How Should International Students Choose between the ACT and SAT?

Every month, especially in summer, parents either come into my office or message me, asking the same question: “Should my son/daughter take the ACT or SAT?” Frankly, it is impossible to answer this question without knowing the student—everyone’s different, and when it comes to standardized tests, you must always take a few mock tests to know which one suits you better.

SAT is “Maybe” Better If…

However, if you are an international student who’s absolutely clueless, maybe the SAT is better for several reasons. ACT requires speed, and three of the four sections are technically verbal (including the science section which is essentially reading with graphs and data). Also, there are 75 questions in English and 60 in Math, so chances are you won’t be able to answer all the questions in time without enough practice.

For the new SAT, the verbal section is only half of the score (used to be two-thirds). So it could be easier if your first language isn’t English. Also, there are two math sections, in which the questions are all basic algebra and geometry. ACT math section starts off easy, but questions will be harder towards the end. If you’re comfortable with basic concepts of algebra and geometry, take the SAT. Speaking of old SAT vs. new SAT, there are no more “sentence completion” questions, meaning fewer vocab-specific, fill-in-the-blank questions. The Language and Writing section now consists of basic sentence structure and grammar rules, rather than identifying all the mistakes in sentences.

ACT is “Maybe” Better If…

There are, however, certainly pros of the ACT. For instance, ACT is known for its straightforward wording so it’s less confusing. Also, If you wish to demonstrate your math skills or your understanding of data analysis, ACT’s Math and Science sections give you that opportunity. But if you want to showcase your knowledge in particular math/science subjects (i.e. Biology or Chemistry), you’re better off taking the SAT Subject Tests, commonly known as the SAT II.

The First Step

Many of you may be thinking: “OK, so where should you start?” Frankly, as an international student and/or second language learner, you must begin with vocabulary. Though there’s less emphasis on vocab on both tests today, to almost every international student, the test is hard simply because, for the most part, the content isn’t fully understood. Imagine knowing only 60-70% of the words/characters in your own language: it’s safe to say that you wouldn’t be able to understand an article in a magazine or on the Internet, even though it’s written in that language.

Vocabulary is crucial not because you must memorize every definition, but because even vaguely knowing a word can help you connect ideas throughout an article, understand a piece of reading in its entirety, and make accurate guesses when answering questions.

As a reminder, when it comes to test prep, prep for SAT/ACT first, not TOEFL. You’ll notice how TOEFL becomes very easy once you improve on your SAT/ACT.

Recap: 4 Pros for taking the SAT vs. 4 Pros for taking the ACT

Pros for Taking the SATPros for Taking the ACT
More time per question compared to ACTWording is straightforward compared to SAT
Reading questions are in chronological order + evidence-support questions (ACT doesn’t have these questions)If you’re good at analyzing charts and data, ACT has a science section for you to showcase your strength
50% Math. SAT is better if you’re good at basic math (but not higher-level math)Calculator is allowed for every math question (SAT has one no-calculator math section)
SAT provides basic formula sheet + only 4 answer choices for every question (ACT has 5 answer choices)Your final score is the average of all four section scores, which is less likely to be negatively impacted by your weakness

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