Since there are not many people who can finance a college education without some sort of financial assistance, at some point most students will have to fill out at least one student loan application. This process can be daunting, but fear of completing a student loan application is no reason to give up on higher education. Unfortunately, sometimes the easiest student loans to apply for are those with the most unfavorable terms.For this reason, any student who is attempting to procure financial aid should become familiar with the types of loans available and the student loan application procedures that need to be followed in order to qualify for these loans.FAFSA: The First Step in Financing an EducationThe Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA is the most important scholarship and student loan application that any student must complete. It is also frequently the most complex and tedious application for students and their parents. This is because the FAFSA requires a lot of detailed financial information, including tax returns, from both students and parents. While the application requires time, this form is essential for all students. Filing a FAFSA is not only the sole method of obtaining federal funding for education including Stafford Loans, but this exhaustive form is also a prerequisite for most state and institution based loan programs. Since these types of loan programs tend to offer the most favorable terms for students, filing a FAFSA should be every student's first step in the financial aid process.Applying for Federal AidEven though the FAFSA is free and can be completed online, its exhaustive nature causes too many students to give up and accept private loans with high interest rates and unfavorable repayment terms. A little preparation can help families avoid this undesirable situation, however. Anyone seeking financial aid should be sure to file a tax return as early as possible. As soon as the tax return is done, families should gather the completed return, bank statements and financial paperwork and fill out the FAFSA. Having paperwork on hand will make the process go more quickly, and early filing is crucial in ensuring eligibility for the maximum amount of aid available. It is imperative that families not only file the form before the FAFSA deadline but before the deadlines for individual school and private loan programs. A completed FAFSA is frequently required before students can even submit any other student loan application, and often these deadlines are earlier than the federal deadline. School Based Financial AidMost higher education institutions have financial offices and offer many forms of financial aid and counseling to their students. While a FAFSA is usually required to qualify for school based programs, there are also additional applications to fill out. Since the deadlines for school based aid are often very early, every student should contact the financial aid office of his or her school as soon as a matriculation decision is made and obtain the necessary paperwork. This paperwork will often include a general financial aid application, applications for specific scholarships and a student loan application for any loans offered specifically by the school. These applications may require personal information in addition to the financial information required for the FAFSA.State LoansMany states offer specific loan programs including low-interest loans, loan forgiveness incentives and career based loans. As with school based loans, these require the completion of a FAFSA and additional application paperwork, often including an additional student loan application, but they are well worth investigating. Because they are partially funded by the state, these loans are more favorable to students than higher interest private loans. In addition, students planning on going into high demand careers or settling in certain areas may find that they qualify to have all or part of their loans forgiven once they satisfy graduation, career and residency requirements.PLUS Loans For Parents and Graduate StudentsThe PLUS loan program allows parents or graduate students to borrow money to pay for a college education. The student loan application process for these loans, unlike the loans described previously, requires a modest credit check to establish the credit worthiness of the individual parent or graduate student. Some schools also require a FAFSA on file before they will certify a student's eligibility for one of these loans. Those who qualify have the advantage of obtaining a loan with a relatively low-interest rate that is guaranteed by the federal government. This type of loan is useful for families when other types of financial aid and non credit based loans are not enough to cover educational expensesPrivate Student LoansPrivate student loans require a credit check, but the student loan application process for them is usually simple, and no FAFSA is required. This makes sense, since these loans are offered by banks and other financial institutions who are trying to make a profit. Because of this, the ability of families to get favorable terms for thee loans is based on credit scores. The simple application process for these loans has led many students to rely exclusively on private funding and ignore all other options. While private loans are a valid avenue to use in funding an education, they should not be the first option considered. Even with great credit, after all, the terms for these loans are almost never going to be as favorable as those available with government backed loans.The Bottom LineThe student loan application cycle can be challenging, and students need to be informed and educated loan consumers. Financially savvy families must gather records, file tax returns and fill out the FAFSA as early as they possibly can. After the FAFSA has been processed, they need to fill out school and state based financial aid paperwork, being careful to respect all deadlines.Only after these avenues have been exhausted should they look into other loan options.