Guide to US Undergraduate Admissions Tests

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By Deshan Mendis
Last updated on August 10, 2023

When applying to an undergraduate program at a US college or university, you are required to complete certain admissions tests. Learn more about each test in this guide!

A female international student sits at a classroom desk in front of another student and a wall of windows and takes an admissions test for her US university application

An undergraduate admissions test is a required part of the application process at US universities and colleges. The purpose of these tests is to help admissions counselors evaluate your academic performance, your knowledge of specific subject material, and your proficiency with the English language. Many universities and colleges will list which standardized admissions test scores are required in order to complete an application. 

Using your undergraduate admissions test scores, US college and university admissions officers can determine if you meet their academic program requirements. Typically, this is judged by meeting a minimum test score. 

Because these college admissions exams are required to apply, it is important for international students to know what each test includes and the structures they follow, so you can prepare in advance and know which tests must be taken in order to apply to the colleges that interest you.

Read on to learn more about the different types of college admission tests in USA you may need to take, including English proficiency tests like TOEFL and IELTS, undergraduate standardized tests, and how you can start preparing. 

English Language Proficiency Tests 

This type of test is designed to evaluate an international student’s reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills in English. Most universities and colleges will require you to earn a certain score in the test you choose to take, though the exact score will differ between institutions and the type of test. Typically, scores fall within a predetermined range or minimum score, so you should know in advance what your US university or college will accept. 

An English proficiency undergraduate admission test determines if you have the necessary speaking and listening skills to collaborate in class and succeed in your coursework, as most classes at US universities and colleges are conducted in English. As a result, achieving a passing score in these tests is a mandatory requirement for admission. 

While there are multiple types of English language proficiency tests that US universities and colleges will accept, the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) and Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) are the most widely accepted. These tests are available at certified English language centers in your home country. Other possible tests include iTEP and Duolingo, which can be taken online. 

International English Language Testing System (IELTS)

The IELTS exam is designed to evaluate your English language skills with sections that test your listening, reading, writing, and speaking. This undergraduate admission test is graded from 0-9 (with 9 indicating an expert level) and takes two hours and 45 minutes to complete.

With IELTS, you are tested in the following areas:

  • Listening—A total of 40 related questions with three passages you need to read. You have 30 minutes for this section.

  • Reading—A total of 40 questions (10 for each recording) based on four different recordings. You have 60 minutes for this section.

  • Writing—Two tasks to complete: the first has a graph, table, chart, or diagram which you must describe in detail; the second is an essay based on a perspective, argument, or problem. You have 60 minutes for this section.

  • Speaking—An oral interview with an examiner to measure your English pronunciation, fluency, grammar, and vocabulary. You have 11-14 minutes for this section.

While the exam is available online, your interview can take place in person at a local testing center. The standard admission test’s content, developed by language specialists in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, represents everyday situations. The IELTS is created and managed by British Council, IDP: IELTS Australia, and Cambridge Assessment English.

Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL)

TOEFL tests the same areas as IELTS (listening, reading, writing, and speaking) with some notable differences in the grading, structure, and timing of each section. With TOEFL, you have three hours to complete the exam. Each of the four sections has 30 points, for a maximum score of 120 points total.

The TOEFL exam covers:

  • Listening—Six questions based on 4-6 lectures, and five questions in relation to 2-3 conversations. These questions typically involve matching, multiple choice, and event-sequencing. You have 54-72 minutes to complete this section.

  • Reading—Three to four reading passages with 12-14 questions each. This section mainly includes multiple choice, problem solving, and a read-to-learn section. You have 41-57 minutes to complete this section.

  • Writing—Read a passage and listen to a short prompt, then write your response to what you have read and heard. There is also an essay writing task from a selection of topics to choose from. You have 50 minutes to complete this section.

  • Speaking—Listen and respond to questions, with a total of six speaking tasks. You have 17 minutes to complete this section.

The Educational Testing Service (ETS) administers the TOEFL exam, and evaluators use a centralized scoring network to provide an unbiased assessment of your English skills in a realistic US classroom environment. Though the exam is available in different formats, the internet-based version (also known as the iBT) is the more popular version. So, depending on where you are located, you can take this undergraduate admission test from home! 

Undergraduate Standardized Tests

Undergraduate standardized tests are college admission exams that evaluate overall academic performance across many different types of students. In order to conduct as fair an assessment as possible, the tests’ structure and content are very similar from year to year. As an international student, you need to achieve a passing or minimum score in the standardized tests that your preferred universities and colleges require as part of the application process.

The primary purpose of these tests is to give US universities and colleges a better understanding of your academic performance and determine if you meet the requirements of the program where you hope to enroll. For undergraduate international students, getting a good score on international standardized tests known as the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) or American College Testing (ACT) is typically required in order to get accepted.

These tests cover similar academic areas and take approximately three hours to complete. There is also an optional essay segment with scoring that is not counted towards your overall score. (However, some US universities may require you to complete the essay section. Your application materials will specify if this is needed.) While the SAT and ACT seem similar, there are some notable differences which are covered below.

SAT Testing

With the SAT test, you are tested in the areas of grammar, mathematics, and analytical writing. For your scoring, you will receive a score between 400 and 1,600 according to how you performed in each section.

There are three sections in the SAT:

  1. Reading—There are 52 questions you need to answer within 65 minutes. Questions are based on five reading sections and require you to interpret the readings, use evidence from what you have read, and understand the context of the passages. This is the first part of the SAT exam (this differs from the ACT, which has its reading segment as the third part of its exam).

  2. Writing—You need to answer 44 questions within 35 minutes, and these questions require you to use supporting information, understand topic context, organize and express your ideas, and demonstrate your English language skills. While this section in the SAT has fewer questions than the ACT, the questions in the SAT could be considered more challenging.

  3. Mathematics—You must answer 58 questions in 80 minutes. There are two main parts to the SAT’s math section, and you are not allowed to use a calculator for one section. Many questions are multiple choice, but there are 13 grid-in answers. (This differs from the ACT exam, which only has multiple choice questions in this section.)

ACT Testing

The ACT test is scored between 1 to 36 and evaluates your skills with contextual reasoning, math, reading, and English grammar. While the areas tested are similar to the SAT, the ACT exam consists of four sections: English, math, reading, and science.

  1. English—There are 75 questions you need to answer in 45 minutes. These questions are based on five passages with multiple choice questions that test your skill with understanding writing organization, cohesion, style, tone, and grammatical rules including sentence structure and punctuation. While the ACT writing section can include charts and graphs, the ACT English section is mostly text-based.

  2. Mathematics—You need to answer 60 questions within 60 minutes. Questions test your skills in numerics, including algebra, functions, geometry, and statistics and probability. Additionally, a second set of questions test your understanding of fundamental math concepts. Unlike the SAT, all math questions in the ACT allow the use of a calculator.

  3. Reading—This 35-minute segment requires you to answer 40 questions based on four reading passages of varying lengths. Questions mainly test your ability to create logical conclusions from given information, reading and comprehension skills, and separating opinion from fact.

  4. Science—You are required to answer 40 questions related to natural sciences (such as biology and physics) in 35 minutes. These questions determine your interpretation, analysis, and evaluation skills, covering subjects such as data representation, research summarization, and analyzing conflicting viewpoints. While the SAT contains some science questions, only the ACT has a dedicated science section.

How Can I Prep for the SAT?

When you begin preparing, it can be helpful to put together a study plan. The earlier you start the better, as this gives you enough time to study all the material you can without overworking yourself. Remember, too, that rest is important! Avoid cramming all your studying into the week of your test.

As the SAT is a yearly undergraduate admission test, there are many online resources available that can help you prepare in advance for your exam. 

Here are some ways you can start practicing for your SAT:

  • SAT sample questions: The SAT website has multiple sample practice questions that give you an understanding of the types of questions you’ll find in the actual exam. There are also online practice tests that simulate the real undergraduate admission test.

  • SAT study groups: You can form study groups with fellow students to share your experiences, knowledge, and advice! These groups can be a source of support during your studies and can help you tackle challenging questions.

  • SAT practice with Khan Academy: Khan Academy has valuable practice material for the SAT, including interactive problems, video lessons, personalized study plans, and more.

How Can I Prep for the ACT?

While the ACT is different from the SAT, a study plan is relevant here as well. Additionally, the official ACT website provides a list of resources you can use to begin your exam prep as soon as possible. 

Consider the following methods:

  • ACT live online classes: These remote learning classes are with top-rated teachers who will guide you through the areas you need to study and the best study practices. You can even ask questions and have them answered in real time!

  • Self-paced ACT course: These online tutorial modules for the ACT can be accessed anywhere with an internet connection, on your own schedule.

  • ACT prep guides: The ACT offers multiple types of prep materials every year, ranging from an overall prep guide, individual section prep guides, flashcards, among other resources.

If you want to learn more about how to study for a test, reach out to a Shorelight advisor. They will connect you with valuable student resources and international student services, including academic support, career development, US college entrance requirements, and more.

What Undergraduate Test Should I Take?

To decide which standardized admission test you should take, carefully research the requirements of the universities you are applying to, as some may require specific tests. You should also make sure you understand the individual sections of the specific college admission exams and compare these to your own strengths and skills.

When deciding between the IELTS and TOEFL, one aspect to consider is that for the IELTS, you are required to write your own answers for most questions. TOEFL has significantly more multiple choice questions and questions with preset answers you need to choose from. Additionally, the IELTS features an interview with an examiner as part of the test, while TOEFL has a speaking section. If you are not comfortable with an interview, TOEFL may be a better option. 

When it comes to SAT vs ACT, keep in mind the SAT places more importance on math and analytical writing that require supporting evidence. The SAT also provides you with a list of formulas to use in the math section, including one part that does not allow the use of a calculator. If you are confident in your skills with numbers and analytical writing, the SAT may suit you better.

On the other hand, the ACT prioritizes how you express your knowledge and understanding of the material you are being tested on, as well as the logic you used for your answers. While the ACT does allow the use of a calculator in all math sections, it is worth noting that this undergraduate admission test does not provide a list of formulas. This makes the ACT a good fit for you if you feel you have a strong memory and prefer explaining the rationale behind your answers.

No matter which academic program you want to study, college admission exams are an important part of the undergraduate admissions process. With the help of your Shorelight advisor, you can start preparing in advance to make sure you can ace your US college entrance exam and secure a place at a top university or college!

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