Merit aid is by far the most desirable form of student aid: it typically comes in large amounts and in the form of grants and scholarships. But figuring out in advance how much aid you’re likely to get can be difficult if not downright impossible. So how you do, as a parent, help your student find a good merit aid package before they get their heart set on a college? Unfortunately merit aid is like many things in life: there aren’t a lot of guarantees. And the range of information available about scholarships is about as diverse as the schools offering scholarships. Some schools offer merit aid based simply on grades and test scores, and if you hit the marks, you get the scholarship. Others are more vague, listing merely that the student must have an outstanding academic record or a specific interest. Lewis & Clark’s scholarship info page shows the gamut: there are scholarships for “students who have demonstrated outstanding academics combined with exemplary leadership and/or service in their school or community” (amounts vary and renewal depends on staying awesome); others for “students of exceptional academic achievement and distinctive personal accomplishment” and still others for “students who have been selected as National Merit Scholars and who have designated Lewis & Clark as their first choice college with the National Merit Scholarship Corporation.”

By contrast, Ohio Wesleyan’s scholarship page lays out a matrix of GPAs and test scores and gives students “the highest monetary-valued scholarship for which they are eligible to receive (sic).”

In addition, many schools have detailed Net Price Calculators that ask nonfinancial questions and will forecast merit aid in addition to need-based aid.

The net: It’s hard to accurately forecast your merit aid package. Some schools will tell you exactly what you’ll get but most will only tell you what you’re eligible for. Your best bet is to be honest with your student about what you can pay and what they can reasonably borrow, and make sure they apply to several schools where they’re likely to get good merit aid packages. How do you find those? Look at their statistics on College Navigator or the College Board’s website and see where your student fits, academically. If she’s in the top quartile, chances are the school will make a strong offer to bring her there.