SAT, ACT Test Prep Tips for International Students

Find out how to master one of the most important college admissions requirements.

Networking with future classmates is one way new MBA candidates can get a jump start on the school year.

Networking with future classmates is one way new MBA candidates can get a jump start on the school year.

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In order to apply to many of the colleges and universities in the U.S. News Best Colleges rankings, students must first take the SAT or the ACT. The standardized tests gauge college readiness by focusing on areas including math and reading—which, for international students, can sometimes be tricky. 

Here are five tips to help you master the tests. 

1. Fine tune your English: Since both the SAT and the ACT have sections that require English abilities, it's "ineffective and inefficient" for non-native English speakers to prepare without first mastering the language, says Sam Hwang, founder and CEO of New Pathway Education and Technology, a test prep company founded in Shanghai. He recommends studying first for the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), and not moving on to SAT or ACT training until scoring at least 90 (out of 120) on the Internet-based exam. 

[Get tips to master the TOEFL.] 

Even if you know English, make sure you're familiar with American English, recommends Prince Abudu, a student from Zimbabwe who's studying at Morehouse College in Atlanta. For Abudu, who studied British English growing up, reading essays online helped him to understand the nuances of American English as he prepared for the reading and writing sections of the SAT. 

2. Work on understanding context: Simply being able to read in English won't likely be sufficient for the SAT, in particular, which requires students to process and comprehend information. 

"Just reading the text can sometimes be a big challenge," says Jon Small, vice president of college prep at Veritas Prep, an admissions consulting company. "Even if they have done quite a bit of reading, they will need to analyze text in a completely different way than they have in the past." 

Students can also expand their vocabulary by studying lists of the most common words used on the SAT, for instance—offered online or through test companies including Veritas Prep. Terms such as "amicable" are often tested but may not pop up in students' everyday conversations, Small notes. 

3. Focus on your weaknesses: In Small's experience, international students might master the quantitative parts of the SAT in half the time Americans do, but could take twice as long to feel comfortable with the reading and writing sections. Allot significant time to boosting your confidence in areas that are tough for you, he recommends. 

[Get more tips on SAT and ACT preparation.] 

But don't completely gloss over sections you assume will be easy. "A lot of students think the math section is a lot easier than it is," Hwang says. "People in China think that the U.S. math curriculum is much further behind the level in China, which is true at the high school level, but they assume that the SAT math is a lot easier. It's not purely a math test; they find that it's a lot harder than they initially thought." 

4. Master the test structure: Whether you choose to take the SAT or the ACT, it's important to understand the makeup of the tests, Abudu of Morehouse College says. 

"The structure of the SAT itself is very important for international students," he says. "You may come into the exam knowing how to answer the questions, but if you don't know the structure, you may panic." 

The SAT includes three timed sections: reading comprehension, writing, and math, while the ACT has four components, including science, and an optional writing portion. By taking practice tests, Abudu and fellow Zimbabwean and Morehouse College student Abel Gumbo learned the structure of the SAT and felt more comfortable performing in the time allotted for each component, they say. 

5. Set a goal: For an extra boost while preparing, try to remember why you want to go to a U.S. college in the first place. For Gumbo, picturing his computer science courses in the United States, which he notes is more technologically advanced than Zimbabwe, pushed him to stay on track. 

"I knew that I could not fail the SATs because I needed to go to the United States," Gumbo says. "It motivated me to study more so I could get a really high score."