Most college application fees fall in the $40 to $50 range, with some costing as much as $90 (ahem, Stanford). For many students and their families, these fees present a serious obstacle along the already pricey path to college. If application fees are burdensome to you, you may qualify for college application fee waivers!
Just like SAT and ACT fee waivers, these college fee waivers allow you to send off your applications for free. This guide will go over how you can qualify for and use college application fee waivers, step by step.
First, let’s review how much college applications usually cost and how much you can save with fee waivers.
How Much Do College Applications Cost?
College applications, on average, cost around $40. Especially selective schools, like NYU, Boston University, Harvard, Yale, and, of course, the pricey Stanford, ask for $70 or more. If you apply to just five of these pricey private schools, then you're already looking at application fees of over $350!
Several state schools are a little less expensive; Penn State, University of Wisconsin, and University of Texas, for instance, all ask for $50. Other schools are somewhat more reasonable with application fees of $25 or $30, plus there are a good number of schools to which you can apply for free!
But unless you're applying to primarily fee-free schools, the costs of applying can seriously add up - especially if you're looking at 8 or more colleges. Fee waivers can be a huge help, but they aren’t available to everyone. Fee waivers are given only to students and families who qualify. Read on to learn if you’re eligible.
So eligible. How about you?
How Do You Qualify for College Application Fee Waivers?
First off, it merits saying that your fee waivers are actually fee waiver requests. Ultimately, each of your colleges must approve your request. For the most part, colleges will approve if you have your school counselor’s or another designated official’s signature.
If your colleges have any doubts or questions, then they might ask you to send along extra information demonstrating that you qualify (this is rare). Mostly, this fee waiver process is done on the honor system. It’s up to you and your counselor to determine if you’re eligible, so take a look at the criteria below.
There are a few pieces of criteria that must apply for you to be eligible for fee waivers. They’re actually the same guidelines that apply to getting an SAT or ACT fee waiver. If you already got an SAT or ACT fee waiver, therefore, then you should be automatically eligible for college application fee waivers.
If you’re using the Common Application or your admission test of choice was the SAT, then the process should be especially easy. Before delving into how to get the fee waivers, let’s go over the qualifying guidelines. Just one of these must apply to you.
- You’re enrolled in or eligible for the Federal Free or Reduced Price Lunch program.
- Your family income meets the Income Eligibility Guidelines set by the USDA Food and Nutrition Service*.
- You’re enrolled in a program that aids students from low-income families, like Upward Bound.
- Your family receives public assistance.
- You live in federally subsidized public housing, a foster home, or are homeless.
- You’re a ward of the state or an orphan.
- You can provide a supporting statement from an official of your financial eligibility.
*For most states, the Income Eligibility Guidelines are as follows:
|Members in Household||Total Annual Income|
So if you already got an SAT or ACT fee waiver or have since determined that you’re eligible based on the above criteria, how do you go about obtaining your college fee waiver?
First, you'll need a shovel, gloves, and a sturdy pair of shoes...
How Do You Get College Application Fee Waivers?
The easiest ways to get your hands on application fee waivers don't involve archaeological adventures, unfortunately. They involve cases in which:
#1: You’re applying to colleges with the Common Application, and/or
#2: You took the SAT with a fee waiver.
If neither of these scenarios applies to you, then you may be able to obtain an alternative fee waiver form. For instance, students who took the ACT and are applying to a non-Common Application school may need to find these other forms.
Finally, if you have trouble obtaining any form at all, then you could simply fax or send your college a letter of request. Since there are a few different options, we’ll break it down with instructions for each scenario, starting with students who apply through the Common Application.
Scenario 1: You’re Using the Common Application
The Common App is streamlines the application process in a number of ways, one of which is asking for fee waivers. You can use request fee waivers from any of your Common App schools!
To obtain a Common App fee waiver, you have to meet the same requirements as the ones described above. In your Profile section, you’ll indicate whether or not you qualify for a fee waiver, and then you’ll select your reason why. The screen will look like this:
If you select yes, then you'll be prompted to select an indicator of economic need:
You’ll electronically sign this section, as well as receive the above reminder that your counselor will need to confirm your answer. If you already got an SAT or ACT fee waiver, then your counselor should be able to sign off on this automatically. If not, then you may have to provide proof to your counselor that you qualify.
As mentioned above, many schools use the honor system. As long as your counselor approves, you should be all set. If, for some reason, your school wants to see proof or has decided to deny your fee waiver request (rare), then they will contact you. If you don’t hear from them, then everything should be good to go.
If your schools request a hard copy, then they may accept a number of forms. The easiest would be a College Board fee waiver form, which you’ll get automatically if you already took the SAT with a fee waiver. If you didn’t, then you can access other similar forms. I’ll describe the different options below, starting with College Board’s application fee waivers.
Scenario 2: You Took the SAT or SAT Subject Tests With a Fee Waiver
Maybe you need to send proof of your Common Application fee waiver eligibility to a college. Or maybe you’re applying to a college that doesn’t use the Common App, like a school in the University of Texas or University of California system. For whatever reason, you need a college fee waiver form.
If you took the SAT or one or more SAT Subject Tests with a fee waiver, then you’ll automatically get four college fee waivers from College Board. These college app fee waivers will become available through your College Board account.
You just have to log in and click on “Apply to college for free.” Once there, you can access and, if your college requests it, print out and send your fee waivers. If you took the SAT as a senior, then you’ll be able to access these waivers when your scores become available. If you took the SAT as a junior, then you’ll have to wait until the fall of senior year.
Now, you may be thinking that you want to apply to more than four colleges. Can you get more fee waivers?
Sometimes four just isn't enough.
What If You Want to Apply to More than Four Colleges?
Both College Board and the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), which also offers a waiver form, recommend that you limit the use of their college fee waivers to no more than four schools.
However, if you’re applying to non-Common App schools and only have four fee waivers from College Board, then you may try using a different fee waiver form or asking the colleges themselves. For instance, you could use your four College Board forms and another four NACAC forms, for a total of 8 free applications.
As most of this process is done on the honor system with your counselor as the gatekeeper, there doesn’t seem to be a strict cutoff. Four fee waivers per organization is a suggestion, but not a fixed or enforced rule. Plus, you can use one type of form for one college and another for a different college.
You also may need to use alternative forms if you didn’t take the SAT and thus didn’t get any College Board waivers. Let’s take a look at what these alternative fee waiver forms are.
Scenario 3: You Need Alternative Fee Waiver Forms
Maybe you took the ACT, are applying to non-Common App schools, and/or are looking for extra fee waivers. There are a few other forms you can use, plus you can call up your admissions offices and ask for their advice (always recommended, as colleges like to set unique policies).
Your first stop, though, should be your counselor’s office. Your counselor should have these forms, so you shouldn’t have to go tracking them down yourself. As mentioned above, you’ll have to get her signature of approval anyway.
There are two main forms she may distribute: the ACT waiver or NACAC waiver. A less common form that's sent directly to qualifying students is College Board's Realize Your College Potential waiver. They’re all pretty similar, but let’s break each of them down so you can see where to find them and how to use them.
The ACT, Inc. Fee Waiver
Unlike College Board, ACT, Inc. doesn’t automatically grant its test fee-waiving students with application fee waivers. In fact, it doesn’t advertise its fee waivers anywhere I can see on its website.
However, it does have one that students and counselors can use - somewhat buried on page 39 of this ACT User Handbook for Educators. This form is like most of the others - it asks for your basic info, like name, address, and high school, as well as your and your school official’s (likely your counselor) signatures. You’ll also indicate the college to which you’re applying.
While the form doesn’t clearly specify, it’s probably safe to assume that you should only use this form if you took the ACT and, of course, qualified for an ACT fee waiver. However, you’re not limited to this ACT waiver. You should use whichever form your counselor offers or college requires.
The NACAC Fee Waiver
NACAC provides a useful fee waiver request form, as well as a page of FAQs to help students. It’s similar to the Common App page and the ACT waiver. It asks for your basic info and asks you to specify an indicator of economic need.
You’ll also need your counselor or designated school official to sign it. Any student can use this form, regardless of the admission test you took, but remember that NACAC recommends limiting your use of its fee waiver requests to four colleges.
The Realize Your College Potential Fee Waiver
The Realize Your College Potential fee waiver, which comes from College Board, is a bit less accessible than the other two. Students who are in the top 10-15% of their class and the bottom 33% of the income distribution (roughly $40K–$50K and below) will receive Realize Your College Potential packets from College Board with college planning, scholarship, and fee waiver information.
Each student will get a personalized packet with her own unique code. If you received one of these, then you can log in and access your fee waivers on the RYCP website. If you didn’t receive this packet, then your best bet for external forms that you can easily access yourself is the one offered by NACAC.
Again, your counselor should give you these forms, so check with her about what steps you should take before worrying about obtaining them yourself!
Individual Colleges’ Fee Waivers
For most students in most scenarios, these forms, or a combination of them, should work to get their application fees waived. However, there are always unique circumstances that stand outside of the typical process.
If you still have questions, you should contact the admissions offices of your prospective colleges. Find out if they accept fee waivers and, if so, if they prefer a specific form or simply a letter.
Some may suggest that you write and send or fax a letter of request. Harvard, for instance, accepts College Board and NACAC forms, but also welcomes a letter if you can’t obtain those forms for some reason.
Its admission office says, “If you are unable to obtain these forms, you may have your guidance counselor or school official send us a letter requesting a fee waiver based on financial hardship. You may also write this letter yourself, and have it signed by a school official. Fee waiver requests may be faxed to 617-496-3229, or mailed to our office.”
Regardless of the form you use, the requirements are essentially the same: each form represents a request and asks for your basic info, signature, counselor’s signature, and an indicator of economic need. Rarely do you have to provide supporting documentation, but you must have it on hand just in case.
Now that you have a sense of which fee waivers to use and how to get them, is there anything else you need to know about how to use them?
Don't worry, many colleges don't even ask to see your fee waiver!
How Do You Use College Application Fee Waivers?
We touched on this briefly, but let’s review how to submit application fee waivers whether you’re using the Common App, a College Board waiver, or a different form.
How to Use Common App Fee Waivers
If you’re applying through the Common App, all you have to do is indicate that you’ll be using a fee waiver on your profile page, as pictured above, and indicate your reason. Your counselor will be prompted to approve your request.
If you already got an SAT or ACT fee waiver, then you shouldn’t have to do anything else, since your counselor will have already double checked your eligibility. If you didn’t, then you may need to provide her with some supporting documentation, like proof of income eligibility.
All Common App schools should accept fee waiver requests. As Cornell says, "The Common Application will automatically send your fee waiver request to your high school counselor for confirmation. No additional documentation is needed after your counselor has approved your request."
Many colleges share this stance, though they reserve the right to ask for more info if they deem it necessary. If you hear from a college requesting more information, then you may have to fax or send your fee waiver form or whatever else they ask for.
How to Use College Board Waivers
Your College Board fee waivers, whether you obtain them through your online account or from a Realize Your College Potential packet, will have a personalized code for you. If you’re applying to a school that’s not on the Common App, then it will likely ask you to enter this code or upload a scanned copy of your waiver within its online application.
If you used an SAT fee waiver, then you should be familiar with this process. SAT registration also involves entering your personalized fee waiver code. If you’re applying by mail or if the college asks for an original hard copy, then you’ll want to send this signed form along with your application.
How to Use Other Fee Waiver Forms
If you’re using an NACAC or ACT, Inc form for non-Common App schools, then you won't get a personalized code. In most cases, you'll be asked to upload a scanned copy of the signed form into your application. Again, if you’re applying by mail or the school wants an original hard copy, then you should mail this form.
If the school needs any more information, then it will contact you and let you know. To prepare for this possibility at a non-Common App school, you should give them a call and ask about the process. A few colleges, like many in the California State system, only accept requests from in-state residents.
There are over 2,000 colleges that approve fee waiver requests - you just have to figure out how your prospective colleges want you to submit your request.
Everyone’s paths to college are different. Similarly, there are several different options for requesting application fee waivers, some straightforward, and others a little more complicated. To make sure you’ve got your bases covered, let’s summarize the most important things to remember for students who want to waive the fees for applying to college.
What to Remember About College Application Fee Waivers
If and only if you’re eligible, you can get your college application fees waived. All of these college fee waiver forms constitute requests - ultimately, it’s up to your colleges to approve your request.
For most schools, you shouldn’t run into any roadblocks. It’s probably safe to say most colleges welcome as many applications as they can get. The more applications they get, the more selective they can appear to be!
The eligibility guidelines are much the same as for SAT and ACT fee waivers, the most common being a certain yearly family income and/or being part of the Federal Free or Reduced Lunch program. If you already got a testing fee waiver, then your counselor can approve your college app request without any further input from you. If not, then you may have to show her some document that proves your eligibility.
Common Application schools offer the easiest process. For schools not on the Common App, you may need to enter your code and/or upload, fax, or mail your College Board, ACT, or NACAC fee waiver forms. A handful of schools only approve in-state residents’ requests, so do the research on your prospective colleges.
If all else fails, simply send a request, signed by yourself and your counselor, to your college. Mail or fax this letter, and, if you don’t hear back from your college, give them a call and ask if it was accepted.
While organizations emphasize that they only want you to use four fee waivers, you can use more from alternative sources if you’re eligible. Just make sure you’re using them for schools that you’d really like to attend. Of course, all the colleges to which you apply should be ones that you’d really like to attend! Hopefully, fee waivers remove any financial hardship standing in the way of your applications to your favorite colleges.
Another huge step in college financial planning has to do with financial aid. Check out this guide that breaks down all the steps you need to take to apply for various kinds of financial aid. You can also learn in depth about preparing your FAFSA application.
If you're still picking out your colleges, you may be considering tuition cost as a factor. Check out these 27 colleges that offer the best financial aid!
Remember to apply for scholarships as well! Our list of the easiest scholarships to apply for is a great place to start.
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Rebecca graduated with her Master's in Adolescent Counseling from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has years of teaching and college counseling experience and is passionate about helping students achieve their goals and improve their well-being. She graduated magna cum laude from Tufts University and scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT.