Managing College Application Costs: What to Expect and How to Pay for Them

WeAdmit Master Guides
August 29, 2019
It’s College Application Season...

Day after day, you’re writing and editing what seems to be your hundredth personal essay, digging hard into your memories for defining life experiences before revising, revising, and revising some more. You’re gathering  your SAT scores and transcripts, calculating and comparing them amongst those of your friends and classmates. But most of all, you’re stressing over whether or not all your efforts will be worth it once acceptances and rejections roll around.

Of course, as you begin to decide which schools you’ll apply to, it’s important to discuss the various costs that are involved. You see, before you even become an official college student, you’re already responsible for several fees that are essential in the process of submitting a successful application.

“But I haven’t even really thought of that yet...I thought tuition was what I had to worry about...What do I do?”

If this thought crossed your mind, we’re here to tell you: take a breath—that’s completely okay. In this article, we’ll be breaking down what you need to know about the costs of the college application process, as well as offering advice on how to prepare and budget for it.

What You’ll Find In This Article:

The Many Costs Of Applying To College

Each year, the amount of students applying to college in the U.S. continues to rise.

For example, the number of students seeking freshman admission to UC Berkeley has grown from 48,640 to 89,615 in the last ten years. But while the number of applicants has grown significantly, the admission rate has decreased dramatically—from 21.5% to 15.1%.

What these numbers demonstrate is that as more and more students gear up to apply to these schools, it is becoming more and more difficult to actually gain admission into them. So, how does this factor into the costs of applying to college?

Well, in order to increase your chances of being admitted, your applications should include a number of vital parts that, unfortunately, cost money. Here are the components to consider:


As you already know, your SAT and/or ACT scores are critical to the college application process. Aside from your high school transcript, these scores are highly prioritized in the evaluation of your academic accomplishments and performance. As a result, you want to aim for the highest score you can in order to increase your chances of admission.

Let’s look at a breakdown of the costs of these tests for the 2018 school year:

  • SAT (without essay portion): $47.50
  • SAT (with essay portion): $64.50
  • ACT (without essay portion): $50.50
  • ACT (with essay portion): $67

Since most students typically take these exams 2-3 times, you may find yourself having to spend hundreds of dollars on standardized testing alone. However, there are ways to offset these costs—namely the fee waiver.

  • SAT fee waivers are offered to approved 11th-12th grade students from low-income families and cover the costs of two SAT exams, six SAT subject tests, as well as unlimited score reports.
  • ACT fee waivers are also offered to qualified 11th-12th grade students with financial need, and cover the registration fees for two exams as well as 20 additional score reports.

If you feel that you may be eligible for a fee waiver, don’t hesitate to reach out to your school’s counselor! That’s all you’ll need to do, as they will be able to verify if you qualify and provide you with the waiver.


Whether it’s through free online lessons and resources or through an in-person tutoring course, many students opt to enroll in some form of SAT/ACT prep before they take their exams.

Here are some examples of how much each option can cost and their potential benefits and drawbacks. After reading through this list, you should be able to see which option best suits your learning style and budget.

Independent Studying:

There are several exam review websites dedicated to providing practice tests, concept breakdowns, and other helpful guidance. There are also many extensive SAT/ACT Prep books available for purchase, ranging from $5-$50. You can even create a flexible, personalized study schedule around your other activities and obligations.

However, though this option is less expensive than private tutoring, it can be beneficial to consider the latter for the reasons below.

Private/In-Class Tutoring:

A private tutor or course instructor will be able to provide you more individualized attention, answer questions, and tailor homework plans to guide you in your exam preparation. For this reason, a prep course will follow a more structured schedule, much like a regular class you’d take during the school year.

Keep in mind, though, that private tutors or SAT courses can be very costly. Depending on the prep academy or tutoring service you work with, professionals may charge you anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars.

Ultimately, be honest with yourself to see if you could take on the challenge of independent studying, or if you’d prefer the more structured guidance of a tutor or instructor. It’s always good to be considerate of your family’s financial situation; however, exam preparation is oftentimes a worthy investment that may prove very helpful when college applications roll around.


Now, with your exams out of the way, you’ll need to send the official score reports to the colleges you want to apply to. Both the SAT and ACT allow you to send four free reports within a certain time frame; up to nine days after the test date for the SAT and up to five days after the test date for the ACT.

Note: If you qualify for an SAT fee waiver, you are allowed to send unlimited score reports to the schools you apply to!

Here’s how much it will cost to send any additional score reports:

  • SAT score report: $12/report
  • ACT score report: $13/report
Note: Take into consideration that, though the SAT and ACT allow you to send those first four reports for free, this does not mean that you automatically should. These scores are sent right after they’re published, giving you little to no time to reflect on whether or not you ultimately want those colleges to see those scores. However, if you are confident in your abilities, this can be a great way to minimize costs.


You can browse through endless websites, forums, online videos, or brochures and still not ever get a real feel for a college campus unless you venture there yourself.

For this reason, many students go on campus tours and welcome events at the colleges they’re interested in to get a glimpse into their courses, student life, activities, and surroundings. However, the travel involved with this exploration is rarely funded by the schools and will most likely come out of your own pocket.

Note: Always do your research! Occasionally, colleges will hold programs that cover the costs for interested applicants to visit the campus, attend events, and speak with faculty. If possible, sign up for email newsletters and updates from the colleges you’re interested in, as these often provide great information and frequent updates around application season.

With this, a few potential costs could include:

  • Gas money
  • Airfare
  • Food
  • Hotels.

Depending on how far away these schools are and how long you decide to visit them for, the costs can accumulate quickly. Still, this isn’t to discourage you from visiting the schools you’re interested in!

Aside from being able to take in the atmosphere of the college, college visits could potentially help you in your application process as well. By demonstrating interest in a school, you’re not only showing that you’re serious about attending, but that you’re proactive when reaching out for potential opportunities. As a result, you may be viewed as a more competitive applicant in the admissions process.

Note: Not everyone can afford to go on college visits, so don’t be anxious that you won’t be accepted to a school solely because you weren’t able to visit their campus. This is rarely a make-or-break decision.


Now, we’ve finally reached the college application itself—and yes, you need to pay to apply to schools! On average, college applications cost about $50. This means that, if you have a well-curated list of reach, target, and safety schools, you could be looking at hundreds of dollars in application fees alone. To give you a feel for a few different colleges and their application fees, here’s a quick breakdown:


  • Stanford University (Stanford, CA): $90
  • University of Southern California (Los Angeles, CA): $85
  • Columbia University (New York City, NY): $85


  • Bard College (Dutchess County, NY): $50
  • Cal State Universities (all): $55
  • Santa Clara University (Santa Clara, CA): $60

No application fee:

  • Carleton College (Northfield, MN): $0
  • Wellesley College (Wellesley, MA): $0
  • Colby College (Waterville, ME): $0

With all these numbers in mind, you might be wondering: What are these fees for? Why are we being charged to apply when we could very possibly be rejected?

Why Colleges Charge Application Fees

Simply put, college application fees serve two main purposes:

  1. They cover the costs needed to support the admissions process as well as review applications.  
  2. They turn away students who may not be serious about attending and increase the perceived prestige and selectivity of a campus.

A lot goes into the college admissions process—aside from having to carefully review thousands of transcripts, personal statements, exam scores, and more, an admissions team is also responsible for engaging potential students through information sessions, welcome events, and interviews. As a result, college application fees offset a portion of the money needed to fund these efforts.

Additionally, application fees are meant to deter students who are applying ‘just to apply’.

Think about it: if every student applied to every school—whether they genuinely liked the campus or nots—the admissions process would be flooded with applications that are unqualified or even insincere. Time and resources would be wasted reviewing applications of students who never had the intention of even attending these schools in the first place.

Though many still justly argue that these fees are excessive,  there are still ways you can save money and efficiently use the funds you have to apply to the colleges you want.

Budgeting For The Cost Of College Applications

With the information you have now, let’s go through a plan for your college applications, the costs behind them, and how those costs can be minimized or even waived.


Let’s say that you’re planning to apply to 8 schools to give yourself both ambitious goals and more secure options. If we follow the average application fee of $50/school, this would cost you about $400.

To help reduce this cost, make sure to research the schools you are interested in to see if they offer an application fee waiver. This is a great way to significantly cut down the costs that can build up from applying to several schools. If you don’t qualify for fee waivers, look into schools with lower or even no application fees that still fit your standards for programs, campus life, activities, and more.


To make keep your SAT prep costs low, review your previous practice tests and work on any questions you missed on your own time. Time yourself, and continue to practice again and again. If you’re retaking the SAT, it may not be necessary to invest in programs or courses since you already have experience taking the actual exam. Look into borrowing study materials from school, local libraries, friends, and even relatives—you’d be surprised at the wisdom you can receive from asking around!

Above all, remember this: practice makes perfect.

Take as many practice tests as you can and get comfortable with the structure of the exam, the concepts covered, and the time constraints you’ll face. If you still find yourself struggling, then it may be the right time to invest in SAT prep courses or tutors.


To manage the costs of standardized tests,, look into your eligibility for a fee waiver! As we mentioned previously, an exam waiver will provide you two free exams, cutting down on some of the costs you need for the other components in this list.


Remember, you’re allowed to send the first four reports up to nine days after you’ve taken the exam, so you have a bit of time after the exam to make a decision. Moreover, if you qualified for the SAT’s fee waiver, you’re allowed as many score reports as you need to complete your college applications! Make sure to look into these fee waivers, as they can be a huge help when budgeting for college applications.


When trying to lower the costs of college visits, consider driving over taking the plane. It’s often totally  doable to pack up for a short road trip with friends or family!

Of course, let’s say your destination is across the country, out of range for a normal road trip. While flying there to visit  may be expensive, weigh the benefits with the costs. Are you truly passionate about attending? Will this be advantageous in the long run—do you need to experience the campus firsthand, speak with faculty, and explore your possibilities before you’re sure this school is right for you? Have an earnest discussion with your parents and look into flight and room options that are more affordable. Research how to utilize local transit systems to avoid expensive car rentals.

Ultimately, a trip like this could be extremely memorable and helpful in your future deliberations, but you’ll need to budget for it carefully!

Fee Waivers: What If You Can't Afford College Application Fees?

Of course, it’s always possible that you simply can’t afford the many fees related to college applications. Fee waivers are a practical and valuable resource for income-eligible students to manage the costs of college applications, but you need to know if you can qualify before you plan your college application costs around those waivers.

But how do you know if you qualify for a fee waiver?

Well, if you were eligible for an SAT fee waiver, or if you are a part of a state program such as a Free and Reduced Lunch Program, you automatically qualify for College Board’s college application fee waiver. These waivers are sent to you online and you are allowed to use as many as you need.

Note: Keep in mind that not all colleges accept fee waivers.

However, if you do not qualify for a college application fee waiver, we encourage you to analyze your college choices and adjust your list if needed in order to fit your budget. This isn’t to say that you need to sacrifice the quality of the schools you apply to—there are many stellar colleges with great faculty, learning environments, and resources with lower application fees, or even none!

Money, Money, Money: Advice On Managing The Costs

As a summary of what we’ve learned about the ins-and-outs of college application costs, here are three final tips:

  • Research fee waivers, whether they be for testing or for college application fees.
  • Discover schools with little to no application fees; though many prestigious schools charge fees, a low or nonexistent application fee does not indicate a weak college.
  • Be creative and look for alternatives by consulting with counselors and other college students; often, you will discover efficient solutions or be inspired to create your own.

As with many parts of the college application process, navigating fees can be complex and very stressful. However, it doesn’t need to be; you just need the right resources and knowledge to help guide you.

Here at Weadmit, our team of professional college counselors and our network of current college students can help you plan, prepare, and get excited for college. Whether you need help writing the best college application essay or figuring out how to pay for everything college related, we’d love to help you out.

Now, Let’s Get Into College!



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