My family was going through a rocky financial period when my oldest son was preparing for college. I’d just been laid off and I didn’t know how I was going to pay for him to take the SAT. At college night at my son’s high school, I was relieved to learn that students from low-income families can take the SAT and the ACT for free. These exam waivers can help cover college application fees, too.

Understanding SAT and ACT fee waivers

If they qualify, juniors and seniors can get fee waivers for both the SAT (which costs $57 with the essay) and the ACT (which costs $58.50 with the writing section). With a waiver, your child can take the exam for free…and there’s more.

Each ACT fee waiver covers the cost of one ACT exam and the cost of sending your child’s scores to up to four colleges. Students may receive two waivers to cover, for example, taking the ACT a second time to improve their scores. When they request the ACT fee waiver, students can also request a waiver to cover college application fees. Then, when it’s time to apply, students can submit the application-fee-waiver request instead of paying the college application fee. Students can use this application-fee-waiver request with as many colleges as they apply to. The catch? It’s up to the colleges whether or not they will accept the application-fee-waiver request.

The SAT fee waiver covers the costs of two SAT exams, two SAT subject tests, the cost of sending your child’s scores to four colleges, and application fees for to up to four colleges — provided the colleges are among the 2,000 that accept the SAT fee waiver. (See the list of participating colleges.)

The fee waiver for college applications — from SAT and ACT — is a major benefit, since such fees ($90 for Stanford University, $75 for Brown University, $70 for UCLA, $50 (in-state) for Arizona State University, etc.) add up fast.

How to get an ACT or SAT fee waiver

To qualify for a fee waiver, your family must meet certain income criteria. For both the SAT and the ACT, a student will receive a waiver if their family meets income requirements for the National School Lunch Program, receives public assistance, or lives in public housing. Teens also qualify if they’re living in a foster home, homeless, a ward of the state, or an orphan.

Once you’ve determined that your teen qualifies, you’ll need to talk to your school’s college counselor to actually get the fee waiver for the SAT or ACT. Counselors need to make the request, and, once granted, they’ll give your teen a code — and that’s what students use to waive the fee when they register for the test. Some community-based organizations that provide educational support services or work primarily with students from low-income families can also request and distribute ACT and SAT fee waivers.

Free test prep services

Students typically take either the SAT or ACT test for the first time in the spring of their junior year — and often again in the fall of their senior year. Some students find test prep more helpful after they’ve taken the test once and know what they need to work on, which is why most counselors recommend that students take the test more than once.

Students should start studying for the ACT or SAT exam three months before test day. For teens who are self-motivated enough to study independently, there are free study guides and practice tests on both the SAT and ACT websites.

All students taking the SAT should check out Official SAT Practice, an innovative collaboration between Khan Academy and the College Board. The platform provides free, customized SAT practice (it’s focused on the areas where your teen needs work), including practice tests, lessons, study tips from students, study schedules, and more. Spending time on the site can really make a difference: according to a College Board analysis, students who study for 20 hours on Official SAT Practice show an average score gain of 115 points. Students who spent six to eight hours on the site showed an average increase of 90 points.

Students who take the ACT have access to free test prep when they get a fee waiver. When they register for the test with a fee waiver, they will receive an email inviting them to take on of the ACT’s online prep courses at no cost.

For students who would prefer a structured test prep class, many local libraries provide free SAT and/or ACT classes — but they tend to fill up quickly, so your student should sign up well in advance. Some nonprofit organizations that help low-income and first-generation students with the college search process also provide test prep support. Ask your high school counselor about resources in your area.

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