To study at any college or university in the United States, a basic step is submitting an application for admission. But that’s only part of the process. In most cases, the officials who make admission decisions also expect to see test scores that show you are prepared to succeed.
So, what tests are required, and how should you prepare for them? Here’s an overview of the admission tests international students need to know about before applying to US universities.
Academic preparation tests
American schools use several different exams to determine if international applicants are prepared to become students. Some cover broad-based academic preparation, while others focus on English-language skills.
Many four-year colleges and universities require international applicants to complete either the SAT or ACT exam, which are the standard tests administered to college-bound high school students in the United States.
The SAT covers reading, math, writing, and language skills, with an emphasis on analysis and critical-thinking abilities. At colleges and universities where admission is competitive, students with the highest scores naturally have a better chance of being accepted. But even at schools where the competition is not as intense, test scores are still an important factor, and they may also help demonstrate your English-language skills. In most countries outside the United States, the SAT is offered at least six times a year.
An alternative is the ACT exam. While it is organized differently and employs a different scoring system than the SAT, the ACT is similar in that it measures readiness for college-level work. Questions cover mathematics, science, English, and reading.
Although the majority of US colleges and universities require prospective students to have taken the SAT or ACT, this not true in all cases. Some “test-optional” schools have eliminated the tests as a requirement, preferring to emphasize other application elements (such as secondary school grades and rigor of course work) in making admission decisions.
Similarly, most of the nearly 1,200 two-year colleges in the US, commonly known as community colleges, do not require standardized test scores as part of the admission application (although they may ask incoming students to take placement exams once they enroll).
If you’re not sure whether to take the SAT or the ACT, one option is to take a practice version of both to see which one you prefer, advises Dr. Marlena Corcoran, author of Passport to College: The International Student’s Guide to the Best Education in the World. “You can find free, full-length practice tests on the Internet,” she says. “Take one of each.”
She advises comparing SAT and ACT scores by looking online for charts that convert your scores to percentiles; you can then compare the results more accurately. “You may find that you did markedly better on one practice test than the other,” she says. “Or if your percentile scores are more or less equal, choose the test whose personality better fits your own.”
Keep in mind that some schools, especially those that are considered among the most prestigious, admit only a fraction of the students who apply, both from within the US and from other countries. They may have more stringent test score standards. To avoid confusion or disappointment, make sure to review the admission guidelines and averages at any university in which you have a genuine interest.
English-language skills tests
When it comes to assessing your English writing, reading, and speaking skills, perhaps the best known exam is the TOEFL. This test is recognized by more than 9,000 colleges, universities, and agencies in over 130 countries, according to ETS, the organization that administers the exam.
The TOEFL measures your ability to use and understand English at the college and university level. This includes evaluating how students combine listening, reading, speaking, and writing skills to perform academic tasks.
An advantage with the TOEFL is that over 50 test dates are held each year in a wide range of locations, giving you many choices of when to take it. You can also retake the test as many times as you wish (although you can take it only once within a 12-day period). Computer- and Internet-based options are offered. (Paper-based tests are only available where testing via the Internet is not available.)
Alternative exams that assess the same skills are the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) and the Pearson Test of English Academic (PTE Academic). IELTS is available at more than 1,100 locations, with 48 test dates a year. PTE Academic is also widely available; over five million people in 130 countries take it every year.
If you must demonstrate English proficiency to your intended universities, only one of these exams will generally be necessary (and alternative types of proof may also be accepted).
American testing philosophies
The fact that American colleges and universities don’t all have the same admission or testing policies should be kept in mind as you make your educational plans. But even when exam requirements are similar, the scores needed to gain admittance may differ. “Do your homework,” says Jim Tweed, Assistant Vice President for Enrollment Management/Dean Of Undergraduate Admission & Financial Aid at Lasell College. “Since US colleges and universities have different admission requirements, it’s imperative to be aware of what is required at each institution you apply to and when the material is due. The more information you can gather about the schools you have interest in, the better.”
A good place to start is the website for any college or university you’re interested in. Look for pages for admission and/or international students to find details on what minimum test scores are needed as well as other information related to the process. And if you have questions about any of the information presented, don’t hesitate to ask—the website will also list e-mail addresses and telephone numbers you may use for this purpose.
Preparing for tests
In preparing to take standardized admission tests, timing is critical. Be aware that colleges and universities have specific deadlines for submitting application materials. If test scores are required, you will need to complete exams in advance of any application deadline so there will be sufficient time for scores to be recorded and reported. Registration deadlines also apply to the exams themselves, which are administered at pre-set dates and times. Finally, you will want to study and prepare for the tests before you sit down to take them. It often helps to work backwards from your admission deadlines and write down all of the pertinent dates so you can give yourself sufficient time—a month or two at least—in which to study.
So, how do you prepare for your tests? The more time you give yourself, the better. In addition to practice tests posted online, books are available in libraries, bookstores, and online that provide a wealth of information. Along with detailed overviews of how tests are organized, they also offer insights on how questions are structured and tips for allocating the time you spend on each test section. Simply reviewing textbooks or other relevant material may also be helpful.
In taking practice exams, Corcoran advises completing all questions, not just a portion. “Stamina counts,” she says. “The tests are long. Only full-length practice tests will train your ability to concentrate, so that you do as well on the last questions as on the first.”
While it’s hard to argue against the logic of such preparation, some experts say a less stressful approach can also work, especially for exams focusing on English communication. “I know many students take prep courses and spend months memorizing patterns on the TOEFL,” says Matthew Johnston, Assistant Director of Admissions at Clark University. “In most cases, they would be better served by spending that time actually using English.” He suggests reading American websites and magazines, and watching US movies and television shows.
“Find a native speaker of English to talk to every week, or trade lessons in your native language for lessons in English,” he says. “Experiences with English in real life are excellent preparation for our discussion-based classes.”
It may also help to keep in mind that other factors can also be keys to a successful admission application. “The biggest mistake we see students make is assuming that a test is the only piece of information that goes into making an admissions decision,” says Jerry Dueweke, Associate Director of Admission at Butler University. “In reality there is much more that goes into the process.”
If your language scores are lower than desired, for example, that may not prevent you from being admitted if you can show the ability to communicate well enough in English to function in American college classes, at least at some schools.
“International students often overestimate the importance of standardized tests when applying to schools like ours,” says Johnston. “We do ask for a test score from students who are not native speakers of English, but we are more interested in a student’s actual proficiency, not just the test score.”
Johnston explains that his university is moving toward assessing English proficiency holistically. “Our TOEFL minimum is lower than the minimum at many of our peer institutions,” he says. “This is not because we have low standards, but rather because we know that a test is not a perfect judge of anyone’s skills.” A student who does not test well can still demonstrate English proficiency through other parts of Clark’s application, which may include an interview. “A real conversation tells us more about a student’s preparation for our discussion-based classes than a standardized test could.”
In preparing for exams and applying to college in general, Tweed advises students to avoid unnecessary expenses. “Many international students applying to US colleges and universities pay for educational services to assist them with everything from researching schools to completing the application processes, including entrance exam preparation,” he says. “In most cases, paying for these services is not necessary, as many of these resources are available at no cost.” He says that counselors at your school, staff at testing centers, and admission personnel at US colleges are some good sources of free assistance.
As the experts point out, the time spent in exam prep can make a big difference in your exam results. By taking advantage of help that is available, planning ahead, and dedicating yourself to solid preparation, you can succeed with this important part of the university application process.
4 essential exam prep tips
- Pay attention to deadlines. Exams are offered on predetermined dates throughout the year. You can find dates and locations on websites of the organizations that administer the tests, as well as on college and university sites. Be sure to become familiar with this information and register for exams by the posted deadlines.
- Find out what exams are needed to reach your goals. If you already have a list of schools you’d like to attend, find out which exams they require and plan accordingly. You may find that there are fewer requirements than you anticipated.
- Take time to prepare. Well in advance of any exam date, make the investment of time to prepare for it. Whether that means taking online practice tests, working through a practice booklet, or reviewing textbook material, any time spent is generally worth the effort.
- If your test score is lower than you had hoped, consider retaking it. Students frequently score higher when repeating the process. In some cases this may be due to greater familiarity with the exam and what to expect when taking it. Or you may uncover areas you can improve upon and target with extra study time before retaking the exam.