How to apply for federal student loans

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The cost of higher education has risen astronomically over the last few decades. In fact, the average cost of college tuition in the United States for the 2022-23 school year is $24,366.

Consequently, practically every student attending college seeks out at least some form of financial aid. Whether it's scholarships, federal student loans, private student loans, grants, fellowships, or something else, financial aid is essential for many students to pursue their higher education.

In particular, federal student aid is a major source of financial assistance for many students. Unlike private loans, a federal student loan is funded by the government. Most students take at least take preliminary steps toward receiving federal student loans by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), a step that is often necessary for many financial aid applications. This includes graduate and professional students seeking financial aid. Applying for federal student loans can be a long and complex process, but this guide will break down the steps so that you can understand how to get the financial aid you need.

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Additionally, as you research different sources of financial aid, you should note that federal student loans often leave students in debt after they graduate. You can check out this guide on US Student Loan Debt Statistics to learn more.

By contrast, scholarships are a great source of financial aid that won't leave you in debt. Get started on scholarship applications by making a profile on to access hundreds of exclusive scholarships, and using the scholarship search feature to filter through all of them. Unlike a student loan, a scholarship does not have to be repaid, so it is the most ideal form of financial aid. Check out more information on scholarships and financial aid on the blog.

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Navigate to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid

The first step in applying for a federal student loan or really any federal student aid is to navigate to the Federal Student Aid page. On this page, click "Create an Account" to get started.

You can use this account for more than just filling out your FAFSA and applying for federal student loans. You can also sign your Master Promissory Note, apply for repayment plans, complete loan counseling, and even use the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Help Tool.

To fill make your account, you need to gather some important information and certain documents. Be sure to know your social security number (or to have your social security card if you don't have it memorized) and to have a phone number and/or email address prepared.

Filling out FAFSA

Filling out FAFSA

To fill out the FAFSA you will first have to gather certain documents. You need your social security card (or just the number), your federal income tax returns (W-2s and other records of money earned), bank statements and records of investment (if applicable), records of untaxed income (if applicable), and your Federal Student Aid login (also known as you FSA login).

Once you fill out this form, your information is automatically sent to your college or university where your financial need will be assessed.

Receiving your federal student aid

After your school has assessed your financial need, it will send you a financial aid offer. This may include federal student loans. Depending on your education level and your financial need, there are several different types of federal student loans you can receive:

  • Direct subsidized loans: for eligible undergraduate students who demonstrate financial need and need to pay for their education
  • Direct unsubsidized loans: for any undergraduate, graduate, or professional (not based on financial need)
  • Direct PLUS loans: for graduate students, professional students, and parents of dependent undergraduate students. This is not based on financial need, but a credit check is required.
  • Direct Consolidation loans: allows you to consolidate all eligible federal student loans into one loan with a single loan servicer

Entrance counseling

Before you can actually receive your federal student loans, you must complete entrance counseling. While it may seem like extra work, entrance counseling is a good thing. This is where you learn about the terms and conditions of your student loan as well as your rights as a loan recipient.

When you've finished the entrance counseling, your school will be notified of the completion and you will receive your student loan.

Entrance counseling

Master promissory note

Finally, you have to sign a master promissory note agreeing to the terms and conditions of your loan. In effect, you agree to repay the loan as well as the interest and fees it accrues

Frequently asked questions about applying for federal student loans

Are federal student loans hard to get?

Fortunately, federal student loans are not difficult to get. All that is required is for students to submit their FAFSA in order to be considered. However, students should note that they must maintain eligible grades in order to receive federal student loans.

Who is eligible for federal student loans?

If you want to receive a federal student loan, there are several eligibility requirements that you must meet. They are as follows:

  • You must have financial need
  • You must be a citizen of the United States
  • You must be enrolled in an eligible degree or certificate program at your college or career school
Can you apply for a federal student loan at any time?

Can you apply for a federal student loan at any time?

The federal government imposes a deadline of June 30th of the following year for students to apply for federal loans. It is recommended that students complete the application sooner rather than later in order to stay organized, but regardless you have plenty of time to fill out your FAFSA and gain access to the funds you need for higher education.

If you don't meet the FAFSA deadline, you can always apply to other sources of financial aid. For instance, you can apply for scholarships all year long to fund your college journey. In fact, there are many unique benefits to scholarships. Find out more by reading or guide on how scholarships and student loans differ.

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