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The cost of applying to college: ‘Bare minimum,’ expect $1,200 on application fees, says expert

Brian Snyder | Reuters

With competition at an all-time high and admissions practices increasingly unclear, it’s not an easy time for college applicants.

As colleges are being forced to rethink their policies in the wake of the Supreme Court‘s ruling against affirmative action, more schools are also choosing to end legacy preferences, adding uncertainty to the process.

“There’s a true perception that the process is getting more and more unpredictable,” said Eric Greenberg, president of Greenberg Educational Group, a New York-based consulting firm.

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Heightened uncertainty is driving students to cast a wider net, according to Christopher Rim, president and CEO of college consulting firm Command Education.

To boost their chances of getting in somewhere, Rim now sees high school seniors apply to as many as 20 schools. But that comes at a cost: Each application can be $60 to $100 to submit, depending on the school.

After adding up the fees associated with submitting that many college applications, along with ACT and SAT test reports, “at the bare minimum you are spending $1,200 to $2,000 on application fees,” Rim said.

It’s understandable that college hopefuls want to hedge their bets, said Robert Franek, editor-in-chief of The Princeton Review. “At the upper tier, students are seeing their friends not get in and that’s crushing.”

However, “20 is far too many,” he added.

Still, students are applying to more schools to try to get a leg up — no matter the cost.

“We are seeing a large increase in the number of applications students are submitting,” Greenberg also noted. Students apply to twice as many schools as they did a decade ago, he said. “People are saying ‘the more schools, the better.'”

There’s a true perception that the process is getting more and more unpredictable.
Eric Greenberg
president of Greenberg Educational Group

Roughly 40% of students are applying to 10 or more schools, up from 37% last year, according to Spark451’s recent college-bound student survey — a trend also driven by the growing number of colleges that are now “test-optional,” which means students don’t need certain SAT or ACT scores in order to apply.

As a result, a small group of universities, including many in the Ivy League, are experiencing a record-breaking increase in applications, according to a separate report by the Common Application.

And the greater number of applications is further fueling historically low acceptance rates at many top colleges.

Application volume spikes, despite hefty fees

Ariel Skelley | Digitalvision | Getty Images

Application volume jumped 30% for the 2022-23 academic year compared to the 2019-20 school year, the Common App found.

At the same time, more students were eligible for a fee waiver, although not all requested one.

Students can apply for the fee waiver but don’t always bother, Rim said. “This is valuable time during their senior year that they could be using on their applications.” (Many colleges also offer a college-specific fee waiver, and SAT or ACT testing fees can be waived on a case-by-case basis.)

A better approach to college applications

Piling on more applications doesn’t better the odds if students and their families are too focused on institutions with acceptance rates below 10%, Rim cautioned. “That’s not really how this works.”

Rather than applying to a slew of similar schools, which may all yield the same slim chance of success, the key is to identify a core list of different types of institutions with a balance of “safety” schools, “targets” and “reaches,” Greenberg said.

Because admissions tend to be less predictable now, focusing on a more balanced list of schools at the outset “is most likely to lead to the desired result,” he advised.

Further, finding a selection of schools based on which are the right fit for you in terms of cost, academics, campus life and other factors is also likely to make you a more attractive candidate to the admissions office, Franek said. ”Applying to a list that’s truly a best fit for you is always going to be of value.”

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