Beginners’ Guide to the CLEP Exam

Getting to Know the Test that Can Save Credits, Time, and Money

SAT, ACT, AP — these are the most familiar acronyms in the college application process. High school students know (but most likely don’t love!) these all-important tests well. After all, they shape each individual’s application, list of colleges, and ultimately, the final decision as to which college to attend.

Yet there is another standardized test that can benefit dedicated students even after their high school careers end. In fact, this test offers new and experienced college students the opportunity to show their skills and knowledge off, while earning credits that can be used towards completing a degree. It’s called the CLEP, or College-Level Examination Program.

What, Exactly, is the CLEP?

As the official website writes, the CLEP is a collection of exams that allow students to earn college credit. Created, managed, and administered by the College Board, the organization known for the Advanced Placement (AP) courses and exams, the SAT, and the SAT Subject Tests, the CLEP allows students entering or enrolled in a college or university to earn credit based on information they’ve already mastered. According to the College Board, the CLEP is “the most widely accepted credit-by-examination program” in the higher education system.

Unlike the standardized tests taken by high school students to determine their college readiness, the CLEP offers more options: interested test-takers can choose which tests they wish to take from a broad selection of 33 different exams. The subjects are designed to be specific to different areas of knowledge, intended to help students show what they know, and what they’re skilled in. Each test was created to cover material that college students typically learn during the first two years of a four-year program, according to the College Board. CLEP exams are offered in five different subject areas: History and Social Sciences, Composition and Literature, Science and Mathematics, Business, and World Languages.

Originally developed to help non-traditional students with unique educational backgrounds such as homeschooling, military, and college interruptions, the CLEP has become a helpful tool for students nationwide. Passing a CLEP exam with a qualifying score earns students college credit, which they can apply to their degree requirements in a variety of ways. With nearly 3,000 colleges and universities accepting CLEP credit as replacement for major courses, general education requirements, and college-level testing, students can speed up their academic journeys and earn credits without spending thousands of dollars.

The Benefits of Taking a CLEP Exam

Why would college students choose to take standardized exams rather than sitting through courses at their school? Well, the CLEP offers benefits that can enhance the education of degree-seekers everywhere.

First, the CLEP doesn’t require students to spend significant time prepping for its exams. Whereas many students are familiar with the months-long studying needed for the SAT and AP tests, the CLEP allows students to choose what test they take, making it suited to their strengths. The subjects are broad and specific, including topics like American Government, Introductory Sociology, Financial Accounting, and Introductory Business Law. Additionally, as U.S. News writes, most CLEP testers don’t need help to prep. The exams are best suited for self-motivated students, those who are already skilled at working towards their own education.

Another reason students choose to take CLEP tests is the credit these exams offer. As a widely accepted exam at thousands of colleges and universities, it’s an easy way to earn credits without taking additional courses. In fact, as the official CLEP website notes, passing a selected exam can result in earning anywhere from three to 12 credit hours. Each college allows its students to earn different amounts of credit from CLEP exams, but many do apply English and Math CLEP credits to core curriculum requirements and general education classes. A 2011 research report announced that, on average, community college students spend as long as five years completing their two-year degree programs. Yet the length of a CLEP exam runs between 90 to 120 minutes — meaning students can save themselves a significant amount of time by choosing the CLEP.

Finally, choosing the CLEP instead of more traditional degree paths that require four or more years of classroom study is cost effective. According to U.S. News, students who use the CLEP to test out of courses at their college or university are able to save money by enrolling in fewer classes and completing their degrees in less time. Fewer years spent on tuition equates to great financial savings of thousands of dollars — and one CLEP exam costs only $80. After all, if you’re a student already skilled in literature analysis, or well-versed in American history, sitting through a class that costs hundreds of dollars may not be the best way to spend your tuition dollars. By choosing the affordable CLEP, students can spend little to earn the same credits.

Before You Begin Studying, Know the CLEPs Limits

Along with its many benefits, there are important aspects of the CLEP that can affect students’ education if left unaware. It can be an incredibly useful tool to save money, time, and credits, but there are facts students should know before diving into their first CLEP exam.

Before you choose your CLEP test, get to know your college or university’s credit policy. While many schools do accept these exams in place of credits earned in traditional classes, the amount and type varies widely. As the College Board points out, some institutions limit the amount of credit students can earn per CLEP exam. Some colleges may exempt you from a general education class, but offer no credit — you can simply “skip” lower-level classes. Still others, as U.S. News discusses, accept the CLEP as a prerequisite test only, allowing students to use it to advance to higher-level courses. And, depending on a student’s chosen major, the credits earned from a CLEP exam may only be applied to elective courses, not those required by a school to graduate in a certain degree field.

Additionally, students may not want to invest time and effort into completing CLEP tests if they are studying in a field that requires certification or professional licensing. Some of these more restrictive majors include teaching, nursing, and pre-professional programs. Because students typically need to complete state-determined courses and hours of study to earn degrees in these fields, they cannot earn credits through CLEP exams. The credits may, depending on school policy, be used toward elective courses not in the chosen major, but not on any required classes.

No matter where you are along your degree-earning journey, consider the CLEP — what benefits and savings can it offer you? When time and finances are on the line, for many the CLEP and its varied exams can offer the perfect solution to skipping ahead on the path to completion.

Helpful Resources

Official College Board CLEP Exam Preparation Resources and Study Guides

The Open Education Database Library, for online learning in a wide variety of subjects

Hippocampus, an online database with videos for college courses

TestOut, free practice tests for the CLEP