Gain Credit with the CLEP

by Gregory Lloyd

Here’s the dilemma. You’d like to go back to school to finish your degree, but you’re overwhelmed by all the classes you’ll need to take. After all, there are already so many other demands on your time-work, family, household, and other responsibilities. Tuition and fees can also be daunting if your employer foots only part of the bill. To top it off, some of the classes may be a waste of time and money because you already know the material.

Relax. There are other ways to easily obtain college credit towards an accredited degree program. One in particular can substantially reduce your class time and costs-and give you credit for what you know-enabling you to earn your degree much faster than you ever thought possible.

It’s called the College-Level Examination Program (CLEP), one of the most widely accepted programs for gaining alternative college credit by exam. Recognized by the American Council on Education since 1967, the CLEP offers exams in more than 30 subjects, including choices in languages, business, science, math, and history. Many satisfy core liberal arts and elective requirements for a typical undergraduate program. The 90-minute exams, consisting of about 100 questions answered manually in two separately timed sessions, are offered each month at more than 1,400 testing centers around the world-many of them local colleges. (CLEP is planning to offer computer-based testing in the near future.) The cost per exam is a mere $46 (plus a small testing center fee), a fraction of what you’d pay for an equivalent college class. Depending on your level of knowledge and your school’s policy on CLEP exams, you can trim as many as half the credits off your formal degree program.

When I first learned about CLEP back in the fall of 1993, I had completed just 12 credits through the night school program at Immaculata College in Pennsylvania. At the time, I was in my late 20s, working full-time at a stressful marketing job, stringing for a local paper, running a household, and trying to balance church, family, and social activities. I hadn’t officially matriculated into a degree program because I didn’t want to commit a decade or more of my life to school.

Once I recognized the opportunity, I decided to try the CLEP exam for French, a subject I had studied for five years during high school. After checking with Immaculata’s continuing education office to make sure that the credits would be acceptable towards my future degree, I mailed the fee and registration form. To review, I borrowed some French tapes and a guidebook from the public library. I also purchased the Clep Official Study Guide so that I could become familiar with the types of questions the test would cover. Like the other two CLEP language exams (Spanish and German), the French test consists of 130 multiple-choice questions: 80 by reading and 50 by listening to a taped monologue. Depending on your grade score or percentile rank and the exam you choose, you can gain 3, 6 or 12 semester hours of college credit.

The morning of the exam, I arrived at the testing center with my #2 pencils and identification and was led to a private room so that I could listen to the oral portion without distraction. The questions were not easy, but I was relaxed and thought I did well. Two weeks later my grade report arrived with a score high enough for 12 credits, which I got added to my transcript when I registered for Immaculata’s B.A. in Organizational Dynamics. (If you’re officially registered in a degree program, you can indicate on your CLEP registration form the number code of the college to receive a copy of your grade for automatic credit.)

After that, I was hooked. I continued my night classes at Immaculata-some of them in an accelerated format-while successfully completing CLEP exams in English Literature (6 credits), Principles of Management (3 credits), Information Systems and Computer Applications (3 credits), General Biology (6 credits), College Algebra (6 credits), and Western Civilization II (3 credits). In May 1998, I graduated cum laude with the exact number of credits needed for my degree.

All in all I found the testing experience to be richly rewarding. Granted, there were some topics that I didn’t know extremely well prior to registering for the exam. For example, even though I had gained some knowledge about computers through the years, I felt I needed to review an introductory textbook on computers before taking the Information Systems and Computer Applications exam. My knowledge of biology was also not strong when I began, so I borrowed a biology textbook from a friend. Yet, I figured that putting in the extra study time on my own was far preferable to paying for and participating in all the classes necessary to obtain the credits the old-fashioned way.

If you’re not completely comfortable with a certain subject-and don’t want to spend a lot of time reviewing for an exam-there are a few shortcuts you might consider. For example, I found the Harper Collins College Outline series of books (published in the early 1990s) to be very helpful in reviewing for the English Literature, Introduction to Management, and Western Civilization II exams. Each book in the series-which also covers such exam subjects as chemistry, psychology, and sociology-contains a synopsis of the subject in an easy-to-read format. Check your local library or bookstore for copies.

You might also consider applicable books in the IDG Books For Dummies series and Barron’s Easy Way series. I borrowed Biology: The Easy Way from the library as part of my review for the General Biology exam. The CLEP Official Study Guide also provides a list of suggested review texts for each exam.

If you have a thorough knowledge of a large topic area, you might consider taking one of the five General Examinations-English Composition, Humanities, College Mathematics, Natural Sciences, and Social Sciences and History-each eligible for 3 or 6 college credits depending on your grade and your college’s policy. For example, the Humanities General Exam covers painting, sculpture, music, film, dance, architecture, drama, poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Since these exams may not have direct application to a particular class, your college is less likely to accept them for credit.

Of course, before you decide to take any CLEP exam check with your college or university’s continuing education or counseling/testing office to find out which of the exams it accepts, and for what grade levels you are given credit. Although more than 2,900 colleges participate in the CLEP program, many do not accept all of the tests that the CLEP offers. Also, each college has its own requirements for what it considers to be a suitable passing grade for credit. Even if your college does accept a particular exam, the credits may not apply toward the degree program you have in mind.

Getting a degree does not have to take a lifetime commitment. Take advantage of the CLEP to finish your degree faster than you ever thought possible.

CLEP Facts at a Glance

The CLEP (College Level Examination Program) is one of the most widely accepted programs for gaining alternative college credit by exam. Students can earn from 3 to 12 credits for each test.
Exams are offered in 33 college-level introductory subjects (in the areas of History and Social Sciences, Composition and Literature, Science and Mathematics, Business, and World Languages.) CLEP exams cover course work generally taught in the first two years of college.
Each exam costs $80* (*September 2014).
Over 2,900 colleges award undergraduate credit for the CLEP. Each college has its own policy on which exams are accepted, the minimum scores required for credit, and the number of credits awarded. To find colleges that grant credit for CLEP, use the CLEP College Search.
CLEP exams are administered on the computer and are timed (90 minutes each). Except for College Composition, exams are generally multiple-choice (mathematics exams may require fill-in responses.)
Exams are scored on a scale of 20 to 80, with the recommended score of 50 to award college credit, or a ‘C’ grade. The CLEP score is generally available immediately following the exam.

Gregory Lloyd is a financial writer and freelance business writer. He satisfied a third of the credits for his business degree by taking advantage of the College Level Examination Program.