Guide for International Students: International Standardized Tests

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By Deshan Mendis
Last updated on March 1, 2024

Standardized tests are admission requirements set by nearly every college and university in the US. This detailed guide to international standardized tests will help you learn about each one.

A standardized test proctor hands a test to a student sitting at a desk among rows of other students at desks in a large classroom

When applying for both undergraduate and graduate programs in the US, you are required to complete several standardized tests as part of the application process. These international standardized tests usually measure your academic performance, English speaking abilities, and your understanding of specific fields of study.

Whether you are an undergraduate or graduate student looking to take the next step in your academic journey in the US, it is important to learn about the American college admission tests you need to take and start preparing for them in advance. 

Read on to learn more about international standardized tests, including English proficiency tests,  undergraduate standardized tests, US standardized exams for graduate students, tests needed for specific programs, and testing waivers. 

English Proficiency Standardized Tests

English proficiency standardized tests measure your understanding of the English language. Most US universities and colleges accepting international students require you to take an English proficiency test to make sure you can actively participate in your lessons. Each institution lists a minimum score you must achieve as part of the application process.

You can take English proficiency tests at certified English centers in your country. While there are different types of tests, the most commonly accepted tests are IELTS and TOEFL.

IELTS vs. TOEFL English Tests

The International English Language Testing System (IELTS), one of the most popular English tests in the world, is created and maintained by the British Council, IDP: IELTS Australia, and Cambridge Assessment English. You can achieve a score between 0 to 9 in each section. These scores are added together and then averaged to give your final score. 

The IELTS tests the following areas:

  • Reading—There are three passages you need to read with a total of 40 related questions to answer.

  • Listening—You need to listen to four recordings and answer a total of 40 questions (10 for each recording).

  • Speaking—You will have a three-part oral interview with an examiner to test your English pronunciation, fluency, grammar, and vocabulary.

  • Writing—This section gives you two tasks to complete, usually requiring you to describe a graph, table, chart, or diagram in detail. There is also a formal essay you need to write in response to a listed perspective, argument, or problem.

Your second option is the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). TOEFL offers a computer-based test (which can be taken at a test center or at home) and a paper-based test created and maintained by the Educational Testing Service (ETS). The paper-based test is taken at a test center with the speaking section conducted remotely at home. Students can choose their preferred testing option. 

The types of questions you will get for either version are similar, but the number of questions will vary. The computer-based test will have fewer questions compared to the paper-based version and is only two hours long, whereas the paper-based test is three hours long. Both tests have a maximum of 120 points across four sections, with each section having 30 points.

TOEFL’s four sections are:

  1. Reading—Multiple-choice questions, problem-solving questions, and a read-to-learn section with several correct answers

  2. Listening—Matching questions, multiple-choice questions, and event-sequencing questions that test your ability to understand speaking attitudes, topic changes, and the order, relationships, and connections in spoken English

  3. Speaking—Four total speaking tasks that involve listening and responding to questions across different topics (requires a headset with a microphone if you are taking the test online)

  4. Writing—Two sections: The first section is the same for both paper-based and computer-based tests where you read a passage and listen to a short prompt, then write a response to what you read and listened to. In the second section, for the paper-based test, you will have to write an essay based on a personal experience or opinion in response to a writing topic. For the computer-based test, you will have to write for an academic discussion task which involves stating and supporting an opinion in an online classroom discussion.

Our English language tests guide can help you learn more about TOEFL and IELTS.

Undergraduate Standardized Tests

Specific standardized tests evaluate your overall academic knowledge and performance, and US universities use these during the application review process. The two most common standardized tests for undergraduates are the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) and American College Testing (ACT). Typically, each university requires a minimum SAT or ACT score, though the exact scores differ between each institution. 

Usually, most institutions ask for your results for either of these tests, though you may need to take a specific test for some US universities and colleges. Remember to clarify this requirement with the admissions office of the universities or colleges where you want to apply. If you need support, Shorelight advisors can help create an application checklist for international students which you can refer to as you prepare your materials. 

SAT Testing 

The SAT is a digital undergraduate admission test that measures your academic performance with a strong focus on your mathematics, grammar, and analytical writing skills. This focus is slightly different from the ACT, which places more emphasis on your understanding of the specific test questions.

In the SAT, you will receive a score ranging between 400-1,600 based on how you perform, with the average total score in the US being 1,028.

SAT reading and writing section tests students on reading comprehension, rhetoric, and language use by having them engage with academic and literary texts.

The SAT mathematics exam focuses on algebra, advanced math, problem-solving and data analysis, and geometry and trigonometry. You are permitted to use a calculator on all the questions in the math section of the digital SAT. 

The SAT’s strong focus on numeric systems and evidence-based writing makes it the ideal choice for students who have strong mathematical and analytical skills. 

ACT Testing

With the ACT undergraduate admission test, your score will be graded on a scale of 1 to 36, with 19.5 being the average composite score in the US. In this test, you need to answer 215 questions in approximately three hours, similar to the SAT. Questions cover English, math, reading, science, and an optional essay-writing section.

While the ACT has more questions compared to the SAT, the questions are more straightforward with a focus on measuring your grammar, reading comprehension, scientific reasoning, and math skills.   

In the English section, you are given a passage to read and must edit the passage to fix problems or solve questions related to it. The reading section tests your ability to understand and create conclusions from the passages you read, as well as how you include information from different sources.

The mathematics section on the ACT covers fundamental areas such as algebra, number and quantity, geometry, functions, probability, and statistics. Additionally, the ACT allows the use of a calculator in all mathematics sections, but does not provide a list of formulas like the SAT. 

The science reasoning section tests your knowledge in natural science subjects such as biology, chemistry, Earth/space sciences (e.g. geology, astronomy, and meteorology), and physics. You need to solve the problems of questions asked in this section with a focus on expressing your answer clearly and rationally. This section is unique to the ACT — though the SAT also has science-related questions, these do not have their own dedicated section.

If you are hesitant to tackle math without a calculator, or if you want to ensure you have a science section on your standardized test, then the ACT is for you.

Learn more about the difference between ACT and SAT.

Graduate Standardized Tests 

For graduate students, international standardized tests differ based on your specific degree program. The Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) and the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) are the most common standardized tests for graduate students. 

If you choose more advanced specializations, you may need to take other international standardized tests. These tests are meant to measure if you have the fundamental knowledge necessary to begin studying the advanced concepts that will be the focus of your graduate degree program.

GRE Testing

This standardized admission test is for students who want to apply to liberal arts graduate programs, as well as business and law programs. Check with your schools’ admissions teams to see which test is preferred, as business schools may instead require the GMAT and law schools the LSAT.

The GRE measures three aspects:

  1. Analytical writing—Write an essay about an advanced topic, displaying skills in evaluation, providing evidence, creating discussions, supporting your ideas, and using examples. Your score for this section will be between 0-6.

  2. Verbal reasoning—Answer multiple choice questions which test your skills in English. You will need to understand both figurative and literal sentences, evaluate sentence structures, and more. Your score for this section is graded between 130-170.

  3. Quantitative reasoning—In this section, you must answer quantitative comparison, multiple-choice, and several numeric entry questions, designed to test your knowledge in arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and data analysis. Your score for this section will also be between 130 to 170.

Learn more about the GRE exam.

GMAT Testing

If you want to enroll in a graduate program for business, such as a Master’s in International Business, you may need to take the GMAT as part of the application process.

The GMAT tests four areas:

  1. Analytical writing—Analyze a specific topic and write an assessment essay in your own words. This section has a score range of 0-6, recorded separately from your overall GMAT score.

  2. Integrated reasoning—Interpret and analyze data in different types of graphs, charts, and tables. The score range for this section is between 1-8, and is also recorded separately from your overall score.

  3. Verbal reasoning—Similar to the GRE, this section evaluates your English skills by testing your comprehension, sentence evaluation, and logic skills through multiple-choice questions. The score range for this section is from 6 to 51.

  4. Quantitative reasoning—This section measures your understanding of arithmetic by requiring you to solve problems using algebra and geometry. The score range in this section is 6 to 51.

Learn more about the GMAT exam.

LSAT Testing

For students aiming to enter law school or pursue legal-related careers, the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) is typically required. Your LSAT score is one of the most important factors that law school admissions boards evaluate when you apply. 

The LSAT evaluates your skills in:

  • Reading

  • Writing

  • Analytical reasoning

  • Logical reasoning

You can either take the LSAT test online or in person, and it takes approximately three hours to complete all sections. While each institution has its own criteria for the score you need to achieve, most colleges and universities expect a score above 150, with 180 being the maximum achievable score.

Note: Starting August 2024, the analytical reasoning section of the LSAT will be removed and replaced with another logical reasoning section.

Learn more about the LSAT exam.

MCAT Testing

To receive admission into a medical school, you need to take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). This is a computer-based test offered at certified Pearson VUE testing centers.  

The MCAT measures your skill and knowledge in four areas:

  1. Biological and biochemical foundations of living systems

  2. Chemical and physical foundations of biological systems

  3. Critical analysis and reasoning skills

  4. Psychological, social, and biological foundations of behavior

Each section has a maximum score of 132 for a total score of 528. Though the median MCAT score is 500, the score you need to achieve when applying depends on the university you hope to attend.

Learn more about the MCAT exam.

Other Grad School Testing

As a graduate student, some universities and colleges you apply to may ask you to take other types of tests, depending on your intended degree program. 

These can include:

  • Dental Admission Testing Program (DAT)—For students who are seeking admission to dental schools. The DAT exam covers four sections: perceptual ability, reading comprehension, quantitative reasoning, and natural sciences.

  • Optometry Admission Testing Program (OAT)—This test is for students who want to study optometry. The OAT exam has four sections which evaluate your understanding of natural sciences, physics, quantitative reasoning, and reading comprehension.

To understand which required USA exam you need to take for the programs you are interested in, speak to an admissions officer at each university or college where you want to apply. For additional assistance, Shorelight advisors can support you through application assistance, academic support, resources for international students, and more.

Standardized Testing Waivers

You may not need to take certain college admission tests in the USA when applying, as some US universities and colleges may waive testing if you qualify. Qualifying for college standardized testing waivers depends on your personal background and each individual university’s admissions policies. 

For example, your English proficiency America entrance exam may be waived if you graduated from a school with English as the primary teaching language. Graduate students with work experience may qualify for testing waivers if the institution they are applying to accepts professional history as an alternative to international standardized tests. 

Additionally, certain programs may grant you conditional admission with the chance to study prerequisite subjects in the US before you begin your program. Many Shorelight universities offer programs to improve your English before you begin your degree studies and while you are enrolled in your first year of classes. Keep in mind that institutes that provide college standardized testing waivers may increase their focus on evaluating the other documents you submit with your application, including your academic transcripts. 

Shorelight advisors are always ready to help you learn more about the international standardized tests you need to complete to apply to US colleges and universities. Get an early start on your testing preparation and prepare for your future in the US! 

Get in touch with a Shorelight advisor today >>