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CLEP Exams & You: How to Test Out and Get Ahead

The College Level Examination Program (CLEP) is designed to allow students to leverage their existing knowledge and experience to earn college credit. Find out about the different types of CLEP exams available and how you can save time and money on your college education by passing them.

Author: Kathleen Curtis
Editor: STEPS Staff

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Maybe you grew up in a bilingual family and want to earn college credit for your Spanish fluency, but don’t want to take two years of a language you already know. Maybe your fascination with U.S. history has led you to read dozens of books on the subject and you feel confident that an introductory history course wouldn’t teach you anything new. Whether you want to cut down on the cost of college or you simply don’t want to waste your time on course content that you’re already versed in, CLEP exams can be the perfect solution. The College Level Examination Program (CLEP) is designed to test students on existing knowledge with the goal of helping individuals earn college credit before ever stepping foot in a university. This fast-track option can make your time in college shorter, cheaper, and more centered around the topics you actually care about.

If CLEP exams sound right for you, there are a few things you should know first. To learn the fundamentals and to get the information you need to succeed, keep reading.

All About CLEP Exams: What You Need to Know

Before deciding whether a CLEP exam is right for you, it’s best to spend some time researching what the exams entail, how they can help you, and what subject areas they cover. Here are some CLEP fundamentals you should know before you sign up.

What are CLEP exams?

Provided by The College Board, the College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) allows you to earn college credit by examination for skills or knowledge you already have. Nearly 3,000 colleges currently accept CLEP exams, and you can sit for the exam at one of more than 2,000 testing centers dotted across the United States. The College Board currently provides 34 different examinations in various academic disciplines. If you receive a high enough score on the exam, it means you don’t have to take that course in college, saving you time and money.

Who can benefit from taking a CLEP exam?

Regardless of whether you want to save money, graduate early, or devote your attention to major-specific subjects, CLEP exams can help you achieve these goals. If you fall into any one of the categories below, taking a CLEP exam could be a smart idea.

Students who want to graduate early

Standard three-hour courses typically last a full semester, with most full-time students taking five classes per term. If you want to graduate more quickly, testing out of courses where you already possess the knowledge can make it easier to graduate from college and get to work faster.

Those trying to spend less on tuition

With each CLEP exam costing only $89 and typically allowing you to test out of a three-credit college class, you can save a bundle of money by CLEPing out of some general education requirements – especially if you’re working towards a four-year degree.

Military students

Military personnel considered active duty, reserve, or members of the National Guard can take CLEP examinations for free under a funded contract with DANTES. Free exams also apply to spouses of active and reserve Coast Guard members and civilian members of the Air Force.

Students who want to focus on their major

If you would rather concentrate on courses directly connected to your intended major rather than dividing your attention between those and general education requirements, CLEP exams can help you get unrelated classes out of the way.

Do all schools accept CLEP exams?

While more than 2,900 colleges and universities provide credit for passing CLEP exam scores, it’s essential to make sure your school is one of them. You also need to understand your school’s specific rules around which exams they accept, what score you need, and how many credits you can earn via CLEP. The College Board provides a searchable database to learn more.

What subjects do CLEP exams cover?

The College Board divides CLEP exams into five categories spanning general education and introductory courses. The following table shows you available subjects in each of the five categories.

How many credits can you earn through CLEP?

Individual CLEP exams provide three credits. The number of credits you can transfer to a college or university depends on respective school policies. Most institutions set limits, which traditionally range from 12-60 credits. This limit may also include other types of examination challenges, such as AP tests.

Strategies for CLEP Exam Success

Plenty of strategies exist to make sure you ace your CLEP exam(s) and get the score needed to use towards college credits. Check out some of our expert tips below to learn what you need to know to feel confident and prepared.

Review your CLEP exam outline

Before creating your plan for CLEP success, take some time to review the exam descriptions provided by The College Board. These give insight on the types of skills and knowledge tested within a particular subject and can help you zero in on the areas you need to focus on more or less. For instance, in the American Literature overview, you can read about how much you need to understand critical literature terms, interpret poetry, and identify the authors and plots of well-known literary works.

Take a CLEP practice exam

CLEP practice exams serve multiple purposes. They can help you get familiar with the different types of questions used on CLEP exams while also ensuring you understand the test’s pacing and know how much time to spend on each question. They can also help you mimic testing conditions to identify any areas that cause concern. Many testing prep companies offer practice exams, some for free and others costing a fee. Mometrix, Varsity Tutors, and Petersons all provide exam prep resources, including practice exams, but do your research to find one that matches your prep style and budget.

Develop a solid study plan

Whether you plan to study for three weeks or three months before taking the exam, it’s important to map out how you plan to spend that time prepping for the test. Creating a study plan allows you to set aside specific, daily studying times that work with your schedule and provide space to make sure you know the material well. You can do a Google search for CLEP study plans to get an idea of how to structure your time but remember to personalize it to your unique needs and study style. Add it to your paper planner or digital calendar and put it in a visible place to make sure you stay on track.

Find a study buddy

Studying with someone else can help you make sure that you stay on track and it can be good to have a friend help you through your trouble areas. If you can find someone in your local community, try to schedule times to meet up with them to review materials. If not, don’t worry. Plenty of online communities exist for CLEP preparation. Join a couple of forums or Facebook groups and find others with a similar testing date. From there, you can share study plans, set up videoconferencing sessions, and motivate each other to do your best. If taking multiple CLEP exams, try to find multiple study buddies for each topic.

Practice with calculators

If you plan to take a CLEP exam in calculus or precalculus, you’ll need to know how to use a graphing calculator. If taking a chemistry, college algebra, or college mathematics test, you’ll need to be able to use a scientific calculator. If you haven’t worked with these types of calculators previously, the Educational Testing Service (ETS) provides practice tools and support specifically with these tools for each of the previously mentioned tests. You can also find plenty of YouTube videos to view if you identify as more of a visual/tactile learner.

Take a review course

Participating in a review course can help you refresh your memory of the topic and ensure you understand each of the exam’s required components. Many different test preparation companies offer both free and paid review courses, including the nonprofit Modern States. Through the Freshman Year for Free program, Modern States provides free CLEP prep courses in each of the CLEP subject areas currently available. Most consist of eight modules, with each module taking approximately six hours to complete. You may also be able to find some in-person review courses if that suits your learning style better.

Tips to Tackle Test Day

After you’ve studied hard and done your best to prepare adequately, the last thing you want to do is show up on test day without a plan for success. You can do plenty of things on test day to increase your odds of a passing score; here are a few key tips.

Come prepared

Ensuring you know what you can and cannot bring is the first step in making sure you feel prepared upon arrival. Items you need to bring include:

  • Registration ticket
  • Any site-specific registration forms
  • Two No. 2 pencils
  • Valid ID including full name, photograph, and signature

Items you cannot bring into the testing room include:

  • Devices that can record audio/video or take photographs
  • Cell phones
  • Calculators
  • Reference materials
  • Digital watches
  • Food/beverages
  • Sweaters/hooded sweatshirts
  • Hats (unless a religious requirement)
  • Paper of any kind

Answer every question (even if you don’t know the answer)

Unlike some other standardized tests, the CLEP doesn’t penalize you for selecting a wrong answer. Because of this, it’s vital that you answer every question – even if you don’t know the answer – as there’s a chance you could guess correctly. If you find yourself running out of time with too many questions left to answer, go through the rest of the exam and make sure you at least select an answer. You may get them all wrong, but chances are at least a couple of your random answers will be correct.

Use process of elimination

If you come across a question and you don’t know the answer, try to take a creative approach and see if you can eliminate clearly incorrect options. By doing this, you can make an educated guess and give yourself a better chance of getting the question right. Because CLEP exams aren’t based on a single source, it’s possible and even likely that you will encounter questions you don’t feel confident about. Utilizing an educated guessing strategy can make a difference in your final score.

Read between the lines

By paying close attention to context given within questions, it’s sometimes possible for you to ascertain answers for future questions. For instance, one question may ask a question about when the Gettysburg address was given while a later one may include the dates of the U.S. Civil War. These contextual clues may not give you the exact answer, but they can help you narrow options and cross off clearly wrong options.

Minimize Exam Anxiety

It’s normal to have test anxiety the evening before you take a CLEP exam, but there are plenty of things you can do to help ease that anxiety and walk in feeling calm and confident. Getting enough sleep the night before can help settle your nerves. Opting for a decaf coffee testing morning can help you keep the jitters at bay. If you don’t know the answer to a question, take a deep breath and try to focus rather than get nervous.

Expert Q&A on Crushing Your CLEP Exam


Arash Fayz

Arash Fayz is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of LA Tutors 123, a premier test preparation, academic consultation, and private tutoring company based in Los Angeles.

1) What common mistakes do students make when preparing for a CLEP exam?

Students typically do not address the test’s format as much as they should in order to perform well on this exam. Knowing the material is vital, but knowing question types and how to work with them can reduce errors and allow students to work with questions that might be intimidating or not completely known, as well as increase the number of questions that a student gets correct.

2) How can they adequately prepare for testing day, both before and on the morning of?

Preparing for the test involves preparing for the material, the test format, the learner’s emotional state, and the practical considerations. The material must be learned before test day through appropriate study and practice. The test format is best reviewed before the test day through exposure to sample test questions and strategies can be learned from a tutor or mentor familiar with standardized test prep or through self-researched study. The student’s emotional state can be helped with preparation, addressing of test stress through practice and strategy, and focus on current moments during the test. Practical considerations include students knowing the location of the test center, knowing the allowed materials, and gathering the necessary materials (preferably the night before).

3) Where can students turn to for support and help in preparing?

The CLEP website has many resources for practice materials and resource suggestions. There are many video sites that are education focused, such as Hippo Campus, for video learners of a particular concept. College websites and tutoring companies are great sources of information and support. Friends and colleagues who have experience in the topic of a student’s CLEP are great resources, particularly if they have recently taken a course in that topic.

4) What’s your most important piece of advice for these learners?

Prepare for the topic and the test to the best of your ability, given your current life requirements. Ask for help, and also take responsibility for your learning. When the test comes, focus only on the test; nothing before or after the test matters while you are taking it.