SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

International Students and the SAT/ACT: Complete Guide


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.

But first, why are the SAT and ACT important for going to college in the US?


Why Are the SAT and ACT Important for College Applications?

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

The SAT and ACT 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 prepare and achieve strong scores can also demonstrate your commitment to studying at a university.

If your native language is not English, you will probably also have to take the TOEFL or IELTS to demonstrate your language proficiency.

Like the SAT and ACT, the TOEFL and IELTS are two equal options, since most colleges will accept either. That being said, 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 might've heard more about them.

In recent years, some colleges have begun to waive the TOEFL/IELTS requirement if you got a certain score on the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW) section of the SAT or the English and Reading sections of the ACT. For instance, Columbia requires a 700+ on SAT EBRW or 29+ on ACT English or Reading to be excused from providing TOEFL/IELTS scores.

You can learn more about each college's policy on its official website or by calling its admissions office directly. Because schools’ testing policies are always subject to change, it’s very important to stay up-to-date on their requirements for SAT/ACT scores and English Proficiency exams throughout the college application process.

Since most colleges accept either the SAT or ACT, which test option is better for international students?


How Are the SAT and ACT Different?

Just like with students who are US 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. Unlike the SAT, the ACT has a Science section and tests some 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.

In addition, the new digital SAT is now available to international students and eliminates the old paper and pencil test. 

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 (Reading and Writing) now count for half the exam score, rather than two-thirds of the total score. For students whose first language is not English, this decrease in emphasis on 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 might 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.

The two sections of the SAT—Reading & Writing and Math—also feature graphs, charts, and tables. So if you're strong at interpreting data, this test feature might appeal to you.


Cons of the SAT for International Students

There might be a few cons to the SAT for international students.

One con is the SAT's emphasis on reading comprehension. The Reading passages, while shorter in the new digital SAT, will still feature evidence-based questions. This means you'll have to back up your answers with evidence from the text. All the questions in the Writing section feature passages, so you'll need a strong grasp of structure and syntax.

Even the Math questions feature word problems with what the College Board refers to as "real-world scenarios." These scenarios might not be part of everyone's real-world experience and thus might pose a challenge for students more accustomed to plain figures and equations, rather than wordiness, in their math problems. The good news is that the average length of math problems has been reduced. 

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



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 US-based test for a long time, it's actually becoming more popular with international students.

As mentioned above, the ACT isn't 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

The ACT is known for its straightforward wording. Its questions don't seem set out to trick you; instead, they're relatively clear. This characteristic is particularly 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, such as analyzing data and evaluating a hypothesis. Some international students find that they do better on this section than they do on Reading and English, so its inclusion makes it a compelling reason to choose the ACT over the SAT.

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

Finally, some students have said the ACT is more in line with the IB curriculum. So if you're in an IB school, you might look over the test to see whether it aligns 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 might be a reason not to take the ACT. Depending on your academic preparation and skills, these sections could be a major determining factor in whether you can do better on the SAT or ACT.

Another potential con is simply its lack of popularity internationally. You might 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, too. 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 the 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 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 can access official SAT tests and official ACT tests for free here on our blog.

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 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 SAT test date  and/or your ACT 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 on the College Board website.

You want to start early, like in your 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 one month before your desired exam date so you don't have to pay any late registration fees.

There might be some additional requirements if you're from Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana, Hong Kong, India, Jordan, Korea, Macau, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, Singapore, Thailand, United Arab Emirates, or Vietnam. In rare instances, the SAT may not be offered in your country. You can find a list of countries where the SAT is not being administered on the College Board website.

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. For international students, test dates are generally in September, October, December, February, April, June, and July.

If there's no testing center nearby, you might be able to arrange special testing for yourself.

Make sure you know what to bring and what to leave home on test day. Also, have a sense of how many times you plan to take the ACT. For more info, check out our 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'll 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'll also need about two to four weeks for your test to be scored and for the score reports to be sent to your colleges, so you'll 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.

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 will also likely include teacher recommendations. So apart from the SAT and ACT, your college preparation is something 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 these different approaches and applying them as your practice is key for the SAT and ACT.

You can prep online with practice questions at the College Board, ACT, Inc., Khan Academy, or other sites; you can also check out our customizable online prep programs.

Another option is to purchase SAT books/ACT books and get full-length SAT/ACT practice tests, along with detailed explanations, content review, and key strategies.

Coming up with your own SAT study plan/ACT study plan 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 SAT/ACT 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.

Our program offers 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 or sign up for our live online classes.

While some prep books might cater to American students and assume you're more familiar with the tests than you are, your teacher or tutor will answer any questions you have, motivate you, and hold 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 information you need to succeed on the test, including sample questions and strategy guides, at our TOEFL blog.

Want to learn more about what to expect from the new digital SAT? Find everything you need to know about the format, adaptive testing, and how to prepare at Digital SAT Scores: Everything You Need to Know. 

Looking for more information college admissions and scholarships? We've written two articles tailored to non-US students on how to apply to college in the US as an international student, which US colleges are the best for international students, and what scholarships are available for international students.

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 SAT 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 on your chosen exam will help you determine exactly how well you need to do in each section to achieve your target scores.



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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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