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International Students and the SAT/ACT: Complete Guide

Posted by Rebecca Safier | Jan 4, 2018 3:00:00 PM

SAT versus ACT, College Admissions



Are you an international student aiming to attend college in the United States? Colleges are looking for students with language skills and global competencies more than ever, so you already have several strong assets to draw on in your college applications.

One requirement for your applications to most universities is the SAT or ACT. Let's go over the information you need to know about deciding between the SAT and ACT, registering for the tests, and preparing to achieve a high score. First, why are the SAT and ACT important to go to college in the U.S.?


Why Are the SAT and ACT Important for College Applications?

Almost all four-year colleges and universities require you to take the SAT or ACT, with just a few exceptions. These exams are meant to test all students' knowledge and reasoning skills on an equal playing field, as everyone's curriculum and learning experiences might differ from school to school. 

These tests have been used to ensure that you have the critical thinking and reasoning skills you need to do well in college. Putting in the effort to prep and achieve strong scores can also demonstrate your commitment to studying at university.

If your native language is not English, you probably also have to take the TOEFL or IELTS to demonstrate language proficiency. Like the SAT and ACT, these are two equal options as most colleges will accept either. While both options are equal, you want to choose the one on which you can perform better. So far, the SAT and TOEFL have been the most popular choices for international students, so you may have heard more about them.

In past years, some colleges waived the TOEFL/IELTS requirement if you got a certain score on the Evidence Based Reading and Writing section of the SAT or English and Reading section of the ACT. These schools, for example, used the following cutoff scores:


Verbal Minimum Score


700+ on SAT Evidence Based Reading and Writing or 29+ on ACT English or Reading

Johns Hopkins

690+ on SAT Evidence Based Reading and Writing or 30+ on both ACT English and Reading

University of Michigan

650+ on SAT Evidence Based Reading and Writing or 27+ on both ACT English and Reading

Cornell University

35+ on SAT Reading scaled score


You can learn more about each college's policy on its website or by calling its admissions office directly. Since most colleges accept either the SAT or ACT, which option is better for international students?


How Are the SAT and ACT Different?

Just like with students who are U.S. citizens, the "better" test all depends on your educational background, academic strengths, and personal interests. The SAT and the ACT are viewed equally by colleges, so you should choose based on where you can get the higher score. 

Typically, international students are able to score higher on math sections of standardized exams than on verbal sections, both because of the quality of math education in various countries and the extra language challenges many international students must overcome in reading and writing sections. While the SAT has generally been more popular than the ACT for international students, it might not be the better option for you if you're strong in math and science. The ACT, unlike the SAT, has a science section, plus it tests more advanced math concepts. 

Let's break down some of the important information you should know about each test. Ultimately, the best way to choose is to try some sample questions and practice tests and see which one works better for you.


What to Know About the SAT

The SAT is much more popular internationally, so you might already have more knowledge about the test or resources to study for it. 

The SAT has four sections: one Reading, one Writing, one Math (no calculator), and one Math (with calculator). It also features an optional fifth section, a 50-minute essay. Some colleges will want you to take the SAT with essay; others will leave the choice up to you. Let's consider some features about the SAT that would appeal to international students, followed by some cons of this college admissions test.


Pros of the SAT for International Students

The SAT might be more appealing to international students than the ACT for a couple of reasons. One is that the verbal sections now count for half the exam score, rather than 2/3 of the total score. For students whose first language is not English, this decrease in emphasis on the Reading and Writing could be a welcome feature. 

Second, the SAT no longer features obscure vocabulary words. These tough words were challenging for native and non-native English speakers alike, so the elimination of "sentence completion" questions may make the SAT easier for international students. Now, one challenge of the SAT is to glean the meaning of more common words that are being used in unusual ways. Along similar lines, SAT questions now feature straightforward wording, making them easier to understand.

All three sections, Reading, Writing, and Math, also feature graphs, charts, and tables. If you're strong at interpreting data, then this feature may appeal to you. 


Cons of the SAT for International Students

There may be a few cons to the SAT for international students. One con is that some selective schools require that you take both the SAT and one or two SAT Subject Tests. Most of these same schools waive the Subject Test requirement if you take the ACT. So if you chose the ACT, you'd only have to take that one test, whereas if you chose the SAT, you might have to take three separate tests to apply. 

Another con is the SAT's emphasis on reading comprehension in all its sections. The Reading passages feature evidence-based questions, meaning you'll have to back up your answers with evidence from the text. All of the questions in the Writing and Language section feature longer passages, so you'll need a strong grasp on structure and syntax. Even the math questions feature word problems with what College Board refers to as "real world scenarios." These scenarios may not be a part of everyone's real world experience, and they might pose a challenge for students more accustomed to figures and equations, rather than wordiness, in their math problems.

The best way to get a sense of how SAT questions work is to take sample practice tests, as I'll discuss below. First though, let's consider the structure of the ACT, along with its pros and cons for international students applying to college in the U.S.



There's no bad or good test for your college applications. Rather, you should choose the one that helps you get the higher score!


What to Know About the ACT

While the ACT was more of a domestic U.S.-based test for a long time, it is actually becoming more popular with international students. As mentioned above, it's not all that different from the SAT, except for the fact that it features a Science section along with its English, Reading, Math, and optional essay sections. So what are some of the pros and cons of the ACT for international students?


Pros of the ACT for International Students

While the SAT is only featuring more accessible question types this year, the ACT has always been known for its straightforward wording. Its questions don't seem set out to trick you; instead, they're relatively clear. This characteristic is useful for international students, who won't have to do double the work to figure out what a question is even asking for in the first place.

Another potentially attractive feature of the ACT is its Science section. ACT Science doesn't require you to have a ton of specific scientific knowledge; instead, it's more concerned with testing your scientific skills, like analyzing data and evaluating a hypothesis. Some international students find they do better on this section than Reading and English, so its inclusion makes it a compelling reason to choose the ACT over the SAT. 

Another feature of the ACT, which may be a pro or a con depending on your math level, is its incorporation of higher level math concepts. Its math questions feature more geometry and trigonometry than the SAT, and you can use a calculator on all of them. If you're strong in math and science and/or considering going into a STEM field, you might demonstrate your skills and interests best by taking the ACT.

Finally, some students have said that the ACT is more in line with IB curriculum. So if you're in an IB school, you might look over the test to see if it aligns well with what you've learned in school. 


Cons of the ACT for International Students

As mentioned above, the ACT features more advanced math, as well as a science section. If you're less strong in these areas, then they may be a reason not to take the ACT. Depending on your academic preparation and skills, these sections may be a major determining factor in whether you can do better on the SAT or the ACT.

Another potential con is simply its lack of popularity internationally. You may have grown up learning a lot more about the SAT, and you might be able to form study groups with friends who are taking the SAT. If few people around you are taking the ACT, then you might not have the same study and support network that you would for the SAT. 

Like the SAT, the ACT has a large emphasis on reading comprehension and evaluating structure and syntax of passages. The verbal section is worth half your score, so you'll want to try both SAT and ACT verbal sections (Reading and Writing for the SAT, Reading and English for the ACT) to see which one is more appealing to you.

Trying out practice questions will be very useful in helping you decide between the SAT and ACT. Read on to learn where you can find these practice questions and how to register for an exam once you make your choice.



How Can You Decide Between the SAT and ACT?

As I mentioned above, the best way to decide whether you should take the SAT or the ACT (or the TOEFL or IELTS, for that matter) is to learn all about the content and format of the tests and then take a practice test to see which one you can do better on. You want your test score to strengthen your overall application, so get familiar with the content, format, and question types of the tests and then make your best choice.

Once you've decided, commit yourself to prepping for that test, and don't worry about the other one! To fully commit, you need to register for the test.


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How Do You Register for the SAT or ACT?

Both tests have an online registration process and charge a fee. You'll have to find your testing center, choose your test date, and then enter your personal and payment information. You can check out the exam websites to find testing dates and more information.


Register for the SAT

You'll register to take the SAT at the College Board website. You want to start early, like in sophomore or junior year, to give yourself time to take it again if you want to improve your score. You also should register at least a month before your desired exam date so you don't have to pay any additional late registration fees.

There might be some additional requirements if you're from Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana, Hong Kong, India, Korea, Macau, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. For more information, check out our complete step-by-step guide to SAT registration.


Register for the ACT

If you choose to take the ACT, then you'll register through ACT, Inc. You can register and learn about your country's ACT test dates on the ACT website. Test dates are generally in September, October, December, April, and June. 

If there's no testing center nearby, you might be able to arrange special testing for yourself. Finally, make sure you're familiar what to bring and what to leave home on test day and have a sense of how many times you plan to take the ACT. For more information, check out our step-by-step guide to ACT registration.

As you can imagine, all of this prepping and planning requires a significant amount of time. Since the college process starts at least a year before you actually send your applications, what should your timeline for test prep be?


When Should You Begin Preparing for the SAT or ACT?

When do you need to register for the SAT/ACT, and when should you start studying for the exam? In this section, we go over all the important steps to take when you prepare for the SAT or ACT, as well as when you need to take them.

Many students start prepping a year or more in advance, and some take the SAT or ACT early in high school to get testing experience. You want to give yourself at least six months to prep intensively, but more is ideal, especially if you're a non-native English speaker and have to put in extra study time to improve your language skills.

You need to sign up for the SAT or ACT at least a month before your actual testing date. You also need about three to four weeks for your test to be scored and the score reports sent to colleges, so you want to take it ahead of your deadlines. That means you should know exactly what colleges you're applying to by that time, so you can list them as score recipients when you register for the tests. This means that the colleges you indicate will receive your SAT or ACT score reports.

Your entire high school experience is part of your college application - the classes you take, the clubs and sports you join, and the work and volunteer experience you have. You also will likely include teacher recommendations. So apart from the SAT and ACT, your college preparation is something that you can work on throughout all four years of high school.




How Can You Study for the SAT or ACT?

Test prep is very important to do well on these tests, as they probably don't resemble tests you normally take in school. Prep will both reinforce the material and get you familiar with how the questions are worded and how to manage your time.

Strategy plays a big role in how well you do, so learning strategies and applying them as your practice is also key for the SAT and ACT. You can prep online with practice questions at College Board, the ACT, Khan Academy, or other sites, or through PrepScholar's customizable online prep programs. You can also purchase SAT and ACT prep books and get full-length practice tests, along with detailed explanations, content review, and key strategies.

Coming up with a study schedule and setting target scores is the best way to stay on track, overcome your weaknesses, and get ready for the SAT/ACT.


How Can Online Prep Help International Students?

PrepScholar's online prep is a great tool for international students who want to succeed on the SAT/ACT and get into their top choice universities. Because it's online and can be accessed anywhere with internet, it's extremely convenient for students all over the world.

PrepScholar has high-quality practice questions and tracks your progress, letting you know what content you've mastered and what concepts you still need to work on. You can also choose to get tutoring as part of your online program. While some prep books might cater to American students and assume you're more familiar with the tests than you are, your tutor will answer any questions you have, as well as motivate you and help keep you accountable to your goals.

There are lots of resources to help you master the SAT/ACT and achieve your post-high school goals. As long as you do your research, set aside time to prepare, and ask for help when you can, you'll get into a school that's the best fit for you. 


What's Next?

Taking the TOEFL? Get all the info you need to succeed on the test, including sample questions and strategy guides, at our TOEFL blog.

Besides the SAT/ACT, what other key components are part of your college application? Read all about how to build a versatile college application.

Are you worried about the Reading section? This article tells you exactly how to read the passages to maximize your understanding and not waste time.

How is the SAT scored? What about the ACT? Understanding the scoring process will help you determine exactly how well you need to do in each section to achieve your target scores.


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:

Get eBook: 5 Tips for 160+ Points

Raise Your ACT Score by 4 Points (Free Download)


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Rebecca Safier
About the Author

Rebecca graduated with her Master's in Adolescent Counseling from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has years of teaching and college counseling experience and is passionate about helping students achieve their goals and improve their well-being. She graduated magna cum laude from Tufts University and scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT.

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