While many of us have come to favor mechanical pencils over traditional wooden ones, we can’t abandon those classic yellow Ticonderogas just yet. Both the College Board and ACT, Inc. require that test takers use the standard No. 2:
SAT: Use a No. 2 pencil and a soft eraser. Do not use a pen or mechanical pencil.
ACT: Use a soft lead No. 2 pencil with a good eraser. Do not use a mechanical pencil or ink pen; if you do, your answer document cannot be scored accurately.
The issue with mechanical pencils has nothing to do with the influence of the lumber lobby and everything to do with quality control. Basically, the test makers want to ensure that your multiple-choice responses will be read accurately by their optical mark recognition scanners. Since the scanners are calibrated for marks made by No. 2 pencils, the variability introduced by different graphite weights can cause problems.
On the bright side, wooden pencils work better than mechanical pencils when filling in answer choices, which is itself a valuable test day skill. Those precise .7mm mechanical pencil points take forever to bubble responses. Your best strategy is to use a dull pencil, which could save you a second or more every time you mark your responses.
What if I use a mechanical pencil on the test? Will my test be scored?
Proctors mention the prohibition against mechanical pencils before each test begins and are instructed to intervene when they observes students using forbidden writing implements. But many maverick students report “getting away” with using mechanical pencils on the ACT, SAT, or SAT Subject Tests. This suggests that mechanical pencils aren’t really much of a problem for the test-makers’ OMR scanners. Anecdotal reports suggest that, if anything, your score may be delayed while your test grid is hand-scored.
Still, why take chances? Pack a fistful of dull No. 2s and a good eraser with the rest of your test day supplies to ensure you have one less thing to worry about!