The price of applying to college can add up fast. Students should expect to pay at least $678, factoring in the cost of online test preparation, and test and application fees, according to a March 2017 analysis by NerdWallet and Magoosh, an online test preparation service.
That’s just the bare minimum. Many students go on campus visits and take the ACT and SAT multiple times in pursuit of stellar scores.
“If a student is trying to leverage every single strategic advantage, it’s going to cost a couple hundred dollars a college,” says Marie Bigham, director of college counseling at Isidore Newman School in New Orleans and a National Association for College Admission Counseling board of directors member.
In many cases, you have to front these costs in order to apply to colleges. But if you can prove that you have a financial need, there are ways to get around some of them. Here’s how.
1. Ask for ACT and SAT fee waivers
Costs related to college applications start with standardized testing fees. It costs $43 to register for each standard SAT you take, and $39.50 to register for each ACT test. Both cost more if you want to take the essay portion of the tests in addition to the other sections ($54.50 for the SAT, $56.50 for the ACT).
You can get ACT and SAT fee waivers to take up to two of each test for free. To get either, talk to your high school college or guidance counselor. Each test company allocates only a certain number of waivers to each high school, and it’s up to the school’s counselors to distribute them based on need. There are several ways to qualify; you may be eligible if you:
- Live in a foster home or public housing, or are homeless.
- Are in a free or reduced-price lunch program or qualify for one based on your family’s income.
- Receive public assistance, including Medicaid or food stamps, or are in a government program for low-income families, such as Upward Bound.
» MORE: How to pay for college
2. Request college application fee waivers
The SAT fee waiver is a gift that keeps on giving: In addition to letting you take the test for free, it also lets you skip the application costs for four colleges. If you get an SAT waiver, the College Board will send you application waivers in the fall of your senior year or when you get your SAT test scores.
If you didn’t get an SAT waiver, or if you did but want to apply for free to more than four schools, there are other ways to potentially get those fees waived. You can request some application fee waivers directly through the college application, or fill out the NACAC’s fee waiver request form and submit it with your application.
Many college applications, including the Common Application (a generic application that more than 600 schools accept), have a field where you can indicate that you want to be considered for a fee waiver. If a school’s application doesn’t have a fee waiver option, try the NACAC fee waiver request form. In both cases, you need to qualify based on your financial situation — the requirements are similar to the ACT and SAT waiver requirements. Your high school counselor also has to verify that you have a financial need, either electronically or with a signature.
However, there’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to get a fee waiver or that a college will honor it if you do; each campus can use its own discretion.
3. Consider campuses that have no application fee and seek out additional help if you need it
Not all hope is lost if you can’t get a fee waiver. Some colleges give out codes for a free application to students who attend certain college fairs or visit the school’s campus. And many colleges simply don’t charge application fees at all. For example, it’s free to apply to Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota; Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio; and Reed College in Portland, Oregon. The College Board has a list that indicates colleges with no application fee and colleges that accept fee waivers.
But if all else fails, it doesn’t hurt to just ask the college to waive the fee. Call the admissions office yourself — Bigham says this can be the most effective approach — or ask your high school counselor to help advocate in your favor.
“If a student’s high school counselor wrote us a note indicating that paying the application fee would create some financial hardship for the family, we would waive it,” says Kent Rinehart, dean of admission at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, and a NACAC board of directors member.
4. Compare your test preparation options
Investing in test preparation could pay off if it helps you land free money for college. For instance, students need to score highly on the PSAT to be eligible for the National Merit Scholarship Program, and other scholarships require certain ACT or SAT scores.
Think about your budget and study style when choosing a test preparation product. Your options include:
- Books (the least-expensive option, generally)
- Online programs
- In-person classes
- One-on-one tutoring (the most-expensive option, generally)
“Effective self-studiers” will likely do well with a book or an online program, says Peter Poer, director of content at Magoosh. Students who need the pressure of someone watching them may need an in-person class or tutor.
As you’re thinking about your college applications, start thinking about financial aid too. Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA, to apply for grants, scholarships, work-study opportunities and federal student loans. You can submit the FAFSA as early as October 2018 for the 2019-20 school year.