CLEP Exams Guide

By ACO Staff

Published on September 3, 2021

CLEP Exams Guide

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How to Get College Credit & Graduate Faster

For more than 40 years, College Board has been providing the College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) exam series to help students earn college credit with their existing knowledge. In the following sections, learners interested in using this method to bypass introductory classes can learn what the CLEP entails, how much it costs, when it can be taken and how to prepare.

CLEP Exams: An Overview

The CLEP series provides students the opportunity to gain college credit, save money, move into advanced coursework more quickly and ultimately graduate faster. In fact, 50 percent of CLEP learners earned their degree within seven years, compared to only 21 percent of their peers who had no prior-learning experience.

What Are CLEP Exams?

Put simply, CLEP exams allow degree seekers with prior knowledge of introductory college topics the opportunity to take an exam demonstrating their mastery rather than taking the class itself. The overall purpose of CLEP exams is to reward existing knowledge and make it easier for students to earn college credit. As of 2017, examinations in 35 different subject areas are offered.

What are the benefits of taking a CLEP exam?

CLEP exams are beneficial to students of many different backgrounds and interests, and appeal to numerous motives. Here’s how taking one or more CLEP exams might benefit you:

Graduate early According to data collected by College Board, the exam administrator, students who completed prior learning assessments such as CLEP graduated in less time than their peers who did not. The most recent data shows that students working toward an associate degree saved an average of 1.5 to 4.5 months, while those enrolled in bachelor’s programs graduated 2.5 to 10.1 months earlier.
Spend less on your college education It’s no surprise that gaining a college education can be really expensive, and nearly every student enrolled today is interested in finding ways to cut costs. When averaging the costs of credit hours at public and private community colleges and four-year institutions, the median cost for a three-hour class in 2017 was $1,782. Conversely, each CLEP exam costs $85. If a student successfully passes five CLEP exams that allow him or her to bypass 15 credit hours, that would add up to $425 for the exams rather than $8,910 for the credit hours.
Focus on the classes that matter Though nearly every college in America requires students to complete a core set of general education classes to round out their college experience, oftentimes these courses don’t necessarily relate to their chosen major. Rather than worrying about chemistry classes as an English major, students who successfully pass the corresponding CLEP exam can get those subjects out of the way and instead focus on the ones that directly contribute to their passions and future career goals.

In the Military? You May Get Special Benefits

In partnership with the Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support (DANTES) program, active service members, spouses and civilian employees of many branches of the military can take CLEP exams and have the $85 fee waived. These examinees are eligible to take the exam at off-base and on-base centers, but many of the off-base centers do require them to pay a separate administrative free that’s often covered at on-base testing locations.

Individuals currently covered under this provision include:

Active duty military members in the Air Force, Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Cost Guard, and National Guard and Reserve Component

Spouses of active and reserve members of the Coast Guard

Department of Defense Employees of the Air Force.

Before signing up and taking any CLEP exams, students should first check with their current or prospective school to make sure it accepts CLEP credits. Currently, more than 2,900 colleges and universities throughout the U.S. accept CLEP credits. To see if your school is among them, use College Board’s searchable database.

CLEP Exams: The Test

Before deciding to take a CLEP exam, prospective examinees probably have a few questions about how it is formatted and what to expect on testing day.

What topics are covered by CLEP Exams The 35 CLEP exams currently offered by College Board are divided into five categories: Composition and literature World languages History and social sciences Science and mathematics Business Regardless of their chosen areas of interest, CLEP examinees can select from a vast array of topics, including American literature; various levels of French, German or Spanish language; human growth and development; macroeconomics; college algebra; pre-calculus or financial accounting.
How many credits can you earn? For each of the exams taken and passed, students can earn between three and 12 college credits. Depending on the required general education courses at the college of their choice, students could bypass most of their entire first year of introductory courses.
What is the test format? These days, all CLEP exams are completed via computer, making it easy for students to experience a streamlined process and get their test results quickly. While individual CLEPs will vary slightly from exam to exam, the majority last between 90 and 120 minutes and consist solely of multiple-choice questions with five possible answers. A few of the tests feature questions asking students to write answers, so these scores may not be available directly after completing the test.
how are CLEP exams scored? Regardless of subject area, all tests are scored on a scale of 20 to 80. To calculate these scores, College Board identifies both a raw score and a scaled score. The raw score provides one point to every question answered correctly, while the scaled score takes into account differences in difficulty between tests and how other examinees have fared on the test. Although the American Council on Education maintains a list of recommended minimum scores for passage of each subject area, individual colleges and universities also reserve the right to require higher scores for credit to be granted. Students should check with their school to find out if their minimums are the same as ACE’s before taking the test. If they don’t pass on their first attempt, students must wait three months before re-sitting the exam.

Preparing for a CLEP Exam

Before diving into the process, students should familiarize themselves with the logistics of taking a CLEP exam, including where they can be taken, how the sign-up process works and how they should prepare for exam day.

CLEP exams are currently offered at more than 1,800 civilian and military testing centers throughout the United States, and College Board has plans to expand this number in the coming years. To find a test center near you, use College Board’s easily searchable database. Regardless of the subject test taken, all CLEP exams cost $85 and can be paid and registered for via the College Board website. Once registered, examinees must contact their local testing center to arrange a date and time to sit the exam. Aside from the examination fee, most testing centers charge an additional administration fee that can be paid online or in person.

When testing day arrives, students must bring:

  • A valid registration ticket for each exam they’ll be taking
  • Any necessary paperwork required by the testing facility
  • A valid and acceptable form of identification

Items that can’t be brought in include:

  • Calculators
  • Keyboards
  • Phones
  • Books
  • Cameras or Audio Recording Devices
  • Food
  • Hats or Baggy Clothes
  • Any other items that could be used to unlawfully help examinees with the testing materials

Preparing for a CLEP exam

The level of mastery a student has of a particular subject will greatly dictate how much studying is needed before sitting the exam. Here are some of the best ways to prepare:

Resources for practice exams:

by Mometrix

Expert Advice on CLEP Exams

Susan Landry

has decades of experience in preparing traditional and adult students for college credit examinations. A former teacher, Landry was selected as Teacher of the Year before moving into her current role. In recent years, she has published an eBook on preparing students for tests that award college credit, including both CLEP and DSST. She has also taught study groups for high school students and has a successful record of helping them pass CLEP exams.

In your opinion, what are the pros and cons of CLEP exams, and how can students best use them to their benefit?

The pros of CLEP exams include saving tons of money and time. The first two years of college are largely a repeat of high school. When studying a subject, why not study once and get credit for it?

At our local community college, a three-credit course costs between $600-700 (and that is much less than at a four-year college or university). A CLEP exam costs around $100 when considering examination and administrative fees. That is an incredible savings! And for kids who don't particularly love school, CLEP exams are an incentive to study once and be done.

There are two main cons of CLEP testing as I see it. One, it requires a good amount of self-motivation to study and prepare for the tests, and not all students possess this. Secondly, and a larger concern, is that many colleges don't accept very many credits by exam.

How do schools typically feel about accepting CLEP exam credits?

It can often take some digging on a college's website to find their policy on accepting CLEP credits. In Minnesota, a number of years ago our Governor got a law passed that requires all schools in the State University System to accept an unlimited number of credits by exam. In my experience looking at schools around the country, the more prestigious a university is, the fewer CLEP credits they will accept.

How many CLEP exams should students try to take?

That depends on the student. My oldest son graduated high school with 18 CLEP/DSST credits. My younger son is a junior and currently has 36 credits by exam. To answer the question of how many exams a student should take, the first consideration must be what the student's goals are. Knowing the policies of the college/program they plan to attend after high school will guide how many credits they seek to gain.

What advice do you have for students considering this path?

My advice would be: DO IT! By getting credits by exam you are giving yourself a self-awarded scholarship to college.

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