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How graduate financial aid works

Financial aid is money from the federal government, state government, or your school that can help you pay for tuition, labs, room and board, and other living expenses as you attend graduate school. It can come in these forms:

  • Scholarships
  • Grants
  • Work-study
  • Federal student loans

You don’t have to pay back scholarships, grants, and work-study. You will need to repay any federal loans that you take out for graduate school.

To find out if you’re eligible for financial aid, you need to fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) every year you’re in your graduate program.

Julia's advice on financial aid for grad school

Julia's advice on financial aid for grad school

Qualifying for graduate school financial aid

The most important thing you can do to get financial aid is to fill out the FAFSA. Your school will generally use your FAFSA information to determine whether you’re eligible for federal, state, and school aid, so it’s especially important to submit it.

You may be familiar with the FAFSA from your undergraduate days. But while your parents may have filled it out previously, now it’s up to you. As a graduate student, you’ll be considered an independent student. That means you’ll use your own financial information, rather than your parents’, on the FAFSA.

There are some basic eligibility requirements for getting federal financial aid for graduate students. Among other prerequisites, these are the main requirements:

  • Be a U.S. citizen, U.S. national, or have a green card
  • Have a valid Social Security number
  • Be enrolled (or accepted for enrollment) as a student in an eligible graduate degree or certificate program
  • Have any previous federal student loans be in good standing and not owe a refund on a federal grant

You can submit your FAFSA beginning October 1 at

Tips for getting graduate school financial aid

  • Submitting the FAFSA is free. If you’re asked to pay for it, you’re on the wrong website. Always go to
  • Don’t lose out on money for graduate school by missing the FAFSA deadline. Federal financial aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, so apply as early as you can. Applications are accepted beginning October 1 for the following academic year.
  • Financial aid is need-based, but even if you think you won’t qualify, submit the FAFSA anyway. You risk losing out on potential aid if you don’t. If you have questions on your eligibility, visit
  • For an estimate of how much graduate school financial aid you may be eligible for, check out the Office of Federal Student Aid’s free calculator.

64% of grad students filed a FAFSA for the 2016 – 2017 school year.

See how much federal aid grad students receive in How America Pays for Graduate School.

How to evaluate your financial aid package

After you submit your FAFSA, you’ll receive your financial aid award letters from every school to which you’ve been accepted. Financial aid letters may not look alike, but they contain the same information: the cost of attendance and the amount of financial aid you’re eligible for from all sources.

The graduate schools to which you were accepted develop your financial aid package by starting with the information you gave on your FAFSA. Then they factor in elements like the school’s estimated cost of attendance (COA) and your financial situation.

When it’s time for you to evaluate your graduate school financial aid package, be sure to separate the "free" money that you don’t have to pay back—scholarships, grants, and fellowships—from federal loans, which you’ll have to pay back with interest.

Cost of attendance and financial aid

COA is a number that schools use to develop your graduate school financial aid package. It’s an estimate of how much a year of graduate school will cost—including tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies, and personal expenses, including transportation. Starting with the COA, the school subtracts your Estimated Family Contribution (EFC) and any scholarships you’ve received before applying the formula for financial aid.

Compare your financial aid award letters

 This information was gathered on July 5, 2017, from

Source: How America Pays for Graduate School, from Sallie Mae and Ipsos.

 This information was gathered on 2/2/18 from

Sallie Mae does not provide, and these materials are not meant to convey, financial, tax, or legal advice. Consult your own attorney or tax advisor about your specific circumstances.