Most four-year US colleges and universities require you to take the SAT or ACT, with some 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.
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.
The SAT and the ACT are viewed equally by colleges, so you should choose based on where you can get a 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.
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, 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.
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 sessay; others will leave the choice up to you.
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
One con is that some selective schools require or strongly recommend you to take both the SAT and one or two SAT Subject Tests. Some of these schools might waive the SAT Subject Test requirement if you take the ACT. In that case, you'd only have to take the 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 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 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.
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.
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.