Admissions Office

Test Scores Optional

Why Union lets students choose

Posted by Matt Malatesta


Three little letters. So much stress for your college-bound students. (And don’t forget the equally anxiety-producing ACT.)

Frankly, that doesn’t have to be the case anymore. Union – like a growing number of colleges and universities around the country – is test score optional, meaning we allow all applicants to choose whether to submit or withhold their standardized test scores.

According to recent U.S. News and World Report statistics, selective liberal arts colleges around the country are increasingly embracing this model, which we adopted in 2007. Of the top 50 liberal arts colleges, 34 percent don’t require SAT or ACT scores.

Obviously, we’re proud to be on this list, which you and your students can learn more about at (Here, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing offers a searchable database of schools that don’t require test scores and explores why colleges go “test optional.”)

I admit I can see both sides of the test score argument. But at Union, we think requiring them creates more harm than good.

First, let me say that between 71 and 76 percent of our applicants in the past four years still voluntarily chose to provide SAT or ACT scores. When applicants do include them, we assess them as just one piece of the puzzle, a glimpse into a student’s skills. When applicants don’t include them, obviously all of the other pieces – transcript, interview and essay – gain importance.

At Union, we look specifically at the rigor of students’ classes and their performance, class standing and overall environment. We value Interviews, activities, recommendations, essays and all other aspects of a student’s application.

We believe standardized test scores are just too problematic to require or rely upon. They simply are not the best indicator of a student’s college performance.

A Union student recently completed her senior thesis on student admissions; her research found that students who submitted test scores with their applications performed no better at Union than students who did not, when controlling for high school GPA and/or rank. Her findings correlate with national studies.

We also know standardized tests like the SAT and ACT are culturally biased and favor students from higher-income families. Students from wealthier families can receive more private test prep and have the advantage of being able to take the tests multiple times. Sometimes highly competitive students find themselves chasing a kind of “Holy Grail” test score, paying to take tests five or six times.

Of course, students from wealthier families also benefit from other advantages: better-resourced schools, more highly educated parents and more tutoring and support.

That said, I’m aware of the downside of not requiring test scores. They can be useful in assessing students from both high-performing schools and low. At the high end, you may have a pool of students who all have strong transcripts and excellent grades. High test scores could set a student apart. For students from low-performing schools, test scores can demonstrate skill and ability against a standardized measuring stick. That can be important when college admissions officials question a school’s rigor or grades.

As a counselor, when advising students whether to include or exclude test scores in their applications, the question is: will the test scores help the student put his or her best foot forward? If so, great.

Ultimately, we in admissions want all students to have the opportunity to show themselves in the best light. That’s why we encourage personal interviews, which many schools don’t offer. We want to evaluate students holistically. We’re not just looking for kids who can test well on any given Saturday. We want students with passionate academic interests, who will contribute fully to our tight-knit community.

Increasing our school’s diversity is a priority for us, as it is for many colleges. We’re proud that in the past four years – comparing two sets of distinct four year cohorts – we’ve increased our domestic multicultural diversity by 4 percentage points and our international student body by 2 percentage points. We’re looking all over the world for the best students. And we think allowing students to choose whether to submit or withhold standardized test scores helps us attract more diverse applicants.

There’s also a stereotype that only students with bad test scores withhold them. Not true. Some students disagree with standardized tests and purposefully apply to schools that don’t require testing. Some students withhold scores from all the schools they apply to through the Common Application because they know their scores are a plus at some schools and a drawback at others (depending on a school’s average SAT or ACT scores for incoming first-years).

So… to submit or not to submit? We think that’s a question for the individual student. It’s something you, as a counselor, can help them work through.