But the SAT is not the only option prospective college students have. Another test, the ACT, is accepted by all U.S. colleges as well.
[Find out how to prepare for the SAT and ACT.]
The ACT surveys knowledge learned, whereas the SAT focuses in part on critical thinking and reasoning. And it's an increasingly popular test choice: For the first time last year, more graduating seniors in the United States had taken the ACT than the SAT.
While the number of international students choosing the ACT is rising, students from abroad still represent a much smaller portion of testers than their domestic peers, says Jon Erickson, president of ACT's education division. Despite having more than 400 testing centers worldwide, the organization hasn't traditionally focused its marketing efforts abroad, he says.
That's likely the reason Chinese students aren't usually aware the ACT is a U.S. college prep option, according to Sam Hwang, founder and CEO of New Pathway Education and Technology Group, a company based in Beijing that offers SAT and ACT tutoring.
"No one's really taking it, but only because they don't know what it is," Hwang says.
The two tests have different formats. The SAT has three sections—critical reading, math, and writing—while the ACT has four components: English, math, science, and reading. Each section on the ACT tests a student's learnings from high school courses; the science portion, for instance, requires knowledge of either Earth science or a physical science, as well as biology, according to the ACT's website.
"The structure of the ACT is conducive to international education," Erickson says. "It's tied very much to subject level [and] I think the science part is also attractive to international students. A lot of international students who are looking to U.S. colleges tend to be in STEM fields, so I think that's attractive."
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But the science portion also presents an additional challenge, notes Jose Toro, an American student in a Florida high school who took both the ACT and SAT. "The first time I took it, I was rushing for time—I felt so pressured," he says, adding that the SAT felt like a "more laid back" option. "Especially because there is a science portion in the ACT, you really have to analyze the science, and it takes time."
The format might be a good choice for students who are stronger in quantitative subjects than in English reading and writing. While two thirds of an SAT score comes from English sections (reading and writing), only half of the ACT sections are purely language-based, Hwang notes. And although a writing portion is required in the SAT, it's an optional add-on for ACT test takers.
Still, the ACT demands a mastery of the language, Erickson says.
"The whole test is in English," he notes. "Every section has some correlation with a student's ability to speak or translate English."
[Learn key terms in this U.S. higher education glossary.]
International students preparing for the ACT should study up on idioms, which have both literal and figurative meanings, recommends Carolyn Kidd, a high school student from Maryland who took both the ACT and SAT. "Since the English section is made up of a ton of idioms, be sure to know only the most common ones, as they tend to show up frequently.
"Other than that, know, and be sure to review, trigonometry and basic science skills, especially chemistry," she adds.
For help studying for either exam, both the SAT website and ACT website offer practice questions (sometimes for a fee), as well as lists of testing centers and registration requirements to guide students through their preparation.
For more international student tips and news, explore the Studying in the United States center.