Skip to content

Deciding which standardized test to take before applying to U.S. schools requires some careful thought. Many schools require students to submit SAT or ACT test scores with their applications, which is why college admissions counselors stress their importance. Many students spend months preparing to take one or both exams. For these reasons, it is vital to choose the right test. Read on to learn more about the differences between each test, how being an international student affects you, and which test may be your best option.

What is the SAT?

The SAT measures students’ critical-reasoning skills and problem-solving abilities by testing their skills in reading, writing, and math. It also includes an optional essay section.

Related: Check out our 12 resources for improving your English language test score.

The SAT scoring scale ranges from 400 to 1600. A total of 800 possible points come from the combined reading and writing sections. The other 800 possible points come from the math section.

Two important things to note about the SAT math section: it asks both multiple-choice and free-response questions, so make sure you are familiar with both. In addition, you may use calculators for some of the math questions, but not all of them.

What is the ACT?

Whereas the SAT measures students’ critical reasoning abilities, the ACTmeasure students’ learned knowledge. The ACT measures students’ knowledge of English, reading, math, and science. The ACT also includes an optional essay section.

Each section of the ACT is scored from 1 to 36. The scores from each section are then averaged to create an overall score from 1 to 36.

The ACT asks only multiple-choice questions (except for the optional essay). Note too that while calculators are allowed on the ACT math section, they are not allowed on the ACT science section, even though some of the science questions require mathematical calculations.

Which is better for international students?

Simply being an international student does not necessarily answer the question of which test you should take. However, do consider the following factors as you think about your decision.

International students have a different testing timeline than American students. Whereas students in the United States have seven opportunities per year to take the SAT or the ACT, students in other countries have only five opportunities per year to take the ACT, and just four opportunities per year to take the SAT. For international students, the ACT is usually administered in September, October, December, April, and June, and the SAT is usually administered in October, December, March, and May. For some students, the timing of each exam may be a deal breaker depending on when they plan on studying and sending their applications to schools. You should consider your timeline when deciding to take the SAT or the ACT.

Another important factor to consider is that the ACT includes a science section while the SAT does not. Many international education systems include a heavily science-based curriculum. If this is the case for you, you may prefer the ACT as it will allow you to show off your science knowledge and improve your score. Knowing which areas you excel or struggle at will help you select which test to take.

So, should I take the SAT or the ACT?

The answer to this question varies by person. Some students are better off taking the SAT, while some students should take the ACT. Many students choose to take both tests and send universities the higher score. The SAT and the ACT have some key differences that may help you decide which test to take.

On the SAT, reading and writing combine to make up half of your score, and math makes up the other half of your score. These scores are added together to make up your overall score. Because of this, each section on the SAT is very important. On the ACT, because your overall score is calculated by averaging your scores from each section, it is easier to make up for a bad section. For example, the math section counts for only a quarter of your score on the ACT, whereas it counts for a half of your score on the SAT. For this reason, if you are weak in a specific subject, the ACT might be better for you.

On the other hand, the ACT is faster-paced than the SAT. On average, the SAT allows more time per question than the ACT. Because of this, some students find the SAT to be easier. It is important for you to think about how well you manage your time and how well you perform under pressure.

Finally, it is important to note that while both the SAT and ACT essays are optional, many schools require them as part of the application. Students should also consider taking the SAT Subject Tests, as many schools require these, too, regardless of whether you took the SAT or the ACT. If you are still unsure which test you should take, consider consulting with one of our trusted academic counselors.