4. If you have financial need: Don't let tight finances keep you from your college dreams. Of the 1,800 colleges U.S. News surveyed in 2012, 1,300 reported that they will waive the application fee for students who demonstrate financial need, including Dartmouth College, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Colorado—Boulder.
With proof of financial need, students may be able to secure fee waivers from the National Association of College Admission Counseling, and students who have received an SAT/ACT fee waiver can apply for free passes from the College Board. Students can also go to guidance counselors at their high schools for help; at schools such as Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa, a fee waiver signed by a counselor grants a free application.
"Your new best friend is your college guidance counselor—there's no one more important in your life right now," notes Sarah McGinty, author of The College Application Essay. "I would say to any student: Make that appointment and get yourself in there and say, 'Here's my financial situation.'"
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5. If you simply apply: At some colleges, there are no requirements standing in students' way of a free application. Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss., for example, charges no students to apply.
"When students are applying to several institutions, it becomes very expensive," says Juliet Johnson, the college's senior associate dean of admissions. "We did not want to create a barrier to applicants."
6. If you're a go-getter: It's not too early to begin communication with college officials at your top-choice schools—and it might be worthwhile to reach out and inquire about ways to apply for free.
Stellar students with the grades to get into top colleges but who want to, for example, attend a local school with less stringent admissions standards, could contact that institution before applying, notes Allen Koh, chief executive officer of college admissions firm Cardinal Education.
"By reaching out to them, saying, 'It's my No. 1 choice; here are my GPA and my SAT scores,' ... you can actually ask them, 'Could we start with a fee waiver?'" Koh says. "It will absolutely pay off."
Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for College center.