Image from Flickr Commons

Image from Flickr Commons

Starting the college application process as an international applicant can be intimidating. Very intimidating. As a fellow international applicant, I’ve survived to tell the tale of my application process—from preparing for standardized tests to penning countless essays to selecting and committing to a college. Part I of this series of articles will detail my standardized testing experience and some (hopefully) useful tips. Keep calm, and apply international!

On Preparing for SAT/ACT

Standardized testing is without doubt a main focus in the application process. International applicants tend to struggle most with writing and reading sections of the SAT and ACT. My advices, though cliché, are to prepare AHEAD; practice consistently; and be fearless.

Prepare Ahead

Scores on reading and writing sections, unlike those of the math and science sections, tend to differ from time to time and take longer periods to improve. It’s especially difficult for international students who aren’t immersed in an English-speaking environment to raise and maintain high scores in a short period of time. Therefore, it’s crucial to start familiarizing yourself with test formats early on.

Practice Consistently

As an international student who lives in America, I often found it difficult to fit SAT preparation into AP exam/final exam schedules and extracurricular activities. My scores were very shaky the first few months of SAT prep, so I created intense yet reasonable prep schedules that could fit into the school year. For example, instead of pushing SAT prep to the weekends, you can do half to one hour of practice on specific sections each day to make sure you are as consistent as possible. I also left notes cards of SAT vocab, Barron’s 3000 and Direct Hits books in different places in the house so I can refresh my memory without using large blocks of time. These are just some simple tips on how to balance a busy school year with SAT/ACT prep; for further info, you can check the general schedule I’ve created for you below.

Be Fearless

One of the biggest standardized testing challenges for international students is usually test anxiety. Taking a rigorous exam in a second (or even third) language can be very unnerving, and many students have to travel to different cities/countries to take the exam. Under physical and psychological stress, it’s common to fall prey to test anxiety. As a survivor of test anxiety, I encourage each test taker to be fearless during the exam. After months of preparation, the best thing to do is to focus on the actual exam and less on doubts and negative thoughts.

On the importance of TOEFL/ IELTS scores

Almost all colleges require a type of English proficiency score for international students. TOEFL, Test of English as a Foreign Language, is usually what colleges in the U.S. prefer, though IELTS (International English Language Testing System) and miscellaneous national exams also qualify.

Although TOEFL/IELTS scores aren’t as important as SAT/ACT scores, colleges view them as accurate reflections of a foreign student’s English proficiency. I recommend starting the preparation process slightly later than SAT/ACT prep (late sophomore year) and try to improve both scores throughout sophomore and junior year. Students who do well on SAT/ACT usually can score 25+ on writing and reading portions; however, it’s often difficult to achieve perfect scores on speaking and listening portions without specific planned preparation. It’s important to practice with online programs and prep books, which have speaking topics and listening passages, to adjust to the tests’ pacing and time restrictions.

On Goal-setting

I’ve created a general timetable for SAT, SAT II and TOEFL/IELTS preparation. Keep in mind that this is based on my personal preference and schedule, so please feel free to alter and fit your own schedule.




  • Familiarize yourself with the test format
  • Take diagnostic tests
  • Start honing vocabulary and basic grammar rules
  • Familiarize yourself with vocabulary in math/science sections
  • Familiarize yourself with the test format
  • Review along with school’s curriculum if you have courses that overlap your SAT II exams
  • Familiarize yourself with test format
  • Take diagnostic tests to check standing/ problem areas
  • Most prep books come with a CD/ digital program. I used ETS’s Official Guide to the TOEFL Test and found it really helpful (119!).
  • Start taking practice tests twice a month.
  • It’s important to give yourself time to go over mistake.
  • Focus on problematic areas
  • If your school offers PSAT September of your junior year, you should focus on achieving and maintaining a high PSAT score first
  • Review along with school’s curriculum if you have courses that overlap your SAT II exams


  • Focus on speaking and listening portions by practicing with past prompts and digital programs.
  • If you feel ready, take TOEFL the summer after your sophomore year.
  • Take the PSAT (if your school offers it) in September
  • Hone problematic areas
  • Take practice SAT tests every week to make sure score stabilizes
  • Take your first SAT in January of your junior year*
  • Review SAT II Subject Test materials with AP exam materials if the subjects overlap.
  • AP Chemistry, Biology, World History and U.S. History are common AP courses taken internationally; the AP curricula (along with SAT II prep books) provide adequate preparation for SAT II tests.
  • Take SAT II Subject Tests in June (right after you’ve prepared and taken the AP exams).
  • Take full length practice exams every months to make sure your score stabilizes
  • Take the TOEFL test in June (after your junior year, if you haven’t done so the summer before).
  • Retake SAT Subject Tests or SAT (before January) if needed
  • Send in all required scores to colleges






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