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What Do Ivy League Schools Think of the ACT?

Posted by Alex Heimbach | Sep 27, 2015 7:30:00 PM

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As an ACT tutor, I often fielded questions about whether the test would be looked down by admissions officers, especially those at Ivy League schools. Because the SAT was the dominant college admissions test for so long, many students and parents worry that — at least in the Northeast — schools still prefer the older test. However, that time has definitely passed, and schools will now accept either test.

Read on for a more in-depth explanation of how Ivy League schools view the ACT and the differences in testing policies that may affect your decision between the tests.


Ivy League Schools' Official Policies on the ACT

Officially, all of the Ivy League schools accept both the ACT and SAT, as does every other school in the country.  Harvey Mudd was the last no-ACT holdout and they began accepting the test in 2007.

“Since it’s a choice you can make, it has the feeling of being a significant choice, fraught with implication, but I don’t think it does matter,” Marlyn McGrath-Lewis, director of admissions at Harvard College, told the New York Times. “Either is fine with us, and we don’t have a feeling that either favors students with any particular profile.”

According to ACT, Inc., "The ACT is accepted or preferred by more colleges and universities—including all of the Ivy League colleges—than any other entrance exam." The "preferred" comment is just marketing spin, but the basic point stands: every school in the US accepts the ACT and the SAT equally.


How the Policies Actually Work

We've established that the Ivy Leagues schools all say they view the ACT as equivalent to the SAT, but does that mean they actually do so? It's impossible to be 100% sure, but I strongly believe that the Ivy Leagues schools treat the two tests equally.

For one thing, I was unable to find any evidence that admissions officers have a preference for one test over the other. Moreover, there is no logical reason for admissions counselors to discriminate against students who take the ACT, especially since doing so is likely to cost them some exceptional students who happened not to take the SAT.

If you examine the statistics on ACT and SAT scores among admitted students, some differences in how schools treat scores from the two tests do appear, but they're mostly meaningless.

Especially among students on the low end of schools' accepted score ranges, there seems to be a slight advantage to the SAT: if you have the same percentile score on both tests (i.e. you do better than the same percent of students who took the test), your SAT score will be more likely to get you into a college than your ACT score. However, this analysis is somewhat misleading because it doesn't take into account the fact that many students who don't plan on going to college take the ACT as part of statewide assessments, increasing the number of low-scoring students and slightly skewing the percentiles.

Looking at the data for Ivy League schools, you'll also see that more admitted students submit SAT scores than ACT scores. For example, at Cornell, 79.7% of the class of 2018 submitted SAT scores and only 41% submitted ACT scores. Even though it may seem like evidence of bias, this difference is easily explained by regional preference:  50% of the class  hailed from the Northeast, where the SAT is much more common than the ACT.


Yale University (in the winter, obviously)


Ultimately, there's no compelling evidence that any schools, including members of the Ivy League, judge the ACT more harshly than the SAT. As such, you should ignore this perceived bias when deciding between the two tests. 

Instead, focus on determining which test is best for you. Since most students score similarly on the two tests, it's usually just a question of which test you feel more comfortable with.  Alternatively, you may want to take both the ACT and the SAT.

There are also two differences in testing policies that may affect your decision, so let's go over those next!


Superscoring and Subject Tests

Though colleges accept the ACT and the SAT equally, schools have slight differences in what supplementary tests they require and how they calculate your final score depending on which test you took.


SAT Subject Tests

For some schools, if you submit ACT scores, you don’t have to submit SAT Subject Tests

However, for many students, SAT Subject Tests offer the opportunity to exhibit deep knowledge of a topic. Especially for the extremely competitive Ivy Leagues schools, these tests can be a valuable part of an application.



"Superscoring," the process by which your highest component scores among multiple test dates are combined to create a new composite, is a common practice for SAT scores. But, generally speaking, admission committees don't superscore the ACT. (This rule holds among all schools, not only the Ivy League ones.) 

Schools will still look at your highest ACT scores, and some consider individual section scores, but few will combine ACT section scores from multiple dates into a superscored composite.

Though this policy may seem like a huge disadvantage to the ACT, it doesn't actually make that much of a difference. 


Policy by School

This table breaks down each of the Ivy League schools' policies on both the SAT Subject Tests and superscoring.

The second column indicates whether the school accepts the ACT in lieu of Subject Tests. The third column explains the school's superscoring policy: it doesn't superscore at all, it superscores the SAT but only looks at the highest composite ACT score, or it superscores the SAT and looks at the highest ACT section scores. (None of the Ivy League schools truly superscore the ACT.)


Waives SAT Subject Tests?

Superscoring Policy



Superscores SAT, considers highest component ACT scores



Superscores SAT but not ACT



Doesn’t superscore



Superscores SAT but not ACT



Doesn’t superscore



Superscores SAT, considers highest component ACT scores



Superscores SAT but not ACT



Superscores SAT, considers highest component ACT scores

* Columbia doesn't request SAT Subject Tests. Princeton, UPenn and Yale recommend but do not require them.


What You Need to Know About the Ivy League and the ACT

No matter what you may have heard, Ivy League schools have no preference between the ACT and SAT. You can submit scores from either test or both of them without worrying that your application will be dinged.

Ultimately, choosing between the SAT and the ACT comes down to personal preference. There will occasionally be a large difference between how a student scores on the SAT and the ACT (a difference of more than 100 points once the ACT is converted to its SAT equivalent), but most students score similarly on both tests. Nonetheless, the styles of the two tests are different enough that you may find the ACT easier than the SAT or vice versa  perhaps you struggle with the ACT's less generous time limits or find the SAT's evidence questions confusing. 


What's Next

Planning on applying to Ivy League schools? Get a handle on what kind of SAT score you really need and check out this in depth guide to how to get into the Ivy League, from a Harvard grad.

Trying to decide which test to take? Read our complete guide to learn about the differences between the ACT and SAT.


Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

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Alex Heimbach
About the Author

Alex is an experienced tutor and writer. Over the past five years, she has worked with almost a hundred students and written about pop culture for a wide range of publications. She graduated with honors from University of Chicago, receiving a BA in English and Anthropology, and then went on to earn an MA at NYU in Cultural Reporting and Criticism. In high school, she was a National Merit Scholar, took 12 AP tests and scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and ACT.

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