How to Apply for College Without Breaking the Bank | Photo by Eric Strausman

Eric Strausman

How to Apply for College Without Breaking the Bank

•  5 minute read

Even just applying for college can be expensive. Check out tips to help you lower the costs.

Maybe selling a kidney is an option . . . After calculating the total cost to apply for college — hundreds of dollars that I didn’t have —  I crawled into a ball. Where would I find the money?

My to-do list loomed over me: Take the SAT — once if I am smart, twice if  I’m not; the SAT subject tests; and the ACT. Send my test scores, transcripts,  and college applications out. Expensive SAT and ACT prep was another hurdle.

How to Apply for College Without Breaking the Bank | USDA Food and Nutrition Service Income Eligibility GuidelinesIf any of the above is relatable, I feel you. Like most students from low-income families (as defined by the USDA table on the right), I faced a huge amount of stress and many challenges going through the college application process. But I didn’t let that stop me.

 

Covering the Cost of Applying for College

In the winter of 2017, after doing some research, my friends and I realized there were plenty of resources to help us cover the myriad costs of applying for college. In the end, we were accepted into top universities and colleges, and we hardly spent a dime.

What’s our secret? That’s the best part. There is no secret, just planning and research that I will walk you through from start to finish. You can minimize costs in each step of the college process.

The information below mainly applies to low-income students, but there will be a section for those who fall slightly short of qualifying for the fee waivers.

 

The SAT and the SAT Subject Tests

Q: As a low-income student, how much do I have to spend to take the SAT and the SAT subject tests?

Answer: $0 to $64.50 (SAT)

How to Apply for College Without Breaking the Bank | College Board SAT Fee WaiversSAT: The College Board gives two free SAT fee waivers to those who qualify, shown on the right. However, if you need to take the SAT for the third time, you’ll have to spend $47.50 for the test without the essay, or $64.50 with the essay. That said, my high school counselor advised me that there is no tangible benefit in taking the SAT more than three times.

Student Advice: “If you can, study hard and grind through so you can get the SAT  over with after two tests.” — Sarah Martinez, rising freshman at Boston University.

SAT Subject Test: The registration fee is $26, and you may take up to three subject tests in a day. The College Board offers two SAT subject test fee waivers with the same qualification criteria as the SAT fee waivers. Each fee waiver allows you to take up to three subject tests a day, so that’s a total of six free subject tests. I took world history and math I on Day One, and math II and biology on Day Two. That saved me $104 ($26 x four).

Q: How do I get the fees waived? What documents do I need as proof of eligibility?

Answer: Go to high school guidance counselors because the College Board sends fee waivers to them.

Q: How do I save money when sending the SAT and SAT subject scores to colleges?

Answer: You don’t have to; it’s free!

In 2018, the College Board began providing unlimited SAT and SAT subject test score reports for low-income students. As long as you’re eligible for an SAT fee waiver, you can do a little celebratory dance because you just saved yourself at least $100.

Aaron Chen, a rising sophomore at Hunter College in New York City, spent $135 just on sending SAT subject test scoresThis doesn’t even include his regular SAT test scores. He applied to eight private colleges, two New York state schools, and two New York City.

Chen reckons that sending his scores was the most expensive part of his entire college application process.

“I should’ve applied to only one school if I knew I was gonna stay in the city. All the pho I could eat with that money,”  he says. Of course, applying to just one school is not advisable.

 

For Students Who Aren’t Quite Low Income

Q: How can I save money if I fall slightly short of qualifying as a low-income student?

Answer: It’s harder, but not impossible.

Felix Liu, who attends Stony Brook University in New York state, didn’t qualify for free lunch because his family income was $2,000 above the $46,435 cutoff for a family of four. Failing to qualify for fee waivers, he spent more than $200 applying to 10 colleges.

To avoid this situation, use the four free score reports that are available up to nine days after the test date for every SAT subject test date you sign up for.

“But I don’t know my scores before sending them,” I hear you say.

The trick is to send the scores to your safety schools — the colleges that you’ll most likely already be accepted to because your academic credentials exceed those of the average first-year student. This strategy could save you $90 (four schools x $11.25 x two test dates). The best part of this strategy? Even if the scores turn out to be bad, your acceptance will not be jeopardized because of your otherwise above-average application.

Cynthia Leung, a rising senior at Syracuse University, advises students to find free prep courses online through companies like PrepExpert. She also recommends asking around to see if there’s someone who can offer you free or affordable tutoring. Even if you don’t find free services, you may be able to snag discounts by searching sites like Groupon.

 

Test Prep (SAT and ACT)

Below is a list of resources that my friends and I used:

Online Test Prep In-Person Test Prep
  • Student Tutor: Offers five week of SAT for free.
  • Khan Academy: A fantastic resource for those who can’t afford SAT prep. The lessons cater to your weaknesses to make sure your scores improve.
  • ACT Online Prep: If you qualify for ACT fee waiver, which has the same criteria as for the SAT fee waiver, you get access to a personalized online prep. The prep course is similar to Khan Academy’s.
  • Varsity Tutors: A great resource that provides study guides, official SAT/ACT tests and online practice questions.
  • Union Test Prep: Free practice tests, flashcards, and study guides.
  • Expanded Horizons College Success: After googling “free SAT prep” for days, I found this amazing program. It not only offers free SAT prep, but also assists students with the college process. I learned a lot from the community counselors, as well as the other students in my cohort.
  • Big Brother Big Sister: I joined the NYC chapter, and they offered free SAT and ACT prep for us. This program will also match you with a mentor.
  • Princeton Review: Offers free SAT and ACT tests.
  • Let’s Get Ready: Provides free SAT prep for low-income students. I enrolled during the summer of junior year, and it helped improve my score by 100 to 200 points.

 

Student Advice: “Be on the lookout for discounts at various test prep places like Kaplan. I found discounts online that saved me a few hundred dollars. Be proactive!” — Fahmida Moni, Barnard College.

 

Final Thoughts on How to Apply for College on the Cheap

It’s inevitable that you will have to spend money, but you can minimize the costs. “Recognize that there is value in spending money because it’s an investment,” says Leung. “You may need to pay for the SAT the third time, but if you do really good, you might get a merit scholarship. In the long run, it’s worth it.”