College-attendance costs get all the attention, but you’ll start paying for school when you begin the application process. Factoring in the costs of test preparation, test taking and applications, expect to spend somewhere in the hundreds before you’ve even received acceptance letters.
When asked how many applications students should submit, “It depends” is the answer college-admissions experts give most. They mean you should apply to a mix of safety and reach schools, as well as “match” schools that are likely to be good fits — between five and 12 schools total.
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If you’re worried about affording tuition, you might benefit from applying to more schools, says Mandee Heller Adler, founder of International College Counselors, a college-advising company in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. You’ll pay more in application expenses, but if you’re looking for scholarships, the more opportunities, the better.
“My merit-scholarship students apply to more schools than other students,” Heller Adler says. “You can’t be 100 percent sure how much a merit scholarship might be, so while I usually recommend seven schools to students, merit scholarship students should apply to closer to 10 schools.”
Taking the test
Choosing to take the ACT, the SAT or both isn’t a matter of cost: The two tests are widely accepted and similarly priced. Experts say you should take both and report the results of your highest-scoring exam.
“If you do have a test you score better on, then we say, repeat your stronger test,” says Beth DeBeer, high school guidance counselor at John Jay High School in Cross River, New York.
The price of each test includes the option to send your scores to up to four schools. Additional score reports cost $12 each for either test. If you apply to eight schools, you’ll likely need four additional score reports, costing a total of $48.
Preparing for the test
To prepare for the SAT or the ACT, some students use books or online practice tests — others hire private tutors. Online test-prep courses are a good middle ground for many. College preparation stalwarts Princeton Review and Kaplan each charge $299 for a self-guided SAT online test-prep course.
Ways to save
If your family can’t afford application costs, there are other ways to save. First, ask prospective schools about fee waivers. Schools typically require only that a high school guidance counselor confirm you qualify. You might if you benefit from free or reduced-cost lunch programs.
“I haven’t run into any institutions where an applicant says an application fee is a barrier to apply and have not been granted a fee waiver,” says Strickler, adding that among Connecticut College’s nearly 6,000 applicants last year, one-quarter were granted a fee waiver.
The SAT and ACT also offer fee waivers, and there are less expensive ways to prepare for standardized tests, including borrowing materials from your high school or local library. Some colleges today don’t require a standardized test at all.
Once you’ve been accepted and chosen a college, turn your attention to financial aid. Exhaust your federal options first, including federal student loans, scholarships and grants. Private student loans generally carry higher interest rates, but can help you cover additional expenses if necessary.