Written by Dustin Lynn (Director of College Counseling at Battle Ground Academy in TN) and Andrew Moe (Director of Admissions at Swarthmore College in PA).

In this post, we’ll cover: 

  • What is a college application fee waiver?

  • Who qualifies for college application fee waivers?

  • How to obtain and complete a fee waiver

  • Some last important tips about fee waivers (and life) in general

So you’ve just decided on the list of colleges you’re applying to. You’re working on your activities section and your personal statement, and  you’ve started to look at a few supplemental essays. But as you get closer to submitting your application, you see it. The college application fee. 

Students are often surprised to find that submitting their college applications typically requires a payment to the college or university. Some colleges allow students to apply for free, but other colleges charge students between $25 to $90 simply to submit their applications.

Pro Tip: Some colleges do NOT charge an application fee, or else they offer specific windows of time throughout the year when they waive their application fees. Check with your college to see if these types of opportunities are available and, if so, plan to submit your application to align with the free application timeline.  

Additionally, the college application process is often accompanied by several financial surprises in the form of fees that students may not initially know about. Beyond the college application fee, students might have to pay matriculation or housing fees (which we’ll discuss a little later) or fees to have test scores sent to colleges from places like ACT and College Board.

As a result of these unanticipated costs, you might start seeing the dollar signs add up in your mind and you might feel worried.

But here’s the good news: If you and your family can’t afford the application fees, you can actually apply to college for free. This guide will show you how.

First things first: 

What is a college application fee waiver? 

A fee waiver is most typically a form that a student completes, on their own and/or with the help of a school counselor or high school official, then submits to a college or university to request that the application fee be “waived” – cancelled – removed! There are a few different forms of fee waivers, but most require students to demonstrate that the application fee presents a financial hardship for their ability to apply to the institution — emphasis here on presents a financial hardship. Of course, no one ever wants to pay fees, but waivers for college application fees are meant for students and families who otherwise would not be able to apply to college without financial assistance.  

Note: There are other ways to receive an application fee waiver that are not dependent on a financial hardship that we won’t necessarily cover here. For example, some colleges may offer you a fee waiver for attending (even virtually) an admissions program. Sometimes colleges will email you out of the blue with an application fee waiver. When in doubt, you can always ask the admissions office.

Who qualifies for a fee waiver? 

A student typically has to meet at least one of the following criteria to receive a fee waiver:

  • Receive or be eligible to receive free or reduced lunch at their high school

  • Family income falls within the income eligibility guidelines set by the USDA Food and Nutrition Service

  • Eligible for a fee waiver through the ACT or College Board

  • Receives public assistance, such as housing, food, or child care subsidies

  • Lives in a federally subsidized public housing, a foster home or is homeless

  • Enrolled in a federal, state, or local program that aids students from low-income families such as Upward Bound, Educational Talent Search or another TRiO program such as GEAR UP.

  • Veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces or on active duty in the U.S. military

Sometimes, though, a student might legitimately have difficulty paying for college but does not fall neatly into one of these categories. If none of these situations applies to you but you do not have the funds to apply to college, do not stop there! Most fee waivers give the option for the student to provide a supporting statement on their own or from a school official (such as a counselor or principal), college access advisor, financial aid officer, or community leader explaining their financial hardship. 

Students usually need to pursue this option if one of their parents or guardians recently lost a job and suffered reduced family income, a family member passed away, unexpected expenses arise, COVID-19 presented unexpected expenses for your family, or any number of other reasons that impacted your family’s financial situation. 

You think you qualify — now what?

How do you get a fee waiver? 

Your next step often depends on which application you’ll use to apply to a college or university. There are several types of fee waivers, and we’ll discuss the most popular ones based on their associated college applications. Before you get started, though, just like with the application process, each college maintains its own process and requirements for requesting a fee waiver. While most colleges will likely accept the fee waivers that we’ll go over in a moment, some institutions have their own unique fee waiver process. Boise State, for example, does a great job of outlining the requirements for a fee waiver as well as providing information for requesting a fee waiver. 

Pro Tip: Before proceeding with the fee waiver process, check out the admission websites for any colleges to which you’re applying to learn more about their respective requirements. You’ll typically find information related to fee waivers listed on their application requirements page (just like with our Boise State example). Some institutions (like Swarthmore College) have even created useful tools to help you determine if you qualify for a fee waiver and how you can obtain one. Also, Google is your friend! You can often find more information about a college’s fee waiver simply by Googling the college’s name and the words “application fee waiver.” If you don’t find the information you need or if it’s unclear, do not hesitate to reach out to a college’s office of admissions to speak with a representative to see if you qualify for a fee waiver and how you can submit a request for one. 

Now, let’s save you and your family some money! The following are the various types of fee waivers available and how you can access and submit each of them:

The Common Application Fee Waiver

There are two main ways to request a fee waiver when using the Common Application. There’s the Common App Fee Waiver — and Common App has created a guide to help you understand their fee waiver process. To submit the request in your Common App, simply follow these steps:

In the “Profile” section of your Common App, click on the “Common Application Fee Waiver” subsection. If you’ve made it this far into this guide, you likely think that you might qualify for a fee waiver, so you should choose “Yes” to confirm that you believe you qualify for a fee waiver before selecting “Continue.” You’ll then be asked to select the supporting reason for your fee waiver and sign the request digitally. You’ll also have the opportunity to request additional application guidance from Strive for College if you’re interested.