Student loan debt has become the biggest source of debt for young people. In fact, Americans owe more than $1.2 trillion in student loan debt, says the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. So it’s more important than ever to understand how student loans work so you can use them in a practical, manageable way to help finance your education. Here are the typical steps to obtaining student loans:

1. FAFSA first

The first step in the loan process is submitting your Free Application through Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)'s website. After submitting your FAFSA, you’ll receive a Student Aid Report that summarizes the data you submitted. The information provided on your FAFSA will be shared with the school(s) you select to be considered for financial aid.

2. Review your award letter

The schools’ financial aid offices will use the information to calculate your aid. They will then send you an award letter, which details how much financial aid you’re eligible for at the school. This includes scholarships, federal student loans and work-study programs. You don’t have to accept the full amount for which you’re eligible. Borrow only what you need—your future self will thank you!

3. Accept the loan

The exact process for when and how aid will be paid out varies from school to school. The financial aid staff will explain how the process works at your school. When receiving your first federal student loan, you’ll be required to sign a promissory note and go through a short counseling program.

4. Consider private loans

If the financial aid you qualify for doesn’t cover the costs of attending college, then you may need to consider additional financial sources, such as private student loans. Many financial institutions, including credit unions like Navy Federal, offer private student loans. Shop around and find a private student loan that has a low rate and reasonable repayment options. Again, the first step to keeping debt manageable is borrowing only what you need.

If you have questions throughout the process, talk to your school’s financial aid office. The staff can help you navigate the process of paying for college. It may be your first time, but they’ve helped countless people just like you reach their educational goals.

This article is intended to provide general information and shouldn't be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to your situation and about your individual financial situation.