Most American colleges and universities require all applicants – including international students – to submit an ACT or SAT test score as part of their admissions application. But which test should you take – and does the ACT or SAT test look better on your application as an international student?
First, let’s break down the two tests: what is the SAT and what is the ACT?
What is the SAT Test?
The SAT test is a 3-hour standardized test evaluating a student’s mastery of high-school math, reading comprehension, and writing and grammar skills.
The test is broken into four timed multiple-choice sections: Reading, Writing and Language, Math Without Calculator (you cannot use a calculator during this section), and Math With Calculator (you can use an approved calculator during this section). You take the test on paper (you can write on it!) and record your answers on a bubble sheet/scantron.
The SAT is scored out of 1600 points. The Math section is scored out of 800 and the scores of the Reading and Writing and Language are combined for one score out of 800. Adding the two scores together creates a composite score of up to 1600. No points are deducted for wrong answers.
For more detail on the SAT test sections and how the SAT is scored, read this post.
What is the ACT Test?
The ACT test is a 2 hour, 55 minute standardized test evaluating a student’s master of high school math, reading comprehension, writing and grammar skills, and science.
The ACT has four multiple choice sections: English, Math, Reading, and Science, and an optional Essay section. You can use an approved calculator on the entire math section. The test is given on paper in the United States but is on a computer if taken outside the US. So if you take the ACT outside the US, you will take it on a computer in a testing center.
Each ACT section is scored out of 36 points. Your four section scores are averaged into one composite score. No points are deducted for wrong answers.
For more detail on the ACT test sections and how the ACT is scored, read this post.
TOEFL or IELTS Requirement for International Students
If English is not your native language, you will most likely have to take the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) or IELTS (International English Language Testing System) in addition to the SAT or ACT. Learn more about the TOEFL here and the IELTS here.
What Schools Accept the ACT? What About the SAT?
All four-year universities in the US accept both the ACT and the SAT.
Despite what you may read online, one test is not more valued by colleges than the other. The ACT and SAT tests are viewed equally by colleges, and submitting a score from one test or the other does not give you any admissions advantage. So if you take both tests, submit the higher score.
Despite what you may read online, one test is not more valued by colleges than the other. The ACT and SAT tests are viewed equally by colleges, and submitting a score from one test or the other does not give you any admissions advantage.
Is the ACT or the SAT Better for International Students?
As it is with American students, deciding if the ACT or SAT is best for you depends on your strengths and weaknesses. One test is not better than the other – but one may be better for you. There are differences in timing, scoring, and content that could mean you favor one test.
Pros of the ACT
ACT test questions are more concise and clearer than SAT test questions, so you spend less time figuring out what the question is asking and more time figuring out the answer.
Additionally, each section of the ACT is weighted equally; this means you can have one low section score and still achieve a high composite score. So if you struggle with Math, then a high score in the Science, Reading, and English sections can help bring up your composite score.
Cons of the ACT
The majority of your time in the ACT is spent reading some kind of passage (Reading, English, or Science) – 66%. The Science section is particularly wordy and tests your comprehension of scientific writings and data representation, rather than specific scientific knowledge. If you are not a strong English reader, you may find the amount of reading material on the ACT very challenging, which could slow down your progress throughout the test.
The ACT is also a bit faster-paced than the SAT; you have about 25 more seconds per math question on the SAT than the ACT.
Pros of the SAT
Strong mathematicians may prefer the SAT test. Due to the way SAT scores are calculated, the SAT math score is 50% of the total score. And since SAT scores are often reported as the two section scores (Math and Evidence-Based Writing and Language) rather than the total score, a high math score can really shine.
Cons of the SAT
The SAT uses more data in its questions and has a greater amount of long word problems, which can be challenging if you are not a strong English reader.
Additionally, you can’t use your calculator on both Math sections. While most math questions on the SAT and ACT can be done without a calculator, this may be something to consider if you’d prefer to have a calculator for the entire math section.
The best way to choose between the ACT and the SAT is to take a few practice tests and see which test comes more naturally to you. The two tests are viewed equally by colleges, so choose based on where you can get a higher score.
Where and When Can I Take the ACT or SAT?
The ACT test is offered internationally in February, April, June, July, September, October, and December.
The SAT test is offered internationally in August, October, December, March, and May.
Register for the ACT here.
Register for the SAT here.
How Do I Study for the ACT or SAT?
Studying for the ACT or SAT requires time and dedication. We recommend American students study for either test for about three months, but as an international student taking the SAT or ACT test, you may want to allow more time to familiarize yourself with the tests, particularly the reading content.
As an international student, you may want to allow more time to familiarize yourself with the tests, particularly the reading content.
Start by choosing study materials that teach you the test content. Watch out for programs that rely heavily on rote practice or practice questions with no explanations. It’s most important to learn the content that’s covered on the tests so you can get the correct answer on any test question, not just the ones that look familiar.
Olive Book’s ACT and SAT online test prep courses teach you the content you need to know for test day so you can be confident that you’re studying effectively. Many of the course’s questions come with animated explanation videos that help you visualize tough math or reading concepts (see examples here). Additionally, the Reading section in the courses contains videos that explain how to read Reading and English passages, as well as how to choose the correct answers (see an example here).
Learn more about our online ACT and SAT courses here. You can enroll and start studying in less than two minutes!