When snapping back-to-school pics this year, I confess to shedding a tear. And not only because I was feeling sentimental. As my 16-year-old heads into the last year of high school, the milestone is hitting me in the feels — and the family budget.
In addition to the cost of having a high school senior (like the eye-popping insurance premiums for teen drivers), we also need to start forking over college application fees.
At a time when every dime goes towards that looming college tuition bill and related expenses, finding bandwidth in the budget to just apply to college can be challenging.
How Much Do College Application Fees Cost?
Brace yourself: Nothing about applying to college is cheap or easy.
U.S. News & World Report indicates the average fee for applying to a college is $45, but some Ivy League schools demand application fees as high as $100.
Admissions experts suggest students apply to at least three colleges — or improve your odds by applying to as many as five to eight schools. That places the cost of applying to college somewhere between an affordable $180 and a whopping $1,000. Ouch.
3 Ways to Get a College Application Fee Waiver
If the cost of applying to college isn’t in your budget, there are options. Many schools offer college application fee waivers to low-income families and those who may need financial aid.
Here are just a few ways you can snag a waiver for college fees and details on how to apply.
1. Qualify for a College Board Fee Waiver
If you qualified for the College Board SAT or ACT fee waiver, chances are you also qualify for fee waivers to over 2,000 schools nationwide. The process is straightforward, said Tobi Kinsell, senior executive director for College Advising Corps.
“A student with financial need may request an ACT or SAT test fee waiver before signing up to take the SAT or ACT,” Kinsell said. “When the student requests a test fee waiver, they are also eligible to receive college application fee waivers from participating colleges.”
There’s no limit to how many College Board application fee waivers you can use. Simply print the waivers at home or school and include them with the application to a qualifying school.
2. Get a Guidance Counselor to Sign Off on a Fee Waiver
In addition to the SAT and ACT college application fee waivers, ACT (American College Testing) provides a form to request a fee waiver or deferral that high school guidance counselors sign and students submit to colleges.
Just keep in mind filling out the form is not a guarantee the school will honor it. Students should follow up with the college admissions office to confirm the application fee has been waived.
3. Just Ask for a College Application Fee Waiver
Sometimes all you have to do is ask. Most schools don’t want application fees to stand in the way of students applying. So call the college admissions office and ask if they’ll extend an application fee waiver as a courtesy.
Many colleges automatically qualify certain students for fee waivers, such as veterans and those in good academic standing. Students who live in federally subsidized housing or those who are wards of the state also usually qualify for fee waivers.
4 Ways to Save Money on College Application Fees
Even if you don’t qualify for waived application fees, there are other ways to cut costs when applying to colleges. These tips can help you save a little money now to put toward that college tuition bill later.
1. Apply Through the Common App or Coalition Application
Common App and the Coalition Application are two different apps that remove barriers to college applications for all students. These application processes save time and, in some cases, money by enabling students to apply to several schools at once.
When you fill out a FAFSA (the application for federal student aid), the Common App and Coalition App platforms automatically waive the application fees if your income qualifies.
It’s also worth checking out the Common App for HBCUs (historically Black colleges and universities), which charges a flat $20 application fee for the 67 colleges within their national association.
2. Do Your Research
There are many colleges that don’t charge application fees. That’s right — you can apply for free to many community and state colleges. And most colleges have a period of time during the early admissions window where application fees are waived for everyone.
For instance, at least two schools on my senior’s college list offer free application windows. We marked the dates so we’d remember to take advantage of those opportunities for a savings of roughly $100.
Simply by doing our research, our student will save a third of the anticipated cost of applying to college.
3. Trim Your College List
The best way to budget for college application expenses is to spend on what you need and leave the rest. Narrow down the college list and apply to schools with reasonable acceptance rates.
Michelle McAnaney, college admissions consultant and founder of The College Spy, tells students not to apply to colleges they clearly won’t get accepted to.
“Many times, it is difficult for students to determine if a ‘reach college’ is actually very much within the student’s reach!” she said. “Therefore, I highly recommend students consult with a professional such as their school counselor to determine which reach colleges make sense to apply to.”
4. Take a Tour or Attend a College Fair
College admissions experts recommend stopping by local schools and taking a tour or checking out a local college fair. You’ll get the inside scoop on how to get a fee waiver and be able to talk to admissions counselors directly about college application costs.
By attending tours and info sessions, you can also get other valuable info to address your family’s specific financial need. For instance, some state universities actively help out-of-state students apply for residency after their first year to reduce their tuition costs.
While applying to college may put up a lot of financial roadblocks for students, it doesn’t have to be that way. Taking advantage of free application windows, budgeting for the more expensive fees and asking for a fee waiver can cut costs and make a stressful senior year a little less cash-strapped.
You might even teach your college-bound student some budgeting skills in the bargain.
Kaz Weida is a senior writer for The Penny Hoarder.