Rivaling the SAT: A Brief History of the ACT and Why It Was Created

Created 33 years after the SAT, the ACT eventually became the most popular college admission test. Today, the rivalry continues.

portrait of Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
by Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.

Updated August 15, 2022

Edited by Hannah Muniz
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Rivaling the SAT: A Brief History of the ACT and Why It Was Created
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"The ACT has long been like Pepsi to the SAT's Coke," declared the New York Times in 2002.

Created as an alternative to the dominant college admission test in the 1950s, the ACT marketed itself as the entrance exam for every student.

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But what is the ACT? What does ACT stand for? And how did the competitor test come to overtake the SAT in popularity?

The Early History of the ACT

In 1926, a group of 8,000 students took the SAT. By the 1950s, half a million college-bound seniors sat for the SAT every year.

But the history of the SAT made the entrance exam seem as though it was meant for a certain type of student. Created with an eye toward Ivy League admissions and scholarships, the SAT was intended for students applying to the most selective schools.

In 1958, Dr. Everett Lindquist recommended a second exam for students interested in less selective colleges. Lindquist was a member of the College Board, the organization that administers the SAT.

But the College Board saw no need for a second admission test that might compete with the SAT.

Lindquist, an education professor at the University of Iowa, had a long history in standardized testing. He'd created Iowa's K-12 assessments and helped design the GED test. He also built a scantron machine that could score 50,000 answers per second.

Instead of giving up, Lindquist created his own exam: the ACT.

The ACT differed from the SAT in several key ways. While the SAT claimed to measure aptitude, or the test-taker's innate intellectual abilities, the ACT aimed to measure high school-level competencies.

With questions designed by high school teachers and based on curriculum standards, the ACT promised a better, more appropriate way to assess college preparedness.

''The [ACT] must make him feel he has earned the right to go to college by his own efforts, not that he is entitled to college admission because of his innate abilities or aptitudes, regardless of what he has done in high school,'' Lindquist said, capturing the difference between the ACT and SAT.

In November 1959, around 75,000 students took the first ACT. Test-takers paid $3 to sit for the exam.

The ACT Test Purpose

Lindquist designed the ACT to measure knowledge, not aptitude.

''The [ACT] must be regarded by him as an achievement test or as a test of his acquired or developed abilities," said Lindquist. "The tasks constituting the examination must therefore obviously correspond to recognized high school learning experiences.''

To launch the American College Test Program, as it was called then, Lindquist partnered with Ted McCarrel, the dean of admissions at Iowa.

In its early years, ACT Inc. operated out of offices on the Iowa campus, with Lindquist's former graduate assistant Dr. Leonard Feldt writing test questions.

The first ACT included four sections: English, mathematics, social studies, and natural sciences. Test-takers received a score between 1 and 36 — just as they do today.

Starting in 1976, ACT Inc. regularly surveyed thousands of secondary teachers and professors to design its questions. In 1989, the test changed two sections — social sciences and natural sciences — into a reading and science section.

Sixteen years later, ACT Inc. added an optional writing section, which asks students to compose an original essay.

Once known as the "American College Test," the testing organization dropped its official name in 1996. Now, it's simply known as ACT Inc. (or just ACT).

Controversies Around the ACT

Like the SAT, the ACT has reported a consistent racial gap in scores. Many have pointed to the persistent problem of unequal access to education and resources to explain the gap. But the test design itself also raises questions of bias.

Early in its history, the ACT found itself before the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1963, the University of Mississippi instituted minimum ACT scores for admission. The school set the minimum score at 8 points higher than the median ACT score for Black Mississippians — and 3 points below the median score of white residents.

The university used the ACT requirement to justify its exclusion of Black students just one year after James Meredith sued Ole Miss to integrate the school.

Meredith's landmark case struck down Ole Miss's earlier requirement that applicants needed a letter of recommendation from an alum — a policy that effectively shut out Black students. With the courts stepping in to cut the recommendation policy, the university turned to the ACT to justify discrimination in admissions.

The ACT program recommended against using test scores as the main determinant for admission. And the courts agreed, ordering Ole Miss to consider other factors like grades.

The Battle Between the SAT and ACT

From the beginning, the ACT was the underdog — that is, until it caught up with the SAT to claim the title of most popular college admission test.

The battle between the SAT and ACT started with the first ACT exam in 1959. For decades, the SAT dominated in the Northeast and West. The ACT, meanwhile, was more popular in the Midwest and South.

Harvard, which helped turn the SAT into the dominant admission test, refused to even consider ACT scores until the 1990s.

In 2012, the ACT finally surpassed the SAT in the number of tests given. In 2013, over half of high school graduates took the ACT. The number of test-takers surpassed 2 million for the first time in 2016.

Then, the SAT reclaimed its crown in 2018.

During their struggle for supremacy, both tests pursued lucrative contracts with states to offer their admission exam to all graduating seniors. Today, about half of U.S. states require the ACT or SAT.

While the SAT and ACT initially claimed to test different skills, today, both are treated interchangeably by colleges. Changes made to both exams in the past two decades have made their content and format much more similar. What's more, the SAT no longer claims to measure aptitude.

Nearly every college accepts either the SAT or ACT. But a growing number of schools no longer consider admission tests at all in admissions, throwing the future of college entrance exams into doubt.

Ultimately, the battle between the ACT and SAT might end with both standardized tests losing.

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