Preparing for the SAT as a Non-Native Speaker
If English isn’t your first language, then you have an extra challenge when taking the SAT. The test is hard enough for native speakers. Coming from a different language, it might seem impossible.
Applying to U.S. colleges and aiming to study in America is ambitious in the first place, so if you’re reading this at all, I applaud you. You need serious commitment to do this, and that’s fantastic. So here’s the good news: your SAT score is manageable. This will not be as difficult as it might seem.
Many Schools Will Consider TOEFL Scores
If you have a lot of difficulty with the SAT reading and writing sections, then check if your goal schools want TOEFL scores. If they consider TOEFL scores, then they generally care less about your SAT reading and writing scores.
The TOEFL is a test of English for non-native speakers so that schools can judge your ability to communicate. The vocabulary is easier than SAT vocabulary, the reading questions aren’t so tricky, and the writing passage is easier to get high scores on. There are other sections, though, including the listening and speaking sections, so it’s a very different test than the SAT, but the two in combination can make your application stronger than an application with only SAT scores (with low reading and writing).
But if you do have competitive reading and writing scores (500+), then you almost definitely don’t need the TOEFL. And in that case, you should think more about how you can raise your SAT score.
The SAT very rarely tests vocabulary directly. Sentence completions are often only possible to answer if you know the definitions of words. But that’s a good thing: you can learn vocabulary simply by studying flashcards. Reading comprehension, by comparison, is much harder to improve. Vocabulary is mostly about memorization. If you learn all those words, you’ll increase your score. Simple.
If you learn the rules that many SAT writing questions test—such as subject-verb agreement and parallelism—then the writing multiple choice questions will be almost as easy for you as they are for a native speaker.
Most of these rules are not very complicated. Again, this is just about memorizing, like vocabulary is. If you study the rules and do practice questions, you’ll be just fine.
If you study the essay format and practice writing in a specific structure, you can earn points on the SAT even with vocabulary or grammar mistakes. Giving a well structured, clear opinion with understandable reasons is half of the task. Yes, vocabulary and grammar can help you a lot, but that’s not everything. Focus on the structure.
This is really the biggest challenge for non-native speakers. There’s no easy way to improve this quickly, so it should be the least important part to worry about from the topics in this blog post. But if you have a lot of experience reading in English, it will become easier. Read as much as possible for as long as possible. Try to go through a few different news articles every week. Read a novel in English. Follow blogs in English (like this one!). The more reading you do, the better.
There’s much, much, more involved in your application than just your SAT score, so don’t focus on this alone! Your grades in school, your activities outside of school, recommendations from teachers, and your application essay are all pieces of the bigger picture. Even if you have trouble on the reading and writing sections of the SAT, you still have chances to get into good American colleges! Be sure to focus on those other parts of your application, too.
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About Lucas Fink
Lucas is the teacher behind Magoosh TOEFL. He’s been teaching TOEFL preparation and more general English since 2009, and the SAT since 2008. Between his time at Bard College and teaching abroad, he has studied Japanese, Czech, and Korean. None of them come in handy, nowadays.
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