Admissions experts typically recommend that students apply for between five and eight colleges, though a significant number of students apply to 10 or more. According to a US News & World Report survey of nearly 1,100 ranked colleges, the average application fee is $41. As you can imagine, these fees can accumulate rapidly. If possible, reduce your costs by obtaining fee waivers, which allow you to apply for free.

There are several options for getting application fees waived, and they generally only take a few minutes of your time. I’ll break them down into four main categories:•   Fee waivers based on financial need

•   Fee waivers based on financial need

•   Fee waivers based on merit

•   Fee waivers based on expressed interest

•   Miscellaneous fee waivers

Don’t let the technical terminology on some of these throw you. I’ll explain them all now.

Fee Waivers Based on Financial Need

The most common application fee waiver is based on financial need, and a number of qualifiers include:

  • Eligible for the Federal Free or Reduced Price Lunch Program
  • Eligible for, or has received, an SAT or ACT fee waiver
  • Family income falls within the Income Eligibility Guidelines established by the USDA Food and Nutrition Service
  • Family receives public assistance
  • Living in federally subsidized housing, a foster home, or is homeless
  • Student is a ward of the state or an orphan

You can obtain these waivers through three sources: the National Association of College Admissions Counselors (NACAC), the College Board, or the college or university where you plan to apply. Typically the NACAC waiver is secured through your high school counselor. However, if he or she doesn’t have the form, it can be downloaded from the NACAC website. Students can use the NACAC form for up to four schools.

Those who received a fee waiver for their SAT are automatically qualified for four college application fee waivers through the College Board. Eligible seniors get these waivers when they obtain their SAT score, and juniors will receive them in the fall of their senior year. Not all colleges accept the waivers, but many do. You can browse a list of those schools on the College Board’s Big Future website. The NACAC does not currently maintain a directory of participating schools, so if you are eligible, contact the Office of Admission at your top-choice colleges to learn if the waiver is accepted.

And keep this in mind: because the NACAC and the College Board are separate entities, eligible students can use fee waivers from both programs, enabling them to apply to up to eight colleges free of charge! Beyond this, some schools themselves will waive a student’s application fees based on financial criteria. Review the website or call the admissions office of colleges you’re interested in to see whether this is something they offer.

Fee Waivers Based on Merit

Academically strong and/or highly involved students may be able to receive fee waivers. Colleges want to attract the best and brightest each year, and if forgoing a $50 application fee helps top scholars pick them, then it’s a simple sacrifice to make. Some schools offer fee waivers for National Merit, National Achievement, or National Hispanic finalists. Other schools make them available to students with a certain GPA or test score. If you are an especially accomplished student and want to save some money on college application fees, peruse the websites of the schools you’re interested in or call their admissions office about these waivers.

Fee Waivers Based on Expressed Interest

Basically, expressed interest is demonstrated when students show they are intent on applying to a specific college or university—either by visiting a campus, attending a college fair, or participating in certain campus programs. When you tour a school or meet with an admissions representative at a fair, an application fee waiver is sometimes included in the packet they give you. College recruiters will also often pass out codes or special forms that you can use to waive the application fee.

Miscellaneous Fee Waivers

In the broad miscellaneous category, there are a variety of other, less-specific reasons that colleges may offer application fee waivers. A few of these are:

•   Service Activities. Performing a certain number of service hours or being an alumnus of a service-based group like AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps may qualify you. Typically, these fee waivers are available to older students seeking admission versus teens right out of high school. Check with the schools you’re interested in about this.

•   Applying Early. Students can apply for college in various timeframes, most commonly referred to as Early Decision, Early Action, and Regular Decision. For those who choose Early Decision, they get to submit their college applications ahead of their peers, but they also make a binding commitment to attend that school if accepted. Early Action students also have the advantage of applying in advance, but they are not bound to attend a particular school. Some colleges look favorably upon Early applicants (of either type), waiving their fees as an incentive to apply prior to Regular Decision applicants.

•   College Employee, Veteran, or Child of a Veteran. Employees of a college or their dependents may qualify for a waiver at that particular school. For example, 23 schools within the California State University system waive application fees for employees, and in some cases, for their spouses, domestic partners, or children as well. Veterans and children of veterans are also eligible for fee waivers at many colleges. If you fit the criteria, make sure to explore these possibilities.

•   Applying Online. An increasing number of schools offer reduced application fees, or waive fees altogether, for online applications. When browsing a university’s admissions website, keep an eye out for this opportunity to save. Schools often promote it if the online application is free.

•   Special Circumstances. If your family recently experienced a major hardship or drop in finances, you may qualify. For example, a job loss, a medical emergency, the recent death of a family member, or other personal struggles may prevent you from being able to afford college application fees. In these exceptional situations, some schools will offer a waiver as long as you report and document your circumstance. Inquire with the college or university’s admissions office.