College applications are time-consuming and stress-inducing enough, but even before they begin many families find themselves spending thousands of dollars getting ready.
If they hire tutors at $1,000 and up per class per year, visit individual campuses or hire a one-on-one college-application coach for the whole process, the cost quickly escalates. But test preparation also can be a major expense — hitting $1,200 for a standard class at top prep companies.
Here are tips on tackling the pre-application process and finding a balance that works for your budget.
1. SPEND on campus visits.
Even if you tour a campus and end up deciding against applying there, every visit will help, says Lance Millis, who runs the advice Web site College Answer Guy.
"You'll be able to pick up on things you like or things you don't like," in general, he says.
Cut the cost of visiting campuses by scheduling them as part of vacations you're taking anyway and making them occasionally throughout high school.
"Starting earlier and spreading it out more will feel less expensive," he says. "There's nothing wrong with sophomores and juniors visiting campuses too."
2. SAVE on preparation by analyzing your specific studying needs.
A book is cheaper than a class, for example. But spending on a book that doesn't get used is not a savings.
"Parents needs to make sure ahead of time they're choosing something their son or daughter is actually going to make use of," Millis says. "If they're more apt to go to weekend workshop look for one of those and sign up for it."
3. SPEND on reputable college prep courses.
Take courses, online or in person, only from well-established companies such as Kaplan or The Princeton Review if you decide a class is the way to go. They are expensive, but many companies offer some financial aid to those who need it.
"Our goal at Kaplan is to make test prep available to as many students as possible," says Kristin Campbell, executive director of college prep programs for Kaplan Test Prep & Admissions. "We have scholarship programs for those who qualify."
4. SAVE on free online tests and high school resources.
Get free practice tests online, including sample SAT tests at collegeboard.org and ACT practice tests at act.org.
Also check with your high school's guidance office for free sample tests. If your school lacks in the guidance department, don't be afraid to call around to other schools, says Millis. They all want kids to succeed and can easily loan out testing material.
If you are lucky enough to have a good high school counseling office, though, its staff — and your own thorough online research — will be able to match the services of most coaches, Millis says.
"That's not to say that coaches don't have a lot to offer," Millis says, "But if families are trying to save money that is one place I would choose to save the money."
Never pay someone who guarantees a scholarship will result or offers to write a personal essay for a student. Those are almost certainly scams.
5. SPEND on a College Level Examination Program, or CLEP, test to save in the long run. A CLEP test, which costs about $70, lets students with particularly strong knowledge in a certain area take an exam in that subject that could help them get college credit later on. A CLEP test is similar to an Advanced Placement test but there is no accompanying course. Score well enough on the test and a student could save hundreds or thousands later on.
"Not everyone can pass them, but if they can, it is economical," Millis says.