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Earn College Credits for What You Know: CLEP

It's no secret to today's college students that tuition costs are on the upswing. The 2012-2013 academic year alone saw a 3.8% increase in average state school tuition nationwide. In the face of these growing costs, savvy students may be on the lookout for ways to reduce the cost of attending college. The College Level Examination Program (CLEP) may be a sound alternative to earning college credits for knowledge and skills you already have.

The CLEP program is administered by the College Board, the same educational entity that operates Advanced Placement (AP) classes and standardized college entrance exams like the SAT and the ACT. While not every U.S. postsecondary school is a part of this program, over 2,900 of them are. Participating schools allow you to demonstrate your mastery of a given subject simply by passing an examination. Your knowledge could have been gained on the job, as a result of your cultural background, acquired in advanced high school courses or elsewhere. The small fee charged for the exam is minimal compared to the cost of a campus-based or online course.

How Does it Work?

In total, 33 CLEP examinations are available across five subject areas: world languages, science and mathematics, business, history and social sciences, and composition and literature. Generally, these exams cover the same material you could expect as a traditional freshman or sophomore in college. Most exams correlate with the same amount of material you would encounter in a one-semester course, though there are a few exceptions. Depending on participating school rules, you can earn 3 to 12 credit hours just by passing CLEP exams.

It is extremely important to first check with any school where you intend to use CLEP credits. First, check the CollegeBoard website in order to see whether your 2- or 4-year college is among the participating schools. After that, it's good practice to double-check with the dean of the department that will be asked to grant you credit hours in exchange for your CLEP score. Each educational institution chooses its own policy for CLEP credit hours; allowable transfer credits may mean very different things at different schools.

Each school determines the allowable passing score for CLEP credits. When you've completed your exam, the results are sent to the school of your choice. Individual school policies may differ, but generally passing scores are accepted as prior learning credits. Grades are not usually listed for CLEP credits.

How Does Testing Work?

Once you've determined that your school will grant credit for these exams, you can simply choose your exam date and register online. CLEP exams must be proctored at approved testing sites; if your school does not conduct testing on-site, you may be required to travel to another approved location.

The basic fee for any CLEP exam is $80 and must be paid online at the time of registration. Individual testing centers generally add a smaller administrative fee that you can pay the day of the exam.

Exams may have timed subsections; check your exam format prior to test day. All tests are multiple-choice, with the exception of literature and composition subject areas that require a written essay. Multiple-choice questions are graded digitally; required essays are graded by approved College Board professors, and optional essays are reviewed by faculty members at your school. All CLEP exams take two hours or less. You can find CLEP's official test samples here to get an idea of exactly what the tests will look like.

Depending on which exam you take, the total number of points you earn will be between 20 and 80. Points are awarded for correct responses and are not deducted for incorrect or blank answers. If there is no written component to your exam, you'll receive your score as soon as you have finished the test. Scores for exams that include essays are available in about 4 weeks. College Board will send one test transcript to a college of your choice at no extra cost, and for a small fee thereafter. The college you attend sets its own minimum score required for class credit; you can find the ACE's recommended scores and equivalent semester hours for all tests here. for You may also retake a CLEP exam after six months has passed.

CLEP Exam Resources

Outside of study tools provided by College Board, the following resources may help you prepare for a CLEP exam.

The level of preparation for your exam will depend on your comfort level with the subject matter. Ideally, you should be relatively well-versed in the area before you even consider taking a CLEP exam. If you need to brush up or fine-tune your knowledge, College Board offers several study tools. Individual subject guides as well as The Official Study Guide, which covers all exams, are available in PDF form for a fee. Other online tools include sample exam questions and practice tests. You may also find it advantageous to consult standard texts that classroom teachers use to cover the material.

  • The Open Education Database (OEDb) is a comprehensive resource for free educational materials. Podcasts, video tutorials and collections of course material can help you refine your knowledge in many subject areas.
  • Open Culture also offers free educational materials. Downloadable materials such as audiobooks and ebooks are available, as are links to YouTube channels and educational websites.
  • Coursera delivers free courses and educational materials from a wide breadth of subject areas, ranging from general information to postgraduate level content.
  • Khan Academy is also known for its breadth of online study options, including interactive study aids, knowledge assessment tools, videos and podcasts.
  • Udacity, another provider of free online course material, offers class materials developed by professors at elite educational institutions.

Who Can Earn CLEP Credits?

According to the College Board site, "CLEP has been the most widely trusted credit-by-examination program for over 40 years, accepted by 2900 colleges and universities and administerd in over 1,800 test centers." With over 200,000 CLEP exams administered in a given year, the tests have obvious appeal to any student eager to earn core college credits, which in turn will putt them several steps ahead of their fellow incoming freshman.

And unlike earning AP credits before college, CLEP credits do not require that you attend a class. Perhaps you went to work immediately after high school and are thinking of going back to school for a degree. On-the-job experience may have granted you enough business knowledge, for example, that you are able to pass the CLEP exam on information systems. Similarly, military service members routinely receive training in many fields, and this training could be put to use in the form of CLEP credits in college. College Board also offers discounts to active and former military service members. It's estimated that one-third of all exams are taken by active-duty military, all at no cost.

Homeschooled students can also benefit from CLEP, particularly those who have expertise in specific subjects. For instance, a homeschooled teenager may have demonstrated a love for classic literature and been able to read extensively in that genre long before college. Such a student might easily manage CLEP exams in literature or the humanities. Similarly, students who were successful in honors classes in a traditional high school setting might, with a little preparation, may also earn early college credits with CLEP.

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