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You can apply to as many colleges as you want to, but five to eight schools is recommended, according to The College Board, the higher education not-for-profit that administers the SAT.
But your application costs will add up the more schools you have on your list.
» MORE: Is college worth it?
When you’re assessing schools, look for a mix of safety, reach and good-fit colleges among more than 4,500 two-year and four-year schools. Once you have your shortlist, weigh the potential costs of applying to all your choices. Some of the factors to consider include:
Financial aid applications.
Optional expenses such as test prep and college visits.
Fees for required tests
Many colleges will require you to submit standardized test scores from either the SAT or ACT. You may opt to take the tests multiple times to improve your score, but you’ll pay the test fee each time you schedule one.
There are waivers available for SAT and ACT testing fees. Waivers are distributed by high school guidance counselors, based on need.
The SAT has a price tag of $47.50. If you take the SAT with essay, which some schools require, you’ll pay $64.50. You can send scores to up to four schools, but if you want additional schools to receive your scores, you’ll pay $12 per report.
It will cost $50.50 to register for the ACT test. To take the test with the essay you’ll pay $67. Your scores will be sent to four schools. Additional schools will cost $13 each.
Again, there’s no limit on how many colleges you can apply to, but each will likely require an application fee. The average fee is $50 but it can go up to $90 at some elite colleges, according to U.S. News & World Report, which ranks colleges annually.
The Common App, a standard application accepted by roughly 900 colleges, often requires application fees. For the schools which accepted the Common App and required an application fee during the 2020-21 application period, the average fee was nearly $55, according to a NerdWallet analysis. Nonetheless, nearly half of the colleges that accepted the Common App didn't require a fee.
However, schools will waive the charge if you meet criteria for financial need. You could also consider colleges that don’t charge application fees.
Financial aid applications
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, has “free” in the name because it won’t cost anything to submit. It’s the key to accessing federal student aid including grants, scholarships, work-study and federal student loans. Select up to 10 schools to receive the results of the FAFSA you submit.
Some of the schools on your list may require the CSS Profile for access to state and institutional aid. Unlike the FAFSA, the CSS Profile costs $25 to submit to one school. To send scores to additional colleges, it will cost $16 per school. But you may qualify for a CSS Profile fee waiver that would cover these expenses.
How it all adds up
If you have a set budget for applying to school, ask yourself: Is every school on my list one I want — and can afford — to attend? Here are three examples of how application expenses can add up.
Scenario 1: Apply to five schools
Say you plan to apply to five colleges that have $50 application fees. You plan to take both the SAT and the ACT tests once. Two of the colleges want you to submit the CSS Profile. Here’s how much you can expect to pay:
SAT test = $47.50
ACT test = $50.50
Application fees = ($50 x 5)
FAFSA = $0
CSS Profile for two schools = $25 + $16
Total = $389
Scenario 2: Apply to eight schools
You plan to apply to eight colleges. You want to take the SAT with the essay only once. Three of the colleges require the CSS Profile. Seven of the schools carry $50 application fees, but you also are applying to one school with a $75 fee. Here’s how much you can expect to pay.
SAT test with essay = $64.50
Application fees = ($50 x 7) + $75
FAFSA = $0
CSS Profile for three schools = $25 + $16 + $16
Total = $546.50
Scenario 3: Get fee waivers for applications at four schools
Say you’re granted fee waivers for testing and for four applications you want to submit. If none of these schools require the CSS Profile for financial aid, you could pay nothing to apply to college.
SAT test with essay = waived
Application fees = waived
FAFSA = $0
Total = $0
Related costs that raise your total
Campus visits. Depending on the distance to visit schools, travel expenses including food and lodging will build up fast. You may not need to visit every school on your list, but some colleges will require in-person interviews or auditions as part of the admissions process.
SAT/ACT prep courses and materials. You may want to take a test prep course or buy study guides to help you get a better score on an exam. The College Board’s most recent Official SAT Study Guide is $28.99, and its prep course is $38.98. The Official ACT Prep Guide is $32.95, and the official ACT Online Prep course is $39.95.
College admissions counseling. Turning to professional college admissions experts can get pricey. You could pay anywhere from hundreds an hour for advice to several thousands for boot camps and one-on-one tutoring.