For the Chinese student, is the ACT test a better alternative to the SAT?

As high school students prepare for the college application process, one of the first things they should be asking themselves is which standardized test they plan to take: the SAT or the ACT.



Though many students assume that the ACT and the SAT are more or less the same, in reality there are major differences between the tests, and how you score on each type of test could vary significantly. Though it is impossible to say definitively which exam is “better” than the other (it varies on an individual student basis), it is our experience at Hunter Programs that international students, and especially Chinese students, typically fare better on the ACT, which measures learning achievement as opposed to academic aptitude.

The ACT is an achievement test, measuring what a student has learned in school up to that point in their education. The exam includes up to 5 sections: English, Mathematics, Reading, Science, and an optional Writing test (although many colleges require students to complete this). Instead of emphasizing vocabulary, the ACT concentrates on grammar, punctuation and syntax. It tests more advanced Mathematics concepts than the SAT, focusing on the proper application of rules and formulas, as opposed to critical reasoning. In addition, the ACT demands some knowledge of an Earth Science or a Physical Science, as well as Biology. Though the ACT covers more subjects than the SAT, the exam is generally considered to be more explicit and coherent, and is preferred by many international students.

In contrast to the ACT, the SAT tests a student’s academic aptitude by measuring their reasoning and problem solving ability. It is comprised of 3 sections, including Critical Reading, Mathematics and a required Writing test; two-thirds of the composite score are based on a student’s ability to read, write and analyze in English. The SAT places a strong emphasis on vocabulary, and includes reading comprehension questions for which there can be several correct answers. A student’s task is to select the “best” correct answer. If they choose incorrectly, the points are deducted from their overall score. These “trick” questions are challenging for native English speaking students, but they are especially difficult for international students since these answer choices require knowledge of very slight differences in meaning for vocabulary words. As such, many students are turning to the ACT, because they feel the test is more straightforward in nature.

According to ACT Education Director Jon Erickson in a recent US News article, “The structure of the ACT is conducive to international education. It’s tied very much to subject level [and] I think the science part is also attractive to international students. A lot of international students who are looking to U.S. colleges tend to be in STEM fields, so I think that’s attractive.”

The SAT has historically been considered the more “common” exam, but a recent report reveals that, as of 2012, the numbers of domestic students taking the ACT actually surpassed those taking the SAT. International students still represent a much smaller portion of testers than their domestic peers, but according to Sam Hwang, founder and CEO of New Pathway Education and Technology Group, a company based in Beijing that offers SAT and ACT tutoring, “”No one’s really taking it, but only because they don’t know what it is”. Though the ACT is by no means “easier” than the SAT, it is our feeling at Hunter Programs that the ACT test content and format is more comprehensible to international students, and should therefore be given equal consideration.

For more information on the SAT, the ACT or general standardized testing and college application questions, please visit, or call us at +1.949.831.8565.

If you have an opinion, or are a Chinese student who has experienced these tests, please share your thoughts.

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