Some people really prefer mechanical pencils to regular pencils. If you are one of those people, you may wonder if you can use a mechanical pencil on the SAT or the ACT.
The short answer is no, but the long answer is a much more convoluted “Maybe, but I don’t recommend it.” Read on for a breakdown of the official policies for each exam, why this rule exists, the actual reality of mechanical pencils on the exam, my recommendation, and some other important administrative regulations to remember for test day.
The Official Rules: Don't Use a Mechanical Pencil
The SAT and the ACT are different tests administered by different companies, so I’ll go over their regulations separately, even though they both disallow mechanical pencils in their official rules.
Mechanical Pencils on the SAT
I actually had a hard time hunting up the official SAT rules on mechanical pencils. Their official list of items to bring includes No. 2 pencils, but their official list of items to not bring does not include mechanical pencils.
Only on the actual test instructions does it say that “A No. 2 pencil is required for the test. Do not bring a mechanical pencil or a pen.”
Mechanical Pencils on the ACT
On the ACT’s list of general test tips, they state that you cannot use a mechanical pencil or ink pen because your answer document will not be scored correctly. This justification may or may not be true, but either way, mechanical pencils aren’t allowed.
He's crying because his beloved mechanical pencils are forbidden.
Why Does This Rule Exist?
Why can’t you use your trusty mechanical pencil on your standardized college entrance exam? I’ll go over several theories and my take on them.
Theory #1: The Scantron Machine Can’t Score Your Sheet
The most popular theory—one that the ACT in particular claims is true—is that scantron machines can’t “read” your sheet if you fill in your bubbles with a mechanical pencil. Is this true? Maybe, but probably not.
Here’s the deal: older scantron machines worked by blasting your paper with light and could only “read” the answer if the light was completely blocked from coming through the paper. Pencil graphite—specifically in weight #2—was great for blocking the light. Lighter weights of graphite and black pen ink didn’t block enough light to be read, and darker graphite smeared really easily, leading to “false positives.” So, you had to use a #2 pencil. (You can read more about how old scantron machines worked if you’re a big nerd like me.)
The first SAT was administered in 1926, and the first ACT in 1959. The first scantron-type machines were used to score tests in the 1930s. So for a lot of SAT and ACT history, the older machines couldn’t read anything other than the marks made by a #2 pencil, and mechanical pencils weren’t yet very common in school settings. During that time, it made much more sense to require regular #2 pencils and disallow mechanical ones.
However, new scantron machines are much more sophisticated and can generally pick out the darkest mark in a row no matter how it’s made—just so long as the mark isn’t in the same color ink that the sheet was printed in. It’s probably safe to assume that major testing companies like the College Board (they do the SAT) and ACT, Inc. use modern scantron machines that can pick out the darkest mark on the sheet regardless of what writing utensil you used.
But even if they don’t use modern scantron machines, you should actually still be able to use a mechanical pencil and have it be read by the machine correctly, just so long as you use the correct lead weight. The pencil lead weight that corresponds to #2 pencil lead is “HB.” With the same type of lead, it’s deeply unlikely any scantron machine in use today, no matter how outdated, would have trouble reading your markings. (You can read more about lead grades and mechanical pencils here if you are interested.)
I personally think that it is downright misleading for the ACT to claim that scantron machines might not be able to read your paper correctly if you use a mechanical pencil.
However, the fact is that enormous bureaucratic organizations like the ACT and the College Board generally take a long time to change rules and regulations—if they change them at all. And neither organization necessarily stands to gain a whole lot from the change in this case: whether or not a student can use a mechanical pencil is unlikely to make or break their testing decision (if they even have a choice on whether to take the test or not). So since there’s no pressing reason to reevaluate this rule, it stays.
Change: someone else will do it.
Theory #2: Mechanical Pencils Rip Your Paper
A popular theory floating around online—especially on message boards and forums—is that mechanical pencils aren’t allowed because they rip the flimsy test booklet paper too easily.
What’s my take? I guess it’s possible that mechanical pencils would rip the test booklets a little more easily than regular pencils, although it seems like a super-sharpened pencil would be just as likely to do damage there. A mechanical pencil’s paper-ripping capabilities would also depend a lot on the width of your lead, which is variable. I doubt that testing organizations would disallow mechanical pencils solely for this; it’s not like mechanical pencils are generally ruthless paper-destroying machines. So I don’t think this is a big factor in the decision to bar mechanical pencils.
Theory #3: Mechanical Pencils Help You Cheat
There are many stories and urban legends that suggest mechanical pencils are not allowed because they could be used as cheating devices.
One such tale is that a student put a tiny camera inside his mechanical pencil and used it to take pictures of the test. Another cheating theory is that students could roll up ripped-out pieces of test booklet sheets and fit them in the empty barrel of a mechanical pencil. That seems like a lot of effort to smuggle maybe two or three questions out of the testing facility, and the kind of thing that even the most blase proctor would notice.
Similarly, some people claim that the pencils aren’t allowed because people would smuggle in formula sheets and notes rolled up in the pencil. This plan, of course, relies on you having a proctor who pays very little attention to what is going on in the room.
Do I think any of these scenarios individually are particularly likely? No. Do I think it’s possible that major testing organizations are worried enough about cheating to disallow mechanical pencils for this reason? Yes, I do. The College Board and the ACT have a vested interest in people believing that the test is secure and so they take steps to secure it (whether those steps are adequate or effective is a question for another day). The very fact that people feel disallowing mechanical pencils may prevent cheating is a good reason to disallow them. This sounds circular, but for a major testing organization, appearances and impressions are important.
So Why Does This Rule Exist?
As alluded to above, I think there are two main reasons this rule exists. First, it’s a holdover from a time when scantrons were much more primitive and mechanical pencils much less common in schools. Second, it gives the appearance of a more secure test, which is good for the testing companies.
We’ve now established that using a mechanical pencil probably won’t cause a problem with your score, but the fact is that they are still forbidden by the official rules for both tests. Where does this leave us?
We're in a pencil pickle!
The Truth: Using a Mechanical Pencil Might Be Fine
As I’ve explained, your mechanical pencil probably won’t cause scoring difficulties for you on the SAT or the ACT. One of our experts here at Prepscholar did in fact use a mechanical pencil for her SAT (the multiple choice and essay sections) and she reported that nothing happened. No scoring difficulties, no delays—no one even noticed. So it can definitely be fine.
However, whether or not you are able to actually use a mechanical pencil on test day depends a lot on your exam proctor. If they a) notice and b) care, they will make you put away that mechanical pencil, or confiscate it for the testing period. In that case, you’d better hope you have another (regular) pencil. So what should you do?
My Recommendation: Bring Regular Pencils
Personally, my recommendation is that you take your standardized tests with regular #2 pencils, for the following three reasons.
#1: Exam Proctors
Following the rules to a T by using the approved #2 pencils will keep you from tussling with a proctor. It’s not worth potentially getting in a stressful power struggle before (or during!) your exam over your writing utensils.
#2: Regular Pencils Are Better for Filling in Bubbles
It’s actually easier and faster to fill in bubbles with a regular pencil. As the tip gets duller, you can cover more circle area per pencil stroke. A mechanical pencil takes much longer to fill in each bubble as it remains perpetually sharp. If you’re worried about not having a sharp enough pencil for parts of the exam where you need one, just bring lots of extra pencils. I think I had something like five or six when I took the exam and that was plenty for me, but if you want to bring fifteen pre-sharpened Ticonderogas, go ahead.
#3: Less Mechanical Failure
No mechanical pencils means no lead breakage or pencil failure! Mechanical pencils have their advantages and uses, but they are more likely to have a mechanical error or repeated broken lead issues than a regular pencil. You also will have to painstakingly refill your lead if you run out, which wastes time. By using plain old wooden pencils, you’re limiting the chances you’ll have a stressful technical malfunction during the exam.
Also, regular pencils are better for drawing masterpieces in your test booklet.
With all this said, if you feel strongly that you will be more comfortable with a mechanical pencil, by all means, bring one to the testing center and use it if no one stops you. But if you do this, be sure to bring regular pencils too, and be prepared to use them in case a proctor takes away your trust mechanical sidekick or your mechanical pencil breaks.
Other Important Things to Remember for Test Day
First, be sure to bring your test ticket/reservation sheet and an acceptable photo ID to the testing center! You don’t want to get turned away because they can’t verify your identity.
Second, regular #2 pencils are the only writing utensils allowed. You already know to leave your mechanical pencil at home, but no pens or markers or colored pencils allowed, either.
Third, you are allowed to bring a watch, and I highly recommend doing so to help you keep track of your time/pace.
Finally, no reading material or personal devices are allowed in the testing room, so if you finish early you’ll need to sit tight.
Mechanical pencils are officially not allowed on the SAT or the ACT. The ACT claims that this is because your test won’t be scored properly if you use a mechanical pencil. I don’t think this is true, but it’s going to be better for you if you follow the rules on test day. The moment you are taking your SAT or ACT is probably not the time to rage against the machine and stick it to the man and his bureaucratic rules.
However, if your mechanical pencil is very important to you, go ahead and bring it—just so long as you have normal pencils as backup and you are mentally prepared to use them.
Wondering what to do the night before you take the SAT? Let us advise.
Taking the ACT? Be sure to bring these things to the testing center.
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Ellen has extensive education mentorship experience and is deeply committed to helping students succeed in all areas of life. She received a BA from Harvard in Folklore and Mythology and is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University.