What International Students Should Know about SAT and ACT

17 February 2024

Several top U.S. universities say they will require standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT from applicants again. Some of them went "test-optional" during the pandemic.

The schools include Dartmouth College, Georgetown University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Dartmouth College, in New Hampshire, said students from other countries will need to submit results from those tests or "an equivalent standardized national exam."

FILE - Some American universities are requiring students to send their SAT and ACT scores after a test-optional period. (AP Photo)
FILE - Some American universities are requiring students to send their SAT and ACT scores after a "test-optional" period. (AP Photo)

Allen Koh is the founder of Cardinal Education, a company that helps students with college preparation, including applications. He said Dartmouth's announcement "only made official what had been ‘de facto' true."

He noted that between 80 and 90 percent of students admitted to top universities sent test scores, even when they were not required.

Koh said students who attend international schools that use the "A-level" tests from Great Britain may not need to take the SAT or ACT since those tests are so well known. The tests from India may be useful, too. However, students coming from other countries should take the ACT or SAT.

Andrew Taylor is a vice president at the nonprofit organization that runs the ACT. He said the tests are important for international students because they permit American schools to compare students, even if they come from different educational systems.

In an email message to VOA, a representative from the College Board, which runs the SAT, said the test "plays an important role in helping international students be seen by colleges and universities. Test scores can confirm a student's grades or even demonstrate their strengths beyond what their high school grades may show."

So if you are an international student planning to apply to college in the U.S., what should you know about the tests?


The SAT has two parts – reading and math. Students can earn a top score of 800 for each part, making 1600 a perfect score.

The SAT is an "adaptive" test, which means the questions will change based on a student's answer to the previous question. As a result, the SAT takes less time for most students than the ACT.

The ACT is the same for every student who takes the test on the same day. The ACT has four parts – math, science, English and reading. The top ACT score is 36.

Both tests are now available to be taken with a computer at international testing centers.

For the most part, Koh advises international students to take the ACT "because it is much easier to get a perfect ACT score than a perfect SAT score." Based on how the final ACT score is calculated, Koh said, there are more ways to get to the perfect score of 36.

For English learners, Koh has this advice:

"So I'd say if your English is really strong, all around, ACT could be great for foreigners, but I think for the average foreigner where English might be a little bit of a liability and math might be a little bit stronger, then the SAT may be a better test."

Taylor of the ACT added that the ACT has a science section, so for students who may not be strong in science, the SAT could be a better choice.

Both Koh and Taylor say students should take practice tests from both the ACT and SAT to decide which may be better for them.

You can find more information online, such as testing dates and locations of test centers at the SAT and ACT websites.

When to take the test?

Koh and Taylor suggest that international students take the tests at least one year before finishing high school. If there is room for improvement, Koh said, students can practice and take it again six months later.

Taylor reminded students that most schools will consider a "super score" which is the best score from each test category.

"So there is no doubt that students do better if they take more than one test. So if they're in a position to be able to take more than one test, we would always recommend that and give yourself the time to do some additional learning between tests so you know, think about where you struggle, think about where you can be ready, and go from there."

Arkar Chen of Myanmar took the SAT in 2016, one year after he finished high school. He studied for the test but was still surprised at how difficult the reading part was.

"I'll say that 80 percent of the time, I have no idea what it's asking, but the thing with SAT is that when you practice enough, you kind of see a pattern and you kind of know what answer the test maker are looking for."

In addition, Chen said students need to solve math problems quickly because each question has a limited time. "There's no way you could do well without a lot of practice," he said.

Chen said the concept of "critical thinking" was the biggest difference between American tests such as the SAT and the tests he saw growing up in Myanmar. "The SAT," he said, "tests a lot on your critical thinking skills, so I think that's why it can feel hard."

Test is part of the "toolbox"

Taylor of ACT says the test is part of the "toolbox" for colleges to decide about a student's ability to do well in school.

"More and more," Taylor said, "higher ed is worried about graduation, not just about admission. ... So we need to give not only the higher education institution as much data as we can about the student. We also need to give the student as much data as we can about themselves."

Koh observes that standardized tests favor a well-rounded student. So students who spend a lot of time studying math and engineering would be smart to spend time on reading and discussing books in English before taking the test.

The parents of many international students are surprised to learn, as Koh said, "Asian STEM-focused students are penalized the heaviest by American admissions officers, for being very strong in math but weak on reading."

I'm Gena Bennett. And I'm Dan Friedell.

Dan Friedell wrote this story for Learning English.


Words in This Story

standardized test –n. tests taken by large numbers of students that are meant to measure their general knowledge and compare it to other students

applicant –n. a person who is submitting applications for entry into a school or college

equivalent –adj. something that is different in small details but is more or less equal to something else

de facto –adj. something that is understood to be true but not written

grade –n. the score or letter given to show a student's ability in a subject or study area

demonstrate –v. to show

score –n. a number or result of a game or test

liability –n. something that is lower quality or not as good as something else

recommend –v. to tell someone about something or give advice

pattern –n. the regular and repeated way in which something happens or is done

graduation –n. the event that ends someone's time in a university study program

institution –n. an organization such as a school, university or health center that has been in place for a long time

stem-focused –adj. students who center their education on science, technology, engineering and math

penalize –v. to be punished in some way or disadvantaged

We want to hear from you. Are you an international student who has taken the SAT or ACT? What advice would you give someone about the tests?