Your Guide to College Entrance Exams

Written by Coursera • Updated on

If you're thinking about going to college, you have a choice between taking the SAT, ACT, and CLT.

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There are a number of college entrance exams you can take when you're getting ready to apply to college or university. The three most common entrance exams are the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT), the American College Test (ACT), and the Classical Learning Test (CLT). To help determine which of these exams is the right choice for you, let’s explore the format and content of each one. 

What is a college entrance exam?

A college entrance exam is a standardized test that measures your ability in several areas—most often reading, writing, and math. When you apply to college or university, you may be asked to submit your exam scores as part of your overall application package, which generally also includes your high school GPA, a personal statement, and letters of recommendation.

However, a growing number of institutions have stopped requiring standardized testing scores in an effort to promote greater equity among applicants [1]. Even if your school doesn't require it, though, submitting your scores may help you qualify for certain scholarships.

Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT)

The SAT is a standardized test first introduced in 1926, and administered by the ETS (Educational Testing Service) on behalf of the College Board. In 2021, 1.5 million students took the SAT [2].

High school students typically take the SAT during their junior year or early in their senior year. If you're interested in taking the SAT, check with your high school to see if they offer it onsite. If your school doesn't provide testing, they can direct you to nearby test centers. 

Read more: What Is a Good SAT Score? Finding Your Goal Score

Format

SAT takers have three hours to complete the exam, which consists of two key parts: 

  1. An evidence-based reading and writing section (ERW)

  2. A math section

For the evidence-based section of the SAT, you'll complete a reading test as well as a writing and language test. In the math section, you'll have the option of using a calculator during the first part of the test, but you'll need to put it away for the second part. Although the SAT doesn't include a formal science section, you may encounter science passages in the reading section.

SAT scores

After you've completed the SAT, you'll earn separate scores (between 200 and 800) for each of the two sections. Your composite score can range from 400 to 1600.

You should receive your SAT scores approximately two to four weeks from your completion date [3]. You can also opt to have your scores sent directly to the colleges you plan on applying to. In that case, scores are sent to your chosen schools within ten days of receipt.   

Learn more: What is a Good SAT Score? Finding Your Goal Score

Why take the SAT?

If you have strong math skills, you may want to take the SAT. The math section covers a wide range of math subjects, including:

  • Algebra

  • Data analysis

  • Geometry

  • Pre-calculus

  • Trigonometry

Strong math skills also help during the no-calculator section of the test.

American College Test (ACT)

The ACT was introduced in 1959, and is administered by the non-profit educational organization ACT, inc. You can find registration information on the ACT website.

Typically, high school students take the ACT in their junior year, to allow for retesting if needed. The test is given in the months of: 

  • September

  • October

  • December

  • February

  • April

  • June

  • July

If you’re interested in taking the ACT, many high schools offer onsite testing, so check with your guidance counselor to find out if your school is a testing location. 

ACT scores

There are four sections on the ACT: English, math, reading, and science. For each section, you'll receive a score from 1 to 36. The average of these scores makes up your composite score. Generally, you'll receive ACT scores two to eight weeks after testing. 

Read more: What Is a Good ACT Score in 2022? Finding Your Goal Score

Format

The ACT consists of multiple-choice questions, which are broken into the four sections we noted above. Participants have two hours and fifty-five minutes to complete the test. Calculators are allowed on the math portion. 

Why take the ACT?

As with the SAT, the ACT covers similar math subjects (algebra, data analysis, geometry, and trigonometry). If you tend to rely on a calculator to solve math problems, you may benefit from taking the ACT because you can use one for all math questions. Because the ACT allows less time per question than the SAT, it helps to have strong skills in reading comprehension and recall when taking this test. 

Classical Learning Test (CLT)

The CLT is a newer alternative to the SAT and ACT. It was introduced in 2015, and designed for high school juniors and seniors. Over 200 colleges across the US accept the results of this test as part of a student's college application [4]. 

Unlike the SAT and ACT, this test is administered in two ways:

1. You can take the test online with a remote proctor. This allows you to test from the comfort of your own home, using your desktop or laptop computer.

2. You can take the test at a designated testing site, which will be supervised by an in-person proctor. To register for an online exam or find testing sites in your area, you can visit the CLT website.

CLT scores

This entrance exam features very straightforward scoring: one point for each correct answer for a possible score of 120. You should receive your CLT score one to two weeks after testing. 

Format

The CLT offers test-takers a two-hour total completion time, with three forty-question sections divided in the following way:

  • Verbal Reasoning: 40 minutes

  • Grammar and Writing: 35 minutes

  • Quantitative Reasoning: 45 minutes

Why take the CLT?

With a focus on classical education, the CLT exam emphasizes reading, logic, and reasoning, as opposed to calculation. If you have strengths in these areas, this test might be the one for you—as long as your potential colleges recognize it in place of the SAT and ACT.  

The scoring possibilities with the CLT are higher than those of the SAT or ACT. The highest scores you can earn on the SAT and ACT equate to a 114 on the CLT. However, a perfect score on this test is 120. The simple scoring method and quicker score delivery time also make this test an attractive option.

Preparing for a college entrance exam

No matter what type of college entrance exam you take, knowing how to prepare can make a world of difference when it comes to your score. Here are a few tips and strategies that can help:

  • Begin preparing about three months prior to your exam, and study for at least three hours per week.

  • Purchase one of the test prep guides on the market to learn about the type of test you're taking.

  • Look into test-prep apps that offer simulated testing—and practice often. 

  • Re-familiarize yourself with standard math concepts and formulas. 

  • Read challenging articles or books and look up unfamiliar words. 

  • Enroll in a test-prep class, work with a study group, and/or hire a test-prep tutor. 

  • Give yourself enough time to retake a college entrance exam if needed.

  • Visit the College Board, ACT, or CLT website to get specifics about testing sites, dates, and times.

What's next

Interested in pursuing an online degree after completing your college entrance exam? On Coursera, you'll find bachelor's degrees from renowned colleges and universities around the world covering many areas, from computer science and business to engineering and marketing.

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Article sources

1. KTLA. "Harvard Drops SAT and ACT Requirements Through 2026, https://ktla.com/news/nationworld/harvard-drops-sat-and-act-test-requirements-through-2026/. Accessed January 28, 2022.

2. Inside Higher Ed. "70,000 Fewer Took the SAT, https://www.insidehighered.com/admissions/article/2021/09/20/sat-annual-report-says-those-who-took-test-fell-700000." Accessed January 28, 2022.

3. The College Board. "When Do SAT Scores Come Out?, https://blog.collegeboard.org/when-do-sat-scores-come-out." Accessed January 28, 2022.

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