How to Apply to College for Free
You don't have to spend a fortune on your college applications -- or any money at all
It's no secret that college is an expensive endeavor for many college students, and the costs can add up before you even set foot on campus.
For students like Angelica Cabunoc, investigating schools at which to apply often triggers surprise and angst when the corresponding application fees begin to mount.
"During high school, I was thinking of applying to at least seven or eight colleges, and they had $35 or $50 or $70 application fees," says Cabunoc, who hails from Pleasant Hill, Calif. "I was thinking, 'Okay, I can't afford this. When you sum it all up, it's going to be really expensive.'"
Still, there are a variety of ways to score a free application submission. It's important to remember that colleges want to attract serious applicants, whose eventual tuition will far outshadow a foregone application fee, so schools around the country are offering unique ways for students to apply for free. It's often up to high schoolers and their parents to hunt for the opportunities, but here are some to get you started:
For students who apply at the right time:At Messiah College in Pennsylvania, admissions officers are grateful to have applications in before the holiday season and in enough time to work out offers of admission, financial aid, and scholarships, says John Chopka, vice president for enrollment management. To encourage students to comply, the college waives the application fee until November 15 of each year. (After mid-November, it costs $20 to apply online and $30 if using a paper application.)
"We know that some students are in a hurry to apply in the fall and feel a lot of pressure," Chopka says. "We think anything we can do to encourage the application only helps."
November heralds another time-sensitive campaign for students in North Carolina, where dozens of colleges waive application fees for one week in an effort to attract first-generation applicants and students who may not have considered college otherwise.
"Our hope is that by removing some of the financial burden on students and their families, they'll really get an idea of what their options for postsecondary education are," says Ashley Postlethwaite, college access coordinator for the University of North Carolina system. This year, students at most high schools in North Carolina will be able to apply to schools for free between November 14 and 18.
For students who apply online:
Many colleges incentivize applying online as a way to both attract prospective students and cut down on internal work. Applying online is free at Ohio Wesleyan University , the University of Charleston in West Virginia, New Jersey's Fairleigh Dickinson University , and Otterbein University in Ohio, among other schools.
It's a route Quinnipiac University graduate Jenny Connell wishes she'd considered when she was applying to colleges in 2006. At the time, she felt more comfortable submitting applications in the mail than online, she says, but applying to 10 schools in traditional fashion added up to nearly $500.
"I was always asking my parents for a check," Connell says. "I knew there were a lot of options if you want to do it online for free; if I could do it again, I definitely would do it online."
For students who visit campus:
Campus visits, for families who can swing them, are often a crucial step in the college decision process. At some schools, such as Albright College in Pennsylvania, it's also a way to score a free application.
"We give students and their families an application fee waiver as a courtesy for the expense of visiting campus -- a modest token of appreciation," says Greg Eichhorn, Albright's vice president for enrollment and dean of admission. "It probably costs more than that for many who visit."
Albright College's application costs $25 otherwise, and about 50 percent of students who apply use a waiver, Eichhorn says.
Other schools join forces to attract families who might make a few stops in the same region. During Virginia Private College Week, for example, 25 campuses team up each July to incentivize school tours. Students receive three application waivers for use at the participating schools if they visit at least three college campuses, including the University of Richmond , Roanoke College , and Washington and Lee University .
For students who have alumni backing:
At some schools, who you know can influence how much you pay.
Towson University in Maryland, the College of Saint Rose in New York, and DePaul University in Chicago are among the institutions that allow each graduate to give an application fee waiver to one prospective student.
At Towson, the honor gives young alumni a free way to give back to their alma mater and sparks an instant connection between a prospective student and a graduate, according to Brian Hazlett, assistant vice president and director of university admissions.
"In many cases, it allows a student, who may not have initially thought about Towson, to learn a little more and make a connection with an alum, who wants to tell the story of what Towson is all about," Hazlett says. "Typically, [prospective students] are very honored by the fact that someone recognized them and gave them this opportunity to apply."
For students who are financially strapped:Students whose families are financially needy don't have to wait for a college giveaway or promotion to apply to schools for free. Of the 1,549 schools that reported application data to U.S. News in 2011, 1,284 said that they'll waive the application fees for students who demonstrate financial need.
Needy students can ask their high school counselors to submit waiver requests, or they can apply for application fee waivers through the National Association of College Admissions Counselors or the College Board.
The College Board offers fee waivers for SAT and SAT Subject Tests to qualifying students, and receiving a test waiver automatically makes you eligible for a College Board application fee waiver, too. Students with the waiver can request that as many as four colleges don't charge them the typical application fees; however, it's up to the schools to ultimately approve the waiver.
Fee waiver requests worked for Cabunoc from California. After asking her high school counselor to submit a waiver request, she was able to apply for free to the University of San Francisco and Syracuse University , her "dream school" at which she is currently a sophomore. (She was also granted fee waivers at schools including Pepperdine University and Cornell University , though she decided not to apply.)
"I had heard that most colleges give fee waivers, [but] back in high school, I actually didn't believe it," Cabunoc says. "I know a lot of people who don't know about the fee waivers, and now I always tell them, 'Hey, you can get a fee waiver! Just talk to your counselor.'"
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