2021 NerdWallet Best-of Awards Winner for Best Student Loan Refinancing Overall Read More
2021 NerdWallet Best-of Awards Winner for Best Student Loan Refinancing Overall Read More


Your 11-Step Checklist: Paying for College & the Student Loan Process

Adam Sisson
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Visited your favorite college campuses? Done.

Listed your top choices? Check.

Ready to apply? Yup.

But once you’re accepted, how will you pay for it?

Before sending out your college applications, you’ll need to have a game plan for how you’ll pay tuition — and take essential steps to get there.

Here’s your list of to-dos to determine how you’ll afford college, how much additional funding you’ll need, and how to choose the right student loans for you.

1. Save money

While you’re preparing for college, try building some savings with a part-time job or other means to make paying for tuition easier.

Here are a bunch of ideas on how to make money for school.

2. Apply for scholarships

Free money? Yes, please. Scholarships are typically merit-based (like academics or athletics) and can be provided by your college, private businesses, non-profits, professional organizations, and other entities.

The best part? They don’t have to be repaid like student loans do. They’re awarded to those who apply and are selected — so make sure you get your name out there as much as possible.

There are tons of scholarship opportunities that you could qualify for at the local, state, and federal levels. Read all about scholarships and how to find the right ones for you.

3. Apply for grants

Wait…more free money? Grants differ from scholarships in that they’re usually based on financial need rather than merit — but they also don’t need to be paid back.

Just like scholarships, applying for grants can be a smart way to get more financial help while avoiding borrowing money.

The place to start is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA (more coming up on that in Step 5). This lets colleges know how much financial aid you need, including grants.

Grants are often distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, so get your FAFSA completed early to find out the amount you qualify for. Besides these government-issued grants, there are other grants out there that you can apply for separately.

Check out our comprehensive guide to grants which includes the best places to find them.

4. Consider a work-study program

While you’re in school, you may be able to work a part-time job related to your area of study. The money you earn can be put toward your tuition and other college expenses.

The nice thing about work-study jobs is they’re usually flexible with your class schedule — making it simpler to manage your workload.

It’s usually easiest to contact your potential college’s financial aid office to learn more about all their work-study opportunities and offerings.

5. Fill out the FAFSA

Submitting the FAFSA provides your school with all the information needed to provide you with a student aid package.

Using your application, they’ll determine how much total federal financial aid you’re eligible for including federal student loans, scholarships, grants, and even work-study programs. Sometimes, the FAFSA can also help you qualify for extra aid from your university or state.

To be prepared for everything asked for in the FAFSA, first collect the following personal information:

  • Tax returns (both your parents’ and your own, if applicable)
  • Adjusted gross incomes (both your parents’ and your own)
  • Asset information (account balances, for example)
  • Social Security number and birthdate
  • List of schools you’re planning to apply to
  • Scholarships and grants you’ve already received (and the amount of money provided)

Read our ultimate guide on the FAFSA to learn everything else you need to know about the application process.

6. Complete your CSS profile

In addition to the federal aid based on your FAFSA, you may be able to qualify for separate institutional aid from your specific college or university.

In many cases, you can qualify for institutional aid by submitting the CSS profile. When completing yours, make sure you select all the schools you’re interested in — but keep in mind that not all schools participate.

7. Wait for your financial aid award letters

Once you’re accepted into a college, the school will send you a financial aid award letter (based on your FAFSA).

Then it’s up to you to review each of your student aid packages. Look at what aid you’ve qualified for and what the remaining cost of attendance would be.

The total cost of tuition could be a major deciding factor in which school you choose.

8. Compare and choose your federal loans

Aside from detailing your total cost of attendance, your financial aid award letter will also outline which federal student loans you’re eligible for.

Depending on the amount of your remaining tuition, you may need to take advantage of federal loans to fill in funding gaps.

Federal loans are offered directly from the government, and tend to feature these key benefits:

  • Lower interest rates than private student loans (all rates are fixed at a predetermined amount)
  • Flexible repayment terms and options (like Income-Driven Repayment plans, Graduated and Extended repayment plans, and Public Service Loan Forgiveness)
  • Access to forbearance and deferment

Because of their lower interest rates and generous repayment benefits, federal loans are the place to start when pursuing student loans. There are three main types of federal student loans you could qualify for:

  • Direct Subsidized Loans
  • Direct Unsubsidized Loans
  • Direct PLUS Loans

Here are some handy charts for comparing federal student loan options — and how they stack up to private loans — to help you pick what’s best for you.

9. Compare and choose your private loans

After choosing your federal student loans, you may find that you still need more money to be able to afford tuition.

That’s where private student loans come in.

Although they can have higher rates than federal loans, private loans can still be a smart solution to get necessary financial support. Private student loans are offered by private lenders like banks or other financial institutions, and interest rates vary from lender to lender.

Rates and eligibility are based on overall credit health including credit score, debt-to-income ratio, income, and more.

Because rates can vary widely, it’s essential to shop around private loan lenders first. Use Purefy’s Compare Rates tool to see your options from top lenders — with no credit check needed — and find the best fit for you.

10. Find a cosigner if needed

Since private student loan eligibility depends on good credit, it can be difficult for incoming college students to get approved. After all, it’s completely common for young people to lack high credit scores and incomes.

If you can’t get private loans on your own, you can still apply with a cosigner. This is someone who signs onto your loan with you and agrees to make payments if you can’t.

Having a cosigner with a strong credit history can go a long way in terms of qualifying for much lower interest rates.

If you think you need a cosigner, but no one is available, there are still ways to get student loans. Here’s how.

11. Start your college life

Once you have your college finances squared away, you’ll be all set to accept the offer to your favorite school and begin your next chapter.

Even though this rundown of paying for college might seem exhausting, going through each step one at a time can help ensure you graduate with as little debt as possible.

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