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What Do Ivy League Schools Think of the ACT?

Posted by Alex Heimbach | Mar 15, 2018 7:30:00 PM

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As an ACT tutor, I often fielded questions about whether the test would be looked down on 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 SAT over the ACT. However, that time has definitely passed, and schools will now accept either test equally.

Read on for a more in-depth explanation of how Ivy League schools view the ACT today, and learn the differences in testing policies that might affect your decision to take the ACT or SAT.

 

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 US. Harvey Mudd was the last no-ACT holdout, but it 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 test is the nation’s most popular college entrance exam accepted and valued by all universities and colleges in the United States." The "most popular" comment is just marketing spin, but the basic point stands: every school in the US accepts the ACT and SAT equally.

 

How These ACT Policies Actually Work

As you now know, the Ivy League schools claim to view the ACT as equivalent to the SAT, but does that mean they actually do? It's impossible to be 100% sure, but I strongly believe the Ivy League schools treat the two tests equally.

For one, 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.

It's been said that there is a slight SAT advantage for students scoring on the low end of schools' accepted score ranges. So if you have the same percentile score on both tests (i.e., you do better than the same percentage of students who took the test), your SAT score will be more likely to get you into a college than your ACT score will be.

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 applicants submit SAT scores than they do ACT scores. However, this trend seems to be evening out. For example, when it comes to Cornell's class of 2018, 79.7% submitted SAT scores while only 41.4% submitted ACT scores. Yet for the class of 2021, 63.7% submitted SAT scores and 55.9% submitted ACT scores.

As you can see, even with these slight changes in percentages, the SAT is still a little more popular than the ACT is among Ivy League applicants. Although this might seem like evidence of bias, this difference is easily explained by regional preference: more than 50% of both the 2018 and 2021 Cornell classes 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 they do the SAT. As such, you should ignore this perceived bias when deciding between the two tests. 

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

Next up, let's go over the two differences in testing policies that might affect your decision of which test to take!

 

Schools' Testing Policies: Superscoring and SAT Subject Tests

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

 

SAT Subject Tests

Rarely, at some schools, if you submit ACT with Writing scores, you don’t have to submit SAT Subject Test scores.

However, since many top-ranked schools no longer require SAT Subject Test scores, this policy has begun to disappear. At present, no Ivy League schools have this policy in place. That said, Duke is one selective school that does allow applicants to submit an ACT with Writing score in lieu of SAT + two SAT Subject Test scores.

For many students, SAT Subject Tests offer the opportunity to exhibit deep knowledge of a topic. Especially for the extremely competitive Ivy League schools, these tests can be a valuable part of your application (assuming you do well on them).

 

Superscoring

Superscoring—the process by which your highest component scores among multiple test dates are combined to create a new composite score—is a common practice for SAT scores.

Generally speaking, though, admission committees don't superscore the ACT. (This rule holds among all schools and not just the Ivy League ones.) While schools will still look at your highest ACT scores and some will consider individual section scores, few will combine ACT section scores from multiple test dates into a single superscored composite.

Though this policy might 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 the Ivy League schools' policies on SAT Subject Tests and superscoring.

The second column indicates how many SAT Subject Tests the school requires/recommends. The third column explains the school's superscoring policy, which can be one of three options:

  • Doesn't superscore at all
  • Superscores the SAT but only looks at your highest composite ACT score
  • Superscores the SAT and looks at your highest ACT section scores

Note that even schools that claim to superscore the ACT usually look at your highest ACT section scores without actually combining them to create a composite superscore (as they do with the SAT).

School

# of SAT Subject Tests Recommended/Required

Superscoring Policy

Brown

2 recommended

Superscores SAT; considers highest ACT section scores but does not calculate superscore

Columbia

None

Superscores SAT and ACT

Cornell

Varies by program (usually 0 or 2 required)

Superscores SAT but not ACT

Dartmouth

2 recommended

Superscores SAT; considers highest component ACT score

Harvard

2 recommended

Superscores SAT; considers highest component ACT score

Princeton

2 recommended

Superscores SAT; considers highest component ACT score

UPenn

2 recommended

Superscores SAT and ACT

Yale

Recommended (no # specified)

Superscores SAT; considers highest component ACT score

 

 

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

No matter what you might've heard, Ivy League schools have no preference between the ACT and SAT. You can submit scores from either test or from 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). Most students, however, 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 maybe you think the SAT's evidence questions are particularly 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, written by a real Harvard grad!

Trying to decide whether to take the SAT or ACT? Read our guide to learn the 11 key differences between the two tests to help you decide which is better suited to your strengths.

 

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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