An Indian Student’s Guide to the SAT and ACT Admissions Exams
Robin Mamlet, the former dean of admissions at Stanford University in California, and Christine VanDeVelde, a journalist, are the authors of “College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step.”
Standardized tests are important when applying to American colleges and universities, but do not play the same decisive role in admission as they do in India. Admission to American institutions of higher education is not based solely on a student’s performance on a single set of exams. The results of several standardized tests — the ACT or SAT, and SAT subject tests — are only a part of the evaluation of all students applying to American colleges, one element in a wide array of requirements, including letters of recommendation, essays, school reports and extracurricular activities.
“The key for most international applicants is less about test scores than about differentiating themselves in the applicant pool through the other parts of the application,” Jennifer Rickard, chief enrollment officer at Bryn Mawr College, a top liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, told us.
That does not mean that the colleges have lower expectations overall with regard to test results. “While there is no line above which a student is automatically admitted, that doesn’t mean that a noncompetitive score is O.K.,” said Katharine Harrington, vice president for admissions and planning at the University of Southern California. “The fact is that for highly selective American institutions, a strong showing in standardized tests, a strong curriculum and good grades are all necessary but not sufficient conditions for admission.”
As has been discussed in previous posts on The Choice on India Ink, American colleges evaluate students in the entire context of their personality, background and schooling. “That means, for example, they may expect higher test scores from Indian students who attend very selective international schools and whose home language is likely English, than they expect from a student attending an Indian public school, whose home language is not English and who might be the first in his family to attend college,” said Jim Montoya, vice president for higher education at the College Board, which oversees the SAT.
On average, students from India tend to have standardized test scores on par with students from the United States. Indian students can see where they fit into a school’s academic profile by comparing their scores with the most recently available information on the college’s enrolled freshman class, usually found on a college’s Web site or in reference sources like “The Fiske Guide to Colleges.”
There is a caveat for students seeking financial aid, however. “If a student is applying to schools that are ‘need aware’ ” — which means they may take into account a student’s need for financial assistance in deciding whether to admit them — “the bar may be set a little bit higher,” said Jarrid Whitney, executive director of admissions and financial aid at the California Institute of Technology. “If they’re going to offer a student financial aid, need-aware schools are going to look for a very small slice of the international pool that is academically incredibly superb.”
Indian students applying to American schools also need to understand that testing requirements are different from college to college. Some colleges will require the SAT or ACT, but no SAT subject tests. Others will require additional SAT subject tests or specific ones for majors like engineering. It’s extremely important that students check the Web site of every college they’re applying to in order to understand requirements. Also note that colleges and universities that say they are test-optional — meaning no admissions exams are obligatory — may in fact require testing for international students. (A good place to begin to explore that list is at fairtest.org.)
Our advice: Students should sit for the full gamut of tests — taking either the SAT or ACT and subject tests — to have the greatest number of options available when applying. For the SAT or ACT, students should test about a year before they will apply — earlier if they’re going to apply under an early decision or early acceptance program. For the SAT subject tests, a separate set of exams that measure a student’s knowledge in a particular area, like English or math, take the test as close as possible to when the relevant class completes so the subject matter is fresh.
What is the best way to prepare? The best preparation is challenging yourself intellectually and academically by engaging in rigorous coursework and reading sophisticated texts critically.
Amin Gonzalez, associate director of admissions at Yale University adds, “Since there is an emphasis placed on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and economic education throughout much of India, students should pay particular attention to developing their language and writing abilities. Doing so will not only allow them to improve their performance on an unfamiliar standardized test, but also ensure a smoother transition into liberal arts programs.”
The SAT, ACT and SAT subject tests are not global exams, so familiarize yourself with the formats, the cultural context of the questions, and the process of taking the exam itself. Take practice tests to become acquainted with the format of both tests and see which suits you best, then concentrate on preparing for that test.
American colleges also often need to determine whether a student is prepared to succeed at college-level instruction in English. So they may require English proficiency testing, particularly if English is not your first language or instruction at your school has not been in English. The college will recommend a testing service, like the Test of English as a Foreign Language (Toefl) or the International English Language Testing System (Ielts). While there is no cutoff score for the SAT, ACT and subject tests, most colleges will have a minimum Toefl or Ielts score.
Testing information and practice tests for the ACT, SAT and SAT subject tests are available at no cost on the Web sites of the ACT and the College Board. In addition, the advising centers of the United States-India Educational Foundation (Usief) EducationUSA, located in New Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata, and Mumbai, provide test prep resources, including classes, and some administer the SAT and other tests.