Lynn O'Shaughnessy

We told her that if she decided against attending a state school in California with its cheaper cost, she was going to have to find a school that would slash its sticker price. And luckily, there are many schools that routinely do that. According to the College Board, private schools provide an average tuition discount of 33.5 percent. And in some states, such as Virginia and Ohio, the discount is hovering around 48 percent.

Strategically, students have a better chance at capturing merit money if they look for schools where they will be among the top 25 percent of incoming students in grades and SAT scores. You can find out how your child stacks up by looking at the and examining the range of SAT scores.

Being in the top tier of kids, however, won't get you any money if the school doesn't award any. So it's important to know which schools do. This will be especially important if you do not expect to receive any need-based financial aid. Some Ivy League schools and other prominent East Coast schools don't award merit money.

One way to resolve the merit aid question is to visit a school's Web site. Institutions will often post the requirements for scholarships. You can also call any school's financial aid office.

Among the schools that offered Caitlin merit awards, she boiled down her choices to two wonderful liberal arts gems in Pennsylvania - Juniata College and Dickinson College, which is nationally known for its emphasis on a global education.

My daughter, who expects to major in business and Spanish, ultimately picked Juniata, which boasts that all its graduates who apply to medical school or law school get in and almost all are admitted to their first choice.

What I also learned is that you don't have to ace your SAT or maintain a 4.0 to find generous schools. Good kids who have GPAs just over 3.0 with SAT scores that are only slightly above average can walk away with merit money. But the higher the scores and grades, the more opportunities you will encounter. We can rail against the standardized college admission tests and the focus on grade-point averages, but they matter because schools are obsessed with moving up in the rankings of U.S. News & World Report's annual college guide. And this destructive publication gives the most points to schools that require the highest grades and SAT scores.

Until schools come to their senses, parents and their kids will have to play the game, which means you will have more opportunity for merit money and financial aid - which I will talk about next week - if your kid does better on the standardized tests.

Consequently, you should urge your child to study for these darn tests. You can buy test books from Princeton Review, Kaplan, the College Board and others and some high schools may offer their students free SAT classes. An expensive option is paying $900 or $1,000 for a test prep class. Squeezing just a few more points out of your SAT, however, can free up thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars.

When I couldn't help Caitlin with her arcane SAT grammar questions, she turned to one of her best friends, who had received a perfect score of 800 on the SAT's verbal section. Thanks to Shannon's help, Caitlin squeezed an extra 20 points on her verbal SAT and ended up with an excellent score.

Frankly, the preparation for college should start long before a child's junior year. In writing about college strategies for many publications, I've had a chance to talk to some of the nation's college experts. And they are united in sharing what they believe is most critical for your child doing well on the SAT and getting into their dream schools: Get your kids to read and read and read some more.

Lynn O'Shaughnessy

Lynn O'Shaughnessy is the author of Retirement Bible.

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