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If you’re planning on going to college, student loans can feel like more of an eventuality than a choice.

What you may not realize, is how important of a choice you are making with student loans, though. It’s so much more than, “I need ‘X’ amount for college, so gimme that loan.”

The student loan application process is important not just because it provides funding. How you apply, and how much you apply for, can dramatically impact the back end of student loans. So if you are thinking about loans for yourself, or for a child’s education, remember it all starts with focusing on the application process.

How do I know? The numbers, of course.

Like the fact that 21 percent of students aren’t sure if they’ll be able to pay back the amount they’ve borrowed. Or how 98 percent (!?!) aren’t sure of which loans accrue interest during school and periods of deferment. And then there’s the fact that 7 out of 10 students surveyed think that Sallie Mae is a person.

You should know how much you borrow.

You also should know the interest rate and terms of your loan BEFORE you apply.

Oh, and Sallie Mae is not the patron saint of student loans, or even a historical figure. It’s a publicly traded company that started as a government entity to manage federal loans, and has since privatized and helps students explore all financing options when it comes to college.

And if you asked them, or anyone who works with student loans, they’d all point to the same starting point when it comes to the application process: Filling out your FAFSA.

The FAFSA (short for Free Application For Student Aid), is the simple way to apply for all forms of federal student loans and determine eligibility. It’s available online or to submit via the mail, and can be processed in as few as three days.

From there, a Student Aid Report is generated, and breaks down the type and amounts of student aid an individual qualifies for. In addition, your financial information is available to colleges you include on your FAFSA form, and schools can use this information to determine how much aid they can provide.

A formal financial aid award letter details the exact arrangement each school can provide. Federal funding depends on the cost of attendance, and can availability for students fluctuates based on which school you want to attend.

Applying Elsewhere: The Private Option

Applying for private funding has a few more steps than filling out the FAFSA, but is also easy to manage with a plan.

Private loans are more complicated due to the increased options. Students have to choose how much to apply for, under what interest rate/repayment options and then have their credit checked to make sure they qualify. A lot of times, it takes a cosigner, meaning someone else has to be willing to put their credit on the line to help a student qualify for private aid.

It may seem like more red tape and headaches, but it’s a lot easier to understand if you have a grasp on concepts like interest rates and an understanding of the repayment process. There are also a number of resources for perusing private options, including that Sallie character.

It all just depends on what you are looking for, and if you can make it work in the future. The U.S. Department of Labor offers tools to estimate income potential, and calculating exactly how much you need is a vital part of applying for private student loans.

Numbers Never Lie

But again, don’t take our word for it. I asked an expert.

Sue Downing works for Inceptia, a non-profit organization that helps students navigate their way through paying for college. She’s the one who pointed us to the numbers in the first place, and presented plenty of data points to drive home the point: Being informed about the details of your loan changes everything about your college experience.

According to examples provided by Downing, schools with “varying degrees” of financial support services saw tangible effects on student behavior, such as “increased contact with financial aid offices.”

“Meaning more opportunities to offer support throughout the student lifecycle,” she said. “Whether these touchpoints involve identifying issues or simply providing a stronger sense of attachment to the institution, the effect is a positive impact on student persistence.”

And the list of positive effects doesn’t stop there.

“Increased course completion, increased credits completed, overall persistence, and interestingly an increase in Grade Point Average – all contributing to greater retention rates that lead to degree attainment, a positive for both students and institutional revenue,” Downing said.

It may sound overly simplified, but the research proves that the act of informing yourself about your loan has tangible results. Those results even spilled over beyond students’ time in college.

Informing students about financial matters helps them use their loans efficiently, and can help them manage the mountain of debt that is waiting after graduation.

“When used in conjunction with a robust financial education program,” Downing said, “there’s a significant decrease in amount borrowed – meaning students leave school with more manageable levels of debt and a sense of empowerment to build general financial wellness.”