If you are an international student in the USA who plans to attend college or university in the USA, then you will need to take the SAT, ACT, or both exams in order to apply to schools. The SAT and the ACT are stressful tests for all students who plan to go to college, and for teens from countries outside of the USA, these tests can seem a little overwhelming. You may wonder:
• What is the SAT?
• What is the ACT?
• Which Test Do US Colleges Prefer?
• Should I Take the SAT or ACT?
• Which Test is Better for International Students?
• What Skills Should International Students Brush Up On/Review before taking the SAT or ACT?
• How Can I Prepare to Take the SAT or ACT?
• Can I Get Financial Aid as an International Student?
This article was written to answer these questions and provide some helpful information on the testing process for international students who plan to attend US universities.
International Students in the USA | What is the SAT?
The SAT tests students on mathematics, critical reading, and writing in a nearly four hour exam. Using multiple choice questions, some short-answer math questions, and one essay, the exam covers all the material that high school students should know in order to move on to college. Until 2016, all students must complete the essay portion of the test, but from 2016 on, the SAT will make the essay optional. With the new SAT format, students can choose whether or not to do the essay section, but they must complete all of the other math, critical reading, and writing sections in order to achieve a top score.
Let’s break down the test a little bit more. There are three sections for each topic: three different math sections, of 20-25 minutes each, and the same kind of format for both reading and writing. Some of the math questions require students to select the correct answer in a multiple-choice style question, while one section has students write in their own answers. All of the reading and writing sections, except for the essay, are multiple-choice format.
The SAT is scored out of 2400 (in 2016, it will be scored out of 1600), and all three sections count equally toward the score. There is a one-quarter point penalty for incorrect answers, so you will need to develop a test-taking strategy that involves skipping some questions. You get a composite score, and then scores for each different subject area.
The College Board website has plenty of helpful information about the SAT, as well as practice tests.
What is the ACT?
The ACT test students on English, reading, mathematics, science, and writing, all in multiple-choice format. The essay section of the ACT is optional, which gives you two choices: use the writing section to boost your overall ACT score, or choose not to take the writing section and focus on the other areas. This choice—skipping the writing section and concentrating on studying math or critical reading—can be especially helpful for international teens who are not at the required level of English fluency and/or aren’t confident in their abilities to write a strong English essay in twenty minutes. If you feel confident about writing and do well across the board in each academic area you may want to do the essay in addition to focusing your study on other test areas. On the other hand, if writing has always been tough for you, plan to skip the essay and focus on the other ACT sections.
The ACT is a little different from the SAT because it doesn’t split up each subject into lots of little sections. The English section is forty-five minutes, reading and science are half an hour, and the math section is an hour. The optional essay section is an additional half-hour. All in all, the exam is about three hours without the optional essay, or three and a half with the essay. Scoring on the ACT is also different: there is no guessing penalty! The highest possible score is a 36, and it’s calculated a little differently based on whether or not you did the optional essay. You also get a composite score, then scores for each different subject area, just like the SAT.
Check out the ACT website for info on the test, and for some sample questions.
Do USA Colleges Prefer the SAT or ACT?
It used to be the case that colleges on the East/West Coasts wanted students to take the SAT, while colleges in the Midwest and the South preferred the ACT. This is no longer true: all colleges now accept scores from either exam, and they consider the scores of both tests equally.
If you’re curious as to which test international students in the USA prefer, the answer changes every few years. Approximately one hundred thousand international students take the SAT every year, while the ACT does not publish its statistics about international students. However, slightly more students across all countries take the ACT than the SAT: around 1.6 million for the ACT, and 1.5 million for the SAT.
Which Test is Better For Students Coming from Abroad?
All colleges will look carefully at your test scores, whether they come from the SAT or the ACT. Since schools accept both scores, you should make sure to choose the test that best highlights your strengths and displays them to college admissions workers. For some helpful information on choosing between the tests, read this CBS news article to see which test seems like a better fit.
If you take the SAT you will need to demonstrate your strengths in all of the test areas: mathematics, critical reading, and writing. Since the essay section of the SAT is mandatory for all test-takers until 2016, this will likely entail additional prep for the writing section, including practicing writing on-the-spot essays (with a clear and defined position) in response to a prompt. Since the SAT essay is scored for proper use of English grammar and vocabulary, international students who have fluency or near-fluency in English will likely have a better chance of scoring well on the SAT. The SAT also tests content in unique, quirky ways: there are some strange math word problems, tricky reading passages, and, of course, the math problems where students have to write in their own answer. Many teens feel that the SAT tests what you know, but also requires you to practice creative problem-solving because the problems aren’t presented like they are in high schools.
The ACT tries to be less creative than the SAT: it is based on curricula, and it tries to test topics that high school students have all seen before. Because the ACT doesn’t present questions in tricky formats, like the SAT, the ACT does cover some of the math sections in more detail. Overall, the ACT tests students on English, reading, mathematics, science, and writing, with a little more focus on trigonometry and geometry than the SAT has. However, the writing section of the ACT is optional, which gives teens two choices: use the writing section to boost the ACT overall score, or choose not to take the writing section and focus on the other areas. This customizable option is good for students who have weak writing skills in English.
Another point to consider is that some colleges will look to your SAT and ACT scores to see if you are proficient in English. Many colleges will accept high scores on the SAT reading and writing sections (scores of at least 500 out of 800 points) as demonstration of English proficiency, or similarly high scores on the ACT composite scores (at least 22 out of 36). However other colleges will require you to take the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) exam in order to demonstrate your English skills. Make sure to check the requirements for each college you plan to apply to, because each school may have a different set of recommended tests.
Key Skills for Foreign Students in the US: Critical Reading
Another point to remember for both tests is that strong skills in reading English is not going to be enough for you to excel. Critical reading is necessary, and this goes beyond knowing vocabulary and English sentence structure. Both the SAT and the ACT require you to read passages and answer different types of questions about those passages. While building vocabulary is definitely an asset for both tests, what will also be helpful is reading different types of texts and asking questions about them. Reading some novels, historical United States documents, and nonfiction selections will give you a sense of the different types of reading material that may appear on the ACT and the SAT. But taking this a step further—by practicing summarizing passages, picking out important information, and identifying arguments—will help prepare you better than just reading English documents.
Key Skills for International Students: Math
International students tend to have an advantage on the math sections of both exams, because the USA has not yet reached a proper level of rigor in its math curricula. If you are from a country where students typically do well in math, then you have a good chance of mastering the math on the SAT or ACT. However it is a good idea to make sure you know all the English words for certain math concepts and topics on the test, so you won't be tripped up by something as simple as a vocabulary word. Even though many people complain about the math sections on both exams, the math is really not so difficult. What makes the SAT difficult for some students is that some questions are multiple-choice, while others require the student to write in an answer, with no option to choose from answer choices. Students also tend to complain that the math on the SAT is not presented in quite the same format as it is in high school classes. Be on the lookout for creative word problems, or other similar test question formats that might be confusing. The ACT math tends to be a little more straightforward: it tests what students have learned, without requiring the same creative thinking as the SAT. On both exams, it is not usually the computational parts of problems that are challenging, but properly understanding the question or figuring out how to solve the problems that is tough.
General Tips for Foreign Students in US : Structure and Pacing, Retaking the Test, Registration
Another important point to keep in mind is the test structure for both exams. Since the SAT and the ACT are quite lengthy, you will have to work on managing time properly. The proctor will stop and start the students at the beginning and end of each section, but it is up to you to determine just how long to spend on each question, which questions to skip until the end, and which to devote extra time to. This is where taking practice tests becomes important: try to make sure that you take at least one practice test under test conditions. This means following the time limits and taking the entire test at once, which replicates what the experience will be like on test day.
Students can retake either exam as many times as they want, and then choose the best scores to send to colleges. It’s typical for teens in the US to take the ACT and the SAT once, and then retake whichever test they preferred. Of course, this is not required: if you already know the ACT or the SAT is for you, just take that one exam, and retake it if you feel like you need to improve your scores.
There are cutoff times for SAT and ACT registration. Usually, you must register at least a month before the exam date: if you plan to take a late September test, plan to register by mid-August. There are late fees for registration past these deadlines, but you can avoid these fees by paying attention to deadlines and staying organized throughout the testing process.
How Should An International Student Prepare for the SAT or ACT?
Self-study with test prep books, group test prep classes, school-sponsored review sessions, and private tutoring are all ways to prepare for either the SAT or ACT. To learn more about these various methods for preparing for the SAT or ACT check out previous articles on test prep on our Origins Tutoring blog. Since Origins Tutoring exists to bring high-quality prep to kids, we strongly believe that private tutoring can be a powerful way to increase your readiness for the SAT or the ACT. Even though you may live in another country, chances are there are reputable tutoring groups in your home cities. Or you can choose to get tutored online, using Skype and whiteboards.
For many international students in the USA, private tutoring can be a helpful way to improve preparedness for the ACT and SAT. One-on-one attention with a private tutor means that you can work with a qualified professional to practice test-taking skills for these specific accommodations. It can also be incredibly helpful to have this individual attention if you need to brush up on certain areas before the test: sometimes one concept might be harder than another, but there might not be enough time in math class or English class to fix this learning gap. Individual tutoring can help fill in these knowledge holes and get you comfortable with either test, and that will pay off on test day.
financial aid for internationalS?
Did you know that international students studying in the US account for approximately a third of the student body in US colleges? And were you aware that many of these universities hand out hefty financial aid to foreign students? If not, we hope you find the following infographic from US News useful in providing more information on this topic.
International students are often worried about whether they will receive financial aid to help them pay for their tuition. But as you can see in the graphic above, there are some really high-ranking colleges that give foreign students studying in the USA some pretty generous scholarships.
So start studying now for the College Board's SAT or ACT, and apply for scholarships! You'll be enjoying college in the US in no time!