Last Updated: May 3, 2012
As an international student, what standardized tests might you encounter as you apply to universities in the United States, and how should you prepare for them? The College Board's Janine Farhat guides you through the process.
Most colleges and universities evaluate applicants based on performance in the classroom (grades or marks), and the rigor and type of courses undertaken in school. Test results that demonstrate English proficiency, critical thinking, or subject knowledge help institutions determine if students are good candidates for the level and type of programs offered on their campuses. They also allow the admission office to compare students coming from diverse backgrounds, secondary schools, and national systems, where the curriculum and grading systems may be very different.
There are two main types of standardized tests: (1) those that measure English language ability among non-native speakers, such as TOEFL, IELTS, and others, and (2) college admission exams that assess students’ readiness for university-level work, including academic knowledge and skills like problem-solving, reading comprehension, and communication, such as the ACT and SAT. More selective institutions may also ask for SAT Subject Tests in specific disciplines like mathematics, sciences, history, literature, or a foreign language. These are one-hour multiple-choice exams demonstrating achievement in 20 subject areas. Students succeeding in college-level courses in secondary school, such as Advanced Placement (AP), Cambridge A-levels, or International Baccalaureate (IB), are also at an advantage in the college admission process due to the strength of these curricula.
Each U.S. university or college is autonomous and makes its own decisions about which tests will be accepted, required for international students, or recommended for admission, scholarships, or course placement and advising. Think of these various scores as extra value-added tools that help the college match you with the right opportunities. Be sure you check each application for the test results and documentation you need—don’t assume that all institutions follow the same pattern. Generally the admission office will ask that official scores be sent directly from the test sponsor. If you take a test more than once, it is likely that the institution will use your highest score. Remember that they want you to succeed and complete a degree. When applying for admission, registering for tests, or requesting score reports, it is important that you always use the same name and spelling—this should be the name that appears on your passport and visa application. Then you can be confident your file will be complete when the institution decides whether to offer you a place in the freshman class.
The leading exams for measuring English-language proficiency are the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), sponsored by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), and the IELTS (International English Language Testing System), jointly owned and managed by a U.K.-Australia consortium including the British Council, IDP: IELTS Australia, and University of Cambridge ESOL Examinations.
As global student mobility and courses offered in English are growing, new tests are developing. Always confirm with your specific colleges and universities which tests they prefer and if there is a minimum score required for your desired program. An institution may admit you provisionally until you can achieve the appropriate level of proficiency through an intensive English language program on campus. Conversely, a very good score may allow you to skip a basic first-year English composition course and take more advanced offerings.
Language testing is a very important part of the admission process for international students to ensure their chances for academic success in American classrooms. All four communication skills are evaluated by TOEFL and IELTS. TOEFL offers the Internet-based test (iBT) in most countries and the paper-based test (PBT) in select locations without reliable Internet access. There are 30–40 test dates and 4,500 test centers available in 165 countries. IELTS is offered up to four times a month in more than 125 countries. These two tests vary in their design and scoring—be sure to familiarize yourself in advance with the types of questions, review the information on their websites, and take a practice test. Immerse yourself in English-language music, film, and videos, and find a native speaker with whom to converse on a regular basis for best results.
College admission tests
Most U.S. undergraduate programs accept either the ACT or SAT. They are both primarily multiple-choice tests with a writing component (ACT Writing is optional) that seek to quantify what students know and their ability to apply that knowledge, based on a college-preparatory curriculum in secondary school. The ACT is organized by subject area (Math, Science, Reading, English) plus Writing. The SAT has three parts covering similar aspects, divided into Critical Reading, Math, and Writing. SAT Math features some free-response questions (writing your numerical answer in a grid) and SAT Writing includes a short essay. Students can register for the SAT online or by paper with an SAT International Representative in certain countries. The SAT is offered outside the United States six times between October and June. ACT has five test dates outside the United States; students testing outside the United States or Canada will typically need to register online and pay by credit card (check the ACT website for details). Both ACT and the College Board offer extensive practice materials, and career and college planning resources.
Services for students with disabilities
Any student with a documented disability that affects test taking (e.g., restricted vision or mobility) may apply for accommodations in testing, which must be submitted at least six weeks in advance of the test date. Examples of special arrangements include extra time, Braille or large-print materials, a reader or scribe, wheelchair access, etc. Contact the test sponsor to learn about requirements and documentation.