Philip Bates shares how international students can effectively prepare for the SAT and ACT
I’ve had conversations with high school students from India to South Korea, and they all want to attend a university in the U.S. And for good reason: the U.S. maintains the most attractive university system in the world. Our universities attract the best professors, where they are doing the most innovative and well-funded research in the world. The facilities are top-notch, and aspiring students have a wide array of degrees to choose from. Schools have strong partnerships with the business community, so internships are easily accessible. The opportunities are endless, and the universities connect their students to those opportunities. Whether a student pursues a career in the U.S. or takes their degree back to their home country, graduating from a U.S. college is an impressive notch on any resume.
Many of the international students I talk to are aiming for a spot at an Ivy League university. For plenty of them, a qualifying SAT or ACT score is the barrier. The only way they can get past that roadblock is by scoring in the top tenth percentile. That’s not an easy task for students who aren’t familiar with academic English, have no experience with the structure of the tests themselves, don’t have access to updated prep tools, and may not even know how far in advance they should begin preparing for these tests. Here’s a look at the major barriers to SAT and ACT success for non-U.S. students, and how they can overcome them.
When you ask students from other countries “What universities do you know of?”, they immediately respond with top-tier, Ivy League schools. These schools have brand recognition and reputations that stretch back generations. Students from all over the world strive to go to these universities. In most cases, these schools are considered far superior to what they have in their backyard.
Since everyone wants to go to an Ivy League, the admission criteria for these universities are highly competitive. Families in other countries aren’t familiar with the fact that there are many high-quality universities in the U.S. that aren’t listed as top tier. Since acceptance rates at top-tier universities have reached an all-time low,1 though students can still strive to get into these schools, they also need to have at least one safe school. Having at least one guaranteed admission can help take some pressure off students and enable them to focus on doing the necessary work to qualify for a top-tier university.
Academic Language and Grammar
Once international students have a realistic sense of the scope of U.S. universities, the most obvious barrier to getting into the colleges of their choice is language. Students from other countries are inundated with—and in some cases may have learned to speak English from—informal language through media, movies, and music, but they are not being actively exposed to formal or academic language. They may be able to speak conversational English, but when it comes to the SAT and ACT, you need to understand academic English and you certainly can’t select answers just because they sound right. You have to know basic English grammar rules and be able to apply them and understand academic vocabulary, or you’re just not going to be successful.
Many of these students study academic English and seek comprehensive grammar instruction. If they know they have large gaps in their vocabulary or in application of English grammar, some start preparing years in advance. The next challenge they face is not just to learn, for example, subject-verb agreement in isolation, but to learn it through actively practicing SAT and ACT questions.
Access to Quality Prep Tools
One of the largest barriers for foreign students is that they have limited access to quality resources. Many international students aren’t looking to score a 1250 on their SAT. Although a 1250 is a very solid score that would allow for admission into many universities, international students who dream of a top-tier university are aiming for a 1500+. Ultra-high scores on the SAT and ACT are a great way to separate from the pack. It’s a long journey from baseline knowledge to scoring in the top percentile, and to get to that mastery point, they’ll need to be familiar with every type of question they could possibly see on the exam. Since admission exams are constantly evolving, there’s a high risk that students’ resources are out of date. If they’re purchasing a book because it’s cheap on Amazon—but it’s more than a couple of years old—there’s a good chance that exam content has drastically changed.
Sometimes even that isn’t possible. I remember talking to a student from Egypt who said he couldn’t even get an ACT prep book shipped to his house because of customs and other obstacles. He felt like he was on an island. The only way he could access anything was on his computer and phone.
There are practice tests out there on the internet. Many international students I speak to don’t have access to computers but do have smart phones, so for these tests to be helpful, they have to be viewable on mobile devices. Even then, a practice test won’t help students through the answers they got incorrect and provide them with the knowledge they need to effectively tackle similar questions in the future. Students often don’t have access to anyone who’ll walk them through the explanation. They need high-quality resources because they don’t have the luxury of going to their English teachers to get a thorough explanation of comma splices and other items that are tested. They need the resources to learn from their mistakes on their own, so they know how to get the answer right the next time.
Gearing up for these tests can be a multiyear process, so students need SAT and ACT preparation resources that are not only comprehensive but robust enough to support them for the long term. They can’t find one little SAT book and decide to use that for 18 months. They need to find content that not only teaches them every skill on the test but also has many questions that build on each other. They need to be able to spiral questions from low to medium to high levels so they can build up from baseline concepts to feeling comfortable with the material and the test itself.
The SAT and the ACT strictly align content with the U.S. Common Core State Standards. They are supported by instruction that takes place in the U.S. For instance, a third-grade teacher will give a student a reading passage and comprehension questions to go along with it. It’s the same format on the SAT and ACT, so U.S. students are exposed to the format of these admission tests from a
very early age. By contrast, an international student may be more familiar with book reports based on entire novels. An international student might find mathematical
word problems difficult to understand if they are solely accustomed to computational-type questions.
Active practice with well-modeled questions will help students break this barrier. The questions should be paired with high-quality explanations that let students know where they went wrong. The tools should be heavily based around content knowledge. The SAT and ACT aren’t IQ exams, so students who continue to practice will get better over time, because they’re learning the subject matter but also because they’re actively practicing something that mimics the exam.
When it comes to test-taking strategy, students should avoid gimmicky advice like “don’t read the passage first; to save time, go straight to the questions.” Students aren’t going to trick the test, but there are tactics students can use to have a better chance of getting the correct answer in some cases.
For instance, if a summary question is first in a section, a smart approach is to save it for the end. Answering the comprehension questions about a reading passage
first will allow students to gather nice baseline knowledge to eventually answer the summary question.
Concise language is also a big part of SAT grammar questions. Typically, the
shortest answer written in a formal way is the correct answer. Students, and especially international students, wouldn’t necessarily pick up on that. It sounds simple and silly, but it’s a helpful tip. We’ve studied enough tests that we can give students insider knowledge that will help them on test day. No matter what specific tools international students choose to prepare for the SAT or ACT, access is the largest barrier. If they don’t have access, they don’t have opportunity.
Philip Bates is a college prep project director for UWorld (www.uworld.com). He can be reached at email@example.com. UWorld has compiled a great deal of research on these tests, and they don’t keep it to themselves. For example, a semicolon is often an answer choice on the SAT grammar section but has only been the correct answer once in the last several years.