4 Tips for International Students Planning to Take SAT or ACT

For international students applying to U.S. colleges, preparing for the SAT or ACT can feel daunting. Both tests are available overseas, but test date availability, access to local testing centers, cheating scandals, and recent changes in ACT test format (from paper to computer-based) have all made the process a bit more complicated for the international student. With an informed approach, international students can manage the testing process effectively. For students who will test during the 2019-2020 cycle (August 2019 through July 2020), now is the time to start planning. In this article, we provide some key tips to help students with the planning process.

Tip #1: Make A Testing Plan in Advance

We recommend that international students start planning earlier than their fellow students in the U.S. An ideal time to start is during the second year of high school and no later than the spring before the student’s anticipated testing cycle. For example, a student who plans to test during the 2019-2020 cycle should start planning now if she hasn’t already done so.

Two factors make early planning a must. First, international students have fewer test dates to choose from and fewer local test centers. In many cases, international students may have to travel to another city or country to take the SAT or ACT on their desired test date. Second, cheating scandals have been more prevalent overseas, leading to last-minute test date or score cancelation in certain international markets. The most recent mass cancellation just occurred last month when the College Board announced that it was cancelling the March 9 SAT in Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Egypt, just days before the test.

An ideal testing plan for an international student will include up to three official test dates (for the SAT or ACT), plus at least one date for SAT Subject Tests, if needed. The plan should also allow for some flexibility should an unexpected cancelation or test center closure occur. The ideal testing timeline will vary from student to student, depending on course loads, readiness, activity schedules, and the student’s test of choice (ACT or SAT), among other factors.

To aid with individual planning, here is a snapshot of the test-date landscape for international students planning to test during the 2019-2020 test cycle.

International Test Dates 2019-2020
SAT and SAT Subject Tests
SAT International Test Dates SAT Available SAT Subject Test Available
October 5, 2019 Yes Yes
November 2, 2019 No Yes
December 7, 2019 Yes Yes
March 14, 2020 Yes Yes
May 2, 2020 Yes Yes
June 6, 2020 No Yes
August 29, 2020 (new date for 2020-21 cycle) Yes No


The College Board has announced that it will add a late August test date for the 2020-2021 cycle, which we’ve listed above so students can plan ahead. The addition of this fifth test option will be a welcome change for international students.

The College Board has announced changes to the Subject Test calendar that will go into effect in the 2020-2021 cycle when the new August SAT date is added. Students testing in 2020-2021 can anticipate Subject Tests in August, October, December, May, and June. While some of the most popular Subject Tests (like Math 2) are offered on every date listed, other subjects (like World History and many of the foreign languages) are only offered on a handful of dates.

ACT International Test Dates
September 13-14, 2019
October 11-12, 2019
December 13-14, 2019
February 7-8, 2020
April 3-4, 2020
June 12-13, 2020


For each two-day testing window, ACT, Inc. offers a morning session and an afternoon session, although session availability may vary depending on the testing center.

Tip #2: Register for the Test As Early As Possible

We advise international students to register for their intended test dates as early as possible. With fewer test dates overall and limited test center availability in certain countries, it is not uncommon for international students to find themselves locked out of their ideal test date in their home country.

Official registration deadlines are not yet available for the 2019-2020 cycle, but these deadlines typically fall about one month before the official test. To see a list of current international registration deadlines, please visit the testing company websites:

Tip #3: Know Your Options (SAT vs. ACT vs. Test Optional)

We advise all students to begin the prep process by taking full-length practice tests to determine which test, SAT or ACT, is a better fit. International students may be wondering whether one of the two tests is a better fit for non-U.S. test takers, particularly for those who did not learn English as a first language. As a general matter, the ACT is a more fast-paced test than the SAT. The SAT allows more time per question but requires a higher reading level throughout all sections, including Math. A student who is less confident in English might lean toward the ACT due to the lower reading level demands, but other students might find that the higher-level vocabulary on the SAT is manageable thanks to the extra time provided. For all students, international or otherwise, the best approach is to use full-length practice test to see how the differences on the two tests affect the individual test taker.

The ACT offers more international test dates than the SAT, which might be a deciding factor for students who do equally well on both tests. In addition, the ACT is now entirely computer-based outside the U.S. As we explain in more detail below, it is reasonable to anticipate that the computer-based format will help to reduce the likelihood of cheating-related cancelations. ACT, Inc. says that scores for non-writing sections on the computer-based test will be available within two business days.

International students who do not fare well on standardized tests or who have difficulty navigating the more limited international access to test dates and locations may wish to pursue a test-optional or test-blind admissions pathway. Most U.S. colleges still require standardized test scores for international applicants. International students interested in foregoing testing will need to carefully research the admissions policies at their schools of interest.

Admissions officers are aware that international students face unique accessibility challenges when it comes to securing local test dates and avoiding cancelations. Still, many rely on scores, especially for students from foreign schools or programs, to help assess applicants. During a conference panel discussion last year, we heard from admissions officers from a large state school who felt that they have no choice but to look at standardized test scores when reviewing international applications. One school official noted that the SAT and ACT remain reliable predictors of freshman GPAs at his school in spite of the issues with cheating and limited access.

Still, testing flexibility is not a lost cause for the student who has faced an unexpected cancellation and is willing to research school policies. The International Association for College and Admission Counseling has called upon the College Board and ACT, Inc. to address the relative lack of access for international students. In 2018, the International ACAC released a list of schools willing to accommodate students affected by testing irregularities. While last updated in 2018, the list shows that some schools will accommodate students who have been impacted by testing issues beyond their control.

Tip #4: Get Ready for the Computer-Based Test (If Taking the ACT)

In September 2018, the ACT moved to a computer-based test (CBT) format for test takers who live outside the U.S. The SAT, for the time being, remains paper-based both in the U.S. and internationally.

ACT, Inc.’s shift to digital testing should help address some of the cheating and test cancelation concerns noted above. Paper-based tests are highly vulnerable to cheating because both test companies reuse existing paper test forms in different markets or time zones in order to meet the demand for tests. Cheaters have exploited this fact, working to steal or memorize test forms and then later circulate them for future test takers to see. ACT Inc.’s CBT is a first step toward a more secure test format. It is harder to steal a test form when there is no paper to steal, and, even where a leak is suspected, the digital test allows ACT, Inc. to administer a different test form, even at the last minute. CBT makes ACT, Inc. a bit more nimble and leaves cheaters a bit less to work with.

Still, the ACT CBT is less groundbreaking than the name might suggest. ACT, Inc. simply converted existing paper-based ACT tests into digital tests. The questions, test sections, and timing are exactly the same as they were before the migration to CBT. International students can still prepare for the same ACT as they have in the past, but the test is now delivered via computer rather than paper. To learn more about the CBT, students can visit ACT, Inc.’s general information page on this topic.

While the test content, sections, and timing remain the same, the computer interface brings some new elements to the experience. ACT, Inc. provides a tutorial that international students can use to familiarize themselves with the CBT platform. Students will find new digital tools that can help them work through the test. For example, a line reader tool lets students isolate text as they read, and an answer eliminator allows students to put an “x” over answer choices to help with process of elimination. Students can also flag questions for later review.

One significant downside of the current digital test format is that there is no way to annotate the text and write notes. Students can use scratch paper to make notes, but they will have to adapt to looking back and forth from their written notes to the computer screen.

We highly recommend that students practice using the CBT platform to get experience with the full set of new tools available. ACT, Inc. offers two digital practice tests, which students should use to prepare. In short, students need to familiarize themselves with the features of digital testing and practice before test day is essential.

Applerouth is a trusted test prep and tutoring resource. We combine the science of learning with a thoughtful, student-focused approach to help our clients succeed. Call or email us today at 866-789-PREP (7737) or info@applerouth.com.