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College application season is in full swing and most families with high school seniors are currently stressed out about which schools to apply to. For those who are concerned about their finances, many families know that they can apply to cheap colleges, find scholarships and send out competitive scholarship applications. But most families don’t realize how expensive it is to apply for college or how to save money on the process.

Sally Rubenstone, a senior advisor with College Confidential, knows the high cost of college firsthand — she has a son who is a freshman at Tulane University. (She’s also a former Smith College admission counselor and co-author of The Panicked Parents’ Guide to College Admissions.) According to Rubenstone, the costs of applying for college can add up.

“Application fees alone commonly range from $40 to $80, so a student who applies to eight colleges can expect to spend about $500 on application fees alone,” she said.

But these fees are just the tip of the iceberg. Other college application costs that parents shell out for include SAT prep courses, tutors and college visits, Rubenstone said.

“The really big spending can begin as parents and their progeny load up the SUV or fly the friendly skies to visit a dozen or more candidate colleges, sometimes clear across the country and often requiring hotel stays, rental cars and multiple restaurant meals,” she said.

Costs Are Increasing

Parents have begun spending more in recent years because of what Rubenstone calls “the application arms race.”

“The good news is that today’s candidates at U.S. colleges hail from broader socioeconomic backgrounds and from more parts of the country—and of the world—than ever before,” she said. “But the bad news is that this upward trend increases competition for roughly the same number of places in freshman classes, especially at the most sought-after schools. ”

This competition causes more students to apply to more schools to ensure that they are accepted, which adds to the expense of applications and college visits.

While college visits are not mandatory (and not every student applies to schools across the country), families may be less inclined to forgo the trip since it could give the applicant an admissions edge at some institutions.

“’Demonstrating interest’ is a term now on many tongues, as parents and teens share war stories about the overqualified candidates who were turned away from putative ‘safety schools’ because they didn’t show sufficient love,” Rubenstone said. “Visiting a campus, especially a distant one, can be the best way to tell the college admission officials, ‘I care.’”

How Much Are Families Spending?

The range is quite broad, but Rubenstone said parents generally fall into three distinct camps. The first group spends a relatively small amount since their children are applying to schools near their home.

“These families can pull off an application process with a hundred bucks or two,” she said. That amount is typically enough to cover a couple low application fees and a few car rides or subway trips to check out nearby campuses.

The second group spends around $2,000 to $5,000, Rubenstone said. These families often have children who are looking at schools within driving distance, but far away enough to require an overnight stay. They might also have a few colleges on their lists that require a plane ride to visit, which can add to their expenses.

Finally, there is a group of families that spends a “small fortune,” on college application costs, Rubenstone said. They travel to multiple colleges far from home. Sometimes these trips can double as a family vacation and money can be redirected from a travel fund. Still, these families can spend as much as $10,000 looking at schools and applying to colleges, she said.

How to Cut Down on Costs

Fortunately, there are ways to save on college application costs. You could decide to skip pricey test-prep courses and use books or free websites, Rubenstone said.

You could save on college visits by attending local events the college goes to in order to demonstrate interest and visit in person only if admitted.

Alternately, you could ask admissions officers if they offer free overnight visits on campus and consider sending your child on their own, Rubenstone said. Some colleges may even pay for the airfare of high-need or low-income students.

When it comes to saving money on application fees, there are colleges that have free versions and fee waivers that you might qualify for. Colleges will often hand these applications out at college fairs or during high school visits.

The most important thing to do when it comes to managing the costs of college applications is to create a budget and stick to it. Know what you can afford beforehand and don’t overspend. After all, soon enough, you’ll be paying the high cost of college tuition (and, possibly, campus housing). It’s important to save wherever you can.

And if you’re already starting to fill out your FAFSA and get a handle on the schools you and your family can afford, it may be time to check your credit as well. Financial aid and scholarships often aren’t enough to cover the full college cost, and private student loans are a tool many family members use to cover the gap. Your credit plays a big role in the interest rates you’ll get on these loans, however, unlike federal student loans. You can get a free credit report summary on Credit.com to see where you stand.

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