How to Save Money on College Applications


We all know that college can be expensive, but I didn't realize that just applying to colleges can cost hundreds of dollars. This fall, when my oldest son began to submit his applications, I got schooled on these expenses and picked up some ideas on how to control them. Learn from my mistakes as well as the right decisions I made.

Here are ways to save when applying for college.

College Applications

Developing a list of colleges and universities, comprised of your top choice and a safety school, is a first step. Planning is a key to saving money as last-minute decisions can be costly. Trimming the list to just a few schools will naturally reduce your expenses. (See also: Getting the Most Out of Free College-Planning Resources)

Look for Universal Fee Waivers

Many colleges and universities offer fee waivers during certain time frames. For example, North Carolina students who register with can apply for free to certain private and public universities during “College Application Week.” Likewise, Indiana schools waive fees during the state's “College GO! Week.” 

Note that these free application dates may be after early action or early decision deadlines, so you may want to forgo no-cost processes to gain early admission to the college of your choice.

Ask for a Fee Waiver

High school students may be able to obtain fee waivers by working with their guidance counselors. You’ll have to meet eligibility requirements and fill out forms, but this approach is a great option for many lower-income families.

Apply to No-Fee Schools

Consider applying to schools with no fees or that waive fees in certain cases. To find colleges and universities associated with the Common App that do not charge a fee (and to see the charges associated with member schools), visit the College Deadlines, Fees, and Requirements section of its website. Pay attention to correspondence from colleges and universities with special offers relating to no application fees.

Some high school counselors are concerned, though, that students will be attracted to schools that aren't a good fit merely because of the zero cost of applying, according to a New York Times article. Use your judgment in evaluating schools.

Testing Services

One of the biggest expense categories in the application process is testing services (specifically, costs for SATs and AP Courses from College Board, and for the ACT from ACT, Inc.). There are fees for registering for tests, preparing for tests, and sending scores to colleges and universities. Still, there are ways to save money.

Register Sooner Rather Than Later

Between the busyness of my son's senior year and the uncertainty of his schedule, I didn't push for early or, well, on-time registration. Kids can sign up at the last minute, but there are hefty late-registration fees.

Because so many high-school students take the SATs and ACTs, many schools and teen organizations (like scout troops and church youth groups) avoid planning activities for these dates or recognize that they may have lower-than-usual participation, so your teens may not miss big events with their friends anyway. It makes sense to commit early to testing dates and register on time.

Use Free or Low-Cost Test Prep Sources

Skip SAT or ACT preparation classes, which may run $400 to $700. Consider these alternatives to save money: 

  • Sign up for "question of the day" emails and start getting practice during your sophomore and junior years.
  • Take the test more than once; though you’ll pay twice, the first session can serve as a real-world warm-up for the subsequent sitting.
  • Pay for test analysis reports so that you’ll know which areas you need to work on; again, there is a cost but it should be less than course fees.
  • Consider online courses that are more convenient than in-classroom sessions and generally cost much, much less. 

Honestly, I wanted my son to take these classes, but he didn’t have time in his schedule. Unintentionally, then, I saved money and his test scores were high enough to gain entrance to his top choice.

Take the SAT Subject Tests Immediately After Taking the Classes

Scores should be higher when course material is fresh in a student's mind. If you have waited too long, consider saving money by skipping these tests. 

It never occurred to me that my son could take these tests in his freshman, sophomore, or junior years. The time lag between taking the courses and taking the tests may have caused my son to turn in scores so average that he opted not to report them.

Specify the Schools That Will Receive Your Test Scores Before You See the Results

If you wait until after the test, then you will have to pay to send scores to designated schools. Plus you may be tempted to pay rush fees. Note that admissions reps say that they’ll typically look at the top scores in each category, no matter how many times you take the standardized tests. So you can save money by specifying schools when you sign up for the test without fear that average performance in just one session will jeopardize your chances of getting accepted.

My son changed his mind about his major and what schools he was considering but didn’t update the recipient schools in the College Board. So, though the first round of SAT scores were sent for free, he had to request submission of scores the second time, costing us extra money.

Consider Alternate Methods of Reporting Your Scores or Aptitude

Some colleges and universities will accept test scores that are reported on your high-school transcript. Avoid paying for score submission from testing agencies if alternate means of reporting scores are acceptable.

Still other schools don’t require standardized test scores. Instead, they measure your potential based on factors such as your academic record, essays, and letters of recommendation. For example, Wake Forest University recently stopped requiring SAT or ACT scores. To find colleges and universities that don't require standardized scores, see this list from Fair Test.

Request a Fee Waiver

Eligible students may be able to obtain a waiver of testing fees. And, if you get a waiver from College Board or ACT, you may be in a better position to get waivers of college-application fees.

Supplementary Materials

Getting supplementary materials ready for college applications and making sure they arrive on time can cost you. Do application tasks on your own and get things done early to avoid having to fax or send materials via express mail.

Write Your Own Resumé

Use this guide to prepare a high-school resumé instead of paying some to develop the document for you. 

Take Advantage of Free Resources

A great educational counselor can be worth the money, but you can also get many of these services at no cost if you plan ahead and tap the right resources. Do your own research if possible. Even if you hire someone to help, you may be able to save money by performing certain tasks on your own.

Ask Early for Letters of Recommendation

Most schools require at least one letter of recommendation; many require two or three letters. Choose recommenders carefully, and make sure they have plenty of time to craft the letters so that you don’t have to send anything via rush mail to meet deadlines. Or avoid mail service altogether and arrange for electronic submission of letters to colleges and universities.

Senior year can be a very busy time. You (or your teenager) may be overloaded with classes, part-time work and volunteer activities, sports, friends, and more, all while having to fill out applications, write essays, take tests, etc. But planning ahead and anticipating some of these expenses can help you save money.

How did you save money when applying for college? Share in the comments.

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Meg Favreau's picture

Oof. Reading this reminded me of how overwhelmed I felt when applying for colleges. If visiting a campus is really important to you, another good option for saving in this phase might be to visit schools AFTER applying and finding out whether you got in, instead of paying for expensive trips beforehand. I'd be interested to know -- has anyone here done that?

Julie Rains's picture

Some folks make a family vacation of sorts to visit colleges (and I was surprised that there were a couple of hundred out-of-staters at the UNC admissions tour we took on a 100-degree day last summer) but I think waiting to visit is a great way to save money. In fact, UNC offers special events for those who have been accepted but are undecided -- actually I was confused by that event but now it makes sense!

Guest's picture

As a private college counselor, I think you have made some very good suggestions. However, there is one I disagree with. I tell my students to put down no schools on the form to receive the SAT or ACT scores even though they are free when you take the test. I don't want a school to pre-judge a student before they have had a chance to see their whole application package including grades, courses taken, extracurricular activities, recommendations, and test scores. I have talked with enough college admissions people to know that test scores sent before the rest of the application materials can cause a negative toward a student before they even begin. It is better to send the scores to the schools you actually apply to when you send in everything else.

Julie Rains's picture

Thanks for your insights. My son agrees with you! He thinks it's best to wait and see what the scores are, and then submit the scores. As the mom footing the bill, though,
I hated to pay $10 extra per school for a free service and even though I never paid a rush fee ($30), I imagine that many parents have.

The admissions folks I heard from said to submit all scores and they'd consider the highest scores out of all the various tests taken as these would represent the student's potential. My thoughts were that students would probably be accepted at schools where their class rank, academic performance, and test scores lined up with admissions guidelines. But I can see that low scores (however that may be defined, and would vary from student to student and school to school) could influence admissions decision-makers in a negative way.

Guest's picture

Some universities (Marquette for one - offer an application fee waiver when the applicant is recommended by an alum.

Julie Rains's picture

Great tip -- thanks for mentioning this idea.