Can You Test Out of College Courses?

Testing out of college courses is possible. Learn what counts as college credit and how to CLEP a degree.

January 2024

You can test out of college courses and get credit through a system called credit by exam, which allows students to earn the same credits by taking one proficiency test instead of an entire semester-long course. Not sure what counts as college credit or the difference between AP and credit by exam? Let's break down how to test out of college classes with this overview. 

What does it mean to test out of a college course?

Higher education asks students to expand their knowledge in a broad range of subjects, ranging from the arts to history and sciences. Students receive credits after proving understanding of the topic at hand. 

There are two ways to demonstrate this learning: 

  • Attend a semester-long class, completing all coursework, tests, and quizzes along the way 
  • Pass a proficiency exam to prove subject mastery 

When you test out of a college course, one test replaces the entire class experience, allowing students to bypass the traditional college schedule. Rather than taking a 16-week class, students can earn the same credits by passing a CLEP (College Level Examination Program) exam. 

“Testing out” of college is also known as “credit by examination” or “credit by exam”. CLEP exams have been in use since the 1960s as a way to help working adults go back to school while still balancing work-life responsibilities. 

Today there are 34 CLEP test subjects available, creating an opportunity to test out of up to the first year college general education courses. 

What counts as college credit?

A college credit is a unit of measurement that tracks student progress in degree completion. Each university requires a set number of credits in order to graduate. 

While every school is different, most bachelor programs require an average of 120 college credits to earn a degree.

Traditional college credits 

Students earn an average of three credits per college course, meaning 40 classes are needed to graduate (which translates to five classes per semester). 

Federal guidelines mandate that one college credit roughly equals one hour of classroom instruction plus two hours of independent work, which includes studying, projects, papers, etc. This adds up to at least three hours of work per class per week, though it could be more depending on the complexity of the coursework. 

1 college credit = 1 hour of class time + 2 hours of studying per week (3 hours total)

1 college course = 3 credits = 9 hours a week 

Within a traditional college structure, this means that in order to graduate in four years, students must commit to a minimum of 45 hours a week (9 hours x 5 classes) per semester to stay on schedule. 

Credit by exam

Credit by exam helps students earn these same credits with significantly less time. Rather than spending over 144 hours on one class (9hours a week x 16 weeks) during a semester, students can take one 2-hour exam and be done. 

Even if students chose to enroll in a test-prep course to prepare for their CLEP exam, these courses are often much shorter than traditional college courses. Most test-prep courses average 4-10weeks, depending on the complexity of the topic. 

CLEP tests count as college credit as long as the student's accredited university accepts credit by exam. Students receive 3 credits after passing the test; the credits then transfer to the chosen school. 

Internships and work experience 

Some schools may accept other forms of work as college credit, such as internships or externships. Oftentimes these additional credit sources are already built into the subject of study, such as student teaching for an education degree or a clinical component for a nursing degree. 

A nontraditional method of earning college credit involves transferring work/life experience for school credit. This is known as prior learning assessments or PLAs. 

Students who have significant work experience in a particular subject area may be able to work with their school to apply their knowledge toward college credit. Transfer rates are subject to each school's discretion and vary wildly. 

 Exam vs. coursework

Students considering alternative routes for earning college credit should evaluate the best use of their time. Especially for working adults with demanding schedules, weighing the time commitment of one exam vs. coursework over a semester is an important factor. 

College coursework can include:

  • Research and/or term papers
  • Group projects 
  • Independent study 
  • Reading and study guides 
  • Weekly homework assignments 
  • Pop quizzes 
  • Final exams 

This is on top of the time spent in the classroom doing lectures, labs, etc. 

Taking one proficiency test that encompasses all of the above work can be a more efficient approach for those looking to advance their degree with minimal busywork. 

What is the difference between AP and CLEP? 

AP (or Advanced Placement) tests are another credit by exam option.

AP and CLEP exams are similar in that they both help students test out of college courses. Both utilize proficiency tests to prove subject matter expertise, and both result in college credit when successfully completed. 

The biggest differences between AP and CLEP tests are who takes them and where they are accepted.

  • AP tests: AP is most readily available to high school students who take an advanced-level course during their school day. At the end of the course, students take an AP exam in exchange for college credit. AP exams are widely accepted at most two and four-year colleges and universities around the world. 
  • CLEP tests: CLEP can be utilized by students of all ages, though a majority of testers are working professionals looking to go back to school. These exams don’t automatically come with a prep course, but there are options available. CLEP exams are accepted at 2,900 colleges and universities across the United States. 

High school students can take advantage of both AP and CLEP to get a head start on their education, whereas adults are limited to CLEP. 

Students looking to prepare for CLEP can take a test-prep course to refresh their knowledge and set themselves up for success. Test-prep courses typically teach exactly what’s on the exam for maximum passing rates. 

Can you CLEP an entire degree?

CLEP tests offer an accelerated path toward earning a college degree, but the available subjects relate only to general education courses, not a full degree.  While you cannot CLEP an entire degree, students can maximize the credit by exam system to shave off up to one full year of college courses. 

Testing out of college general education classes enables students to quickly move past subjects that have little to no relevance toothier major. Getting these credits helps students advance to courses they are more likely interested in and want to engage with. Attending core college courses also helps students connect with others in their chosen field, a benefit not found in most general education classes. 

Depending on the student’s chosen major, most programs require some kind of senior capstone or final research project to graduate. These requirements often help students display hands-on, practical knowledge and experience to their chosen area of study. 

Balancing a blend of CLEP and traditional college courses empowers students to get the education they need while saving time, money, and effort wherever possible.  

Test out of college courses with Achieve 

Achieve Test Prep offers time-saving college prep courses to help you pass your CLEP exams and test out of college courses. Our live, instructor-led online courses teach you exactly what you need to know to earn college credit through credit by exam. We've helped thousands of students pass their exams; we can help you do the same. To learn more about our services, connect with our Advisor team or sign up for a free webinar to discover how we help busy working adults pass college courses with confidence.

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