01/22/2014 05:39 pm ET | Updated Mar 24, 2014

What the First Round of College Admissions Decisions Told Us

High school seniors are finally turning their attention back to learning, after a winter of discontent in the world of college admissions that would have made Richard III stand up straight and take notice. Between online application miscues and record applicants at many colleges, it's understandable if high school juniors look wonder if perhaps admission by lottery number would be less stressful.

As the Class of 2015 begins to build their senior schedules, it's time to offer some reminders and some reassurance about the college selection process at many (not all) schools, for many (not all) students.

Test Scores Matter Colleges have come a long way to wean themselves from overreliance on test scores. Careful reflection has shown some colleges that test scores are a huge predictor of student success, but many more colleges are finding less value in test scores, especially with so many students studying for the test in ways that don't reflect a genuine understanding of the knowledge underlying the questions.

With all of that said, colleges that use test scores as part of the admissions process (and many don't) are sending a clear message this year; test scores aren't the only thing, but they are a big thing. Record numbers of applicants submitting early applications give colleges plenty of opportunities to admit a class of student with a wide array of interests and talents, but the results of the early admissions season suggest admission will be harder if test taking isn't one of those skills. Counselors (including me) have often said there's little difference in a point or two on the ACT or 20 or 30 points on the SAT. If the next group of college decisions in April mirror what December brought us, I don't know that I can say that for most selective schools anymore.

Test Scores Don't Matter At the same time, this round of admissions also reminded us that test scores alone aren't going to be enough for admission. High test scores may yield merit scholarships once a student is admitted, but getting the "Yes!" is going to take more than numbers. Highly selective schools have regularly said they turn down students with perfect test scores whose essays are bland and whose activities are empty. This last round of admissions suggests that same standard is now being used at many schools where high test scores alone made admission a sure thing.

What Now? Juniors looking for some kind of clear path would do well to follow much of the long-standing advice counselors have always offered:

• At the beginning of senior year, you should have a list of 6-8 colleges you're interested in.
• Three of them should be schools where your GPA and test scores are at or above the college's average. These should be colleges you would like to go to.
• Two should be close to home, in case you need to be close to home after high school
• Two should, if possible, require little financial assistance.
• Follow your passions in innovative ways in and out of your classes
• If your dream or reach schools have an average test score higher than your test score, take the test again.
• Remember that, in most cases, a student will not get a higher test score after taking it twice, unless the student devotes significant time and energy to test preparation -- and even then, the result may not change greatly.

It's always good to dream, but as the saying goes, the wise dreamer has one foot on the clouds, and one foot on the ground -- and for some, enough Number Two pencils for another shot at the SAT or ACT.