Do Colleges Prefer ACT or SAT? Which is More Popular?

If you’re hoping to apply to college, you may be trying to decide which standardized test to take: the ACT vs. SAT. Each test has its own pros and cons, and some students perform better on one over the other. But which test is taken more popular, and do colleges prefer the ACT or SAT?

Student's coffee and laptop on a table at a campus coffee shop.

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How popular is the ACT vs. the SAT?

Nationally, the SAT and ACT have been about equally popular for several years. Since the SAT older, people considered it the tried-and-true standard. But in 2012, the ACT was actually taken by a few thousand more students than the SAT (1,666,017 vs 1,664,479)—and its edge has continued to grow.

It also depends on your location.

Interestingly, where you live in the US determines which test you’re statistically more likely to take based on the state preference. The ACT is much more popular in the Midwest compared to the SAT. This isn’t surprising. Many states in that region require each student to take the ACT as part of statewide assessments. This could change, though, as some states switch from mandatory ACT testing to SAT testing.

On the other hand, on the East and West coasts, the SAT still dominates as the test of choice. However, the ACT has gained a footing in those areas as well!

Do colleges prefer the ACT or the SAT?

Short answer: there’s no preference.

A common myth is that elite colleges prefer the SAT over the ACT. In reality, all colleges and universities which require standardized testing accept BOTH the ACT and SAT. And college admissions counselors have openly stated they do not prefer one test over the other.

It is also sometimes argued that, while colleges don’t admit to preferring the SAT, the fact that many more students accepted to competitive colleges submit the SAT than ACT seems to indicate there is a bias.

The bias comes down to location.

However, this bias also seems to be related to the region in which a college is located. For instance, according to College Navigator, 83 percent of students admitted to Harvard submitted SAT scores, while 35 percent submitted ACT scores. Similarly, 86 percent of Stanford admits submitted SAT scores and 39 percent ACT.

On the other hand, of the students admitted to the University of Chicago, 66 percent submitted SAT scores and 53 percent ACT scores. Northwestern University found very similar numbers from their accepted students.

Since students are likely to attend colleges within 170 miles of their homes, it makes sense that students admitted to a certain college would have been more likely to take the test popular in the region of their college.

Final considerations

The popularity of either test, nationally or in your region, shouldn’t be the determining factor when you choose which to take. Additionally, colleges don’t have a preference for one test over the other. To decide, first consider what is available to you. Will you have to take the SAT or the ACT for state testing purposes? Even if you will, you may choose to take the other test in addition to the one that’s required.

Also, consider what sorts of study resources are available to you. If you’ll be studying for one of the tests as part of your curriculum, you may be better prepared for one over the other.

Perhaps most importantly, take a practice ACT and SAT and see which one you prefer. Both the ACT and SAT offer a unique testing style, and many students find that they prefer one over the other. Again, most of the bias surrounding which test to take comes from the students taking it and their location. Figure out which exam suits you, rather than worrying about whether colleges prefer one standardized test over the other.


6 thoughts on “Do Colleges Prefer ACT or SAT? Which is More Popular?”

  1. Adwitiya S.J. says:

    I am an aspirant outside of USA …namely India …which exam should I chose…ACT or SAT?

    1. Allison Wignall says:

      Hello, Adwitiya! Which test you should take really depends on what kind of student you are. Colleges don’t prefer one over the other, so you should select the test that works best for you. We talked about this differences between the test in this post: Should I Take the ACT or the SAT? Hope this helps! Good luck!

    2. Lohit G says:

      Take Both. If you have to choose one, I should suggest ACT for engineering majors and the SAT for others. But I’m just a 15 year old in one of America’s many high school.

    3. DocBeasley says:

      Either – take both and see which one is better for you.

    4. It really shouldn’t matter that much, but I’d recommend SAT

  2. Helen says:

    Should you send both ACT and SAT scores to colleges if you got 36 and 1590 respectively or just the ACT score will do?

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