Digital US Admissions Tests for International Students

How to help students outside of the US understand the Computer-Based ACT & Digital SAT.

For international students, taking either an ACT or SAT will involve the use of a computer or device, yet the digital formats of these tests are not identical, so it is important for families and educators supporting these international students to understand the nuanced differences of these computerized testing experiences. 

ACT (Computer-Based for International Students)

Since September 2018, students outside of the US have taken the ACT on a computer at a testing center. The structure, timing, and questions are all identical to what a student in the US would take on a paper test.

By taking this test on the computer, students can make use a number of digital annotation tools including:

  • a calculator
  • text highlighting
  • magnification
  • answer eliminator
  • answer marking
  • question flagging
  • warning about omitted questions
  • test timer 

These tools are fairly intuitive for students so rather than worry about them, families and educators should look to them as assets that would help a student move more seamlessly throughout the test.

 And because students aren’t flipping through a test booklet, there are additional perks that the computer-based test offers, such as no more potential answer sheet bubbling errors and no more passages and questions that may be split over several pages! Additionally, with the computer-based test, the passage and the questions remain on the same screen, helping students compare the text and their answer choices.

SAT (Digital for International Students starting March 2023)

The Digital SAT will also be a test taken on a device such as a computer or tablet, rather than on paper. And as Jed wrote in January 2022The College Board is following a long-line of testing agencies ditching scantrons for more secure, reliable, and efficient computer-based testing.” 

SAT & ACT Digital Annotation Tools are similar – How do the tests vary? 

Like the Computer-Based ACT, the Digital SAT also includes a variety of digital annotation tools including the use of a calculator throughout the test and the ability to use scratch paper and take breaks.

Unlike the Computer-Based ACT, each student taking a Digital SAT will NOT take an identical test. The Digital SAT is section-adaptive test in which your performance on the first module dictates the question you will have in the second module. 

For the Digital SAT, students will take two sections of Reading and Writing as well as two for Math. The Computer-Based ACT also contains four sections, but currently the ACT’s English, Math, Reading and Science sections are not adaptive.

Additionally, because questions are taken from a vast problem bank, the question that one Digital SAT student sees as number 5, may be another student’s number 12, and a third student may not even see that question.

You can find more on the Digital SAT here.

After the Digital SAT’s section adaptive feature, the most significant difference between the two tests is their timing. 

Compared to the ACT, the SAT has 59% more time per question with a shorter overall total testing time (2 hours 24 minutes for the SAT vs. 2 hours 55 minutes for the ACT).  So more time per question but a shorter test on the Digital SAT means that the ACT will feel speedy in each section and will take a longer period of time.

While the nature of a section adaptive test may be new to some, other admissions tests like the GRE and GMAT have been question adaptive for decades. As Jed wrote here, “The structural changes to the (SAT), making it shorter, adaptive, and slower-paced, will make it a more popular test for many students and educators.”

Putting Students First

While the format of these digital tests may involve some anxieties for parents and educators, this author is reminded that her children have been taking digital standardized tests since the 3rd grade! The annotation and other online tools can be so instinctive for digital natives. 

The use of a computer for both an SAT or ACT puts student’s in the driver’s seat about choosing which digital testing experience (and score!) is best suited for them. Schedule a call with an Applerouth Program Advisor to help your student start with a practice test, compare their scores and experiences and make a test prep timeline!

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