How Much Does It Cost to Apply to College?

The Daunting Cost of College Begins Long Before You Attend

The cost of applying to college can strain a family's budget.
The cost of applying to college can strain a family's budget. Design Pics CEF / Getty Images

The cost of applying to college will often involve much more than the application fee, and it isn't unusual for a student applying to selective colleges to spend well over $1,000 before ever setting foot in a college classroom. Standardized test registration fees, score reporting fees, and travel for college visits all contribute to the total cost of the application process.

College Application Fees:

Nearly all colleges charge a fee for applying.

The reasons for this are two-fold. If applying was free, the college would get a lot of applications from applicants who aren't very serious about attending. This is particularly true with the Common Application that makes it so easy to apply to multiple schools. When colleges get lots of applications from students who aren't overly interested in attending, it's hard for the admissions folks to predict the yield from the applicant pool and accurately reach their enrollment goals.

The other reason for the fees is an obvious financial one. Application fees help cover the expenses of running the admissions office. As an example, the University of Florida got 29,220 applicants in 2015. With an application fee of $30, that's $876,000 that can go towards admissions costs. That may seem like a lot of money, but realize that the typical school spends thousands of dollars for each student it enrolls (admissions staff salaries, travel, mailings, software costs, fees paid to SAT and ACT for names, consultants, Common Application fees, etc).

College fees can vary significantly. A few schools such as St. John's College in Maryland have no fee. More common is a fee in the range of $30 to $80 depending on the type of school. The country's most selective colleges and universities tend to be on the upper end of that range. Yale, for example, has an $80 application fee.

If we assume an average cost of $55 per school, an applicant applying to ten colleges will have $550 in costs for fees alone.

The Cost of Standardized Tests:

If you're applying to selective colleges, chances are you'll be taking several AP exams as well as the SAT and/or ACT. You're likely to take the SAT or ACT even if you're applying to test-optional colleges--schools tend to use the scores for course placement, scholarships, and NCAA reporting requirements even if they don't use the scores in the actual admissions process.

I've written in detail about the cost of the SAT and cost of the ACT in other articles. In short, the SAT costs $46 which includes the first four score reports. If you apply to more than four schools, additional score reports are $12. The ACT costs are similar in 2017-18: $46 for the exam with four free score reports. Additional reports are $13. So the very minimum you'll pay for the SAT or ACT is $46 if you're applying to four or fewer colleges. Much more typical, however, is a student who takes the exam more than once and then applies to six to ten colleges. If you need to take SAT Subject Tests, your cost will be even higher. Typical SAT/ACT costs tend to be between $130 and $350 (even more for students who take both the SAT and the ACT).

Advanced Placement exams add more money to the equation unless your school district covers the cost. Each AP exam costs $93. Most students applying to highly selective colleges take at least four AP classes, so it isn't unusual for AP fees to be several hundred dollars.

The Cost of Travel:

It's possible, of course, to apply to colleges without ever traveling. Doing so, however, isn't advisable. When you visit a college campus, you get a much better feel for the school and can make a much more informed decision when choosing a school. An overnight visit is an even better way to figure out if a school is a good match for you. Visiting campus is also a good way to demonstrate your interest and can actually improve your chances of being admitted.

Travel, of course, costs money. If you go to a formal open house, the college is likely to pay for your lunch, and if you do an overnight visit, your host will swipe you into the dining hall for meals.

However, the costs of meals traveling to and from the college, the cost of operating your car (typically over $.50 per mile), and any lodging expenses will fall on you. For example, if you do an overnight visit at a college that isn't near your home, your parents are likely to need a hotel for the night.

So what is travel likely to cost? It's really impossible to predict. It can be almost nothing if you apply only to a couple local colleges. It can be well over a thousand of dollars if you apply to colleges on both coasts or go on a long road trip with lots of hotel stays.

Additional Costs:

Ambitious students who have the means often spend far more on the application process than I've outlined above. An ACT or SAT prep course will cost hundreds of dollars, and a private college coach can cost thousands of dollars. Essay editing services are also not cheap, especially when you realize that you may have over a dozen different essays with each school's supplements.

A Final Word on the Cost of Applying to College:

At a bare minimum, you're going to pay at least $100 to take the SAT or ACT and apply to a local college or two. If you're a high-achieving student applying to 10 highly selective colleges in a wide geographic area, you could easily be looking at $2,000 or more in costs for application fees, exam fees, and travel. I've encountered many students who spend more than $10,000 applying to schools because they hire a college consultant, fly to schools for visits, and take numerous standardized tests.

The application process, however, does not need to be prohibitively expensive. Both colleges and the SAT/ACT have fee waivers for low-income students, and things such as consultants and expensive travel are luxuries, not necessities.