How Much Does It Cost to Apply to College?

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Jeff White, CEPF

By Jeff White, CEPF

December 29, 2022

The average cost to apply to school is around $2,500 including application fees and other expenses associated with applying to a top school such as making a visit. The average college application fee is around $45, but in reality, can range anywhere between $30 to $90. Not to mention the other costs associated with applying to colleges, such as standardized test scores, travel expenses, and fees to retrieve transcripts.

It’s important to understand the costs of applying to college so that you can budget and plan accordingly. There are also a few tricks you can use to make this process as affordable as possible and save your funds for actually paying for college.

Before diving in, it’s important to know that applications are not a qualified expense to be used out of a 529 plan. However, using a 529 plan is as important as ever, especially when you factor in the costs of applying to school.

Understanding the Cost of Applying to College

We all know that college is expensive. In fact, most four-year undergraduate degrees today cost upward of $100,000. However, the expenses can start before the first semester kicks off, and even before you’ve been accepted by the school. This includes not only the application fee but also a range of other costs associated with preparing your application.

Every school has its own set of requirements for applicants, which typically include SAT scores and/or ACT scores, high school transcripts, a personal essay, and letters of recommendation.

Many of these requirements come at a cost. For example, you need to pay for standardized testing which could require travel to the testing site, which also involves expenses. You may also need to pay to retrieve your high school transcripts.

Application fees themselves can vary depending on factors like the school’s reputation and how many students are applying every year: higher volumes of applications translate into more work for admissions staff. The admission process is lengthy and extensive and involves screening, verifying documentation, and individually evaluating applicants.

For this reason, elite schools that receive many applications often ask a higher application fee in comparison to other colleges. Typically, the application fee for undergraduates is different from that of graduate programs, and there are also distinct fee structures for transferring and international students.

Costs of Applying to College

It’s important to be aware of the various costs associated with applying to college. Not only will this help you to create a realistic budget, but it may affect how many schools you decide to apply to.

The cost of college applications includes: 

  • Application fees range between $30 and $90 per application, with a national average of $43.
  • Standardized testing prep courses or tutoring
  • SAT or ACT test fees (currently $55 and $85 respectively for the full SAT and full ACT with writing)
  • Late registration, cancellation, or testing site change fees for standardized tests (for example the ACT late registration fee is $36, and the ACT change fee is $40)
  • Travel expenses to visit schools, attend standardized test sites, or attend interviews, if you’re applying to schools in another city or state
  • Fees to retrieve your high school transcripts, especially if you use a third-party service
  • Other prep for college application testing such as essay tutorials

Depending on the school and the program you’re applying to, you may not have to pay all of these fees. For example, not all colleges require SAT and ACT scores. Similarly, international students and transfer students may be charged differently.

Average Cost of Applying to School

Let’s take a look at a working example of what a typical student might pay to apply for school. In this example, the undergraduate student is applying to seven different colleges, including a few highly-competitive top schools. For this reason, they’ve chosen to take both the SAT and ACT to strengthen their application.

Note that some of the costs, such as application fees, are multiplied by the number of schools they’re applying to, and others, like standardized test fees, only need to pay once.

Here’s a breakdown of the costs they can expect to pay to apply for college(the actual costs could be higher or lower depending on what you choose to do and where you apply):

Application fees (seven schools, varying from $30 – $90)
SAT full test
ACT full test with writing
Travel to visit schools, and attend interviews
Test prep course
College essay tutoring ($150 per hour for five hours)
Transcript retrieval fees ($20 per college, by seven colleges)
Total application fees and expenses

Top 10 Schools With the Highest Application Fees

Generally, the schools that have the highest application fees are renowned universities that receive high volumes, such as Stanford, Columbia, and Harvard. These schools charge around $80 or $90 to submit an application, if you’re planning on applying to a number of Ivy League schools, be prepared for the application fees to quickly add up.

Although many public schools have application fees that are a fraction of this cost, starting at around $30, there are some exceptions. For example, the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University have comparable application fees to many Ivy League schools.

Here are the 10 of the schools in the U.S. with the highest application fees at the time of writing:

  1. Stanford University: $90
  2. The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: $85
  3. North Carolina State University: $85
  4. Columbia University: $85
  5. University of Massachusetts, Amherst: $85
  6. Duke University: $85
  7. Harvard University: $85
  8. Boston University: $80
  9. Yale University: $80
  10. Dartmouth College: $80

Tips for Reducing Your Total Application Costs

Don’t be put off by the costs of applying to college. There is a variety of ways to reduce or even avoid paying the hefty application fees altogether.

1. Apply to No-Fee Schools

If you’re on a tight budget, the first thing you should do is look for schools that don’t charge any application fees. Most states have at least one no-fee college that makes education as accessible as possible. In most cases, these are small schools that are supported financially by larger institutions, as well as military institutions, online or Christian colleges, and liberal arts schools.

Some examples of no-fee schools include:

  • Wellesley College (MA)
  • Tulane University (LA)
  • University of Houston-Victoria (TX)
  • College of the Ozarks (MO)
  • University of Scranton (PA)
  • The United States Naval Academy (MD), Military Academy (NY), and Air Force Academy (CO)

Of course, you may have your heart set on one or more schools that charge application fees. In that case, there are other things you can try to reduce or eliminate the standard application fee.

2. Apply for Fee Waivers

Schools don’t want fees to be a deterrent for deserving applicants, and so most offer application fee waivers for students in circumstances, usually based on need or merit. If you’re still in high school, ask your guidance counselor how to get a fee waiver for your dream schools. You can also contact the admissions office directly and ask for an application fee waiver.

Additionally, some schools waive fees when you apply through portals like Common App, either for all candidates or those who meet certain criteria. Common App gives you the option to check a box to request a fee waiver, making the process extremely easy.

3. Pay Attention to Fee-Free Periods

Many public schools offer a “free application” period, a limited window where you can apply for college without needing to pay an application fee. These state-sponsored periods typically run for between a week and a month, opening in September or October.

In any case, you should be aiming to put together your college applications around this time, in order to submit your FAFSA as soon as possible after it opens. Consult your school counselor or do your own research to check these deadlines to make sure you don’t miss this brief window.

4. Apply Online

In many cases, colleges offer more affordable application fees if you apply online, or they may waive the fee altogether. Online applications make things much easier for school admissions offices, as they involve less paperwork and are much quicker and easier to assess. For this reason, many schools encourage digital applications through reduced fees.

5. Shortlist Your Preferred Schools

One of the best ways to avoid paying unnecessary application fees and reduce the cost of applying to college is to be judicious about how many schools you apply to. College application fees can quickly add up, so critically assess your list of potential college schools and shortlist it to a reasonable number of schools that fit your application budget. For most students, it won’t make sense to apply to more than six to eight schools, and for some, applying to three or four will be sufficient.

Assess each school based on its pros and cons, and eliminate any that don’t feel like a good fit or don’t match your goals. Try to keep most of your shortlist “target schools”: these are colleges that you feel you have a reasonable chance of getting into. It can also be a good idea to include a safety school or two, as well as a reach school that you’re really drawn to, but don’t have very good chances of getting accepted.

6. Don’t Pay for Services You Don’t Need

Beyond the application fee, you may be tempted to shell out for all kinds of services as you prepare your college application, from paying to retrieve your high school transcripts to SAT and college essay tutoring. Carefully consider whether they’ll really give you a better chance of getting into your dream college or if they’re simply a waste of money. This will depend on your strengths as well as the competitiveness of the schools you’re applying to.

Additionally, there may be cheaper or even free alternatives available. For example, you can often find your transcript for free through your state’s Department of Education or the school district, which you can search via the National Center for Education Statistics. Similarly, group sessions can be much more affordable than one-on-one tutoring – check with your guidance counselor to explore your options.

How to Pay for College Applications

Even when you minimize the costs of applying to college as much as possible, it’s likely you will need to pay some amount of money. Therefore, it’s important to set a budget for the whole process and work out whether you’ll fund it through income, short-term savings, or from your long-term college savings.

You could take funds out of your Roth IRA account, if you have one, and use these to pay for your child’s college applications. You can withdraw contributions to your Roth IRA tax-free at any time and use these to pay for whatever you like, including college application fees and expenses.

The best way to pay for college applications is by saving money and paying out-of-pocket for those costs. This may require you to work more or budget these costs into your normal expenses. You may also find that you need to limit the number of schools you apply for to the amount you can afford.

The Bottom Line

The high costs of going to college start before you’ve even been accepted, thanks to a range of fees and expenses associated with applying. So, how much does it cost to apply to college?

For most schools, you’ll need to pay an application of somewhere between $30 and $90, as well as other costs such as SAT or ACT testing fees. You may also need to travel to visit colleges you’re considering, as well as for interviews, which comes at a cost, and may choose to pay for tutoring and other prep.

Thankfully, there are plenty of ways that you can limit these costs, by carefully considering how many and which schools you’ll apply to, as well as exploring options such as fee waivers and online applications. If you or your child is still in high school, be sure to ask your school guidance counselor for their help. 

For more on how to save for college and secure your or your child’s future, take a look at this summary of the best 529 plans available.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Do college applications cost money?

College admissions can be costly: application fees vary depending on the school, but can be as much as $90 per application. You also need to consider other costs associated with putting in an application, such as standardized test fees, prep tutoring, and travel expenses. 

How much does it cost to apply to Harvard?

Harvard’s current application fee for first-year applicants is $85. This fee is the same for both international and US candidates, and the school allows students to apply for a fee waiver.

Why is it so expensive to apply to college?

Top schools receive hundreds of thousands of applications every year and need to review each application to ensure equal opportunities for all applicants. This requires large admissions teams that record and evaluate applications, and then communicate with students regarding their admission status.

Even if everything is done online, there’s a team of people working at the back end, who go through the applications and identify the best candidates. High application fees are also a way for schools to discourage students from making large numbers of applications and applying to schools they are not interested in or are very unlikely to get into.

What can I do if I can’t afford college application costs?

If you can’t afford to apply to college, there are a number of ways you can make the process more affordable. If you can demonstrate significant need or merit, you can apply for a fee waiver, meaning you won’t need to pay the college application fee. You can also reduce your costs by narrowing down your shortlist of schools or applying to no-fee schools.

Do I have to pay the application fee if the School Rejects Me?

Usually, you pay the application fee upfront when you submit your application, and this won’t be refunded, even if your application is rejected. This is one of the reasons it’s a good idea to carefully consider which schools you plan to apply to.

A good place to start:

See the best 529 plans, personalized for you