Kim Marcelliano, Product Manager at Peterson’s, returned to college as an adult learner after getting some experience in the corporate world. Like many adult learners, Marcelliano wanted to fastrack her degree. To do this, she decided to take CLEP tests and earn college credit for classes in which she had pre-existing knowledge.

“After preparing for the tests, I went to the testing centers, took my exams, and passed. I was able to save a semester of college and thousands of dollars of tuition,” said Marcelliano.

So, what are CLEP tests and how can you take them? The College Level Examination Program, or the CLEP, is a collection of standardized tests that measures your knowledge of certain subjects. Students can earn college credit at thousands of colleges and universities by earning a satisfactory score on a CLEP exam. This saves students both time and money as they do not have to retake classes they already have ample knowledge of.

Test details

Scoring – The test is scored on a scale of 20 to 80. This score determines your letter grade of A, B, C, or D. This letter grade is applied to your transcript as a course equivalent.

Timing – Most CLEP exams take approximately 90 minutes, but they can take as long as 120 minutes depending on the exam.

Registering – First, make sure your college accepts CLEP tests. You can search for your college here to see if the institution accepts CLEP score credit. Then, register for the exams on the College Board website and schedule your exam date at a nearby testing center.

Categories – There are 33 CLEP exams that fall under five categories: History and Social Sciences, Literature and Composition, Science and Mathematics, Business, and World Languages.

Format – Multiple choice, computer-based.

Cost – $87

When to take a CLEP test

Before you decide to take a CLEP test, look into your college’s policies around credits earned, scores required, and what type of credits the test can apply toward, as every college is different. While some colleges grant credit for all CLEP tests, others are more selective. This excerpt from Peterson’s Master the CLEP explains the variety of university policies students may encounter.

“Many institutions set limits on the amount of credits students can earn through CLEP exams. In addition, most institutions have set minimum qualifying scores for each exam. Some colleges and universities may allow you to apply CLEP credits to satisfy the requirements of a particular course. Others may simply apply CLEP credits toward students’ general education requirements. Because each college or university’s CLEP policy varies so much, it is important to investigate each and every institution’s policy to determine the one that works for you.”

Since CLEP tests are meant to test pre-existing knowledge, you should choose a subject that you feel you already have sufficient knowledge in. Kyle Jarman, Director of the CLEP Testing Center at Cameron University, gave the example of a student who went above and beyond with his chemistry classes and research in high school. This student, he said, has a particular passion and interest in this subject and would make a great chemistry CLEP test candidate.

“The idea of a CLEP test is that you’re proving that you have the knowledge of the course already, and that’s why colleges are going to theoretically award you credit for a passing score,” said Jarman.

Jarman explained that CLEP tests are also an option for students who have taken courses at another university, but the credits don’t transfer to the new university.

“Instead of having them take a class that they feel like they’ve already had, a CLEP test is a way for them to get that credit without so much time and money,” said Jarman.

Think of CLEP tests as AP tests that you may have taken in high school. Both AP and CLEP tests determine whether or not you need to take a college course, based on your ability to demonstrate that you already know the key elements of what the course would teach.

However, CLEP tests are more accessible to individuals like Marcelliano who are not in high school, but have retained information due to work experience, prior courses, or independent study. So, unless you plan on doing extensive independent study, choose a test that is on a subject you are well-versed in.

“Being in the corporate world for many years, I figured some basic business admin classes like Principles of Management and Marketing would be tests I could pass with minimal preparation,” said Marcelliano.

CLEP tests can be taken before you begin college, while you’re enrolled in college, or to finish a final credit or two after college.

How to study

If you’re already fairly confident in your expertise in the test content, a few weeks of review may be all you need. But if it has been awhile since you, say, took an advanced high school class on the subject, you’ll want to spend more time reviewing.

Jarman recommended utilizing study guides in order to familiarize yourself with test content. When purchasing your test, you can add on a $10 study guide from CLEP that summarizes the key skills and topics you will need to know for that particular exam.

“A lot of times libraries will also have these study guides available. They may not be the most recent versions, so that’s something to watch out for, but that’s a way for a student to get access to the study guides without having to pay for them,” said Jarman.

Marcelliano was confident in her ability to apply business topics to practical use in an exam, but knew she was unfamiliar with the test structure, and would need to brush up on some of the more academic pieces of the exam.

“To study, I took Peterson’s practice tests and brushed up on some areas I struggled with, which were typically the more ‘textbook’ knowledge areas,” said Marcelliano.

Marcelliano’s method of starting with practice tests allowed her to gauge what areas she needed to focus on. Keep in mind that your strengths and weaknesses will differ depending on if you acquired the test content knowledge in a course or on-the-job, but “big-picture” knowledge is what you should focus on.

“You’re trying to cover a whole class in one test. So, it’s more about knowing the key concepts and maybe some of the key terminology. You don’t have to get so much in the weeds, but know the key [elements],” said Jarman.

What to expect on test day

After you register for the test via the College Board website, you’ll choose a nearby testing location. There are 1,800 testing centers worldwide to choose from, which are mainly on university or community college campuses.

“We have similar test security measures for the ACT and SAT. We verify through photo ID and through an admissions ticket,” said Jarman.

Jarman also explained that test centers will often have lockers for your belongings, as you will not be allowed to bring anything but your ID and admissions ticket into the testing center.

Marcelliano described her experience once she arrived and checked in at the testing center:

“I was led into the testing lab–there were others in there currently testing–and quietly they set up my account on the computer. I was given a pen and a piece of scratch paper and told to begin when I was ready,” said Marcelliano. “The experience was very similar to the test prep I had taken, and I had no issues with navigation or taking the test. When I was done, it confirms you are ready to submit your test. Within moments my tests were scored and I immediately knew if I passed or failed.”

What to expect after the test

As Marcelliano explained, you will know your score and whether or not you passed directly after submitting your test. Before leaving the testing center, confirm that your scores will be sent to your school. Then, your scores will be sent and reflected on your transcript.

“Within a couple of weeks, I received notification from my university that they had received my passing CLEP score and I received credit for that class,” said Marcelliano.

Obviously, not all college courses are necessary for a student who already possesses the knowledge taught in the course. Due to this as well as benefits to the institution itself, Jarman said that more schools are making CLEP accessible to students.

“A lot of colleges are trying to make more pushes to get students more advanced standing credit as a way to help graduation rates and retention rates,” said Jarman.

CLEP tests save students like Marcelliano a substantial amount of time and money, as they give students with pre-existing knowledge a way to bypass classes they don’t need. Talk to an academic advisor at your university to find out if CLEP tests make sense for you and your academic abilities.

Check out the video below for more information or visit Petersons.com/testprep/clep.