Credit by examination enables students to earn college credit by taking a proficiency exam, rather than an entire semester-long course. This method often helps students finish college faster, which is one of the main benefits of credit by exam.
Learn more about how it works and whether this option is right for you.
What does credit by exam mean?
Credit by exam means you earn college credit via a proficiency test, not through a traditional college course. These exams are called CLEP tests (which stands for College-Level Examination Program) and are used to test out of college classes.
Proficiency tests assess the student’s understanding of the subject matter at hand, with questions focusing on the topic’s:
- Core concepts and principles
- Vocabulary and definitions
- Facts and figures
Passing a proficiency test proves you have mastered the material and have the necessary knowledge to move forward with your desired degree.
Successfully completing a proficiency test means you will receive the same credits you would have earned after attending a semester of class and turning in all the required coursework.
For example, the average semester-long class is typically worth 3 credits and takes 16 weeks to complete. But with credit by exam, you can earn those same 3 credits by passing one test.
How does credit by exam work?
To make credit by exam work, students must first ensure their college accepts exam credits.
CLEP exams are accepted by a wide variety of accredited colleges–currently 2,900 schools in the United States–but the colleges themselves do not administer the tests.
Students must find a testing center to physically complete the exam, and then work with their college to transfer the credits. There are approximately 1,900 testing centers across the United States.
Credit by exam tests require registration and an average testing fee of $89 (plus a $25 administrative fee). Test takers cannot bring phones, books, or any materials that would assist with the exam.
Exams consist of multiple choice questions and range from 80-120 questions. The test concludes once proficiency has been demonstrated.
Students must receive a minimum score of 50 out of 80 or 63% to pass the exam and receive credit. Those who don’t pass will have to wait three months to retake the exam.
Once the test is done and passed, credits will apply toward the student’s degree and show up as “pass” or “complete” on their transcript. The student now does not need to take the class and can move on to the next.
What credit by exam topics are available?
Credit by exam works particularly well for general education courses (or “gen eds”) or prerequisite courses (or “prereqs”). Because these foundational classes are required for completing a degree, but aren’t necessarily relevant to the degree’s overall subject matter (i.e. a literature class for a nursing degree), testing out makes for an efficient option.
Examples of common credit by exam subjects include:
- History and Social Sciences
- Composition and Literature
- Science and Mathematics
- World Languages
In all there are currently 34 CLEP exams available.
The benefits of credit by exam
Credit by exam offers considerable savings in time, money, and stress.
Paying for one test—as opposed to an entire semester-long course—is a significant cost difference. The average American college course costs students upwards of $2,400, whereas CLEP tests are $89. When you add this up over multiple general education courses, students can save thousands of dollars. Even if students decide to prepare for the test using a test prep course (detailed below), those costs are still lower than the traditional class itself.
Plus, credit by exam bypasses other college fees such as:
- Tuition ($38,185 average for private schools; $22,968 average for public/state schools)
- Room and board ($11,620 average)
- Commuting costs ($1,050 annually)
- Textbooks ($1,240 annually)
The average college semester is 15-17 weeks long (including time for final exams). Students have to make it through the entire length of the course before they can take the final exam and receive credit. These classes may meet 2-3 times per week depending on the schedule, adding up to several hours of instruction.
General education courses can take up to two years of a student’s four-year degree journey. With over 30 available CLEP exams, students can cut down that time by up to half, testing out of a bulk of prerequisite courses. Not only does this save money, but it helps students move on to their core classes faster and work toward graduation and their eventual career at an accelerated pace.
Because credit by exam is just one test, it also cuts down on workload, reducing time spent on:
- Research papers
- Homework and studying
- Group projects
- Additional tests/quizzes
More flexibility and less stress
One of the major credit by exam benefits is that it allows students to move through coursework at their own pace. Rather than being stuck in the traditional semester structure, this path empowers students to move as fast or slow as their schedule and preferences permit. This means anyone from high school students to working adults can pursue their degree while still focusing on existing personal and professional responsibilities.
Are there cons to credit by exam?
While many accredited colleges and universities accept CLEP credits, every school has different requirements and limits as to how many exam credits they’ll allow. Students need to verify their school of choice will transfer credits toward their chosen degree before taking the exam.
Credit by exam is available for general education courses but not core classwork. Specialized courses devoted to the student’s field of study will still have to be completed through the traditional college structure.
Why do students choose credit by exam?
Students choose credit by exam to help reduce traditional college blockers. Depending on the demands of a student’s personal and/or professional life, a four-year college structure could be prohibitive to their educational journey and career goals.
Colleges don’t typically promote credit by exam, since pointing students away from traditional instruction means a loss of income for the school. But credit by exam has been in practice since 1967 as a way to help adults and members of the military go back to school while continuing to work and raise families.
Students who choose credit by exam may include:
- Working adults: Professionals looking to advance their careers may need to finish their degrees to move forward, but the demands of their jobs make full-time school challenging. Testing out offers schedule flexibility while still moving forward toward their goals.
- High school students: Teenagers looking to get a head start on college may choose to test out of gen eds early on, helping them earn credit for subjects they may already be taking in school. This is a similar strategy to taking AP tests.
- Budget and/or time-conscious students: Anyone looking to save time and/or money when pursuing a degree can benefit from credit by exam. Because this option does not adhere to the traditional semester-based schedule, students can move through topics at their own pace while cutting down on costs such as tuition, textbooks, room and board, and more.
Is credit by exam hard?
Credit by exam tests are created by curriculum experts to ensure students can demonstrate full subject-matter comprehension and mastery. The biggest challenge is knowing what’s on the test and whether or not you are prepared.
Taking a proficiency test without preparation or inherent subject matter expertise can make credit by exam hard, but with the right support and readiness, students can earn credits with significantly less time and effort.
There are multiple ways to prepare for a credit by exam test:
- Practice tests: Practice tests are a helpful tool for assessing your readiness before paying for the final test. These exercises can highlight any knowledge area weaknesses and show you which topics to focus on. Practice tests can be a good option for high school students who are fresh off learning common credit by exam topics or for those who have been studying and want to assess test readiness.
- Test prep courses: Test prep courses focus instruction specifically to what’s on the test, helping students get a full grasp of the material and what’s expected. While some test prep courses follow an autonomous learning structure, meaning that students must move through course materials on their own, other programs feature live instruction for added support and comprehension.
Does credit by exam affect GPA?
No, credit by exam does not affect your GPA. CLEP exams are not graded the same as traditional college courses: you either pass or fail. When the earned credits are transferred to your college, they will only show up as “completed” or “pass” on your transcript.
Credit by exam also does not affect class rank. Final GPA and rank will be based on classes unavailable for CLEP, such as core degree subjects, internships, practicums, or any other requirements that demand in-person instruction.
How to finish college faster
Achieve Test Prep offers live-instruction test prep courses to prepare you for credit by exam tests. Our flexible, supportive system empowers you to learn what you need while saving you time and money. Your success is our number one priority, and we’re so confident we’ll help you pass, we offer up to $150 in exam fee credit.
To learn more about our services and whether or not credit by exam is right for you, connect with our Advisor team today.