How to Study for College-Level Exams, Part 2

How to study advanced subjects or for college-level exams such as CLEP, DSST, etc.

In the last article, I promised to provide a few subject-specific tips to help you study for college-level exams. Some of these tips can also be used for more effective study of advanced subjects or for personal research. As homeschoolers, we already know that we can teach ourselves virtually anything we want to know. The keys are desire, perseverance, and access to basic research materials.

The process of independent learning is well illustrated by Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison, and Benjamin Franklin, who read, observed, recorded, and experimented with new ideas and information. Direct interaction is still the best way to learn and discover, but you can streamline the process of acquiring basic knowledge of a subject in order to provide a solid foundation for future research, or in order to take an exam. Here are specific ideas for how to study effectively.


There are two types of literature exams available: one is skill-based, and one is knowledge-based. The CLEP exam, “Analyzing and Interpreting Literature,” is an example of a skill-based exam. While it “tests the ability to analyze and interpret literary passages” (CLEP: Information for Candidates 4), it does not require knowledge of specific literary works. The English and American literature exams, on the other hand, do require “knowledge of the major authors and literary works and familiarity with common literary terms and basic literary forms” (CLEP, 4).

Once you have studied for one of the knowledge-based exams, you should have the skills needed to pass the skill-based exam.Your texts for the literature courses will be Excellence in Literature, using the honors option. EIL has five levels, including AmericanBritish, and World literature. You may want to also own Norton Anthologies for the exams you plan to take. New anthologies are expensive, but I prefer the used editions anyway, as in the older editions, the editors haven’t dumped classics in favor of current fads.

Orient yourself historically by reading the introductions to the volume and each literary period, taking particular note of the ideas, events, and people that define the period. For each time period, select the authors and works most often mentioned in the introduction. Read each frequently-mentioned author’s biographical sketch and his most famous works. Pay attention to how the author builds upon or alters literary tradition, and how his works do or don’t embody the ideals of his era. Work through the volumes chronologically, and when you have finished both volumes of either English or American literature, you should be ready to take the corresponding exam.


To study history, choose a book such as Smithsonian Timelines of History or a college-level text as a scope and sequence, a personal timeline such as the TimeFrame Timeline, a good readable history text (I like those by Susan Wise Bauer) for the period you are studying, appropriate classics (see the Excellence in Literature book lists for American, British, and World literature), plus a few excellent biographies and some historical fiction.

The history overview text serves as a scope and sequence; the personal timeline provides a visual, chronological record of people and events that the student find particularly significant; and the classics, biographies, and novels — even those written at young adult level — flesh out and bring to life the dry skeleton of historical facts.

First, skim the table of contents of your text, then the text itself. Pay particular attention to chapter and section headings, summaries, photos and captions, and charts and graphs. Try to establish a mental chronology of major events so that as you go back to read thoroughly through the text, you can understand minor events in the light of what you know will happen later. Read the text thoroughly, underlining or highlighting important points as you go, and adding the most significant to your timeline. When you come across a particularly interesting or significant character, read his or her biography, or a historical novel based during that time period. Finally, skim back through the text and your timeline one more time, refreshing your memory of events that occurred early in the text, and filling in any gaps. You should be ready for your exam!

Natural and Social Sciences

Again, a college-level text will form the backbone of your study. The key to understanding and remembering important science-related concepts is to thoroughly study the vocabulary of the subject. I would recommend writing your own glossary and checking for Greek and Latin roots as you work through the text, first skimming, then studiously reading, then re-skimming as you would a history text.

If you lack a strong background in the natural sciences, you can fill in some gaps with the colorful science encyclopedias and other science-related books published by Dorling Kindersley, Kingfisher, and Usborne. You may also find it helpful to read biographies of important scientists, and record the most significant people and discoveries on your timeline. When you are certain that you have mastered the vocabulary and main concepts of the subject, and can skim through the textbook providing a running mental narrative based upon text headings and illustrations, you will probably be ready to take the exam.


The way you choose to study for the mathematics exams depends entirely upon how you feel about math. You may want to begin with a mathematics course from The Great Courses — they are excellent. If you are comfortable with math, get a college-level text and work through it. Do all the odd-numbered problems in each lesson, then check them. If you need more practice with the concept, do the even-numbered problems. You can find additional help at If you lack, as I do, the willpower to make yourself do math, I suggest taking a class at the local community college. Paying for a class provides the external motivation necessary to get through a challenging necessity.

Multiplying benefits

One of the most wonderful discoveries about learning is how closely interconnected are the various disciplines. As you study for one subject, you inevitably pick up information useful in other areas. You can benefit from this when you begin studying at the college level, because each bit of knowledge you gain makes it easier to acquire and remember related facts. If you study for the “Introductory Psychology” exam, you will have much of the foundation and vocabulary you will need to make the studying for “Educational Psychology” simpler. And after that, it’s just a step or two to “Human Growth and Development.”

The same principle works when studying American History. You already have a head start on the concepts in American Government or American Literature, so you may as well go ahead and earn credit there, also. And as I pointed out earlier, skill-related exams test some of the very same skills you are using to acquire knowledge for the knowledge-based exams. Once you begin to accumulate credit by independent study, you can go as far as you choose. Good luck!

Janice Campbell

Janice Campbell writes and speaks about homeschooling, using lifestyle of learning approach influenced by Charlotte Mason, classical learning, and the Thomas Jefferson method. Her books and resources, including Excellence in Literature, Transcripts Made Easy, and Get a Jump Start on College, reflect Janice’s focus on twaddle-free, active learning (she did have boys, after all!).

1 Response

  1. August 27, 2015

    […] If you need to earn credit for a subject you don’t find intrinsically interesting (although almost anything is interesting when approached with an open mind), you can use the same study techniques used by desperate freshmen on college campuses all over the world. I’ll cover those techniques in Part 2 of How to Study for College Level Exams. […]