What Are CLEP Exams, and How Can They Help You?

Overhead view of college students taking an exam.
Category: Going Back to School

By Matt Rowley
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Earning a college degree requires completing an adequate number of credits, both in your specific major and in general studies courses. If you already have experience – from college courses you’ve completed in the past, the military, or even in your career – you may be able to transfer credits to your new program, starting off ahead.

Depending on the school you attend, you can potentially save time and money. Although most students earn transfer credit via prior college transcripts or military transcripts, you can still earn college credit even if you haven’t taken any courses or if it’s been a while since you’ve been in school.

The College-Level Examination Program, or CLEP, is designed to recognize existing knowledge and experience via an exam. Depending on your individual school’s policies, passing a CLEP exam can mean earning up to three college credits and saving significant time and money.

In this article, we provide an overview of CLEP exams and explore if they’re right for you.

CLEP Exams Overview

Each CLEP exam takes 90-120 minutes to complete, and most are multiple-choice tests. They are available in 34 different subject areas in categories like:

  • Business
  • Composition and literature.
  • History and social sciences.
  • Science and mathematics.
  • World languages.

How colleges apply credits earned by CLEP exams vary. Most will only apply the credits to general education courses and may only apply them in a general sense, such as six credits in math. Other schools use the CLEP test to exempt students from introductory level or general studies courses but won’t award credit. For example, passing the College Composition CLEP test might exempt you from taking an introductory writing course, freeing you up to earn those credits in a more challenging course.

Most colleges cap the number of credits you can earn via CLEP tests and won’t grant credit if you have already taken an equivalent course somewhere else, regardless of whether you passed. In the previous example of College Composition, if you took a college writing course at another school, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to apply CLEP credit for College Composition as well, as that would equal six credits for the same subject. This applies even if you failed the course.

In some cases, schools may only allow CLEP credits to apply toward electives and not courses required for your major. Although this means you may not be able to take some elective courses that appeal to you, it does free up your time and financial aid to focus on your major, and you can still reduce the time it takes to earn your degree.

Are CLEP Exams Right for You?

Before you sign up to take a CLEP exam – which costs $89, plus testing center fees up to $25 – evaluate whether it’s the best option for you. Preparing for and taking the exams takes time, and before you invest that time and money, be sure that it’s going to be worth it. Taking CLEP tests for credit is not a shortcut to a college degree, nor is it a guarantee that you’ll earn college credits.

Before you sign up, ask a few key questions:

  • How are credits applied? Ask your college about their CLEP policy, and how they will apply the CLEP credits. Will you receive course credit or an exemption from introductory level courses? How will the CLEP credits impact other transfer credits you may have? Knowing exactly how your school will apply the credit from a prior learning assessment will help guide you toward the right tests or determine whether you should take them at all.
  • Will CLEP exams impact your long-term plans? Some professional licenses require candidates to complete a certain number of college credits to qualify. Depending on individual state laws, your CLEP credits may not qualify toward meeting that minimum, or only certain CLEP exams are acceptable. If your chosen career path requires a license, learn all of the requirements and rules before you opt to take CLEP-based academic credit so you don’t end up behind or needing to complete additional coursework to get your license.
  • Can I pass the exam? If it’s been a while since you studied a subject, you will need to devote some time to preparing for the exam. Even if you think that you have a grasp of the subject matter, you could find that a refresher will do you good. Honestly assess your knowledge before you spend time and money on a CLEP exam, and only proceed if you feel confident you can pass. Not passing the test won’t hurt you, other than losing the test fee and the time you spent studying and taking the test, but you won’t gain anything from it either.

If you’re looking for ways to reduce the cost of your college degree, and you have extensive knowledge in a particular subject, CLEP credits can help you reach your goals faster. Just be sure you understand exactly how the program works – and the pros and cons of earning credit this way – so you can get the most from your existing knowledge and accomplishments.


At Columbia Southern University, we accept CLEP credits, along with military and other transferrable credits. To learn more about how you can be on your way to a degree with credit for prior learning, visit ColumbiaSouthern.edu/Admissions.

For information about how CLEP exams may be impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, visit https://clep.collegeboard.org/coronavirus-updates.

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