Realistically appraise your student's gifts, talents, hobbies, and appetite for work. Unless your student is 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 parent who is willing to describe a student and the family's financial situation a ballpark idea of whether the student would be eligible for any merit aid.
Inspire the student to work harder. 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 this from the University of Nevada-Reno. Students may be willing 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 SATs, for example.
Search out schools where there is a shortage of students like your child. 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 students whose grades or test scores are in the top 25 percent of the college's student body get more financial aid. Check out a school's grades and test scores on the federal government's free College Opportunities Online Locator, or you can purchase access to U.S. News's Premium Online Edition for $14.95.
Make sure the student applies to several schools, including a few low-priced public schools and a few private schools for which the student's 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 the student has a good chance. One of the most famous contests, the Coca-Cola Scholars program, for instance, gets more than 90,000 applications each year for its 250 awards. Your local high school counselor or college department head can steer you toward local or more tailored contests that will have better odds for your child.