FAFSA for Graduate School: 5 Steps to Maximize Your Financial Aid

If you want to get a graduate degree, do you fill out a FAFSA to receive financial aid, or is that document only for undergraduates? Does FAFSA cover graduate school?

Yes, you can use the FAFSA for graduate school, but before you begin the process, it’s important to understand how completing the FAFSA as a graduate student differs from completing it as an undergrad.

In this guide, we’ll explain everything you need to know about completing the FAFSA as a graduate student, including the key way the process differs from what you did as an undergrad, what financial aid you’re eligible for (and what aid you’re not), as well as how to complete the FAFSA and other steps you need to take to get your financial aid.


What Is the FAFSA?

In case you need a refresher, here’s a brief overview of FAFSA and how it can be used when applying to grad school. FAFSA is an acronym that stands for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Colleges use the FAFSA to determine your eligibility for federal, state, and school-sponsored financial aid, including grants, educational loans, and work-study programs. If you’re hoping for any government or school financial aid for graduate school, you should file a FAFSA.

Undergraduates and graduates complete the same FAFSA form, but you need to resubmit the FAFSA each year, so even if you completed the FAFSA as an undergrad, you’ll still need to complete and submit it every year you’re in grad school. Everyone can submit the FAFSA, except those who have drug-related offenses that occurred while they were receiving previous financial aid.

The FAFSA is used by the US Department of Education to calculate your Expected Family Contribution, or EFC, for college/grad school. Your EFC is a dollar amount that reflects how much you can afford to pay for college/grad school for the following academic year. The lower your EFC, the more aid you’re eligible to receive. Your EFC is determined based on income, assets, and other household information you’ll be asked to provide on the FAFSA.


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How Is Financial Aid for Grad School Different Than for Undergrad?

If you applied for FAFSA as an undergrad, in general, the process is pretty similar to what you’ll be doing when you apply as a grad student. You’ll be gathering the same materials, filling out the same forms, etc. However there are some important differences you should be aware of.


You’ll File as an Independent

The biggest difference is that, as a grad student applying for FAFSA, you are considered an independent, compared to when you completed the application as an undergrad and were likely considered a dependent of your parents. If you’re going to be working towards a degree that’s considered graduate or professional level, you’re automatically considered an independent, regardless of other factors like your age or if you’re living with your parents.

This means, for the majority of schools, you’ll fill out your FAFSA with only your financial information, not your info and your parents’ info. Some graduate programs (especially law and medical schools) still require some financial information from your parents, so be sure to check the policies of the schools you’re applying to.


No Subsidized Loans

Another important difference for graduate students applying for the FAFSA is that they aren’t eligible for subsidized loans. Subsidized loans don’t start accumulating interest charges until you’re no longer a full-time student. However, the loans you’ll take out as a grad student will be unsubsidized, which means they’ll begin accumulating interest charges immediately, regardless of whether you’re a full-time student or not.

This interest often causes the balance of your student loans to be several thousand dollars higher by the time you graduate, even if you’re only in a two-year grad program, so it’s definitely something to be aware of.


Additional Differences

Grad students can often take out more loans than undergrads, and the federal interest rate on those loans are typically higher than they are for undergrads. Those additional loans can make it possible to afford expensive grad programs, but be careful not to take out so much that you can’t make your payments after you graduate. Additionally, most graduate students aren’t eligible for Pell Grants, which may have been one of the ways you paid for your undergraduate education.



What FAFSA Graduate School Loans Can You Get?

There are two main federal loans you can get when you apply for FAFSA as a graduate student: Stafford Loans and Grad PLUS Loans. Below is some key information on each of them. (You may have heard of some grad students receiving Perkins Loans, but schools stopped being able to create new Perkins Loans in 2017, so they are no longer an option).


Stafford Loans (also known as Direct Unsubsidized Loans)

  • Can borrow up to $20,500 a year ($40,500 for med school)
  • 1.062% fee
  • Fixed interest rate of 6.6% for the 2018/2019 school year


Grad PLUS Loans

  • Can borrow amount equal to your school’s cost of attendance (tuition and fees, room and board, books, supplies, transportation, etc.) minus any other financial aid received
  • 4.248% fee
  • Fixed interest rate of 7.6% for the 2018/2019 school year

Most grad students max out their Stafford Loans before taking out any PLUS loans since the Stafford loans have lower interest rates and fees. However, be aware that, with Stafford and PLUS loans, you can cover the entire cost of attendance of grad school with federal loans. So, even if you don’t have any money at all set aside to pay for your graduate degree, you can cover the entire cost with federal loans (which will obviously need to eventually be paid back, with interest). You may also be eligible for types of aid besides federal loans, such as school-based aid, work study packages, and/or scholarships.


How Do You Apply for FAFSA for Graduate School?

Applying for a FAFSA for grad school is a pretty straightforward process. Follow the five steps below and be sure to complete everything by FAFSA’s and deadlines and the financial aid deadlines of the schools you’re applying to. The FAFSA opens up on October 1st of each year and can be submitted until June 30th of the following year, but schools often have earlier submission deadlines, so check with them.


#1: Get a Federal Student Aid ID

Your first step is to get a Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID if you don’t already have one from applying for FAFSA an undergrad. You can get an FSA ID on the Federal Student Aid website. An FSA ID is required to submit the FAFSA, and it’ll act as your digital signature. You’ll need to enter your full name, social security number, and date of birth.


#2: Gather the Documents You’ll Need

It’s easier and will make the process go faster if you gather together all the documents you need early on so you have everything you need when you start to fill out the FAFSA forms.

You may need info from any or all of the following:

      • Your social security number
      • Your driver’s license or another form of ID
      • Your prior year’s tax returns
      • W-2 forms and other records of current year income
      • Current bank statements
      • Records of savings, stocks, bonds, trusts, etc.

Remember, you’ll be filing independently, not as a dependent of your parents, so you won’t need any of their financial information (although, again, check with the school(s) you’re applying to since some do require some information from parents).


#3: Select the Correct FAFSA Form

You can now begin your FAFSA application. Go to FAFSA.gov and select the correct form. The form you fill out will be based on when you plan to start grad school. For example, you’ll complete the 2018/2019 FAFSA form if you plan to begin grad school between July 1, 2018, and June 30, 2019.


#4: Complete the FAFSA

You can now complete your FAFSA for graduate school. The form typically takes several hours to fill out, and you’ll need to enter demographic information, select which schools you applied/will apply to, and enter financial information, such as information about your tax returns, income, and other assets.


#5: Sign and Submit Your FAFSA

When you’ve completed the FAFSA, you’ll need to sign it using your FSA ID, and then you can submit it. FAFSA applications are typically processed within three to five days. Once yours has been processed, you’ll receive a Student Aid Report (SAR) that summarizes the information you entered into your FAFSA application. Your SAR will include your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). After you’ve checked that all the information in your SAR is correct, it’ll be sent off to the schools you selected in your FAFSA so they can create your individual aid package.



What Else Do You Need to Do to Get Loans for Grad School?

A FAFSA is the most important item for getting grad school loans, but it’s not the only thing you need. Here are two other key steps you need to complete.

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Sign a Master Promissory Note

Your Master Promissory Note (MPN) is a legal document where you promise to repay your loans and any interest you accrue on them. You’ll need to sign it to receive your loan funds. Your MPN also explains the terms of your loans, such as the interest rate and when you need to begin repaying it. You’ll get an MPN for each type of loan you take out, so if you have both Stafford and PLUS loans, you’ll get two MPNs.


Complete Entrance Counseling

If you are taking out a loan different from any of the loans you took out as an undergrad, you’ll need to complete entrance counseling. During entrance counseling, you’ll learn what loans are and how the loan process works, get advice on managing education expenses, and learn about financial resources to help you pay for your education. You’ll complete entrance counseling either during an in-person meeting or online (based on what the school you choose to attend decides).


Summary: FAFSA for Graduate School

Does FAFSA cover graduate school? Yes, you’ll still complete the FAFSA to be eligible for federal student loans and other types of financial aid, but it’s important to know how the FAFSA graduate school process differs from what you may have had to do in undergrad.

There are fewer federal loans for graduate school than there are for undergrads, and there are fewer federal grants for graduate school as well. Additionally, you’ll be applying as an independent this time, as opposed to a dependent of your parents. There are two main types of loans grad students are eligible for: Stafford Loans and Grad PLUS loans.

Completing the FAFSA for graduate school is a pretty easy process, but make sure you have all the necessary identification and financial documents gathered before you begin.


What’s Next?

Want advice on how to apply to grad school? Check out our guide to the 29 essential tips for applying to grad school!

How should you choose what grad schools to apply to, and when do you need to apply by? Read more about grad school rankings, requirements, and application deadlines.

Not sure if your GPA is good enough for graduate school? Read our guide!

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Author: Christine Sarikas

Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.