The High Cost of College Applications

Or, how to drop thousands of dollars before the tuition bill even comes due.

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You thought college tuition was expensive? You can drop thousands of dollars just applying to get into school. Here's a breakdown of the potentially high cost of the college application process. Read on, then break out your budget and start penciling in numbers. But take heart - there are at least some places where you can shave costs.

  • College Counseling: Hiring a private college counselor? Figure on spending $160-$300 an hour. Some counselors charge by the package, with $3,000 to $5,000 covering two years worth of counseling, essay help, and application know-how. Others charge a flat $500-$1,000 fee to help your child pick schools that would be a good fit for his abilities and interests. It's certainly a helpful service, but it's also something you can do yourself.
  • SATs and ACTs: These exams add up. In 2013-14, the ACT was $52 and the SAT $49, but the typical college applicant takes at least one of these exams twice; some take it three or four times and some take both the SAT and the ACT. Although the exam fees include the cost of sending test scores to four schools, the colleges must be specified at registration or within nine days of taking the test. It's a rare kid who's finalized his list by January or March of junior year and an even rarer one who limits his list to four universities. So, add another $10 per school for each additional test score report.
  • Test Prep: Taking a test prep course? Depending on whether your child is using an online course, a multi-week test prep class or a private tutor, costs can range from several hundred to several thousand dollars. But free test prep seminars and practice test sessions are offered by some high schools, university extension programs, and some college counseling services, including Kaplan and Berkeley's People's Test Preparation Service. Be sure to scan the seminar and lecture offerings at college fairs too.
  • Advanced Placement Exams: The upside of AP exams is that a high score looks impressive on a college application and it can earn your child college credit, which will help your kid graduate in four years, not five. The downside is each one cost $89 in 2013 and another $15 ($25 if you need it rushed) to send all the scores to the college of your choice.
  • Transcripts & Postage: At $2-$5 each, high school transcript fees aren't too painful, but they'll add $20-$50 to your budget.
  • College Visits, Tours & Interviews: Depending on where your child is applying, this budget item alone can add $200 to $5,000 or more to your tab. There are certainly ways to reduce travel costs - check out "5 Ways to Cut College Tour Costs" - but music, dance and drama students applying to conservatories may not have much choice in the matter. Performing arts majors may end up making ten or more cross-country trips, first to tour conservatories and meet with faculty, and then again for auditions. For everyone else, there's good news. Your child may not have to actually visit a campus to do an interview. Contact the admissions office to see if a college representative will be in your area.
  • College Application Fees: And finally, there are the applications themselves. Colleges charge $30-$80 per application, payable by credit card online. Most schools have a fee waiver for students from low-income families. The best way to trim these costs is also the most basic. Don't let your child apply to a school he has no intention of attending. That's not a "safety school," it's a waste of application money. Apply wisely.