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From finding friends to passing classes, freshman year can be a challenge. Chances are good that navigating the student loan maze will be part of that challenge, as well.

Applying for your very first student loan? Don’t wade blindly in the murky waters of financial assistance.

Fill Out the FAFSA First

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the starting point for finding money for school. Even if you don’t qualify for a federal aid program, like grants, loans, or work-study, other loan providers may require that you complete the FAFSA in addition to their own application forms. The FAFSA is also used to help colleges and other accredited schools award merit scholarships.

Traditional Student Loans aren’t Your Only Option

Many first-time borrowers are aware that traditional student loans help pay for school—but that aid comes at a cost. When you take out a traditional school loan, you’re required to pay back the loan amount plus any interest that accrues. Interest costs can add hundreds or thousands of dollars to your education expenses, extending the amount of time you’re saddled with debt.

One budget-friendly alternative is to apply for no-interest student loans. You’re responsible for repaying the cost of the loan amount—and not a penny more.  Take the sting out of education costs by applying for a zero-interest loan from Lancaster Dollars for Higher Learning. We’re accepting applications through April 28, 2017, for the 2017-18 academic year.

Pay Attention During Entrance Counseling

When you take out federal student loans for the first time, you must complete a mandatory 20-30 minute entrance counseling session. It’s designed to help you better understand the loan process, as well as your rights and responsibilities as a borrower. Private lenders and individual schools may require additional student loan counseling, too.

It can be frustrating to deal with what may seem like another setback, but these sessions will help you avoid costly mistakes when borrowing or repaying school loans. If you have additional questions after you’ve received the counseling, talk with your school’s financial aid office for clarification.

Understand How Loans are Disbursed

There may be a gap between when your initial college bills arrive and when your first loan is disbursed. Prevent stress-induced headaches by confirming when and how the funds will be transferred.

For example, if the funds are sent directly to your school, it can take several weeks for the school to take out money for tuition and other expenses before sending you the refund.

Know Your Repayment Terms

About half of current U.S. college students polled in a recent survey believed they would be able to have their federal student loan debt forgiven after graduation—a big misconception. While there are a few specific situations in which student loan borrowers can have debt forgiven, most students should expect to pay back their loans.

Become familiar with loan terms now, including when repayment starts, when interest begins to accrue, and which situations warrant debt forgiveness. Look for ways to lower repayment costs, too, such as enrolling in auto-debit loan payments.

Get Organized Now

It’s not uncommon for students to pay for college with loans from a variety of public and private sources. Now is the time to get organized so you can keep track of your school debt.

Keep all paperwork, including statements, in a central location, whether that’s a folder in your desk drawer or a file on your computer. The time you invest in getting student loan paperwork in order now will save hassles—and prevent surprises—when you need to start repaying loans later.