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How to file the FAFSA for graduate school

Maximize your federal aid before looking to private loans.

As a grad student, you might not be eligible for as much federal aid as you were as an undergrad — especially if you’ve already taken out federal loans. But it’s still worth filling out the FAFSA. You might get more aid than you expect and even avoid having to take out private loans.

How to file the FAFSA for graduate school in 7 steps

Filling out the FAFSA as a graduate student works a lot like completing it as an undergrad. While it’s possible to complete a paper application, the vast majority of students complete it online. Follow these steps to get started:

Step 1: Create an FSA ID or update your password

If you don’t already have one, go to the Department of Education’s (DoE) Federal Student Aid (FSA) website and create a username and password. This allows you to log in and out of your FAFSA application and access information on your student loans.

Already did this as an undergraduate? You might need to update the password by clicking Manage My FSA ID. Otherwise, skip this step.

Step 2: Log in to the FSA website and begin the FAFSA application

Go to the FSA website and click Start here to begin your FAFSA application. Read the disclaimer and create a “save key” — a password to use if you decide to come back to your application. Review the frequently asked questions and click Next.

Step 3: Complete the student demographics section

Fill in the required fields with information about yourself, such as your Social Security number, contact information and details about your citizenship and level of education.

If you’ve filled out the FAFSA before, these fields might already be completed. In that case, just double-check to make sure everything is up to date.

Step 4: Complete the school information section

Complete the form with information about your high school and select the school you plan on attending — not the college you went to as an undergraduate. If you’re applying to multiple schools and aren’t sure which you’ll attend, select all the schools you’re considering.

Select the housing plan you intend to choose: on campus, off campus or with your parents.

Step 5: Answer questions about your dependency status

Answer questions designed to determine whether you’re a dependent or independent student. These questions involve whether you have children or other dependents who receive support from you, as well as your household size.

At the end of the section, you’ll most likely receive a notification telling you you’re an independent student — most graduate students are.

At this point, decide whether you want to answer questions about your parents — the FSA recommends this for law and health profession students. Your school might also require you to complete the parent section. Otherwise, skip ahead to the financial information section.

Step 6: Provide information about your finances

Answer questions about your tax information for two years prior to the year you plan on receiving aid — for a 2019–2020 application, that would be your 2017 tax information.

Use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (IRS DRT) to automatically pull in information from your tax forms and complete this section. Otherwise, you’ll have to manually fill in this information. Even if you use the IRS DRT, review your answers to make sure they’re correct and fill in any blank fields.

Step 7: Sign, submit and confirm your application

Review all of your answers, making sure all of the information is correct. If you notice any errors, click the link to the question to make a correction. Read the terms and electronically sign the application.

Step-by-step guide to answering every question on the FAFSA

How is the FAFSA different for graduate students?

The main difference between filling out the FAFSA as an undergraduate student versus a graduate student is that graduate students are usually considered independent students. Independent students can choose whether they want to complete the parent demographics section, whereas dependent students are required to complete it.

Some types of graduate students still might want to answer questions about their parents, such as law students, medical students and nursing students. And some schools might also require you to answer questions about your parents — even if you’re an independent student.

Another difference is that some information might already be prefilled if you’ve already filled out the FAFSA as an undergraduate student. This can save you a good bit of time, though you’ll want to review that information to ensure it’s still accurate.

How do I know if I’m an independent student?

The FSA considers you to be an independent student if you’re enrolled in a master’s or doctorate program, including but not limited to:

  • MA
  • MBA
  • MD
  • JD
  • PhD
  • EdD
  • Graduate certificate

If you’re enrolled in a joint undergraduate-graduate degree program, contact your school’s financial aid office to find out when you start to qualify as a graduate student.

Other ways to qualify as an independent student

Not enrolled in a master’s or doctorate program? You might still be considered an independent student if you meet one of the following criteria:

  • You turn 23 before January 1st of the year you receive aid
  • You’re married or separated
  • You’re currently serving on active duty in the US armed forces — other than training
  • You’re a veteran
  • You have or will have children or dependents that receive more than half of their financial support from you
  • Your parents died after you turned 13
  • You were in foster care after you turned 13
  • You were considered a ward of the court after you turned 13
  • You were an emancipated minor
  • You have a legal guardian other than your parent or stepparent
  • You were an unaccompanied youth who was homeless or at risk of being homeless since July 1st of the year before you plan on using the financial aid

What types of federal aid are available to graduate students?

As a graduate student, you’re eligible for the following types of federal student aid:

  • Direct Unsubsidized Loans
  • Direct PLUS Loans
  • Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grants
  • Federal Work-Study Program
  • Federal Pell Grants

I can’t get enough federal aid. What other types of aid are available?

You might want to consider the following options to help pay for your graduate degree after exhausting all federal options:

  • State financial aid. Your state might offer loans, scholarships and grants with fewer restrictions than federal student aid — and at better rates than private student loans.
  • Institutional financial aid. Most schools offer scholarships, grants and sometimes even loans to graduate students. Typically, these are included in your financial aid award letter. Many also offer assistantships or fellowships to graduate students.
  • Outside fellowships, scholarships and grants. Apply for aid from organizations outside of your school to get partial or even full funding for your program.
  • Federal agency financial aid. Depending on your field, you might be eligible for a scholarship, grant or fellowship from another federal agency — such as the State Department or Department of Agriculture.
  • Private student loans. Once you’ve exhausted all of your free aid options, cover the remaining cost with a student loan from a private lender. You could consider private loans if your only federal option is a Direct PLUS Loan, which might actually be more expensive than a private loan.

How graduate student loans work

Federal aid not enough? Consider a private student loan

Explore your options by APR, minimum credit score, loan amount and loan term. Select the Get started button to start an application with a specific lender.

Name Product APR Min. Credit Score Loan amount Loan Term
Stride Funding Income Share Agreement
As low as 2%
Up to $25,000
2 to 10 years
A student loan alternative for graduate students based on your future salary.
EDvestinU Private Student Loans
4.092% to 8.609% with autopay
$1,000 - $200,000
7 to 20 years
Straightforward student loans for undergraduate and graduate students.
CommonBond Private Student Loans
3.74% to 10.74%
$5,000 - $500,000
5 to 15 years
Finance your college education through this lender with a strong social mission and terms that fit your budget.
Edvisors Private Student Loan Marketplace
Varies by lender
Varies by lender
Varies by lender
Varies by lender
Quickly compare private lenders for your school and apply for the right student loan.
Credible Labs Inc. (Student Loan Platform)
Starting at 0.99% with autopay
Good to excellent credit
Starting at $1,000
5 to 20 years
Get prequalified rates from private lenders offering student loans with no origination or prepayment fees.

Compare up to 4 providers

Bottom line

Filling out the FAFSA as a graduate student is a lot like completing it as an undergrad. But it might not take as much time, since you likely aren’t required to complete the parent demographics section. You also might have part of the application prefilled if you’ve already applied as an undergraduate.

Learn more about how paying for school works by checking out our guide to student loans.

Frequently asked questions

Commonly asked questions about filling out the FAFSA as a grad student.

Do I have to complete the FAFSA as a graduate student?

Nobody is required to complete the FAFSA. But it’s to your benefit — federal aid is often the best deal out there. And some schools and scholarship programs require you to complete the FAFSA to be considered for funding.

When is the FAFSA deadline?

The federal deadline to submit the FAFSA is June 30th at the end of the year you plan on attending school. So for the 2019–2020 academic year, that’s June 30, 2020. However, you might want to get it in before then. Many states and schools have their own FAFSA deadlines, and you might not receive as much financial aid if you submit it late.

The FSA recommends submitting the FAFSA as soon as possible after applications open on October 1st the year before you intend on using financial aid.

How much federal loans can I get as a graduate student?

It depends on the type of loan. Direct Unsubsidized Loans are capped at $20,500 per year or $138,500 per lifetime. Direct PLUS Loans are capped at your cost of attendance each year.

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