I was looking over the visitor stats for this blog last night and I was pleasantly surprised to discover a small international audience! The SAT is administered all over the world, and at least a few people have visited this site from (in order of frequency) Singapore, Hungary, India, Vietnam, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Israel. That’s great! I’m glad you’re considering taking this test, which means of course that you’re seriously considering attending university in the US.

As I’m sure you’re finding out, the SAT is a very difficult test—even more so for those for whom English is not a native tongue. While English grammar required for the writing section can be mastered (and I assume you’ve been studying English for some time if you’re seriously considering the SAT), the reading section presents a unique set of challenges because it requires students to engage with reading passages in a very deep way: comprehending not only the content of the article, but the author’s tone and intent, which can be very subtly disguised and are often difficult even for native English speakers to pin down. It also requires a substantially larger vocabulary than you’ve probably ever needed for conversational English, in school or elsewhere.

There are no easy answers here, but I’d like to give you a few pieces of advice if you’re preparing for the SAT and you haven’t been speaking English since infancy:

  1. Vocabulary is important. As you are practicing, write down every single word you don’t know, and look it up later. And then save that list, so that you can refer to it again and again, until you’re sure you know those words. There are many free online word lists (like SparkNotes 1000) and many other books (people seem to really like Direct Hits) or sets of flash cards you can buy as well, but I can’t overstate how important it is to take responsibility for your burgeoning vocabulary by doing this simple exercise.
  2. Vocabulary is not the only thing. I’ve worked with non-native English speakers in the past who over-fixate on vocabulary. There are 19 sentence completion questions per test, and 48 passage-based reading questions. Of course, some vocabulary will help you in the passages, but you’re still doing yourself a grave disservice if the only thing you do when practicing reading is study words.
  3. The SAT is not the only place you can practice your critical reading. The best performers on the SAT reading section (native speakers or not) are voracious readers. Read everything you can get your hands on, but especially English magazines and newspapers, which contain essay-formatted content similar to what you will find on the SAT, and thus will give you valuable practice identifying main ideas, arguments, and author tone. These days, almost everything is available for free online. Here are a few sources I like: The Economist, The Atlantic, Newsweek, New York Magazine. Don’t just use my suggestions though, explore!
  4. When you practice, spend as much time going over the test as you did taking it. It’s important to understand the mistakes you’ve made. It can be daunting to miss a great deal of questions, especially for students accustomed to performing well on exams. But it’s important that you begin to recognize the patterns in your mistakes; that’s how you’re going to fix them. If you can identify a pattern (for example, you are picking choices that contradict the passage in some way) then you can start to eliminate that pattern. There are only so many different ways the SAT can ask a question, so if you can begin to categorize and eliminate your mistakes, you are on your way to a large score improvement.
  5. At the end of the day, the SAT isn’t the only path to school in the US. If you’re struggling mightily with the SAT, consider the Test Of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), which is accepted by tons of schools here in the States. You can download practice questions directly from the test maker here to see what it’s all about.

I am always impressed with students who didn’t grow up speaking English, and are still willing to take on the challenge that the SAT presents. Many students I know who did grow up speaking English have an incredibly hard time with the SAT!

I hope this advice is helpful. Please feel free to comment on this page if you have additional questions.

Comments (9)

“Let me summarize my feelings toward Asian values: F*** filial piety. F*** grade-grubbing. F*** Ivy League mania. F*** deference to authority. F*** humility and hard work. F*** harmonious relations. F*** sacrificing for the future. F*** earnest, striving middle-class servility.”

…Aaaaand there it is. Still, I thought the piece did a great job examining a cultural phenomenon. As a non-Asian who is intimately involved in test prep and has witnessed firsthand much of what Yang discusses, especially in the beginning of the article when he interviews the Stuyvesant grads, I found the article as a whole fascinating.

Hahaha, wow: “Do I agree with their educational principles? No,” says Paul Kanarek, senior vice-president for international business at The Princeton Review, a New Oriental competitor. “Do I think what they’re doing is healthy for the students they serve? No. Are they setting these kids up for failure at U.S. universities? Definitely.”


Our students spend a lot of time trying to understand questions. As American tutors and students, we assume everyone interprets the question in the same way. While it’s not necessarily true that every answer choice is the correct answer to a misinterpreted question, that link helps students understand the importance of paraphrasing and understanding questions as step one. Once the non-native English speakers master that, the SAT prep becomes much easier.

i’m going to have SAT on this 4th May 2013 and im non-native speaker,started learning english at 8,now im turing 17 this year,Thanks for the advices,you just boosted my confidence.You make me feel like im not stupid cause many native speakers also find it difficult for SAT so there is no wonder why sometimes i get confused with the passages.

Leave a Reply