7 ways to save for college application expenses


Paul Sisolak

Paul Sisolak

Blog author Paul Sisolak

As a personal finance journalist, Paul specializes in financial literacy, loans, credit scoring and the art of negotiation. He's covered some of the nation's most inspiring financial success stories for national publications including CNN, and US News & World Report and has a passion for helping Americans overcome their debt.

Published December 28, 2016 | 5 min read

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Featured Image 7 ways to save for college application expenses

Think about the cost of attending college, and what’s the first thing that comes to your mind?

For most people, it’s all about the tuition. Tuition can be one of the most expensive costs you can shoulder (right up there with mortgages). On average, the cost to attend a public four-year university for one year as an in-state student is $9,410, according to the College Board. Out-of-state students will pay $23,890. And private schools? Annual tuition and fees average $32,410.

Before these prices even have a chance to eat into the budget of a family saving for college, there are some other major expenses to contend with first: namely, college application costs. Altogether, they can set back the higher education-bound thousands of dollars before even attending one class.

If you (or your child) is planning on applying to college, here’s how the costs can quickly add up (and a primer on how to offset them):

Test fees

The SAT has been around since 1926, and for 90 years, high school students of every generation have needed to complete the 3-hour, standardized, scholastic aptitude test to qualify for entry into college. Standard registration fees for the SAT are $45 for test only, $57 for the test with essay portion. It’s the additional fees that start to get out of control: some of those include $15 for phone registration; $28 for test date change; an added $28 for late registration; $12 for additional registration score results (the first four sent to colleges are free); and $55(!) for multiple choice and essay score verifications. Register for the SAT with essay, plus every fee listed here, and you’ll pay up to $195.

If you’re planning on taking the ACT on Feb. 11, 2017, instead, you have until Jan. 13 to register; it will cost you a $42.50 fee, with an additional $16 for the writing test. Late registration fees run $27.50; a test date change fee is $25; and a standby testing fee is $51. Altogether, these fees can total $162 -- and that’s just to take the test.

Tutoring for standardized testing can also cost a pretty penny; average fees per SAT/ACT session is $125 per hour, though rates may vary higher or lower depending on the individual tutor you may hire.

These fees may seem like a steal when you take graduate school testing into account. The standard GRE fee is $205, with late registration penalties at about $25. Cancel or change your test date, and an additional $50 is levied. Total possible fees: $280.

Application fees

It’s the bane of anyone applying to college: the more colleges you apply to, the better your chances at being accepted to your top schools, but the more you’ll also pay in application fees. And average costs are rising, too. According to U.S. News & World Report, the average college application fee in 2012 was $37.88, but that’s since risen to $41 since 2015, in a survey of 1,068 ranked by the publication.

The top five schools with the highest application fees cited in the study are naturally some of the most prestigious and competitive. They include Stanford University, $90; Columbia University, $85; Duke University, $85; Boston University, $80; and Dartmouth College, $80. In addition, Yale University and Harvard College charge application fees of $80 and $75, respectively.

While most schools may carry marginally cheaper fees at a fraction of these costs, the costs can begin to climb with each school applied to. Most college application fees are non-refundable, so if you apply to five schools with application fees of $50 each, you’ve incurred a $200 net expense.

Campus tours and visits

Factor in college tours and campus visits with the above, and you may spend an average of $3,500, according to representatives from IvyWise. Distance makes a difference, so zigzagging across the map without the right planning can carry costs higher than you might like -- though even visits to colleges within your home state or local region can become costly when factoring in the cost of gas and/or car rental fees, lodging, food or airfare.

Extra financial aid costs

There’s no cost to apply for financial aid, such as filling out your FAFSA or putting your name in for grants or scholarships, but if you’re going outside the federal realm for tuition aid, you may incur some extra associated costs. Applying for non-federal aid for one of hundreds of private colleges and universities can require submitting some information via the College Board’s College Scholarship Service (CSS), $25 to send the report to one school; $16 for every additional school. Apply to a dozen schools mandating this financial aid info, and you may owe over $200, for example.

Cutting your costs

According to recent stats by the National Center for Education Statistics, there are more than 3,000 four-year, degree-granting institutions in the U.S. That may seem like a mighty tall order to apply to each one, so your best bet for your budget (and your sanity) is to narrow down the number of schools you’re interested in based on your desired area of study, location, campus culture, rankings, and, of course, ultimate total cost, including tuition and application fees. Some experts recommend applying to six to eight schools -- not too few to limit your academic choices, and not too many to exacerbate your costs.

Your college savings options are diverse in the pre-application phase. Take some of these pointers into account to save money when applying to schools:

  • Sign up for standardized tests on time. Registering early for your SATs, ACTs and other standardized tests means avoiding any unnecessary late fees or charges. It goes without saying that you should study hard and make sure you pass your tests! Subsequent retakes require more registration fees.

  • Narrow down your choice of schools before applying. Consider making your own top 10 list of your favored colleges and universities; if a school doesn’t make the cut, don’t apply. Applying -- and perhaps getting accepted -- to schools you have no serious intention of attending is a waste of application money, time and resources. Be realistic and apply to schools where you have the best chance of acceptance. Ensure factors like your GPA, test scores, application essay and academic goals align with the schools you have in mind; this increases your chances of being granted admission and making your application fees well spent.

  • Consider applying to colleges with no application fees.

  • Seek out colleges that may accept application fee waivers. You may also qualify to have your SAT registration fees waived, too.

  • Tour colleges online. Many colleges provide virtual tours or online open houses/fairs via their official websites, allowing you to experience the campus without spending money to visit in person.

  • Schedule campus visits strategically. If you prefer to visit colleges on site, in person, plan to visit more than one school per trip to cut down on mileage, gas and other expenses. Beforehand, inquire with each school if any discounts are offered for local lodging, free dining hall meals, or other perks. Negotiating for reduced tuition based on special circumstances (like being a gifted or in-demand student) can work to your advantage here too; negotiate, and your school might pay for your campus visit, in full or partially. (If money is really tight, hold off on visiting colleges until you’ve already been accepted.)

  • Open a 529 College Savings Plan. Making regular deposits is a proactive way to save money for all costs associated with college, not just for tuition, but for application expenses and the like that can impose a strain on one’s budget.