How to Save Money When Applying to College

The College Application Process Doesn't Have to Be Pricey

You can save hundreds of dollars or more when applying to colleges if you approach the process thoughtfully.
You can save hundreds of dollars or more when applying to colleges if you approach the process thoughtfully. DaniloAndjus / Getty Images

We all know that college is expensive. Unfortunately, simply applying to college can cost over $1,000. Those application fees, standardized test expenses, and travel costs can add up quickly. Fortunately, there are ways to make the application process far more affordable.

Many Colleges Can Waive Their Application Fees

Most colleges charge an application fee of $30 to $80. By itself that may not seem like a lot, but it can certainly add up when you are applying to ten or twelve schools.

Colleges charge this fee for two reasons: to help defray the expenses of recruiting students, and to discourage students who aren't really interested in the school from applying. This latter issue is really the most significant one for colleges. The Common Application makes it extremely easy to apply to multiple colleges with little effort. Without an application fee, schools could end up with tens of thousands of applications from students who are applying on a whim. This would pose a real challenge for a college both as it struggles to process the sheer number of applications, and as it tries to predict the yield from the applicant pool. 

Because paying the fee helps assure that an applicant is at least partly serious about attending the college (even if the school isn't the student's first choice), colleges will often waive the fee if students demonstrate their sincere interest some other way.

Here are some of the possibilities for getting an application fee waived:

  • Visit the campus. Colleges want students to be making an informed decision when they apply, and a campus visit is one of the best ways for you to get a feel for a school. For this reason, many colleges will waive your application fee if you visit campus for an interview, open house, and/or campus tour.
  • Apply early. Colleges love getting Early Decision applicants (and to a lesser extent Early Action applicants), because these tend to be their most interested applicants who are sure to attend if admitted. For this reason, you'll find that some colleges offer application fee waivers for students who apply before a certain date.
  • Demonstrate financial need. If the application fees represent a true financial hardship for you, nearly all colleges are willing to waive the fees. Some schools may want proof of your family income for a fee waiver, while at other colleges receiving a waiver may be as simple as asking.
  • Apply late. This won't be an option for highly selective schools and it seems counter to the bullet point above about applying early, but some colleges find themselves falling short of their application goals late in the admissions cycle, so they create incentives to get more students to apply. Thus, it is not unusual for colleges in this situation to offer application fee waivers in an effort to increase the applicant pool.

Keep in mind that application fee waivers are handled differently at every college, and some or all of the above options won't be available at every school. That said, if you read a school's application information carefully or talk to an admissions counselor, you may find that you don't actually need to pay that application fee.

Don't Apply to Colleges You Wouldn't Actually Attend

I see many students who apply to several safety schools when the reality is that they would never consider attending these schools. Yes, you want to make sure you will receive at least one acceptance letter from the schools to which you apply, but you should still be selective and apply only to those colleges and universities that excite you and align with your personal and academic goals.

If you consider an average application fee of $50, you're looking at $300 if you apply to six colleges and $600 if you apply to a dozen. You will clearly reduce both your costs and your effort if you do your research and cross off your list those schools that you're not eager to attend.

I've also seen a lot of ambitious applicants who apply to every single Ivy League School along with Stanford, MIT, and one or two other elite universities.

The thinking here tends to be that these schools are so selective, that you're most likely to win the admissions lottery if you have lots of applications out there. In general, however, this isn't a great idea. For one, it's expensive (these top schools tend to have application fees around $70 or $80 dollars). Also, it's time-consuming—each of the Ivies has multiple supplemental essays, and you'll be wasting your time applying if you don't craft those essays thoughtfully and carefully. Finally, if you'd be happy in the rural town of Hanover, New Hampshire (home of Dartmouth), would you really be happy in the middle of New York City (home of Columbia)?

In short, being thoughtful and selective about the schools to which you apply will save you both time and money.

Have a Good Strategy for the SAT and ACT

I've seen plenty of college applicants who take both the SAT and the ACT three or four times in a desperate-seeming effort to get a good score. The reality, however, is that taking the exam multiple times rarely has a significant impact on the score unless you've actually put in significant effort to increase your knowledge and improve your test-taking skills. I typically recommend applicants take an exam just twice--once junior year, and once early in senior year. The senior year test may not even be necessary if you are happy with your junior year scores. For more information, see my articles on when to take the SAT and when to take the ACT.

Also, there is nothing wrong with taking both the SAT and the ACT, but colleges require scores from just one of the exams. You can save yourself money by figuring out which exam is best suited to your skill set, and then focusing on that exam. Free online SAT and ACT resources or a $15 book could save you hundreds of dollars in exam registration fees and score reporting fees.

Finally, as with application fees, SAT and ACT fee waivers are available for students with demonstrated financial need. See these articles on the cost of the SAT and cost of the ACT for more additional information.

Be Strategic When Visiting Campuses

Depending on which schools you're applying to, travel can be a major expense during the application process. One option, of course, is to not visit colleges until after you've been admitted. This way you're not spending money visiting a school only to find that you've been rejected. Through virtual tours and online research, you can learn quite a bit about a college without ever setting foot on campus.

That said, I don't recommend this approach for most students. Demonstrated interest plays a role in the admissions process, and visiting campus is a good way to demonstrate your interest and potentially even improve your chances of being admitted. Also, a campus visit is going to give you a much better feel for a school than a flashy online tour that can easily hide a school's warts. Also, as I mentioned above, when you visit campus you might get an application fee waiver, or you might save money by discovering that you don't actually want to apply to the school.

So when it comes to travel during the college selection process, my best advice is to do it, but be strategic:

  • Find schools that are within striking distance of each other and visit them during the same trip.
  • Go with a classmate interested in similar types of schools and share driving and lodging costs.
  • Don't visit schools until you've done some meaningful research and are sure the school is a good match for you.
  • For schools that require air travel, you may indeed want to put off a campus visit until after you've been admitted (there are ways to demonstrate interest other than campus visits).

A Final Word about Application Costs

Chances are, the college application process is going to cost several hundred dollars even when approached thoughtfully and frugally. That said, it doesn't need to cost thousands of dollars, and there are lots of ways to bring down the cost. If you are from a family facing financial hardship, be sure to look into fee waivers for both application fees and standardized tests—the cost of applying to college doesn't need to be a barrier to your college dreams.