Elite Universities and the ACT or SAT Debate

Preparing for the SAT and ACT standardized tests is one of the most crucial aspects of the college application process. Testing can help you gain admission to the top schools on your college list. But, things get a little confusing when you’re deciding between the two standardized college admissions tests—the SAT and the ACT. Students and parents both often ask, “Which standardized test should a student take? ACT or Sat: which do elite universities prefer?” 

To answer these questions, let’s look at what you should know about both tests.


Before we dive into the topic at hand, we should examine the SAT and the ACT differences.


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Chances are, you’ve heard about the SAT (or Scholastic Aptitude Test). This test was first introduced in 1926 by The College Board, a non-profit organization overseeing higher education standardization and admissions. 

The SAT takes 3 hours to complete and features 154 questions on subjects including reading, writing, and math. It has a minimum score of 590 and a maximum score of 1600. 


The ACT (or American College Test) was introduced in 1959. It was introduced as an alternative to the SAT and was aimed at students seeking admission at state schools and community colleges.

 The ACT consists of 215 English, Reading, Math, and Science questions. It takes 2 hours and 55 minutes to complete and has a minimum of 9 and a maximum score of 36.

Should You Take the SAT or the ACT?

Ultimately you want to know which test to take. There is a long-standing belief that elite colleges and universities prefer the SAT.

That’s a myth. Elite colleges and universities DO NOT prefer the SAT over the ACT. Roughly 45% choose the ACT and 55% the SAT of all university applicants. The popularity of the two is split nearly down the middle (give or take a few percentage points).

And in fact, SAT and ACT test scores are both accepted by every accredited university in the United States. Marlyn McGrath-Lewis, director of admissions at Harvard College says, Harvard University welcomes both ACT and SAT scores.  In fact, many colleges and universities have recently adopted Test-Optional policies.

So, why do students stress out over which test they should take? Why do people believe elite schools (like Harvard, Yale, Brown, UPenn, the University of Chicago, Cornell University, etc.) prefer one test? 

It stems from tradition. The SAT was the initial standardized test and was the only test accepted by universities in the past. Elite schools did not initially accept the ACT as an alternative to the SAT. Today, however, both the ACT and SAT are treated equally in the eyes of even Ivy League admissions officers. 

So, in the end, it’s up to you to determine which test to take!


When choosing which test to take, consider your strengths as a student. Both tests are weighted equally, but they are not the same. We recommend students take practice tests for both exams the summer before their junior year to see which gives them a better score. However, if you are only taking one, you should choose the test that best suits your aptitude:

  • The ACT is geared slightly towards students with solid language and writing skills—especially with the optional writing portion you can add on. 
  • The SAT is geared slightly towards students with aptitude in mathematics. 

Once you’ve decided which test to take, consider when to take it. Ideally, you would start test prep the summer between your sophomore and junior years and take your first official test in the fall of junior year.

Remember, you can take either test more than once. And you can continue to prep and take tests until the fall of senior year to determine if you can get a higher score. Work with your college counselor to determine an appropriate SAT or ACT score for your college list, your test dates, and how to submit SAT scores to colleges.

If you are taking the ACT, you are advised to take the additional writing portion, unless you struggle with writing, in which case, skip it without penalty! This may change since the SAT recently eliminated their optional writing section, and we wait to see how colleges respond to the change.

Preparing to take a standardized test of this magnitude is undoubtedly nerve-wracking. But performing well is a skill like any other: you can improve and earn results that can help guarantee you end up in the university of your dreams with practice and care!

At HelloCollege, we’re here to help you get the most out of your university preparations. For more information about college admissions, testing, and preparation, feel free to read our other blogs on the subject or reach out to learn how we can help you!

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The Hello College Team

HelloCollege CEO Andrea Emmons has spent the last 15 years guiding students and families across the country on their path to college. Andrea knows the profound impact proactive college planning has on the lives of students and is passionate about mentoring families through the process.
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About Our Founder

Kevin Krebs

Inspired by his parents, Kevin’s journey from a first-gen, diverse, low-income background to Northwestern University shaped him. After experiencing challenges, including student loan debt, he founded HelloCollege and has spent the last 25 years helping students successfully navigate college admissions.

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