ACT for International Students

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How to Master the ACT as an International Student: Part 1

So, you’ve decided to make your American college dreams come true by absolutely killing it on the ACT. Welcome to the study team, international Magoosher!

While your non-American student status can actually prove beneficial in the admissions process (as I detailed in an earlier post), do keep in mind that, without previous exposure to the American education system, you’ll likely have some special considerations when starting down your path to ACT greatness. None of these obstacles are too tall to hurdle, but you’ll be making the best first step by reading on to learn where they are and how to approach them.

Why English is Important for the ACT

Since the ACT contains sections that measure the typical American student’s ability to read and respond critically to advanced-level texts, the test necessarily requires high-level English skills. Building a strong command of written English- in terms of both fluency and comprehension- is establishing the essential foundation to achieving a good score. Where to begin?

Before even looking at the ACT, assess your current language level. Look first at the TOEFL. Take a timed practice test and score yourself. If you reach above a 90 (out of 120) on the online exam, consider this the green light for moving onto ACT prep. If not, it would be in your best interest to make sure that score’s solid first (but don’t worry- Magoosh is here to help! For tips, tricks, prep and practice, check out our TOEFL blog.)

Bonus tip: Familiarize yourself with the type of American English you’re likely to see on the test- which is helpful even with a strong TOEFL score. Search online for high school writing prompts and responses labeled with high grades. Read books typically assigned at US high schools, and think about what types of questions might be asked about them. Even better, ask your State-side acquaintances for support! I’m sure your American friends- happy to have you over there- will be willing to share examples of English essays, science lab reports and current event topics discussed in class. You’re likely to see similar subjects covered across the ACT, and you’ll have the upper hand in knowing what the examiners expect of you.

Understand the ACT Test Structure

Becoming aware of and comfortable with the ACT’s format is a challenge for any student. For an international student unfamiliar with American standardized tests, reaching that level of understanding and confidence with the format is especially important.

First, be aware that the ACT- which differs from the SAT here, so be careful!- contains four content sections covering Math, Science, English, and Reading- all of which are mainly composed of five-option multiple choice questions- as well as an optional Writing (essay) part. The maximum score for each section is 36, and these are averaged to produce your composite score (the Writing score is separate.) Tons of information on all structural aspects of the ACT can be found throughout the Magoosh high school blog, but make sure, before looking at this, to take the time to look through a sample test. Note what seems confusing to you. Importantly, remember that time management is crucial to success on the test- but don’t panic yet. Once you feel ready, do a few practice problems, and then sections, before timing yourself. Keep in mind: If you can simultaneously learn what the ACT wants from you and how to deliver it, you will put yourself on the same path to achievement shared by every eager ACT-taker. Patience, calm, persistence, and consistency here are key to effective studying.

Okay you driven out-of-town Magooshers, you know exactly where to start. What to do from here? Keep an eye out for the next post detailing more study tips specifically for you.

Also, if you are deciding whether the ACT or SAT is best for international students, check out our guest post on that point!


  • Susanna Langholm

    Susanna holds a BA in Education & Liberal Studies from Smith College and has spent the better part of her college and post-graduate years helping students achieve success both in and outside of the classroom. Most recently, Susanna served as the Assistant Director for a tutoring franchise catering to college-bound exam prep students, learning a thing or two about the ACT in the process. When she’s not navigating the test-taking waters for the sake of her students, Susanna can be found reading, writing on her education blog, skiing, or planning a future filled with international travel - her favorite (but most expensive) hobby.

By the way, Magoosh can help you study for both the SAT and ACT exams. Click here to learn more!

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