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How Much Does It Cost to Apply to College?

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Like everything related to higher education, there's a cost associated with applying to college, and it's more than just the college application fees themselves. How much does it really cost to apply to college, and what are the best ways to save money in the process?

Consider the big application picture

When it comes to applications, you need to work within the overall budget your family has determined for higher education expenses. Applying to college can cost almost nothing if you want to go to your state university (and know that you're likely to get in) and apply during Free College Application Days (see below). 

On the other hand, you might need to budget $5,000 or more if you expect to apply to 8–10 schools and make multiple plane trips, perhaps with a family member, to tour campuses.

Keep in mind that college application fees are ultimately a small part of the investment you're making in your future by going to a college that will help you achieve your academic, career, and personal goals. 

It doesn't make sense to apply to a school just because it has a low or no application fee if it isn't a school that interests you, and conversely, it's well worth paying a higher fee to apply to a school that you've determined is a best fit for you.

Keeping the big picture in mind increases the odds that you will matriculate at a college where you can be happy and successful. That said, why not save money where and when you can? Keep reading to find out how.

Application fees — what you need to know

Here's what you need to know about college application fees. 

College Application Fees Vary

It's free to create accounts on both the Common App and the Coalition for College platforms, but when submitting individual applications, you need to pay the fees charged by particular schools.

College application fees can be as low as $30 (for example, at Florida State and the University of Florida) but typically fall in the $50–70 range, with some highly selective universities charging $85 or $90 (Harvard and Stanford, respectively).

Apply for Free If You Qualify for an Application Fee Waiver

Through the Common and Coalition Apps, colleges and universities offer fee waivers (i.e., you don't pay anything) to students with financial need.

If you're eligible to participate in the federal free/reduced-price lunch program or qualify for an ACT or SAT fee waiver, you're likely to qualify for college application fee waivers. If you're unsure if you qualify, your high school guidance counselor can help you navigate this process, and you can also find information on the admissions websites of schools you're considering.

Both the Common and Coalition App have a place to indicate that application fees represent a financial hardship for you. Here is more information from the Common App about determining if you meet at least one of the indicators of economic need.

Are you a QuestBridge student? Many selective colleges and universities partner with QuestBridge to match high-achieving, underserved students with the right school. QuestBridge students apply to colleges through QuestBridge (rather than the Common or Coalition Apps) and do not pay application fees.

Are Tax Deductions Available for College Application Fees?

Unfortunately, the cost of applying to college (application and entrance exam fees, campus visit travel, etc.) are not tax-deductible. In addition, 529 College Savings Plan funds can't be spent on college applications.

The good news is that you and your family can get a head start by becoming familiar with tax deductions available for higher education and what you can use 529 Savings Plan money to pay for.

Other costs connected to applying to college

  • Standardized test fees: Though more and more colleges are test-optional for admissions, most students still take one of the college entrance exams. Currently, the ACT exam fee is $68 ($93 with the Writing test) and the SAT is $60. (There are additional fees for late registration, changing your test center location, and for reporting more than four scores.) If you live in a state where the SAT or ACT is administered to every public high school junior for free during a regular school day, you get a free test score.
  • Test prep: SAT and ACT offer plentiful free test prep options, so this doesn't have to cost you anything. There are many paid options as well, and in-person classes or a tutor can be worth the investment in many cases. 
  • Transcript fees: Most high schools charge just a few dollars per college to send your official transcript or may charge only one small fee to send transcripts through the Common App if you're using that to apply to multiple schools.
  • AP exam fees: This year, the AP exam fee is $98 per test (which is steep, especially if you will take multiple exams). But this investment can be well worth it if your score(s) make you eligible to receive college course credit and potentially reduce the amount of time spent in college.
  • Campus visits: Even day trips to schools in your state or region can become expensive in terms of time and gas money. Trips to tour campuses in other parts of the country may involve plane fares, hotels, rental cars, and meals out. You can mitigate the cost by making the most of admission staff visits to your high school, local college fairs, virtual tours, alumni interviews, etc. It's also wise to start by viewing virtual campus tours before visiting any schools in person. 
  • Private college counselors and essay coaches: From a few hundred dollars to work with a professional essay coach to thousands for a counselor who will guide you through the entire college search and application process, this is a much bigger ticket item that can make sense for families with means and in certain situations.

How to save when applying to college 

Now it's time to talk about saving money on your application fees. 

Thoughtfully curate your college list

The first step to controlling your college application budget is to narrow down the list of schools you'll apply to. If you don't do your research or aren't sure what you're looking for, you may find yourself somewhat randomly applying to 20–30 schools.

The scattershot approach doesn't guarantee a good outcome, and 20 x $50 (see below) adds up to $1,000 right there. Ouch.

Instead, start early to research colleges and work closely with your high school guidance counselor and a parent or another trusted guide to thoroughly explore your options and create a focused list of best-fit schools.

Take advantage of free application day(s) in your state

Every fall, usually in October, many states sponsor Free College Application Days — a window during which resident students can apply for free to in-state public colleges and universities (and sometimes private colleges).

In some states, like Colorado, applying to community colleges and technical schools is always free.

Free College Application Days are good motivation to get your application materials ready early. Find out more by visiting your state's higher education website and by talking to your high school counselor.

Check out colleges with no application fee

Many of the nation's most elite schools have done away with application fees, so it's free for anyone to apply with no waiver required. The list of colleges with no application fee includes schools all over the country, both large and small, such as Carleton College in Minnesota, Furman University in South Carolina, and some of the nation's outstanding women's colleges like Wellesley, Smith, and Mt. Holyoke. 

Some schools on this list are quite hard to get into, but others accept a higher percentage of students, so it's worth looking closely to see if any of them match your interests or are already on your radar.

Many online universities, including Southern New Hampshire University and the University of Arizona's Global Campus, have zero application fees.

Limit traveling to schools out of state 

Campus visits can be educational and informative and help students figure out what kind of school suits them best. It's always a good idea to start your college search by visiting campuses nearby. 

Ideally, you get a chance to see schools of different sizes and become well acquainted with your state universities since in-state tuition is generally a good way to control your overall higher education costs.

If you're applying to schools in other parts of the country, you might consider waiting until after you receive acceptance and then attending admitted student visit days. In the meantime, learn as much as you can online and by talking to current students and recent alums and signing up if admissions staffers visit your high school in the fall when they're in the area for college fairs.

The more advanced planning and research you do, the more focused and efficient you'll be as you move through the college application process — which will reduce stress and save you money!

Ready to see how much college will cost you?

You already know that being smart about the cost of college can end up saving you thousands of dollars. So it's probably time to compare the costs of the colleges on your list. 

The easiest way to do that is with Appily. Simply create a free account and start adding colleges to your list. From there, you can see data points like tuition and the average aid that students get at each school. You can also see what you can expect to pay based on your family's income. Just click the button below to get started. 

Create a free Appily account to find, finance, and attend the college that's right for you Get Started Now