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How to Pass CLEP tests

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This post focuses on the how of CLEP tests, and not so much on the what and why. I’ll talk about how I passed a bunch of CLEP tests and how you can too. CLEP stands for College Level Examination Program. If you want to know more about the CLEP tests, the benefits of taking them and why you might want to, click here. And if you want to see ways to reduce college costs, look here.

I’ve taken and passed 10 CLEPs in high school since sophomore year.  I would have taken more, but I decided to apply the credits towards an Associates of Arts degree in Economics.  That should help me towards my Bachelor’s degree.

Standardized Tests

The first thing to know if you want to slay CLEP tests is they are not like other standardized tests you will take, or have taken. Tests like the ACT and SAT require relatively little advanced knowledge of the subjects they test, primary English and mathematics. The challenge of the ACT and SAT is figuring out what, usually basic, knowledge is required for a given question. Advanced knowledge of academic subjects is unnecessary.

CLEPs are specific

CLEP tests on the other hand focus almost entirely on the depth and breadth of knowledge you possess about the subject in question. In the U.S. History CLEP, for instance, you will be tested on your knowledge of U.S. history. Anything other than knowledge of U.S. history will be of very little use during the test. In addition, unlike the SAT or ACT, you do not need to answer virtually every question correctly to achieve a good score. CLEP tests are graded on a scale of 20-80, but colleges accept them on a pass/fail basis. The most commonly accepted passing score for a CLEP test is 50 out of 80, which translates to a raw score of between 50% and 60% correct.

Two Methods to pass

There are generally two methods for passing a CLEP test while in high school, both of which I have done.

The first is to take either a semester or year-long course on the subject of the CLEP test you want to pass, and then take the CLEP as your “final”. The second method is, of course, to cram for specifically for the test.

Method 1: CLEP at the end of your regular course of study

The first method involves simply taking a CLEP after every related course you take in high school in your ordinary high school career. For instance, as you study Algebra 2 in high school, prep a bit extra at the end to pass that CLEP in the same subject.

Taking a regular course in preparation for a CLEP test offers several advantages. Most significantly, much longer and more detailed exposure to the material which will be tested will improve your long-term retention, a.k.a. actually LEARNING the material. However, this method does require moderately careful planning of your academic schedule and takes time.

Method 2: Cram a CLEP

If for whatever reason, taking a class in preparation for a CLEP test is not an option, it’s time to cram.

Fortunately, cramming for a CLEP test is a very straightforward affair. The first step, find exactly what will be on the test. Each CLEP exam defines what subjects it will cover, and moreover, what percentage of the test each subject will comprise.

Example of Content Breakdown

For example, the Western Civilization I test covers the history of Western Civilization from ancient times to 1648 A.D. More specifically, Western Civ I tests six subjects: 

  • The Ancient Near East (8-10% of the test)
  • Ancient Greece and Hellenistic Civilization (15-17%)
  • Ancient Rome (15-17%)
  • Medieval History (23-27%)
  • The Renaissance and Reformation (13-17%) and
  • Early Modern Europe 1560-1648 (10-15%).

Your study plan should start here with these subjects and their respective percentages for each CLEP test. The College Board website lists them as well.

Recommendation for detailed lists

Various sites online offer more detailed lists of what you need to know for any given CLEP test. But a site called FreeClepPrep hands-down wins my vote for the best help available for CLEPs.

How did it work for me?

From my personal experience, passing a CLEP test requires two things: first, adequate knowledge of the subject material, and second, access to practice CLEP tests.

However you learn the material, practice tests are at the very least helpful, and often necessary. Practice tests serve as a definitive measure of how well you can do on a CLEP test. Practice tests show what areas you’re weak in, but more importantly, they signal when you are ready to take the real thing. I would take an actual CLEP test once I scored comfortably over seventy percent correct on the practice test, and as a result, I was never even close to failing the real test.

Where to find Practice Tests

The most accurate practice tests available are in College Board’s official CLEP practice book. Because the College Board creates and offers CLEP tests, their practice tests are pretty much perfectly representative of what you will see on the real thing. Also, practice tests for all 33 CLEP tests currently offered by the College Board are in the CLEP Official Study Guide, which College Board updates every year.  We’ve used older versions of the guide which work fine EXCEPT if they have recently changed the test. For instance, a major revision of the American History CLEP just happened last year.

However, the College Board practice tests are only available in their guide, not electronically. Since all CLEP tests are administered by computer, taking a particular CLEP on paper is not exactly the same experience. Also, taking the test on paper means grading by hand, and more importantly, determining your areas of strengths and weaknesses by hand.  

Practice Online Tests

The REA website offers my favorite practice CLEP tests. Unlike the College Board tests, REA’s tests are online as well as available in a book.  The online practice tests simulate the testing environment, which is a huge plus, in my opinion. They also automatically grade your results and analyze strong and weak areas. Each REA CLEP study guide comes with 3 practice tests, but unlike the official College Board guide which has all subjects in one book, REA sells study guides with practice tests for each CLEP individually.  

Final Test Tip

The final tip on passing a CLEP exam is to bite the Bullet and take the test. If you know the subject, if you’re doing well on practice exams, you are ready, pick a date and get it over with. You don’t need to study and study trying and know every single thing that could possibly show up on the test. Remember, you can miss almost every other question and still get a passing score.  All that extra preparation might take you from a fail to a pass, but chances are higher that you are simply procrastinating. Once you are ready, you are ready.

Go and take that test. 

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If the idea of homeschooling high school is overwhelming, don’t panic. You can do this! And if you want to learn more about how we got the college system in the first place, read this article next.