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Major Exams for University Entrance

By World Family Education

Students planning to attend university anywhere in the world will likely need to take a standardized exam that demonstrates their readiness for higher education.

Most universities in the United States require results from either the SAT or ACT. In the United Kingdom and other countries, Advanced Levels are the standard exam requirement, but many universities also accept SAT results or a composite score from the International Baccalaureate.

It’s important to note that students should check admissions policies at the university where they intend to apply to determine which exams they’ll need to take.

Information about the most widely used university entrance exams — the SAT, ACT, Advanced Levels, and International Baccalaureate exams — are described below. For more information about Major English Assessment Tests, visit that page at World Family Education.


The SAT is a globally recognized college admissions test that consists of reading, writing, and math sections. Developed in the United States by the College Board, the SAT assesses a student’s readiness for higher education.

SAT testing takes place at licensed centers around the world on scheduled dates. Students must register at the College Board website to sit for the exam.

Testing format:

  • The SAT is three hours long.
  • Students may also complete an optional 50-minute essay portion.
  • Test sections include reading with 52 questions, writing and language with 44 questions, and math with 58 questions.

The SAT essay section is similar to a college writing assignment in which you’re asked to analyze a text. Although this section is optional, many universities require it.

Some universities also require that applicants take certain SAT Subject Tests. The College Board has developed 20 multiple-choice standardized tests on individual subjects.

The SAT is scored on a scale of 400 to 1600. The total combines the student’s score on the reading/writing and language sections (200–800) with their score on the math section (200–800).

Students may also take the PSAT, a Preliminary SAT test taken one to two years before taking the SAT. It provides practice for the SAT and can qualify students who are U.S. citizens for the National Merit Scholarship, a financial award sponsored by a U.S. nonprofit organization.


The ACT is a United States national college exam that consists of English, reading, math, and science sections. It’s designed to assess a student’s current knowledge and is administered by ACT Inc. in the U.S.

Just like the SAT, ACT testing takes place at licensed centers around the world on scheduled dates, and students must register at the ACT website to sit for the exam.

Testing format:

  • Exam is nearly three hours long.
  • Students may complete an optional 40-minute essay portion.
  • Test sections include English with 75 questions, reading with 40 questions, math with 60 questions, and science with 40 questions.

The ACT essay section asks students to respond to a writing prompt. Students are presented with three different perspectives about a contemporary issue. They then write about their own perspective, defend it, and discuss its relationship to the other perspectives given. This is an optional section, but many universities require it.

Each section of the ACT is scored from 1 to 36, and the composite score is an average of all four section scores.

Some universities also require that applicants take certain SAT Subject Tests along with the ACT.

Differences Between the ACT and SAT

For students applying to universities in the United States, the SAT and ACT are equally good options to meet admissions requirements. Choosing which exam to take is largely influenced by personal preference.

Some key differences between the exams are:

  • The ACT emphasizes science to a greater extent.
  • Math score is weighted more heavily on the SAT.
  • More time is given per question on the SAT.
  • Essay writing content is very different for each exam.

Articles that explore differences between the two exams are:

Many practice tests for both the SAT and ACT may be found online. Taking them may be the most accurate way to determine which exam is best for the student.

CLEP Tests

College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) tests are not required for university admissions. However, a student may receive university course credit in the United States for successful CLEP testing results.

Produced by the College Board, CLEP exams allow students with prior knowledge of introductory college topics the opportunity to take a test demonstrating their mastery rather than taking the class itself.

Nearly 3,000 U.S. universities accept CLEP exam results and offer students course credit.

For more information, visit the College Board’s page about the CLEP.

Advanced Levels (or International Advanced Levels)

Advanced-Level or International Advanced-Level qualifications are subject-based courses that can lead to university, further study, training, or work. They are usually conferred by the General Certificate of Education in the United Kingdom and follow successful completion of the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) or International Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE).

Several countries outside of the UK have developed their own A Level (or similar) qualifications for students preparing for university.

Read more about British National curriculum and the IGCSE at the World Family Education page about International School Curriculum Options.

The International A Levels are comparable to traditional A Levels but designed for international learners.

Students normally study three or four A Levels (or International A Levels) over two years. They choose courses based on the degree program they hope to pursue in university, subjects they are good at, and subjects they enjoy studying. At the end of the coursework, students are assessed by examination.

Exam format is largely based on the subject area, with many open-ended questions requiring essay responses.

A-Level (or International A-Level) examinations are graded on a scale of A* to E, as follows:

A*80+ overall and 90+ in A2 (second year) units

Globally, the majority of universities now accept A-Level (or International A-Level) qualifications for admission. (Students who have completed high school with non–English National curricula will need to meet different university admissions standards. Be sure to check admissions policies at the university.)

International Baccalaureate Exams

The International Baccalaureate (IB) is a globally recognized curriculum used by thousands of schools. IB programmes include subject-based courses with exams, and many universities accept the composite score from those exams for admission.

Students pursuing the IB may study either the Diploma Programme or Career Programme during the final two years of secondary education. Exams for these programmes are given at the end of individual courses of study.

According to the International Baccalaureate Organization, students in the Diploma Programme receive grades ranging from 7 to 1, with 7 being highest. A student’s final DP score is made up of the combined scores for each subject.

A student’s final score in the CP combines exam scores and other forms of assessment, such as service learning, professional skills, and more.

Learn more about IB programmes at the World Family Education page about International School Curriculum Options.

Other University Entrance Exams Around the World

Wikipedia provides a helpful list of country-specific university admission exams. These are standardized tests that students may need to take for admission to various colleges or universities around the world.

Preparation and Practice Tests

Numerous online sites offer free practice tests for the SAT, PSAT, ACT, A Levels, and others. A simple search online will provide many options.

The College Board provides some free SAT practice resources, including practice tests, at their site. ACT Inc. also provides one free practice test.

Khan Academy has partnered with The College Board to provide free SAT preparation courses and practice tests. Using these resources has been proven to significantly improve student test scores.

Another site, Kaplan, provides information on testing courses, services, registration information for SAT, PSAT, ACT, TOEFL, and more, for a fee.

A large selection of previous A-Level exams are available for free at the Pearson Edexcel site and Cambridge Assessment International Education site.  


Some information adapted from and

Prepscholar. “ACT vs. SAT: 11 Key Differences to Help You Pick the Right Test.” Retrieved June 20, 2019, from

World Education News & Reviews. “A Guide to the GCE A Level.” Retrieved June 10, 2019, from

Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. “A Levels.” Retrieved June 10, 2019, from