Students experiencing economic hardship often find it difficult to cover the cost of college application fees. The College Board recommends that students apply to five to eight colleges and universities to guarantee acceptance, but this can add up to $250 to $400, since most application fees are close to $50 each.

Costly application fees may initially deter students from applying to certain institutions, but college application fee waivers allow qualifying students to apply to college for free.

How to get a fee waiver for college applications

There are a few different ways to find fee waivers for college applications.

SAT and ACT fee waivers

Qualifying for SAT and ACT fee waivers automatically qualifies you for unlimited college application fee waivers through the College Board and on the Coalition, Common and Universal Applications.

Low-income high school juniors and seniors are eligible for the SAT fee waiver if one or more of the following conditions applies:

  • Student participates in or is eligible for participation in the federal National School Lunch Program (NSLP).
  • Student’s family’s annual income is within the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service Income Eligibility Guidelines.
  • Student is enrolled in a federal, state, or local program providing aid to students from low-income families.
  • Student’s family receives public assistance.
  • Student is homeless or lives in a foster home or federally subsidized public housing.
  • Student is an orphan or ward of the state.

Most of the time, you don’t need to complete any extra information to get an SAT or ACT fee waiver; your school counselor will identify eligible students and distribute waivers from there. If you haven’t gotten a waiver and you need one, talk to your guidance counselor.

NACAC fee waivers

The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) offers fee waivers to those with an economic need. You’ll need to apply for these waivers using an online form that can be either printed or saved as a PDF. Once you complete the form, it must be signed by a school counselor, postsecondary support personnel, a principal at your school or an official from a community-based organization. From there, you’ll send the form to your college’s office of admissions. Students are encouraged to limit the number of forms sent to four.

While the NACAC lists basic eligibility criteria, you may qualify by getting a specific request from a principal, guidance counselor, financial aid officer or another similar official who can vouch for your circumstances.

College financial aid office

If you don’t meet the eligibility criteria for fee waiver programs, it’s worth reaching out to the financial aid offices of the colleges you’re applying to. Some colleges are willing to waive the application fee if you reach out directly and explain your circumstances.

Who qualifies for a college application fee waiver?

Most fee waivers require demonstrated financial need. If you don’t have any financial concerns or issues paying for college applications, you probably won’t be eligible for fee waivers. In general, waivers are available to:

  • Students who currently or have previously gotten free or reduced lunch.
  • Students who are enrolled in a government program for low-income families.
  • Foster children.
  • Residents of subsidized housing or students experiencing homelessness.
  • Students in families with annual incomes that qualify for the U.S. Food and Nutrition Service.
  • Students who receive public assistance.

If you don’t qualify for a waiver based on need, you could have a high school or college official vouch for you, saying that the application cost would cause financial hardship.

What happens if you don’t qualify for a fee waiver?

If you don’t qualify for a college application fee waiver, you can still try to limit the amount you have to spend to apply for schools. For one, you can narrow your search to schools that don’t charge you to apply; PrepScholar maintains a list of colleges without application fees that you can reference as you begin your search.

You can also curate your list of colleges to avoid applying to more than you need to. Research approval statistics and financial requirements beforehand to limit your applications to the top schools that you’re truly invested in and likely to be admitted to. Although the College Board recommends applying to five to eight schools, you can adjust this number as needed.

Bottom line

The cost of attending college doesn’t just include tuition, books and housing. Application fees are one of the first college expenses you will have, and they can get to be expensive. Although some institutions no longer charge application fees, including the University of Wisconsin System, which eliminated application fees for all but four of its schools, many colleges and universities expect this fee to be paid before an application is reviewed. Luckily, students can rely on application fee waivers to give them the chance to attend the school of their choice.