Originally Posted: May 28, 2020
Last Updated: Sep 21, 2020
The United States is home to some of the world’s leading universities, and they welcome students from all over the world to pursue their education and prepare for their future careers. If you’re interested in studying in the United States as an international student, there’s plenty of research to do before you even set foot on campus. US universities vary widely in terms of application requirements, and international students normally have additional requirements on top of the regular admission process.
One important piece of this process is meeting standardized testing requirements. Read on to learn more about the general admission and English-language proficiency testing requirements you should be aware of as a prospective international student heading to the US.
General knowledge tests: the SAT and ACT
The SAT and ACT are two standardized tests used to measure university applicants’ academic potential. Both test on general knowledge like reading comprehension, writing and language skills, and computational ability. International students have historically preferred the SAT out of familiarity, plus finding ACT testing centers and dates outside the United States proved more challenging until recently. But this is changing: both tests are now available around the world, and most universities accept scores from either, so you should choose the test that suits your abilities best.
But what are the main differences between the SAT and ACT? Here’s a quick overview and comparison.
The SAT tests four main subject areas:
- Reading tests your comprehension of and ability to draw conclusions from several written passages.
- Writing & Language asks you to read passages and make edits and improvements to the text.
- Math covers a range of topics in arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and data analysis, with an emphasis on problem-solving.
- An optional Essay (required by some universities) asks you to read a passage and write an essay explaining how the author built their argument, supporting your explanation with evidence from the passage.
The SAT is made up of 154 multiple-choice questions split into short alternating sections, and it takes three hours (or three hours and 50 minutes with the Essay). It’s scored on a scale of 400–1600.
Related: Top SAT Do’s and Don’ts
The ACT tests similar subject areas as the SAT with some slight differences:
- English asks you to make edits to or answer questions about a passage to measure your understanding of the message and grasp of standard English grammar and writing conventions.
- Math covers arithmetic, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and probability and statistics.
- Reading tests your ability to read closely, draw conclusions, and integrate information from multiple sources.
- Science Reasoning measures your ability to interpret and solve problems in the natural sciences, including biology, chemistry, earth and space sciences, and physics.
- The optional Essay section describes a complex issue and provides three different perspectives; you’re asked to develop or adopt one and write an essay comparing your perspective to others. This won’t affect your composite score.
The ACT contains 215 questions, split into four main sections, and is two hours and 55 minutes in length (three hours and 40 minutes with the Essay). It’s scored on a scale of 1–36.
Related: Tips for a Higher ACT Score
Which test should I take?
The SAT and ACT are clearly similar, but there are a few key differences:
- Time per question: The two tests are almost identical in length, but the ACT has a significantly higher number of questions. If you don’t like to feel rushed, or if you feel pressured by having to read in English quickly, the SAT may be the better choice.
- Science Reasoning section: Where the SAT will only refer to the sciences as part of a reading passage (if at all), the ACT contains a Science Reasoning section that makes up one-fourth of your score. Being an expert in the natural sciences isn’t necessary, but it’s recommended to have at least completed introductory science courses. If you have a strong science background, the ACT may be a good choice for you.
- Math differences: The ACT and SAT focus on slightly different topics in math. There are also other minor differences: the SAT provides a guide to common formulas, unlike the ACT, but it’s also more restrictive on calculator use. However, the most important difference is the scoring. Math makes up 50% of your total SAT score versus only 25% of the ACT (because of the inclusion of the Science Reasoning section). Your comfort level with math versus science as subjects should factor into your decision.
- Language differences: Language (English, Reading, and Writing) makes up half your score on both the SAT and ACT, so if English isn’t your strongest language, there’s no clear advantage to taking one test over the other. However, many international students have remarked on the ACT’s tendency to include more lesser-known idioms, which can be difficult for non-native speakers to translate in context. It’s a good idea to review practice questions to see if you feel more comfortable with one test’s language usage over the other and to study up on English idioms regardless of which test you decide to take.
English-language proficiency test requirements
If English isn’t your first language, or your education was given in a language other than English, most US universities will require you to submit proof of English proficiency. The type of proof accepted varies between institutions, but most schools accept two common standardized English tests: the TOEFL and IELTS.
The Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) is a test of English proficiency commonly taken for academic purposes. Scores are accepted by over 10,000 universities worldwide in over 150 countries as a way of proving English proficiency for undergraduate and graduate programs. The TOEFL is scored on a scale of 1–120 and is four hours in length.
The International English Language Testing System (IELTS) is a test used for study, migration, or employment proof of English proficiency and is widely accepted by US universities. There are two IELTS tests: IELTS Academic and IELTS General. The IELTS Academic is scored on a scale of 1–9 and takes two hours and 45 minutes to complete.
Important note: Most universities will only accept IELTS Academic as proof of proficiency; the General test tends to be shorter and is geared more toward people immigrating to English-speaking countries.
TOEFL vs. IELTS Academic: What’s the difference?
Both the TOEFL and IELTS Academic are made up of four sections that test basic reading, listening, speaking, and writing in English. Aside from the obvious contrast in length, there are a few minor differences:
- How the tests are given: The TOEFL is always computer based, whereas the IELTS can be offered as a paper- or computer-based test. On the speaking section, the TOEFL requires you to speak into a computer microphone, whereas you speak directly to the person administering the test during the IELTS.
- Question type and subject matter: The TOEFL contains only multiple-choice questions, whereas the IELTS has other types of questions such as fill-in-the-blank or true/false. TOEFL questions are all based on academic subject matter, while the IELTS Academic contains academic reading and writing sections but also more general listening and speaking sections with a focus on everyday conversation.
- Dialect: Because the TOEFL was developed in the US, it’s written in American English, while the IELTS is written in British English and tends to feel more comfortable to those with experience in a wide variety of dialects. This difference will likely not be large enough to impact your score, and neither test will penalize you if your answers are in another dialect; it’s just something to be aware of.
Your decision between the TOEFL and IELTS should factor in the convenience of test dates and locations in your area, how you learned English, your comfort level with different styles and dialects, and whether you prefer to test in person or via computer. Once you decide, take your test early—but not too early, as scores are only valid for two years.
The conversation around standardized testing is changing rapidly. While many US universities still require standardized test scores, more and more schools are reducing the importance of testing in admission decisions. There are now over 1,000 US universities that don’t require general standardized tests. [Editor’s note: With the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, more schools are electing to implement test-optional policies, many of which are likely to remain in place when international students are allowed to travel to the US for school again.] These fall into two broad categories:
- Test-optional schools allow you to decide whether you want to include standardized test scores with your application. Students can submit SAT or ACT scores if they feel they’re representative of their abilities or just omit them entirely.
- Test-flexible schools require some form of test score for admission but allow flexibility around which ones.
It’s important to be aware that even test-optional or test-flexible schools may have different requirements for international students. For example, many schools that don’t require the SAT or ACT from domestic students still require them from international students. Even if no general tests are required, there’s a good chance your prospective schools will still require proof of English proficiency or award scholarships based on test scores. Investigate the requirements for general and English-proficiency testing for international students carefully on both your school’s admission website and, if applicable, the website of the specific program you’re applying to.
Many universities will waive exams for international students if they’re able to provide other proof of knowledge or proficiency. For example, your school may waive TOEFL or IELTS requirements if you can provide transcripts showing you completed an ESL program or graduated from a high school where English was the sole language of instruction; others might even accept documentation of living or working in an English-speaking country as proof. If you don’t meet English-language testing requirements, you may also be granted conditional admission and be asked to participate in a special program for non-native English speakers. There are many circumstances in which universities will be flexible if you ask.
Applying outside the United States
Interested in applying to schools beyond the United States? Countries and individual universities worldwide vary widely in their requirements for international students, so it’s important to do your homework. About two years before you plan to apply internationally, begin researching the requirements for each of the schools you’re interested in. Starting your search early will give you plenty of time to familiarize yourself with their requirements, complete any standardized tests, and take care of other complicated processes such as visa applications and financial planning. Most school websites provide clear information on exactly which general knowledge and English-language tests you need to submit and possible exceptions; explore school and program websites carefully, and contact admission staff directly with any questions. There’s no such thing as being too thorough!
Applying to university as an international student takes hard work and preparation. But it will be worth it when you’re able to take advantage of all the rich experiences and diverse educational opportunities the United States—or wherever in the world you choose to study—has to offer.
Do you want to study outside of your country but don’t know which schools interest you yet? Start looking for your best-fit university on CollegeXpress using our College Search tool!