Earning a college degree requires a significant investment of both time and money. Those seeking to save in both areas can earn college credits by testing out of entry-level courses via the College Level Examination Program, administered by the College Board.
With 34 exams offered in five subject areas, CLEP exams “provide learners of all ages the opportunity to earn college credit for what they already know,” says Gini Beran, director of CLEP outreach at the College Board. “It’s a way to showcase through a valid, reliable exam mastery of college-level material.”
[READ: How Prior Learning Assessments Can Cut College Costs.]
What Are CLEP Exams?
CLEP exams allow people who are already proficient in a particular subject to test out of introductory college courses in that subject. For example, someone fluent in Spanish can save potentially thousands of dollars in tuition costs by passing either the Spanish Language or Spanish with Writing CLEP exams, and earning a college foreign languages credit. They’re also a popular option for military service men and women, Beran says, as the U.S. government pays the exam fee for first-time test-takers who are military personnel.
One of the big caveats of the test is that not all colleges accept CLEP credits, and others may cap the number of CLEP credits a student can earn, Will Geiger, co-founder and CEO of the college scholarship site Scholarships360, wrote in an email. But students who pass CLEP exams can still earn college credit at roughly 2,900 colleges.
Experts say there are other factors to consider before taking a CLEP test, as poor performance on the exam will end up costing time and money.
“You have to know something before you take a CLEP test,” says Janice Karlen-Pollack, a professor and coordinator of credit for prior learning at LaGuardia Community College, part of the City University of New York. “You need to have some kind of understanding of the field that you want to test out of, and it has to be a pretty good understanding.”
How CLEP Credits Work
CLEP credits are earned on a pass or fail basis, and test takers must score a 50 to earn the credit. Similar to Advanced Placement credits, CLEP credits don’t count toward a student’s grade point average, and colleges may vary in how credits are applied and what courses they can be applied to. Some apply them to general education courses, while others allow them to be put toward major requirements.
“I always recommend that students check in about the college’s policy,” Geiger says. “In many cases, the CLEP exam will be a way to earn college credit, but in some cases they will only opt a student out of a lower level course (without actually earning the credit). I definitely would review your college’s policy (and if you are a current student you can check-in with your academic advisor).”
Colleges determine which CLEP exams they accept and what specific scores equate to. In Florida, for instance, a score of 50 in College Composition would earn a student six credits at any public state university, Beran says. She adds that some schools, like the University of Chicago, don’t accept CLEP credits at all.
Who Can Take CLEP Exams?
During the 2021-2022 academic year, the College Board administered roughly 122,000 CLEP exams, Beran says. That number is down from about 160,000 pre-pandemic, but she says anyone from high school students to adult learners going back to school later in life can take CLEP exams.
In recent years, the test has become more popular among high school students, she says. It’s also a viable option for students who are homeschooled or don’t have access to Advanced Placement courses at their high school. Those who don’t pass an AP exam can also seek to earn college credit via a CLEP exam, Beran says.
[Read How to Earn College Credit Through Dual Enrollment.]
CLEP tests are also a popular option for students at two-year programs looking to transfer to four-year programs.
“Students can request scores from CLEP when they transfer, and the four-year program will determine whether or not the score they achieved (instead of GPA) meets the requirements needed to test out of courses,” Mary Banks, a consultant at Quad Education Group and a former admissions counselor at Columbia University in New York, wrote in an email.
Types of CLEP Exams
The College Board offers a total of 34 different exams, broken down into five subject areas: History and Social Sciences; Composition and Literature; Science and Mathematics; and Business and World Languages. Exams are computer-based and take approximately 90 minutes to complete. They consist mainly of multiple-choice questions, but some exams, like College Composition and Spanish with Writing, include an essay section.
History and Social Sciences: This section includes 12 tests covering American history, psychology, economics and Western history.
Composition and Literature: This section contains six tests covering American and English literature, humanities and composition. While there are two different college composition exams, students should know that some colleges only accept the one with the essay component, Karlen-Pollack says.
Science and Mathematics: This section contains seven test options, including biology, calculus, chemistry, college algebra, college mathematics, natural sciences and precalculus.
Business: Test takers can choose between five options, including financial accounting, information systems, business law, marketing and management.
World Languages: Four tests covering Spanish, French and German are available, including one Spanish writing exam.
Most exams are designed to provide three credits (typically equivalent to one college course) or more for a passing score. For example, California State University–Long Beach awards between three and 12 credits, depending on the test. However, some tests will net zero credits. Experts say test takers should check with their intended university for specifics on how they award credits.
Cost and Benefits of a CLEP Exam
Each CLEP test costs $90, though beginning July 1, 2023, tests will cost $93. High schools in Michigan, Ohio and West Virginia can receive state funding for CLEP exams administered to low-income students. Eligible low-income students in Michigan and West Virginia can take a CLEP exam for $5, while those in Ohio can do so at no charge.
[READ: 5 Ways to Pay for Community College]
The main benefit of taking CLEP exams is the ability to save time and money, and potentially graduate earlier with less debt, or even no debt at all, experts say. “A lot of students run out of their financial aid before they finish a four-year program,” Karlen-Pollack says. “Especially if they might want to transfer from a two-year program to a four-year program at a different school, some of them run out of their financial aid before they graduate. If they can save some of that money by not taking a class, that’s a distinct advantage.”
Testing out of certain courses can also free up a student’s schedule to focus on courses in high-demand majors, a job or extracurriculars, Beran says. For others, it allows them to move onto “the fun, advanced courses” faster, she says.
There is a tradeoff, though, as bypassing traditional courses via CLEP tests means that students miss out on potential experiences, relationships or other opportunities presented in traditional classes. “Tests can reduce the potential for discovery that might be achieved when a student goes through a full course of study on a subject,” Brent M. Foster, assistant vice chancellor and state university dean of academic programs at California State University–Long Beach, wrote in an email. “There are countless testimonies of students taking that one (general education) course that changed their whole career trajectory.”
Students should determine what’s most important, Geiger says: “affordability or academic experience.”
“Remember too: your CLEP exams will likely be replacing introductory courses that (depending on your college) could be very large, lecture-style classes,” he says. “If this is the case, you may not be missing out on as much as you would in a smaller seminar-style class.”
How to Prepare for and Schedule a CLEP Exam
Although CLEP tests are generally meant for people with prior knowledge or proficiency in a subject area, experts say preparing for the test and getting familiar with its structure can be helpful.
The College Board provides a number of free and paid resources, including sample questions and study guides, video tutorials and articles. The website also provides links to textbooks that cover material students might learn in introductory college courses on the tested subjects. And for $10, test takers can purchase a test prep book, “which is much more detailed and really is a study guide for what would be on that test,” Karlen-Pollack says.
Modern States Alliance, an independent test prep company, also offers free CLEP prep. While it is important to prepare, experts say students should stick with low-cost or free resources.
“If you were going to go through the trouble of paying someone for a CLEP prep course,” Karlen-Pollack says, “why don’t you just take the course?”
CLEP tests can be taken at any time, so test takers don’t need to wait for specific testing windows. Those wanting to register for a test can do so on the College Board’s website and have the ability to choose a preferred test site. Many colleges serve as testing centers, and some high schools have started doing so as well, Beran says.
If someone can’t make it to a testing center, proctored online tests are on alternative option. CLEP also makes accommodations for people with disabilities.
What If I Fail a CLEP Exam?
Test scores are delivered immediately after completion of the exam. Those who fail a CLEP test must wait 90 days before they can take that same CLEP exam again. This should be something people consider when scheduling a test, Beran says.
“Depending on where you are in your path, if you’re a college senior and you need that score to get your degree, you’re 90 days out before you can retest,” Beran says.
Like Karlen-Pollack, Beran says students should be certain that they know the content before signing up to take a test, and take the time to prepare if needed. At $90 per exam, having to take the test multiple times can get expensive.
For those who are prepared, CLEP exams can show that a student is ready to advance to the next level of college study. “Our goal is to have students be successful,” she says. “So we do that work to make sure that our content is mirroring what’s being taught across colleges and universities, and if they take the CLEP exam and earn that score, that they’re going to be just fine in that subsequent course.”
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