Standardized Tests for International Students Planning to Study in the US

Standardized Tests for International Students Planning to Study in the US

Standardized Tests for International Students Planning to Study in the US

Known for its quality education and top-notch universities that warmly welcome students all over the world, the US continues to prove why it is chosen by many. If you are hoping to study in the US, there are a lot of things you need to research first, such as the university you plan to attend, its admission process, and the tuition fees of your chosen degree program. You would also need to consider the state where the institution is, particularly the weather, transportation options, and the cost of living there.

International students who are planning to study in the United States are usually required to submit standardized test scores as part of their admissions application. There are two major types of standardized tests international students should be prepared to take when applying to American colleges and universities: Exam and tests that assess a student’s academic knowledge and tests that evaluate a student’s proficiency in the English language.

Academic Tests

Two standardized exams that are used by US universities are the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) and the ACT (American College Testing). These tests are used to measure an applicant’s academic potential such as one’s reading comprehension, computational ability, and writing and language skills. 

Both tests are available around the world, and scores from either test are accepted by most universities worldwide, not just in the United States. You can take the SAT, ACT or both! To help you decide, here’s a quick overview of the main subject areas in the two tests:


  • Reading comprehension – screens your ability to draw conclusions on given passages.
  • Writing and language tests – requires you to read passages and copy edit a given text.
  • Mathematics – requires you to solve problems in different subjects such as algebra, geometry, and data analysis.
  • Optional essay – this is required by some universities and asks you to interpret a given passage with supporting details and arguments.


  • English test – requires you to make edits, improvements, and answer questions about a given passage. This assesses if you understand it and if you fully grasp the writing conventions and English grammar.
  • Mathematics – asks you to compute equations and solve problems relating to arithmetic, algebra, probability and statistics, geometry, and trigonometry.
  • Reading test – assesses your skills in reading, understanding, integrating, and drawing conclusions from given sources.
  • Science Reasoning – tests your ability to give solutions to problems in subjects like natural sciences, biology, earth and space science, chemistry, and physics.
  • Optional essay – a complex issue and three different perspectives are given, and you are tasked to adopt one, then write an essay that compares your chosen perspective with the others.

English Language Tests

Most colleges and universities in the United States require international students to demonstrate their English language skills. Therefore, foreign students who are keen to study in the United States also need to take an English language proficiency test if English is not their first language, or if the education they were given previously is in a different language. 

The most common language tests accepted by American higher education institutions are the TOEFL, IELTS, and the Duolingo English Test.


TOEFL exam scores are accepted in colleges and universities across the United States. It has a scoring scale of 1-120 and the exam lasts for four hours. It focuses on scenarios that students may come across in real life, particularly in academia. There are separate sections on speaking, listening, writing, and reading. TOEFL scores reflect a student’s fluency in academic English.


The IELTS test is also widely accepted in American schools and has two types: IELTS Academic and IELTS General. For students, the IELTS Academic uses a grading scale of 1–9 and lasts for two hours and 45 minutes. This exam measures a test-taker’s English language ability through a mix of different types of questions, such as essay-type, short-answer, and multiple-choice questions.

Duolingo English Test

Like the TOEFL and IELTS, the Duolingo English Test also focuses on writing, reading, speaking, and listening, but instead of having separate sections for each, it combines all question types into one test. It also differs from the other two tests in that it is adaptive, which means that the difficulty of each question adjusts according to the skill level of the test-taker. It also focuses more on conversational rather than academic English.

We hope this gives you a better idea of what you need to prepare for when applying to study in the United States. Read our other articles here at MSM Unify to learn more about the different exams for international students.


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