Your Guide to College Entrance Exams

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Learn more about the three primary entrance exams—the SAT, ACT, and CLT—you can take when you're getting ready to apply for college.

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A college entrance exam is a standardized test that measures your college readiness through multiple choice questions that focus on several areas—most often reading, writing, and math—in order to gauge your comprehension, critical thinking, logic, and problem-solving abilities.

There are three primary college entrance exams you can take when you're getting ready to apply to college or university: the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT), the American College Test (ACT), and the Classical Learning Test (CLT). You may be asked to submit your exam scores as part of your overall application package. Typically, most schools accept SAT or ACT scores, with little preference about which you submit. However, the CLT is considered an alternative college entrance exam and not every school takes it.

While a growing number of institutions have stopped requiring standardized testing scores in an effort to promote greater equity among applicants, submitting your scores may strengthen your application or help you qualify for certain scholarships [1]. In this article, we'll discuss the SAT, ACT, and CLT, so you can determine which is the best college entrance exam to take—if you choose to take one.


High school students typically take the SAT during their junior year or early in their senior year, giving them enough time to receive their scores and possibly retake the test if they want. In 2021, 1.5 million students took the SAT [2]. You may be able to register for the SAT through your high school, or find a testing center through the College Board's website.

SAT format and content

SAT takers have three hours to complete 154 multiple-choice questions. There are two key sections, Evidence-Based Reading and Writing and Math, that are further broken down into the following sub-sections:

SAT sectionNumber of questionsTime allotted
Reading52 questions65 minutes
Writing and Language44 questions35 minutes
Math (no calculator)20 questions25 minutes
Math (calculator)38 questions55 minutes

For the ERW section of the SAT, you'll be asked to read several passages from a range of texts (literature, history, science) and show an ability to comprehend and analyze the meaning of each one. You'll also be asked about vocabulary words and grammar.

In the math section, you'll need to answer questions drawing on algebra, geometry, and some trigonometry. One math section does not let you use a calculator, while the second math section does.

SAT scores

After you've completed the SAT, you'll earn separate scores (between 200 and 800) for each of the ERW and math sections. Your composite score can range from 400 to 1600. Learn more about what constitutes a good SAT score.

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.


As with the SAT, high school students tend to take the ACT during their junior year, to allow for retesting if necessary. In the US, the test is only offered seven months out of the year: February, April, June, July, September, October, and December.

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 serves as a testing location. You can also find testing centers through the ACT's website.

ACT format and content

The ACT consists of 215 multiple-choice questions, and you have two hours and fifty-five minutes to complete the test, which is broken down into four sections:

ACT sectionNumber of questionsTime allotted
English75 questions45 minutes
Math60 questions60 minutes
Reading35 questions40 minutes
Science35 questions40 minutes

With the reading section, you'll be asked to read, comprehend, and analyze passages; the English section tests your vocabulary and grammar knowledge; the math section draws on algebra, geometry, and some trigonometry; and the science section provides several science-based passages containing charts and graphs for you to use your logic skills to read, comprehend, and analyze them.

Like the SAT, the ACT doesn't penalize you for wrong answers, so it's a good idea to guess when you aren't sure. However, unlike the SAT, you're allowed to use a calculator on all math questions on the ACT. The ACT also has an optional writing section in which you'll complete an essay. Adding this to your ACT exam typically costs extra.

ACT scores

For each section, you'll receive a score from 1 to 36. Those numbers are then averaged to come up with your composite score. ACT composite scores also range from 1 to 36. Learn more about what a good ACT score is. Generally, you'll receive ACT scores two to eight weeks after testing.


The CLT is a newer alternative to the SAT and ACT, and isn't as widely accepted. Over 200 colleges across the US accept the results of this test as part of your college application, so it's worth double-checking to ensure the schools you wish to apply to take CLT scores [4].

CLT format and content

The CLT takes two hours to complete a total of 120 questions, which are broken down into three sections:

CLT SectionNumber of questionsTime allotted
Verbal reasoning40 questions40 minutes
Grammar and writing40 questions35 minutes
Quantitative reasoning40 questions45 minutes

The CLT emphasizes more of a classical education compared with the SAT and ACT. Unlike those exams, the CLT is administered in two ways:

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

2. You can take the test at a designated testing site, which an in-person proctor will supervise. To register for an online exam or find testing sites in your area 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.

Preparing for a college entrance exam

Not sure which college entrance exam is right for you? We've broken down the SAT and ACT into a comparative guide to help you think through that choice. But 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 three months before your exam, and plan to 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 for specifics about testing sites, dates, and times.

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Article sources


KTLA. "Harvard Drops SAT and ACT Requirements Through 2026, Accessed December 12, 2023.

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