) on your behalf while you’re in school. There are some benefits to government-backed loans—they're easier to qualify for and have flexible repayment structures, for example.

The main drawback of government programs is that they might not cover all of your expenses. There are limits to how much you can borrow, and if you need more you’ll have to find it elsewhere.


The federal student loan limit for dependent first-year students is $5,500 as of 2022, with no more than $3,500 in the form of subsidized loans. The aggregate loan limit stands at $31,000.

To get a student loan as part of a government program, visit your school’s financial aid office. Let them know that you’d like to borrow, and they’ll tell you what steps to take. You’ll have to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) which will determine what type of aid you’re eligible for.

To complete the FAFSA, you'll need to provide details about your finances, such as your assets in bank and investment accounts, income levels, and Social Security numbers (for both you and your parents). If your parents claim you as a dependent on their taxes, they'll need to fill out a portion of your FAFSA.

After the Department of Education processes your FAFSA, you'll get a financial aid offer (known as a "student aid report") from the schools you listed on your FAFSA. You can accept the offesr or pass if you've decided to take another route. If you decide to accept the funds, you'll need to complete entrance counseling (a relatively brief training on how your student debt works) and sign a loan agreement.


FASFA qualification calculations take into account a two-year lookback period for your tax returns.

Keep Interest in Mind

As you apply for loans, remember that you’ll have to repay them someday. Run some numbers to understand what you’d be getting yourself into—before you pull the trigger on getting a loan. Plug your loan details into a loan amortization calculator, and see how much you’d have to pay each month, and how much you’d pay in interest over the life of your loan.

How To Get a Private Student Loan

You should be able to qualify for certain government loan programs regardless of your income or credit score. However, if you need more money than what you'll get from private student loans, you may have to turn to loans from private lenders.

The process for getting these loans is a little less extensive than what you go through to get federal student loans. There is no FAFSA; rather, you'll fill out a relatively quick application for funding.

One of the major differences between private and federal student loans, though, is that private lenders consider your credit history. Typically, that means you’ll need a decent credit score, good payment history, and a reasonable debt-to-income ratio (which may require sufficient income). As a student, you may not meet the criteria because you probably haven't built a robust credit history yet.

If a private lender rejects your application for student loans, you may need the help of a co-signer—another person can apply for the loan with you, promising to repay it if you fail to do so. Co-signing is risky, so only ask someone who can afford to take the risk and who understands what they're getting into.


If you cannot get federal or private student loans, you'll have to find other solutions for funding your education, including:

  • Finding employers that pay for education
  • Working part-time
  • Going to school at a less-expensive institution
  • Hunting for grants and scholarships

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How do you apply for federal loans?

If you want to get federal student loans, you'll need to fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). It should take you less than an hour to fill out the application.

How do you apply for private student loans?

You'll typically find private student loans at bank and non-bank lenders. The application will likely be all online and take just a few minutes to complete. The lender will take your credit history into account as it decides if it will approve your loan.

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  1. Federal Student Aid. "Federal Versus Private Loans."

  2. "How much can I borrow?"

  3. Federal Student Aid. "The FAFSA Process."

  4. Federal Student Aid. "7 Things You Need Before Filling Out the FAFSA Form."

  5. National Foundation for Credit Counseling. "What Are the Credit Requirements for a Private Student Loan?"

  6. Discover. "Undergraduate Student Loans," Click "Do I need a cosigner?"

  7. Federal Student Aid. "How Long Will It Take To Fill Out the FAFSA?"

  8. Discover. "Undergraduate Student Loans."

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