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?

Most four-year US colleges and universities require you to take the


, with




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.

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 prep 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


to demonstrate your language proficiency


Like the SAT and ACT, these tests 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


the English and Reading sections of the ACT.

These schools, for example, use the following cutoff scores:


Verbal Minimum Score


700+ on SAT EBRW


29+ on ACT English



Johns Hopkins

690+ on SAT EBRW


30+ on both ACT English



University of Michigan

650+ on SAT EBRW


27+ on both ACT English




35+ on SAT Reading


30+ on both ACT English



You can learn more about each college’s policy on its official website or by calling its admissions office directly.

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


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


practice tests

and see which one works better for you.

If you’re a non-US student going to high school not taught in English,

chances are that you’ll need to prove your English proficiency when applying to university

. Colleges in the US will sometimes accept a high SAT or ACT score as evidence of your English skills, but more often than not, passing scores on the TOEFL or


are required as well.

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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

: Reading, Writing and Language, Math (divided into No Calculator and Calculator subsections), and an optional 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 (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.

All three required 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 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 the questions in the Writing section feature longer 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 best way to get a sense of how SAT questions work is to


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



along with its






, and optional



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


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


, for that matter) is to learn all about the




of the tests and then

take a practice test to see which one you can do better on

. You can access

official SAT tests


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

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.

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, February, April, and June.

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.


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


The majority of college applicants are high school seniors, and most of the college application advice out there is aimed at them. But what do you do if you don’t fall into this narrow category?

Our eBook on how to prepare for and apply to college as a nontraditional student will walk you through everything you need to know

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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



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


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.

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.

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)