Using College-Level Exams to Get a Jump-Start on College

Get a Jump Start on College: A Practical Guide for Teens by Janice CampbellOne of the nicest things about homeschooling is that there is an option for everyone. From unschooling to unit studies to accelerated education, homeschoolers are all over the educational spectrum. What we have in common, however, is a willingness to take advantage of tools that make education — and life — easier or more interesting.

One tool we have at our disposal is the College-Level Examination Program (CLEP). (There are other college-level exams, such as the DSST, available, but to keep things streamlined, I’ll just refer to CLEPs in this article). Adult students and soldiers have used college-level exams for years, but homeschoolers have just recently begun to see the many advantages they offer. Many colleges grant credit for acceptable scores on college-level exams, making it possible to earn a year or more of college credit while still in high school. Of the many good reasons why homeschoolers might want to take a few college-level exams during the high school years, the most compelling are credibility, time savings, and the cost/benefit ratio.

Credibility: Prove What You Know

While diversity is one of homeschooling’s greatest assets, it can also be perceived as a liability. Pity the poor college admissions officer who has to wade through hundreds of applications and transcripts each week! When dealing with an accredited public or private school, he has some idea of the standards each is using to assign grades.

When dealing with a homeschooler’s application, though, he has no idea how objectively or by what standards grades are assigned. It makes it difficult to measure a homeschooler against someone who has been more traditionally schooled. When a student is hoping for an acceptance letter, he doesn’t want to be seen as a problem by the admissions counselor.

So how can a student measurably and credibly demonstrate his learning? A parent-created high school transcript is a start, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. When an admission counselor sees on a transcript that a homeschooled student has taken English Literature and earned a B, he has no way of knowing the scope and depth of the student’s work. However, if the transcript lists a CLEP score along with the grade, the admissions officer immediately has a better idea of what the student has studied and how well he understood the material. This gives the counselor an objective point of reference, and as a bonus, may also be a tipping factor toward admission.

Time: A Minute Saved is a (Credit) Hour Earned

I recently read a study reporting that it’s taking longer than ever to earn a four-year college degree. Some students are juggling jobs and school, while others have had difficulty settling on a major. Imagine what an advantage a student would have if he or she entered college with a year or two of college credit accumulated during the high school years! This credit cushion would provide the student with several wonderful options: The student could:

  • Choose to graduate early
  • Spend a year exploring classes that look interesting
  • Opt for a double major
  • Spend time as an intern or volunteer
  • Travel

By learning deeply and purposefully, and investing some time in testing during high school, a student can make the most of the high school years, and open up many interesting options for the future.

The beauty of the CLEP exams is that they don’t cause a lot of extra work. Any high-school subject can be broadened and deepened to college-level (and some such as Excellence in Literature are designed that way), especially a subject in which the student has a natural interest. The exams measure whether a student has acquired knowledge and understanding that is approximately comparable to what he would learn in an introductory-level college course. If a student loves a subject and has read extensively on his own, he may be ready to pass a CLEP without much further study.

My two oldest sons took their first CLEPs at sixteen and fourteen. The oldest enjoys history, so he chose to take the “History of the United States I” exam, while the 14-year-old took the “Analyzing and Interpreting Literature” exam. Neither did any special studying before the exams, but both passed with remarkably high scores and percentile rankings. This doesn’t mean that the exams are easy; it just means that it’s possible to learn at college level by reading and studying independently. They each went on to accelerate their bachelor’s degree through additional college-level exams.

When a student feels ready, it’s convenient to take CLEP exams. They are offered at hundreds of test centers on college campuses nationwide. Most test centers are open to the public and offer a testing session at least once a month. The test itself lasts ninety minutes, and is taken on a computer. An hour and a half is not a bad time investment for 3-6 college credits. I especially loved the days when I spent three hours in a testing center and walked out with twelve credits for less than $200. You just can’t beat that!

Money: A Penny Saved is a Dollar Earned

CLEP exams are an incredibly cheap way to earn college credit. Each exam is worth 3-6 college credits, and costs less than $100 to take. If you compare per-credit cost with other options such as distance learning or community college classes, CLEP exams come out way ahead. If a student happens to not score high enough to earn credit, the exam can be retaken again in six months. It’s not nearly as expensive or time consuming as having to retake a whole class.

So What’s The Catch?

It’s true that the best things in life are free, but some of the cheap things are pretty good too. CLEPs are convenient – you can take them when you’re ready. They’re cheaper than most other ways of earning college credit. They’re objective, they’re widely accepted (most, though not all colleges accept at least some of the CLEPs – check first if you have your heart set on a particular college), and they make the most of your time. Even if your chosen college doesn’t grant credit for a CLEP score, it may grant advanced placement. In the end, it’s still worthwhile to take the exam as a credibility clincher.

Your scores are maintained on a CLEP transcript for twenty years so that you can have them sent to any schools you wish at any time during those years. The only potential downside I see is the pain of missing out on all the introductory-level college courses that your fellow freshmen have to take, and starting out in more advanced classes. Wait? that’s actually another asset. Higher-level classes are usually more specialized and interesting than the survey-level (introductory) courses.

As you can tell, I’m sold on the benefits of college-level exams, and CLEPs in particular. As outsiders in the education establishment, homeschoolers often face a credibility gap. While this needn’t affect our educational choices, it’s nice to be able to provide objective proof of learning in a way that is non-intrusive. CLEP exams are a cheap, accessible way of earning college credit and proving that homeschoolers can teach themselves nearly anything they want to know.

If you would like to reprint this article in a support-group newsletter or magazine, you may do so, as long as the article is printed in its entireity, including the copyright notice and credit paragraph. I just request that you send me a copy of the printed article for my files. Thanks!

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!).