Preparing for the SAT as a Non-Native English Speaker

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.

Grammar Rules

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.

The Essay

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.

Reading Comprehension

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.

Of course, learning question strategies and practicing taking notes definitely help, too! But this is nothing special for non-natives: everybody benefits from practicing SAT strategies.

And more…

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.


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

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2 Responses to Preparing for the SAT as a Non-Native English Speaker

  1. Somda Roxane May 19, 2018 at 2:39 pm #


    I am not actually wrting a comment. Well, in the first place I really like this website conten. I believe that you are the best people to help me improve my SAT score. I am in grade 11 and English is my second language. My biggest goal is to achieve a score of 1480 on the SAT. I really need a high score to get scholarships.
    I recently receive my SAT score which is 1230 (not good at all). I really need a tutor to help me and I swear I will not disappoint. I saw the different plan for SAT study plan, but there are really expensive for me to get the chance to have your intensive help. Please can you tutor me, have me as your student for the following 3 months. Even though I will not be able to pay you, I promise I will remain determined, focused and grateful. I have only one last chance, in October 2018 and then I will apply to colleges. Please help me, tutor me , teach me and put me on a schedule. I really need help and I am desperate too. By the way I am from Burkina Faso.I hope you will not think I am exaggerating or annoying you. Thank you for understanding me, I really hope you are going to answer me soon.

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert May 25, 2018 at 11:22 am #

      Hi Somda,

      I’m glad that you are finding our website helpful! I’m not sure if you’ll find anyone here who is able to tutor you for free through this comment (but you never know!), but I can certainly provide you with some free resources that you can use to help you prepare for the SAT! Reading our blog is a great way to learn about the SAT and the strategies you will need for success in the SAT. In particular, you might find these blog posts and ebooks helpful:
      Here’s a link to our SAT eBook
      Here’s a link to our SAT Math Formula eBook
      Here’s a link to our guide to SAT logistics (test structure, scoring, how to register, where to find prep materials, etc…)

      Best of luck!

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