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  • Rachel Hartley

Alphabet Soup: IELTS, TOEFL, ACT, SAT



If you’re looking at the application requirements for universities in the U.S., you’ve probably seen some of these acronyms for all of the test requirements.


To apply as an international student, you may need to take an English language proficiency exam (IELTS or TOEFL) and/or a college admissions test (ACT or SAT). Why are there so many options? And what applies to you? Let’s dive in.


English language exam options

TOEFL stands for Test of English as a Foreign Language and is an English language proficiency exam consisting of four sections: Reading, Listening, Speaking, and Writing. For the speaking portion, you will record your answers by using a microphone.


You may have seen the letters “iBT” next to TOEFL, which means internet-based test and is the newest version of the exam. The TOEFL takes around 3.5 hours to complete and is scored 0-120. The majority of universities in the U.S. accept the TOEFL exam.


The other most common exam is the IELTS, which stands for the International English Language Testing System. This exam can be done on a computer or on paper and has the same four sections as the TOEFL (reading, listening, speaking, and writing). However, the speaking portion is completed by talking with a person, not a microphone and computer.


The IELTS scoring system uses the average of the four sections with a final score between 0-9. The exam takes about three hours and you’ll have your results in 5-13 days depending if you take it on the computer or on paper. IELTS is also accepted in the U.S. but is the standard for the UK, Australia, and New Zealand.


Both TOEFL and IELTS are accepted by universities in the U.S., however, some schools only accept one version or prefer one test over the other. Many universities may be open to other licensed English exams outside of IELTS and TOEFL as well, so it is good to do your research and ensure that you are compliant with the schools on your application list.


It is also important to note that if you study at an international high school in which English is used in the curriculum, you may be eligible to waive the English test altogether if you have scored well in certain English/academic courses.


We’ll help you navigate which test you need in order to apply to your top choice universities.

Academic entrance exams Both the ACT and SAT are nationally standardized tests for U.S. universities. The good news is that all U.S. universities accept both the ACT and the SAT! But what does this mean for an international student? Let’s explore. Nowadays, U.S. universities vary greatly in their requirements for standardized admissions tests. Generally speaking, American (domestic) applicants must apply with an ACT or SAT exam, as these exams test for proficiency in the standard American high school curriculum. However, many U.S. universities are starting to recognize that these exams are not applicable to international students, and therefore may not require them at all for international admissions. Of course, it is crucial that you understand what your choice schools require from you before you begin the application process. If you do need to submit an ACT or SAT as an international candidate, we can help! Here are some key takeaways about each exam to help you choose:

  • The ACT is the abbreviation for the American College Test, which is scored on a scale of 1-36. The SAT stands for Scholastic Aptitude Test, has been around since the 1920s, and uses a scoring system of 400-1600.

  • Both exams offer optional writing portions. Before you sign up for the ACT/SAT, talk with us to find out if the university encourages or requires the writing section.

  • There are more international testing sites for the SAT than the ACT. Depending on your location, one may be more accessible than the other.

  • The ACT includes a science section while the SAT does not. Instead, the SAT tests scientific skills throughout the other sections.

  • The SAT explicitly tests your English vocabulary, while the ACT does not. If English is your second language, you may have an easier time taking the ACT.

  • Some schools no longer require the ACT or SAT and base admission primarily on your academics from high school. However, they might use the ACT/SAT scores to award scholarships, so if you score well on either exam it is strongly recommended that you include the exam in your application.

We know this is a lot of information and it might seem like there are so many options! That’s why we’re here to help you through the exam process. Contact us for your virtual advising appointment.


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