SAT or ACT: Which Test Is Best for an International Student?

by | Jan 9, 2023 | Admissions

More and more colleges and universities abroad are dropping standardized test requirements for both domestic and international applicants. That said, many still have SAT/ACT-optional policies in place for applicants—meaning that students can choose whether to submit standardized test scores as part of their college application.

FairTest estimates that SAT and ACT tests will be optional in more than 80% of four-year colleges for fall 2023. That amounts to more than 1,750 schools across the U.S. Additionally, 85 schools will have test-blind policies—meaning that standardized test scores won’t be considered even if submitted.

As standardized test policies evolve in U.S colleges and universities, it’s still a good idea for prospective international students to take these tests.

Standardized tests give college admission boards a universal metric for consideration. SAT and ACT tests scores can be especially helpful when comparing students from different backgrounds and academic grading systems.

That brings us to a critical question: SAT or ACT: Which test is best for an international student?

Let’s explore the two standardized tests for undergraduate college admissions to help you make an informed decision when selecting the best one for your college application abroad. We’ll start by defining the tests before diving into the pros and cons of each and finally giving you some advice on which one might be right for you.

What Is the SAT Test?

The SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) is a standardized test that measures a student’s mastery in three core areas:

  • Critical Reading
  • Math
  • Writing

The 3-hour SAT test is divided of four sections: Evidence-Based Reading and Writing, Math, an optional Essay, and an optional SAT Subject Test.

The test is typically taken by high school juniors and seniors, and international students looking to apply to universities in the United States.

The SAT is scored out of 1600 points: 800 for the Math section, and 800 for the Reading and Writing sections combined. To get a composite score, you add up your scores for all the sections.

The SAT is more popular with international college applicants. If you’d like to learn more about SAT scores, read this post.

What Is the ACT Test?

The ACT test is a standardized college admissions examination that is widely accepted by colleges and universities in the United States. The 2-hour and 55-minute test measures a student’s academic knowledge and skills in four areas:

  • English
  • Mathematics
  • Reading
  • Science

The test also has an optional Essay section.

Like the SAT, the ACT is designed to assess the student’s readiness for college-level work and provide colleges with an indication of the student’s potential for success.

Each one of the four ACT sections is scored out of 36 points. Your scores in each section are averaged into one composite score.

To learn how to prepare yourself for both SAT and ACT tests, read this post.

Key Differences Between SAT and ACT Tests

The SAT and ACT tests are both standardized tests used to assess college readiness for both domestic and international undergraduate applicants.

Although they are similar in some respects, there are some key differences that international students should consider before deciding on which test to take.

While the SAT focuses more on higher-level math and critical reading, the ACT places more emphasis on science and English grammar. In addition, the SAT has an optional essay section, while the ACT requires one.

The structure of the tests also differs: the SAT is broken into 10 sections, while the ACT is divided into four sections.

Each test has its own strengths and weaknesses. International students must research both tests to decide which one suits them best.

While most colleges and universities accept either one of the tests, some may have a preference for one over the other. Before making your decision, look up the standardized test requirements in your preferred colleges and universities abroad.

This article will guide you on how to narrow down your list of colleges and universities.

Below, let’s have an in-depth look at the pros and cons of the SAT and ACT tests for international students.

What Are The Pros and Cons of SAT Test for International Students?

The SAT is typically more popular with international students. There are a few reasons for that. Firstly, it’s widely accepted by colleges and universities abroad. Its popularity also means there are likely to be more resources to help international applicants book and prepare for the test.

The SAT also has a more straightforward structure than the ACT. It focuses more on reasoning and problem-solving skills (as opposed to background knowledge), which can be beneficial for students who may not have the same educational background as their American peers.

On the flipside, the SAT has an American-style format and language that can be difficult for some international students. The test may not accurately measure a student’s academic potential if they are not familiar with the American educational system.

What Are the Pros and Cons of the ACT Test for International Students?

Albeit less popular that the SAT, the ACT test is also widely accepted by colleges and universities abroad.

The biggest pro for the ACT test is that it’s shorter than the SAT. It’s also quite straight forward in format and language and has a simpler scoring system. You won’t spend your brainpower trying to figure out confusing phrasing that seems designed to trick you.

The ACT also has a science section—which allows you to show off your skills in analyzing data and evaluating hypotheses. Many international students excel in the science section, so its inclusion might be a plus for some.

If you’re mathematically gifted, you might also like that the ACT incorporates higher-level math concepts than the SAT. You’re allowed to use a calculator during the test.

On the other hand, the ACT test only has an optional Essay section. This is a downside for students with excellent writing skills. Lack of popularity with international applicants might also means having less resources and support available to help you prepare for the test.

Which Is Easier, SAT or ACT?

When it comes to deciding which test is easier, the SAT or the ACT, it really depends on the student’s individual strengths and weaknesses.

Generally, the SAT is seen as easier by most international students as it doesn’t require background knowledge. It focuses on reasoning and problem solving.

The SAT, on the other hand, additionally focuses on science and math. This makes the SAT a great choice for international students who are strong in math and science who might be interested in STEM majors.

The SAT is known to be more of a reasoning test, while the ACT requires more memorization and content knowledge. If a student is more comfortable with a reasoning-based test, then the SAT may be a better option. On the other hand, if a student is more comfortable with content-based questions, then the ACT may be a better choice.

Ultimately, the best way to determine which test is best for an international student is to take a practice test for both exams and compare results.

FAQs on SAT or ACT Test for International Students

Do colleges prefer SAT or ACT test?

Most colleges accept either one of the standardized tests for undergraduate admission. However, some schools may prefer one test over the other. Research the standardized test requirements in your preferred colleges and universities before making a decision.

When should you take the ACT or SAT test?

If you’re planning to study abroad, it’s recommended to take the SAT or ACT standardized tests as early as possible. According to our general study abroad application timeline, you should take these tests 12 to 14 months before the start of your college program (during your high school senior year).

However, it’s advisable to take your first SAT or ACT test in your high school junior year. If your scores aren’t satisfactory, this will give you ample time to retake the test.

Which colleges don’t require SAT or ACT test in 2023?

There are many colleges and universities that don’t require SAT or ACT tests in 2023. Here’s a comprehensive list.



Are you looking for scholarships or student loans to finance your education abroad? Find a scholarship through our extensive scholarship database and compare different loans on the 8B student loan marketplace.


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