How to Apply to College for Free in US 2022


Applying to a high number of colleges can be beneficial, experts say, but application fees may present an obstacle for some students looking to cast a wide application net.

By applying to many colleges, students may increase their chances of having more options from which to choose. This can be particularly beneficial for students who need financial aid, says Eddy Conroy, senior adviser with the education policy program at New America, a Washington, D.C.-based public policy think tank.

"Applying to more institutions can sort of help students shop around a bit," he says. "If you really need a good financial aid package, then applying to more institutions (can) give you some extra shopping options in terms of money."

According to the College Board, the not-for-profit organization that develops the SAT and Advanced Placement exams, five to eight applications is a good baseline for students looking to combine “‘safety,’ ‘match,’ and ‘reach’ colleges.” Safety colleges are schools where applicants believes they are likely to gain acceptance, match colleges are the closest fit in terms of average grades and other academic requirements, and reach colleges are schools where students believe they are less likely to get admitted.

Some suggest that the College Board’s recommendation is low. Allen Koh, CEO of Cardinal Education, a California-based educational consulting company, considers 14 applications the “gold standard number” and says some students he works with apply to even more.

Based on the Cardinal Education strategy, students who submit that many applications can aim for colleges in six categories: upper reach, reach, upper target, target, lower target and safety.

What to Know About the Costs of College Applications

In an annual survey, U.S. News found that the top 10 National Universities charged an average of about $77 for an application fee in 2021. The average was about $64 among the seven of the top 10 National Liberal Arts Colleges that charged an application fee that year.

Schools typically use the money they generate through application fees to pay their admissions officers and fund recruiting efforts, Koh says.

Application fees can be one of several financial burdens placed on aspiring college students.

Although standardized college admissions tests have become optional at many schools and are not considered by test-blind colleges even if submitted, many students still submit scores, which can help in scholarship consideration. ACT registration costs $63 (or $88 with writing) and SAT registration is $60, plus charges by both programs for sending score results to more than four schools and other services.

In addition, the College Board charges a $97 test fee for each AP exam taken in the U.S., U.S. territories, Canada and Department of Defense Education Activity schools.

Marshall Anthony Jr., research director for The Institute for Colleges Access & Success, says these fees make college less accessible to students from low-income backgrounds and ultimately harm their chances of climbing the economic ladder in adulthood.

"We are now at a point in time where a majority of jobs require some sort of postsecondary credential," he says. "And so we should be making it easier for students to access college, not harder. College application fees are antithetical to the belief that postsecondary education should be a public good."

3 Ways Students Can Apply to College for Free

Sometimes there are ways to avoid these fees. Here are three ways students can apply to college for free:

  • Get a waiver from a high school counselor.
  • Ask college admissions offices for waivers.
  • Apply to colleges that don't charge an application fee.

Get a Waiver From a High School Counselor

Students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch are eligible to receive an application fee waiver, which most colleges will accept, Anthony says. They can access these waivers through their high school counselors.

The ACT and SAT also offer fee waivers to low-income students. The College Board gives fee reductions to AP students who demonstrate need.

Because many counselors advise a large number of students, college hopefuls looking for application fee waivers may have to take initiative. A counselor may not think to give an application fee waiver to a qualifying student unless the student asks, Anthony says.

Not all students looking to minimize college application costs may qualify for application fee waivers, though. Anthony says free or reduced-price lunch qualification is "not necessarily the best proxy for determining financial need," noting that many families' financial circumstances have worsened as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. He also points out that those applying to college from the workforce or military do not have a high school counselor to seek out for help.

"Application fees are most likely an even greater barrier for these prospective college-goers with no access to a high school guidance counselor at all because they may be older," Anthony says.

Ask College Admissions Offices for Waivers

You should also consider just asking the college itself. Many college admissions offices grant application fee waivers with "no questions asked" to students who make a direct request, Koh says.

"It works sometimes. It doesn't work all the time," he says. "But it works enough so that students in a position of need should absolutely try it."

In an attempt to become more inclusive, he adds, many colleges are increasingly willing to help applicants in financial hardship.

"Colleges are seen as a bastion of privilege, so generally I see colleges doing more to try to be accessible to more of the population," Koh says.

Apply to Colleges That Don't Charge an Application Fee

Students hoping to save may be pleased to find that some of their target schools do not even charge application fees. In 2021, more than 517 colleges did not, according to Melanie Marquez Parra, chief communications officer for the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Some schools waive their application fees during certain time frames. Many schools in North Carolina, for example, waive their application fees during College Application Week in mid-October.

See below the cost of application fees at the top-ranked National Universities in the 2022-2023 rankings, and at the top-ranked National Liberal Arts Colleges.

College Application Fees at Top National Universities

Harvard University (MA)

$75 APPLICATION FEE
Yes APPLICATION FEE WAIVED FOR STUDENTS WITH FINANCIAL NEED

Stanford University (CA)

$90 APPLICATION FEE
Yes APPLICATION FEE WAIVED FOR STUDENTS WITH FINANCIAL NEED

Yale University (CT)

$80 APPLICATION FEE
Yes APPLICATION FEE WAIVED FOR STUDENTS WITH FINANCIAL NEED

University of Chicago

$75 APPLICATION FEE
Yes APPLICATION FEE WAIVED FOR STUDENTS WITH FINANCIAL NEED

Duke University (NC)

$85 APPLICATION FEE
Yes APPLICATION FEE WAIVED FOR STUDENTS WITH FINANCIAL NEED

College Application Fees at Top National Liberal Arts Colleges

Williams College (MA)

$65 APPLICATION FEE
Yes APPLICATION FEE WAIVED FOR STUDENTS WITH FINANCIAL NEED

Amherst College (MA)

$65 APPLICATION FEE
Yes APPLICATION FEE WAIVED FOR STUDENTS WITH FINANCIAL NEED

Pomona College (CA)

$70 APPLICATION FEE
Yes APPLICATION FEE WAIVED FOR STUDENTS WITH FINANCIAL NEED

Swarthmore College (PA)

$60 APPLICATION FEE
Yes APPLICATION FEE WAIVED FOR STUDENTS WITH FINANCIAL NEED

Wellesley College (MA)

$50 APPLICATION FEE
Yes APPLICATION FEE WAIVED FOR STUDENTS WITH FINANCIAL NEED

Bowdoin College (ME)

$65 APPLICATION FEE
Yes APPLICATION FEE WAIVED FOR STUDENTS WITH FINANCIAL NEED

Carleton College (MN)

None APPLICATION FEE
N/A APPLICATION FEE WAIVED FOR STUDENTS WITH FINANCIAL NEED

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