How to file the FAFSA for graduate school

Maximize your federal aid before looking to private loans.

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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-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.

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

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.

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