10/19/2011 11:52 am ET | Updated Dec 19, 2011

How To Apply To College For Free

It's no secret that college is an expensive endeavor for many college students, and the costs can add up before you even set foot on campus.

For students like Angelica Cabunoc, investigating schools at which to apply often triggers surprise and angst when the corresponding application fees begin to mount.

"During high school, I was thinking of applying to at least seven or eight colleges, and they had $35 or $50 or $70 application fees," says Cabunoc, who hails from Pleasant Hill, Calif. "I was thinking, 'Okay, I can't afford this. When you sum it all up, it's going to be really expensive.'"

[See which colleges have the highest application fees.]

Still, there are a variety of ways to score a free application submission. It's important to remember that colleges want to attract serious applicants, whose eventual tuition will far outshadow a foregone application fee, so schools around the country are offering unique ways for students to apply for free. It's often up to high schoolers and their parents to hunt for the opportunities, but here are some to get you started:

For students who apply at the right time: At Messiah College in Pennsylvania, admissions officers are grateful to have applications in before the holiday season and in enough time to work out offers of admission, financial aid, and scholarships, says John Chopka, vice president for enrollment management. To encourage students to comply, the college waives the application fee until November 15 of each year. (After mid-November, it costs $20 to apply online and $30 if using a paper application.)

"We know that some students are in a hurry to apply in the fall and feel a lot of pressure," Chopka says. "We think anything we can do to encourage the application only helps."

November heralds another time-sensitive campaign for students in North Carolina, where dozens of colleges waive application fees for one week in an effort to attract first-generation applicants and students who may not have considered college otherwise.

[See how staying in your region can save thousands on tuition.]

"Our hope is that by removing some of the financial burden on students and their families, they'll really get an idea of what their options for postsecondary education are," says Ashley Postlethwaite, college access coordinator for the University of North Carolina system. This year, students at most high schools in North Carolina will be able to apply to schools for free between November 14 and 18.

For students who apply online: Many colleges incentivize applying online as a way to both attract prospective students and cut down on internal work. Applying online is free at Ohio Wesleyan University, the University of Charleston in West Virginia, New Jersey's Fairleigh Dickinson University, and Otterbein University in Ohio, among other schools.

It's a route Quinnipiac University graduate Jenny Connell wishes she'd considered when she was applying to colleges in 2006. At the time, she felt more comfortable submitting applications in the mail than online, she says, but applying to 10 schools in traditional fashion added up to nearly $500.

"I was always asking my parents for a check," Connell says. "I knew there were a lot of options if you want to do it online for free; if I could do it again, I definitely would do it online."

For students who visit campus: Campus visits, for families who can swing them, are often a crucial step in the college decision process. At some schools, such as Albright College in Pennsylvania, it's also a way to score a free application.

"We give students and their families an application fee waiver as a courtesy for the expense of visiting campus—a modest token of appreciation," says Greg Eichhorn, Albright's vice president for enrollment and dean of admission. "It probably costs more than that for many who visit."

[Find out how visiting campus can also save on tuition.]

Albright College's application costs $25 otherwise, and about 50 percent of students who apply use a waiver, Eichhorn says.

Other schools join forces to attract families who might make a few stops in the same region. During Virginia Private College Week, for example, 25 campuses team up each July to incentivize school tours. Students receive three application waivers for use at the participating schools if they visit at least three college campuses, including the University of Richmond, Roanoke College, and Washington and Lee University.

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