Borrow Smart

4. Borrow smart: Chances are you'll need to borrow at least part of the tab. To be eligible for federal loans, the first step is to file a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Low-income students-which many grad students are once they're independent of their parents-might qualify for Perkins loans, which award up to $8,000 annually (to a maximum, including undergrad amounts, of $60,000) and have a 5 percent interest rate.

Stafford loans pay out up to $20,500 a year. The loans carry a 6.8 percent interest rate and a 1 percent fee, and a lifetime maximum of $138,500. For the rest, Graduate PLUS loans are available (at 7.9 percent interest plus 4 percent in fees), as are private loan options.