SAT/ACT Guide for International Students

The majority of four-year colleges and universities require applicants to take one of two tests: the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) or the ACT (American College Test). These tests are used to judge the critical thinking and reasoning skills of potential students using a consistent benchmark outside of the traditional scholastic setting—where different curricula, teachers, and experiences can vary from school to school.   

 

Why SAT/ACT Scores are Important for College Applicants

 

The amount of weight a college puts into an applicant’s SAT/ACT scores is unique to the institution, and there are even some test-optional schools that no longer require a student to take a standardized test to be considered for admission. Hampshire College in Massachusetts goes so far as to not consider SAT or ACT scores in any way, and will reject any scores submitted.

 

Whether a school weighs test scores heavily or not in their admissions decisions, your performance can make a big difference. While a good score isn’t likely to get you in automatically, a bad one might keep you out. Some schools use SAT/ACT scores to filter out candidates who don’t meet their academic standards, especially if they receive thousands of applications. For example, Harvard received 42,742 applications for the class of 2022 but admitted only 1,661 students—SAT/ACT scores make it easy for admissions officials to begin narrowing the field.

 

SAT/ACT scores come into play once again at the tail end of the application process. As application officials need to make final cuts, a student’s SAT/ACT score can be the factor that separates them from the competition. Simply put, the higher a student’s test scores, the better their chances are of gaining admission. This is especially true at highly selective institutions, as they care about their middle 50% test scores for admitted students. The higher the middle 50%, the more prestigious and desirable the school looks.

 

TOEFL or IELTS Requirement for International Students

 

The majority of international students for whom English is not their native language will most likely have to take the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) or IELTS (International English Language Testing System) in addition to the SAT or ACT. However, some colleges will waive their TOEFL/IELTS requirement if a student achieves a certain score on the evidence-based reading and writing section of the SAT, or the English and reading section of the ACT.

 

Learn more about the TOEFL in our blog An Introduction to the Test of English as Foreign Language (TOEFL). And if a taking the TOEFL is in your future, start preparing by reading our article How To Prepare for the TOEFL.

 

The Difference Between the SAT and ACT for International Students

 

There are three distinct differences between the SAT and ACT. The first is what the test measures. The SAT focuses on examining a student’s capacity for critical thinking and what they’ve learned in school. In comparison, the ACT is concentrated on testing learned knowledge.

 

Another key difference between the SAT and ACT is that the SAT focuses on reading comprehension in all of its sections—even math questions can feature word problems. The focus on reading means that test takers need a more advanced and nuanced understanding of the English language, which can be challenging for non-native English speakers.

 

Lastly, the ACT uses a computer-based format for international students.

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Pros and Cons of the SAT for International Students

 

The biggest advantage the SAT offers international students is that it’s more popular internationally, making it easier to find study materials, tutors, and other SAT support. Due to the SAT’s international popularity, it’s also typically simpler to register for the SAT than the ACT. The SAT boasts over 1,000 international testing centers.

 

Another advantage the SAT has over the ACT is that there’s less time pressure than the ACT. On average, across all sections, SAT takers have 1 minute and 10 seconds per question to deduce an answer. Many students struggle to finish sections on the ACT, on which students have about 50 seconds per question to form an answer across all sections. Even with the benefit of more time per question, many SAT takers still struggle to complete sections; read our article How to Pace Yourself On Every Section of the SAT to make the most of every minute of this critical test.

 

Although the SAT focuses on reading comprehension throughout the test’s entirety, it no longer tests obscure vocabulary words—an often challenging section for non-English speakers.

 

Pros and Cons of the ACT for International Students

 

The most obvious reason for international students to favor the ACT is that it doesn’t test a student’s knowledge of English as rigorously as the SAT does. Furthermore, the ACT is generally worded in a much more straightforward manner.

 

The ACT is also more weighted toward the quantitative than the verbal. The benefit of this is that international students tend to perform better (and improve quicker) on quantitative tests than American students, due in part to the quality of math taught in other countries, and the lack of emphasis on language that may challenge non-native students.

 

For international students with strong STEM skills, the ACT features both a math and science section, unlike the SAT which just has a math section. It’s worth noting that the science section of the ACT doesn’t test specific scientific knowledge, as much as it examines a student’s ability to analyze data, evaluate a hypothesis, and demonstrate other scientific skills.

 

Hovering between being a pro and a con is the math section of the ACT, which is commonly believed to be more challenging that SAT math; ACT math tests higher-level math (like geometry and trigonometry). Despite being more advanced, students may use a calculator on the whole ACT math section. The SAT features a 25-minute math section where the use of a calculator is barred. The ACT math test is also all multiple choice—meaning even if you don’t know the answer, there is still a 20% chance of being correct. The SAT math section is 80% multiple choice and 20% fill in the blank.

 

What Test Should International Students Take?

 

Since the SAT and ACT favor certain skills and learning styles, students may be able to get a sense of which test comes more naturally to them simply by learning about the format and content of each test. However, the most concrete way to predict performance is to take a practice SAT and ACT and see which score is higher relatively. Students should avoid taking both tests for college admissions because their efforts are better focused on scoring as high as possible on one of the two tests.

 

How to Sign Up for the SAT and ACT as an International Student

 

The SAT is offered internationally in October, December, March, and May. Students can find in-depth and up-to-date information on the SAT for international students on the College Board’s website. On occasion, the SAT has requirements unique to a particular country. Prospective test takers can find out about these specific needs here.

 

Non-U.S. ACT testing runs from September through June. Students can find international test centers here.

 

How to Prepare for the SAT and ACT

 

Whether you’re planning on taking the SAT or the ACT, there are some tried-and-true ways to prepare for taking a standardized test.

 

  • Get a Guide: Get a guide to the test and start studying. Students should know about the test’s format in advance, including time limits and types of questions asked. Of course, students will also want to learn and practice the material that the test will cover.

 

  • Go to the Source: Both the SAT and ACT websites offer tips on studying for their respective tests and are a great place for students to start their preparation.

 

  • Online Resources: There are numerous online resources devoted to helping students improve their SAT/ACT test scores. We collected all of CollegeVine’s online SAT resources in our blog The CollegeVine Guides to the SAT.

 

  • Create a Study Schedule: Building a calendar is an easy way to find time to study and hold yourself accountable. Also, feeling well prepared can aid in easing test-induced nerves.

 

  • Get Personal: If a book or online guides aren’t offering the study support you need, get a tutor. CollegeVine offers online SAT tutoring. We’ve helped thousands of students boost their score and have seen improvements of more than 260 points!

 

Tips for SAT/ACT Test Day  

 

  • Leave Yourself Plenty of Time: Plan on arriving at the test early. Test taking is stressful enough without having to worry about getting stuck in traffic or lost.  

 

  • Be Prepared: In addition to arriving on time, lay out everything you need the night before—identification, pencils, calculator, watch, snacks, and clothes.

 

  • Relax: You’ve got this! Be confident that your preparation will lead to a strong score.

 

  • Time is of the Essence: You only have an average of 70 seconds to answer an SAT question and 50 seconds to answer an ACT question—don’t let distractions waste precious moments.

 

  • Read Carefully: Whether its instructions or questions, read everything thoroughly to avoid silly mistakes.

 

Preparing for the SAT? Download our free guide with our top 8 tips for mastering the SAT.

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Timothy Peck
Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
A graduate of Northeastern University with a degree in English, Tim Peck currently lives in Concord, New Hampshire, where he balances a freelance writing career with the needs of his two Australian Shepherds to play outside.