09/17/2012 08:49 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2012

How to Apply to College For Free

After submitting several college applications that cost between $35 and $50 each, prospective student Alexandra Sossi was pleasantly surprised to learn that at Washington and Jefferson College, a small school in Pennsylvania, she could apply for free.

"It kind of takes a load off, since you have all the other costs coming up--the AP and SAT tests, and then looming college loans," says Sossi, who's now a senior at Washington and Jefferson. "It was nice to know I didn't have to pay for the application as well."

College applications can get pricey, but many universities offer a free way to apply. Find out if there's a way you can save costs, too:

1. If you're Web-savvy: Students, like Sossi, who apply online can score free application submissions at many colleges. In addition to Washington and Jefferson College, the numerous institutions that waive application fees for online applicants include Upper Iowa University, Millikin University, Juniata College, Kettering University, York College of Pennsylvania, Drake University, Smith College, Barry University, and Mercyhurst College.

Often, schools advertise the fact that they waive application fees for online applicants. As you're exploring the websites of colleges you're considering, keep your eyes peeled for a money-saving application option.

2. If you have a connection: At some schools, being a relative or friend of a graduate can get you a free application. At Western New England University in Massachusetts, for instance, students can apply for free if they have a parent or grandparent who attended or if they're are able to secure a letter of recommendation from another grad.

"It's not a huge benefit in terms of [finances], but it's more symbolic," says Charles Pollock, the school's vice president for enrollment management. "If their parent or grandparent is an alum, it's the legacy of continuing forward."

If a relative's or friend's alma mater sounds like it might be a good fit for you, too, check to see if their backing will allow you to apply for free.

3. If you take a road trip: Sometimes, just showing up can mean the difference between applying for free or getting stuck with a charge. At Alfred University, for example, school officials not only want to encourage face-to-face interaction, they want to show their appreciation to families who make the trek to upstate New York, says Cory Unis, the college's director of admissions.

But don't just drop by campus hoping to pick up an application fee waiver. Some schools, including Maryland's McDaniel College, require students to schedule and complete an official college visit through the Office of Admissions before taking home a free pass. When planning your college visits, do some research beforehand to make sure you don't miss out on an opportunity to get a waiver.

[Get more tips on making college visits.]

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.'"

[Get tips on paying for college.]

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."

Rhode Island's Johnson and Wales University and Eastern Nazarene College in Massachusetts each offer free applications, too.

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.