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Testing Guide for International Students

For international students preparing to apply to US universities there’s a lot to consider – from the holistic admissions process, to other things like visa requirements and tuition costs – but one thing that many students overseas recognize the importance of is college entrance exams, specifically the SAT. However, this isn’t the only test that international students need to consider when applying to US universities.

It’s Not Just About the SAT or ACT
While college entrance exams such as the SAT or ACT are required for all applicants at many US colleges and universities, there can be additional tests that are either required or suggested, and some of these apply specifically to international applicants.

  • SAT Subject Tests: These exams are designed to test students’ proficiency in certain subjects, like biology, chemistry, foreign language, and more. There are over 20 subjects to choose from, and they are administered the same dates as the SAT, although some may not be offered on every date. Many selective universities, like Cornell, Dartmouth, Cal Tech, and Amherst, to name a few, require applicants to submit one or more SAT Subject Test scores in addition to their regular SAT or ACT scores. Other colleges, like Brown and Columbia, will allow students to substitute the ACT with writing for the SAT Subject Test Scores. This is an important admissions requirement to keep in mind, as it requires additional test prep, planning, and expenses.
  • TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language): In addition to standardized testing required for admissions consideration, international students whose first language is not English may also need to take the TOEFL, which consists of a mixture of multiple choice and essay-style questions. International students should carefully research each college they plan to apply to in order to determine individual testing and score requirements. Some schools will accept English proficiency based on SAT or ACT scores, while others will want to see the TOEFL in addition to the SAT or ACT.
  • IELTS (International English Language Testing System):Although the TOEFL is more widely known, most schools will also accept the IELTS to demonstrate English language proficiency. The IELTS is broken into four sections: listening, reading, writing, and speaking. The main differences between the IELTS and TOEFL are length and implementation. On the IELTS speaking section, for example, students will speak directly to a person, while those taking the TOEFL speak to a computer. The IELTS is also signifanctly shorter than TOEFL, clocking in at two hours and 45 minutes, as opposed to four hours. The writing portion of the TOEFL is also computer-based, while the IELTS writing section is on paper. While the TOEFL is more widely available, the IELTS can be a good option for students who are more comfortable with speaking with another person, varying question types, and taking a shorter exam.
  • AP (Advanced Placement) Tests: While these tests are not required for university admission, they are seen as a good demonstration of academic ability and rigor. Through the College Board’s AP program, students are able to take college-level classes (or study independently) to prepare for an exam in any of 36 subject areas. The exams, held in May of each year, are scored on a scale of one through five, with many colleges offering comparable credit for scores of three or higher. These tests are a great way to demonstrate knowledge in a certain area, reinforce a specialty, and gain college credit.
  • IB (International Baccalaureate) Tests: Another college-level course option for students, IB is a specific high school course program that awards students a special diploma upon completion. Similar to AP coursework, IB completion is not a requirement, but seen as a demonstration of academic rigor and dedication, and scores can be used for college credit.

When and How to Prepare
It’s important to allow plenty of time to prepare for testing, especially if international students are going to be taking additional exams like the TOEFL or IELTS. Students need time to practice, study, and retake the exams if necessary. Here’s when you should prepare for these tests:

  • TOEFL or IELTS: Scores for both the TOEFL and IELTS are only valid for two years, so it’s important to map out a testing timeline early enough to prepare and retake if necessary, but not start so early that your scores could be invalid by the time it comes to apply to US universities. Begin preparing by your second year in high school by taking practice tests and practicing your English by reading and speaking it daily. This will also help when it comes time to take the SAT or ACT.
  • SAT or ACT: Students should begin preparing for the SAT or ACT by their sophomore, or second, year in high school. Start by taking a practice test of each in order to determine which is the best test for you. Then, utilize online resources from the ACT and SAT to study and prepare. Plan to take the test as soon as you are ready, preferably by the start of junior or third year, keeping in mind there are some restrictions for certain countries. Struggling with the tests, or not getting the score you want? Consider seeking professional help from experienced tutors.
  • SAT Subject Tests: First, determine which tests are appropriate for you to take. If you’re a strong math or science student, consider taking tests in those subject areas. You’ll want to choose tests that will reinforce your academic interests and in which you will perform well. Ideally, students will take SAT Subject Tests after taking a course in that specific subject area. For example, students wanting to take the Physics Subject Test should take the exam as soon as possible after completing the course. Spend time preparing, studying, and practicing. Don’t sit for the test unless you’re ready.
  • AP Tests: Students taking an actual AP course should prepare for the test throughout the school year, reviewing relevant materials and taking practice tests when possible. For those who are self-studying and taking the test on their own, be sure to give yourself ample time before the test date to learn the material, review, study, and practice. International AP testing availably and dates can vary by country, so be sure to work with your school counselor and the College Board to arrange for testing accommodations.
  • IB Tests: Similar to AP, if you are enrolled in an IB program you need to continually study throughout the two-year program, preparing for the final exams at the end of the program. In some cases, it is also possible for students to take IB courses without being enrolled in the IB program and obtaining the subsequent diploma. Again, whether you’re taking the test as part of your diploma program or self-studying, time should be spent reviewing the relevant materials and taking practice tests when available.

Applying to a US university is complicated enough without having to worry about additional testing requirements. It’s important for international students to remember that with ample time and preparation, they can ace these tests, both required and optional, and better position themselves to gain admission to a top US university.

Want to learn more about the US admissions process and how international students can prepare? Download our free International Student Guide to US Admissions!

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