Niki Mendrinos' high school guidance counselor told her she'd never get into the college of her choice, Pace University in New York.
The reason? Her SAT scores weren't high enough.
Mendrinos, a solid student and cheerleader who participated in theater and served as student government president, wasn't discouraged. She got into Pace, and every semester she'd write to that counselor with an update on her progress — when she made the dean's list, when she became senior class president, when she was selected as commencement speaker.
What's more, while working on her doctoral research at Temple University, she looked at how accurately SAT scores predict a student's college success — and found that they didn't. Her research showed that freshmen with lower scores but a solid high school record outperformed freshmen overall, she said.
With Mendrinos' research in hand, Temple continued to study the issue and in 2014 scrapped the requirement that students submit SAT and ACT scores. Now, Mendrinos is leading admissions at Rosemont College, a small, Catholic liberal arts school on the Main Line, which has announced that it will take the same step beginning next year.
And the two area colleges are part of a virtual explosion in schools making the test optional over the last five years, said Bob Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing.
"What I'm hoping for is that the students … understand that we understand that they are more than just a test score," Mendrinos said. "We really value a more personalized approach."
Since the first college made the test optional in 1969, the movement has grown steadily, and since 2013, 130 more schools removed the requirement that students submit SAT or ACT scores, bringing the total to more than 1,000, Schaeffer said.
In the region, many other schools — including Bryn Mawr, Cabrini, Dickinson, Eastern, Franklin and Marshall, Gettysburg, Immaculata, La Salle, Muhlenberg, St. Joseph's, Rowan, Susquehanna, Ursinus, and the University of Delaware — already have gone that route to varying levels. Some require students to have a minimum high school GPA to avoid submitting test scores; others require scores for certain academic programs or ask students to submit an essay.
Driving the growth, Schaeffer said, is the satisfaction of schools that have made the change and intense competition among colleges vying for more applicants. Colleges, he said, also have sought to attract more applicants from lower-income families who may be the first in their families to go to college. Critics for years have said the SAT is a better measure of family affluence than of college readiness.
This year, the University of Chicago, which admits less than 10 percent of applicants. became the first top-10 research university to go make the test optional. Meanwhile, faculty leaders at the University of California, one of the nation's largest systems, announced last month they would launch a study on whether SATs and ACTs accurately predict college success.
To be sure, the SAT — and the dread for some that comes with taking the test — remains a key requirement for many of the nation's most competitive schools, a uniform measure that helps schools distinguish the best applicants rather than relying on GPAs that can vary by high school.
And even at schools that have made the test optional, many students still submit scores.
At Masterman, a top Philadelphia magnet school, students said they wished that more schools would make the test optional.
"I don't think the SAT measures intelligence at all," said senior Maria Bellacosa, 17. "And I think it can be very detrimental to a student's mental health."
Senior Cameron Scott, 17, said students should have the option. He wants to submit his SATs — a 1470 out of 1600 on reading and math — rather than write an essay.
"But not all students are test takers," he said. "I know there are many smart people whose SAT scores don't exactly reflect their possible contributions to the school."
Still, some students questioned whether not submitting scores would hurt them, especially at a school such as the University of Chicago.
"I feel like it's still kind of new," said senior Ida Ghohestani, 17.
Bellacosa isn't sure she will send her scores to the University of Chicago. She will send them to Temple, noting that they are higher than Temple's average.
At Temple, 18 percent of current freshmen were admitted without submitting test scores and instead were evaluated on their high school academic record, extracurricular activities, and essays and other measures, said Shawn L. Abbott, Temple's admissions vice provost.
At Rosemont, which accepts applications year round, 22 percent of students who applied since the school announced the change last month have not submitted scores, Mendrinos said.
Rosemont said students could forgo submitting scores if they have a high school GPA of 3.0 or higher and agree to an interview.
"We think we can analyze and get to know students better than a test does," said Rosemont president Sharon L. Hirsh.
Rosemont, Hirsh said, made the decision after several national reports showed non-submitters performed as well or slightly better in college than those who submitted scores.
It's also a move to stay competitive. Rosemont saw a drop in freshmen this year, which Hirsh said was a result of increasing admission standards to improve retention at the school. Overall undergraduate enrollment is 452, down from 502.
For Mendrinos, Rosemont's move represents a way to reach students who might not have thought they could apply.
She never let her standardized test scores stop her, even when she was nearly kept out of Temple's doctoral program.
Richard M. Englert, now president of Temple and provost at the time, made the decision to let her in, she said.
"His response was: 'Absolutely. I had Niki in my classes. I know what she's capable of,'" she recalled. "It's not all about the test score."