How can students and their families keep these costs in check?
Most of it boils down to preparation and the confidence that students can do this themselves, experts say.
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Take testing fees. These are fixed unless your income is low enough to qualify you for a waiver. But there are alternatives to pricey courses and private tutors. The College Board itself offers some test prep on its website, and there are a variety of test prep books with practice tests that retail for under $40.
Kantrowitz suggests an even less-expensive way to prepare for the verbal portion of the standardized tests.
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"If you start soon enough, the very best way of preparing yourself for the SAT is to read the front section of a daily newspaper every day, or read the whole Sunday paper every week, for years," he said. "If you are trying to cram with the books, you might get your score up 50 points or so. If you do it this way, you can get 100 points or so."
As for college visits, students can plan college trips together to save on hotel costs, for example. And if they do their homework before getting on the road, they may be able to limit the number of in-person visits. Sites like www.youvisit.com provide virtual tours, which may help students streamline their lists.
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Private college coaches are appealing, not least because they let parents feel that they have done everything possible to help their child. But be careful about what the coach is doing. If the coach has a big hand in your child's essays—or worse, writes them—admissions officers are trained to spot professional essays.
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"I understand that people are desperate to get into the college of their choice," Kantrowitz said. "But if you have to fake it to get in, are you really going to be able to make it at that school?"
Kantrowitz has seen a lot when it comes to spending on college testing and applications. But at the end of the day, he said, he is skeptical about the value of the pricey outside help. Visits are useful, and standardized tests and applications are necessary. But about the bells and whistles, he said, "I don't think it's really all that necessary."