Realistically appraise your gifts, talents, hobbies, and appetite for work. Unless you are in the top 1 or 2 percent of athletes, for example, the odds of getting an athletic scholarship are very low. Good grades, good test scores, or leadership of a community service project, however, are much more likely to attract the favor of scholarship-granting organizations.
Many colleges' admissions and financial aid offices will be happy to give a student the ballpark idea of whether you will be eligible for any merit aid.
Many colleges publicly state how much aid they'll give students for higher grades and test scores. Examples of these charts include this from Howard University and the University of NevadaReno (.pdf). Students may be energized to study harder and retake the SATs if they see they can get a full-tuition scholarship to Howard by raising their GPA to 3.0 and scoring at least 1170 on the math and verbal SATs, for example.
Search out schools where there is a shortage of students like you. Some schools are hungry for boys. Many technically oriented schools are using financial aid to attract girls. Urban schools like to mix in a few rural students. Rural schools like to spice up their student body with urban kids. Counselors say those whose grades or test scores are in the top 25 percent of the school's student body get more financial aid. You can check out schools' grades and test scores numbers free on the federal government's College Navigator, or you can purchase U.S. News's Premium Online Edition for $14.95.
Apply to lots of schools. Include in your application mix a few low-priced public schools and a few private schools for which your scores and grades are in the top 25 percent. Research shows students who have more options get more aid.
Focus on the private scholarships for which you have a good chance. Some of the most famous contests attract huge numbers of applicants. The Coca-Cola Scholars program, for instance, gets more than 90,000 applications each year for its 250 awards. Your high school counselor or college department head can steer you toward local or more tailored contests that will have better odds.