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How Much Do College Applications Cost?

At this point in your college search, you’re aware of the price of college itself. But it’s vital to know that most schools also charge you just to apply. College application costs can be pricey: While some schools don’t have application fees, some private universities such as Stanford charge nearly $100 to apply. Most schools offer fee waivers if students have financial need–more on that later in the article!

The College Board suggests students should be applying to 5 to 8 colleges to ensure that a student is accepted into a suitable institution. However, this means that application fees can really add up for many students. In this article, we explore the reasons for application fees, how you pay them, and more importantly, how you can avoid paying college applications costs if you cannot afford to do so.

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Why do colleges charge application fees?

Why would already incredibly expensive schools charge you extra just to apply to them? It may seem strange, but there are legitimate reasons for application fees. One goal is to limit the number of applications so that only students who are serious about the given program apply. If a college charges nothing to apply, then they’ll receive applications from students who know nothing about the school. On the other hand, if there is a cost to apply, then more of the applications will be from genuinely interested students who care enough about the school to pay the fee. 

The second major reason for application fees is to fund the application reviewal process. Applications don’t read themselves, and require a team of admissions counselors to thoughtfully examine them. The cost of applying goes solely to this process, to ensure you a fair and thorough application review. We must remember that colleges and universities are businesses and need to support their operations and their staff.

Also see: How many colleges should I apply to?

Online applications

You may notice that some colleges will say that if you apply online, you do not have to pay an application fee. Other colleges may email you about fee waivers throughout the application process. Students can be on the lookout for these opportunities to save money on application fees!

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To pay or not to pay: how to navigate your application fee

If you and your family have determined you are able to pay your application fees, you will do so at the last step of your application. If you’re using the Common App, this comes during the review and submit section. Schools not using the Common App put their application fee in a similar place. You can use a credit card and sometimes cash to pay your application fee.

Application fee waivers

If you cannot afford your application fees, fear not. You are likely eligible for a fee waiver. Common forms of eligibility include the following:

  • Received or are eligible to receive an ACT or SAT testing fee waiver
  • Enrolled in or eligible to participate in the federal free or reduced price lunch program (FRPL)
  • Have an annual family income falls within the Income eligibility guidelines set by the USDA Food and Nutrition Service
  • Are enrolled in a federal, state, or local program that aids students from low-income families (e.g., TRIO programs such as Upward Bound)
  • Your family receives public assistance
  • Live in a federally subsidized public housing, a foster home or are homeless
  • Are a ward of the state or an orphan
  • Can provide a supporting statement from a school official, college access counselor, financial aid officer, or community leader

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What if you don’t qualify for fee waivers

If none of these qualify you, talk to your counselor, or reach out to the school(s) directly for assistance. You shouldn’t have to pay these college application costs if you cannot. It is likely you will be able to find help. Some schools even waive their application fee if you make an official campus visit.

Wherever you stand financially, don’t let application fees get you down. They are just another part of the process that will eventually lead you to the school of your dreams. 

See also: CollegePoint: Free, personalized college advising

Additional resources

As you prepare to send off your college applications, you’re going to be in a situation to make a lot of decisions. Luckily, we can help guide you through them. Check out our guides on when to apply to college, whether or not to send test scores to test-optional schools, and how to write the best possible Common App essays. We can also guide you through what looks good on a college application and how to fill out the activities and additional information sections of the Common App.

Finally, check back with us once you receive admissions decisions to decide how to choose a college and learn how to read your financial aid award letter. Good luck!

Frequently asked questions about the cost of college applications

How much do college applications cost in the United States?

College applications typically cost somewhere around $40-$50 per school in the United States. That being said, some schools with simpler application processes charge less, and you can apply for college application fee waivers to eliminate or reduce these fees.

Do I have to pay my college application fee if the school rejects me?

To apply to a school, you’ll have to pay your college application fee, and they will keep it regardless of whether they accept or reject you. You will not receive any fee refund, regardless of the outcome of the application. This means that some students might not find it worthwhile to apply to reach schools that are entirely out of their possible scope, as they will end up forgoing the time spent on their application as well as the money spent on their fee.

What if I can’t afford college application costs?

If you can’t afford college application fees, you should look into college application fee waivers. There are several metrics you can use to qualify for these waivers, including receiving a free school lunch, an SAT or ACT fee waiver, or having a family income below a set threshold. These metrics vary by school, but chances are, you’ll qualify for at least one of them.