Pen Or Pencil On Sat Essay

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, butfor 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’sa 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.

 

Key Takeaways

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.

 

What's Next?

Check out some other SAT rules and ACT rules that you need to know.

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.

 

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:

 

To get a great ACT score you need to learn the exam format, practice effective strategies, and master the pacing for each individual test.

However, even if you do lots of solid ACT preparation, it’s still possible to get a bad ACT score on ACT test day if you do any of the following.

Don’t let any of these top ten foolish mistakes ruin your ACT test prep!
 

1. Move too slowly through the first 1/3 of a section.

Make sure you bring a watch, and always be aware of how much time you have left for any given ACT test. Don’t rush through the exam, but don’t allow yourself to be surprised when time is called, either. Free ACT practice questions are available at the ACT student website. Use them to practice pacing, especially on the ACT Reading Test, where timing is critical!
 

2. Bubble your answers incorrectly.

The monitor will go through the instructions for bubbling in the ACT answer grid carefully before the official test begins. Make sure to listen and ask any questions. Bubble in your choices fully and darkly, so that there is never any confusion as to which choice is intended. If you need to erase and change an ACT answer, always erase neatly and as completely as possible. Remember, you’re only allowed to use No. 2 pencils on the ACT exam. Be sure to bring extras, with good erasers!
 

3. Be late coming back from the breaks.

The ACT test maintains a tight schedule, with allotted breaks. The monitor will not wait for you if you are late. If you go to the bathroom, make sure to return quickly. Don’t use your cell phone during the break (or even take it out of your backpack), and don’t wander away from the ACT test center. If you are late, the time will come out of your allotted time for the next ACT section.
 

4. Use a pen on the answer grid.

Pencil must be used for all sections of the official ACT. The scantron will not be able to read your answers if you bubble them in pen. Always use No. 2 pencils when you study so you get in the habit of writing in pencil. Mechanical pencils aren’t allowed, even with No. 2 lead, so don’t bother bringing any to the test.
 

5. Choose not to write the essay.

The essay is optional on the ACT, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take it! A good ACT Writing score is a great way to augment your college application. You will need to practice writing at least 3-4 essays to work on your template and feel confident with the 30-minute time limit. Get friends, family, and teachers to read your essays and give you feedback. A little more focus on the ACT essay can take a bad ACT Writing score and turn it into a good one!
 

6. Copy off your neighbor.

We’ve all heard the phrase, “cheaters never prosper,” and it’s true! College admissions are looking for candidates with the best ACT scores, of course, but also students with character and integrity. Preparing for tests like the ACT helps to build the skills you’ll need for college requirements. By failing to prepare, you are leaving your future uncertain, and there is no guarantee that on test day the person you are cheating off knows the correct answers. The best schools regularly accept students who have slightly lower standardized test scores, but who are exceptional in other ways. Don’t let ACT test pressure convince you that cheating is a good idea!
 

7. Leave lots of questions blank.

Unlike the SAT, there is no wrong answer penalty on the ACT. That means you should make sure to guess on every single ACT test question!
 

8. Try to cram the night before.

The ACT is not a test you can successfully cram for. Taking the test exhausted is a surefire way to wind up with bad ACT scores. Make sure you are sleeping regularly at least six hours a night in the weeks leading up to ACT test day; create an ACT test prep schedule and stick to it. Cramming never works, so don’t try it with college applications either!
 

9. Show up late to the test center.

If your ACT test center is somewhere other than your school, make sure you know exactly where it is located and the fastest way to get there. Aim to arrive at least half an hour early to play it safe. If you have trouble getting up in the morning, make sure to set two alarm clocks! It may sound silly, but this is part of your ACT test prep! Maybe even pack your ACT bag ahead of time to decrease test day stress.
 

10. Forget to bring extra batteries and pencils.

It would be terrible if your calculator suddenly stopped working in the middle of ACT test day, or the proctor ran out of sharpened pencils. Bring batteries and pencils, just in case. The best schools want students who are always prepared! 

Also check out our Magoosh ACT Youtube Channel video for more on what NOT to do on ACT test day!
 

About Rita Neumann

Rita creates fun, inspiring, and educational resources that introduce students to Magoosh and help them prep for their exams. She earned both her BA and Master of Pacific International Affairs from UC San Diego, where she also studied Spanish, French, and Portuguese. Rita loves education and marketing, just as much as she loves vinyasa yoga and baking chocolate chip cookies.


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