How to take CLEP/DSST tests for college credit (Part 4)

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Where to find information about CLEP/DSST tests

Back to part 1…

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How to take CLEP/DSST tests for college credit (Part 3)

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How to search for study books

When you go to the library to look for books to check out to use when studying, match book chapters with test sections. Both the DSST and the (official) CLEP study guides list out what’s covered on each test in sections, with headings for each section.

For the DSST study guides, if you take the contents of one of the recommended books, and match up the chapters with the sections in the study guide, you have a good idea of which chapters of a book you should concentrate on. Different books referenced in the study guide may have some or all of the sections shown on the study guide; you mix and match chapters until you get chapters in books for as many of the study guide sections as possible.

You may be able to use the title of the CLEP test or the headings of the sections on the CLEP test to generate a list of books to check out.

Use your local library

Here’s an example. Let’s say I live in San Diego, California, and I want to take the DSST test “Human/Cultural Geography“. Here’s how I would study for this test…

In the DSST study guide for Human/Cultural Geography (Rev. 20071115, the revision number is found on page 4 of the guide), it lists the following topics, organized into sections and given a percentage that shows you how much of the test will cover that topic:

  1. The Earth – basic facts and concepts (23%)
    1. Coordinate systems, seasons, time
    2. Maps and cartography
    3. Physiography
    4. Atmosphere
    5. Soils and vegetation
    6. Water
  2. Culture and Environment (40%)
    1. Cultural systems and processes
    2. Population
    3. Natural resources
  3. Spatial Processes (32%)
    1. Social processes
    2. Modern economic systems
    3. Settlement patterns
    4. Political Geography
    5. Social problems
  4. Regional Geograrphy (5%)
    1. Defining a region
    2. Geopolitical regions

And here’s a list of books that the DSST study guide recommends as far as studying for the examination:

  • Introduction to Geography (current edition), Edward Bergman and Tom L. McKnight
  • Geography: Realms, Regions and Concepts (current edition) by DeBlij, H.J. and P.O. Muller
  • Human Geography: Culture, Society and Space (current edition) by DeBlij, H.J. and P.O. Muller
  • Human Geography: Landscape of Human Activities (current edition) by Jerome Fellman, A. Getis and J. Getis
  • Essentials of Physical Geography (current edition) by Robert E. Gabler, Robert J. Sanger and Daniel L. Wise
  • Goode’s World Atlas (current edition) by Paul J. Goode
  • Economic Geography (current edition) by Truman A. Hartshorn and John W. Alexander
  • Physical Geography: A Landscape Appreciation (current edition) by Tom L. McKnight
  • Cultural Landscape: Introduction to Human Geography (current edition) by James H. Rubenstein
  • Building Geographic Literacy (current edition) by Charles A. Stansfield
  • Modern Physical Geography (current edition) by Alan H. Strahler and Arthur N. Strahler

Going to the San Diego Public Library website, you can enter in the titles or authors of any of the books; I would try searching by author first, then title, as the author’s name is more unique and should give you better matches. If there are multiple authors for a book make sure you search on each author’s name.

To search for a specific author on the SDPL’s search engine, it needs to be author’s last name, comma, author’s first name, like so:

McKnight, Tom

You can usually leave off the middle initial. So if I search on McKnight, Tom, here are the top 5 hits:

910.02/MCKNIGHT 2005
Physical geography : a landscape appreciation 8th ed.
McKnight, Tom L. (Tom Lee), 1928-
Upper Saddle River, NJ : Pearson Prentice Hall, c2005.
1 copy available at Central Library in History Stacks

DVD 791.4372/BLACK 2004
Black angel [videorecording]
Neill, Roy William, 1887-1946.
1 copy available at Pacific Beach/Taylor in Stacks

917.3/MCKNIGHT 2001
Regional geography of the United States and Canada 3rd ed.
McKnight, Tom L. (Tom Lee), 1928-
Upper Saddle River, N.J. : Prentice Hall, 2001.
0130288659 : $81.00
1 copy available at Central Library in History Stacks

910.02/MCKNIGHT 2000
Physical geography : a landscape appreciation Virtual field trip ed., 6th ed.
McKnight, Tom L. (Tom Lee), 1928-
Upper Saddle River, N.J. : Prentice Hall, c2000.
1 copy available at Mountain View/Beckwourth in Stacks

910.02/MCKNIGHT 1993
Physical geography : a landscape appreciation 4th ed.
McKnight, Tom L. (Tom Lee), 1928-
Englewood Cliffs, N.J. : Prentice Hall, c1993.
0136671713 (Instructor's ed.) : $40.00
1 copy available at University Community in Stacks

Whoa! That’s THREE different copies of one of the books we’re looking for. Were it my gas money, I’d go down to Central Library and check that book out, as it’s the most up-to-date edition in the library system. If you make a list beforehand of what books are in which libraries, you can map out your library road trip beforehand.

What if you don’t want to road trip for books? Fear not; libraries in metropolitan areas usually have some kind of loan or borrowing agreement between each other. For example, in San Diego, I can place a hold on a book that’s in one city or county library branch, and have it delivered to branch that’s close to me for pickup (see the Interlibrary Loan webpage for information on how loans outside of the city library system works). According to the San Diego Public Library website, the hold service within the city library system takes about 4-7 working days for the book to be delivered to the destination library, and if you don’t pick up the book within 8 days, you get charged $1.00US.

One other thing about libraries; you can keep the books for longer than your allotted time, and pay a fine. I ended up paying lots of money in fines, figure $2 a book per test; I would keep them past their due dates to continue studying if I felt I was close to taking the test. Paying overdue fines is way cheaper than buying the books outright, and I’m “giving back” to the library with my fine money. Yes, you’re denying the book to someone else when you do this, so think carefully about whether or not you could live with yourself if you do it.

Check your local colleges and universities

The DSST study guides (as well as the ‘official’ CLEP study guide) have a blurb that says “current textbook used by a local college or university for a course on the subject”. This means that if you took a look at the course catalogs for a college or university (say SDSU, UCSD, San Diego Mesa College or Palomar College in San Diego), and were able to browse their booklists online somewhere, it’s another place to find study materials that you could use towards studying for the exam.

Use other tests on the same subject

The Advanced Placement (AP) tests are tests that you can take in high school that will give you college credit. You can probably use a study guide for an AP test in order to study up for a CLEP/DSST test. Given the Human/Cultural Geography test example above, there is an AP Human Geography test, and searching my favorite online bookstore ( gives me a large list of AP study guides for that test. Powell’s often has used books as well, so you can save money while you’re studying.

The San Diego Public Library catalog shows two different study guides for AP tests when I enter the search keywords “AP geography” into their book search engine;

  • AP human geography, Kaplan Publishing, 2008
  • Barron’s AP human geography, by Meredith Marsh, 2008

There are lots of AP study guides out there, chances are your local library system will have a handful for you to choose from. For what it’s worth, the AP program is run by the same people who run the CLEP program.

Onwards to part 4…

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How to take CLEP/DSST tests for college credit (Part 2)

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What is a CLEP or DSST test?

From Wikipedia:

The College Level Examination Program (or CLEP) is a series of examinations that test an individual’s college level knowledge gained through course work, independent study, cultural pursuits, travel, special interests, military service schools, and professional development.

DSST is an acronym for DANTES Subject Standardized Tests. DSST’s are credit-by-examination tests designed to allow a student to demonstrate proficiency in an area of study normally taught at a college or university. The DSST test is scored on a scale from 0 to 80, and has a passing grade score printed on the test; if you’re above the score, you passed the test, and your school should give you the credits for passing the test.

Most colleges and universities in California allow you to take CLEP or DSST tests for credit at that institution. Before you take any tests, you should talk with an academic counselor at your school, to verify that:

  1. You can take CLEP/DSST tests at that school for credit, and
  2. The tests you take are appropriate for your education path and will count towards your total credits earned towards graduation.

This is important… talk to your academic counselor before taking tests. Don’t spend the time/money taking a test only find out later from your counselor you can’t use the test for anything.

California has a max 30 unit limit for DSST/CLEP tests that can be applied towards a college degree. Basically, this means that if your school accepts CLEP/DSST for credit, you could test out of an entire year of college if you wanted to and were able to apply yourself to studying for and taking the tests.

My experiences with testing out of college credit

Test what you know, don’t try to learn the subject from scratch; learning a college level subject from scratch takes longer than you think. Sure, you may think you want to find out all about the Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union, but if you don’t know anything about that subject, learning it from scratch will take a lot longer than if you used your astronomy hobby to your advantage and took the Astronomy test.

For what it’s worth, here’s the list of DSST tests I took:

  • Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union (Humanities)
  • Astronomy (Natural Science)
  • Principles of Statistics (Natural Science)
  • Human Cultural Geography (Humanities)
  • Introduction to World Religions (Humanities)
  • Principles of Physical Science I (Natural Science)

My knowledge in all of the above subject areas was limited to general knowledge that I would have picked up in high school or life experience. Some of the above tests took a lot of studying before I was confident enough to take the test.

One other thing: I’m super paranoid about using my Social Security Number as a form of identification. The DSST tests do not require your SSN, but they do require some form of identification in the form of a 9 digit number; I used my school’s ID number, which was 9 digits. If the test center tells you you need to use your SSN, it’s crap. The SSN is how Thompson Prometric gets paid by military servicemembers for taking tests; the government pays for their tests, so Thompson Prometric needs something to go back to the government to show that the servicemember did actually take the test. If you’re paying for the test, you technically don’t have to fill out the SSN, but the testing center staff probably doesn’t know this. If you’re prepared with a different identification number (such as your school ID number, or your phone number with area code), and you use this number consistantly (i.e. use the same number in the same way on all of the tests you take), nobody but you will know the difference.

CLEP vs. DSST; which one is “better”?

Note: I also summarize the links below at the end of this document.

The DSST study guides give actual recommendations as far as books to use when studying for the test (DSST Exam fact sheets).

The CLEP guides that I’ve seen (including the ‘official’ test guide that I looked at when I was in the library) do not give you any recommendations as far as books, however, you can find them on the Collegeboard/CLEP website.

CLEP tests are taken electronically, and when I took the DSST tests (2005-2008), they were on paper, although this may change in the future. Good news about taking electronic tests is you get the results immediately after finishing the test. Bad news is computer problems. Probably on 3 or 4 out of the 6 DSST tests I took, there were problems with the CLEP computers. I felt bad for the people taking the CLEP tests, you get all ready to come in and test, or you’re in the middle of the test, and something happens and the people at the test center have to reboot the computer to try and “fix” the issue. You don’t lose any test questions when they do this, but still…

All of the DSST exams were 3 units, this means you need to do 3 units worth of studying for a DSST test.

CLEP exams come in 3, 6 and 12 unit varieties (see Wikipedia entry on CLEP for exams and units earned), with all of the 12 unit tests being for foreign languages. This means you will need to do 3, 6 or 12 units worth of studying. Plan accordingly.

Personally, I only wanted to prepare for a 3 unit test; the DSST tests were also cheaper to take than CLEP tests, and gave me the same credit, so that’s what I ended up doing, taking all DSST tests.

Onwards to part 3…

[ Part 1 ] [ Part 2 ] [ Part 3 ] [ Part 4 ]

How to take CLEP/DSST tests for college credit (Part 1)

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I’ve been wanting to document how I took tests in order to complete 18 units of college credit for a while now. By putting this all down on the internets somewhere, maybe someone else can get some benefit out of it.

I’m going to tell you how I took tests and received 18 units of college credit. I’ll refer to this process of taking the tests for college credit as “testing out” (as in “testing out of the college class”) in the rest of this document. I also refer to the state of California a lot in this document; you should be able to substitute the state you live in for “California” whenever I mention it with no issues. However, you should verify with your school counselor that the information below is correct for your state before you take any tests.

Picture of my 6 DSST test result sheets
[picture of my 6 DSST test result sheets]

I do not want any money from you in the form of donations or whatever for writing this document; on the other hand, I think the information I am about to give you should cost you something. Next time you’re in your local library, and you see the donation jar…

picture of me putting money in the donation jar
[picture of me putting money in the donation jar]

Slip a lil’ sumpthin-sumpthin in there.

picture of my money in the donation jar
[picture of my money in the donation jar]

You don’t have to be crazy/stupid/extravagant like I am, but everything helps, and you’ll help out the next person who wants to try this for themselves by allowing the library to 1) stay open, and 2) keep buying new materials and fixing up the old books that get torn up through usage.

If you absolutely have to send me something, send me a postcard;

Brian Manning
9921 Carmel Mountain Road #375
San Diego, CA 92129-2803


In 2005, I had just finished 60 units of upper division college courses at the University of Phoenix. They took 42 units of my lower division coursework that I had obtained at a couple of different community colleges here in California. For those of you doing the math at home, that’s 18 units left over before they’ll grant me my Bachelor’s degree ( 42 lower + 18 lower + 60 upper = 120 units = Bachelor’s Degree ).

There were a couple of ways I could obtain these units:

  1. University of Phoenix would be happy to enroll me in the classes that I need.
  2. I could go to a community college near where I lived.
  3. I could take tests for college credit (test out)

If you’ve read this far, you can pretty much guess I chose #3. Here are my reasons for testing out of those units.

  1. Don’t have to go to a school campus once a week for 12/15 weeks at a time, which means…
  2. Theoretically I could get the units quicker if I applied myself (hey, I said it was a theory, okay?)
  3. Cheaper; University of Phoenix classes were $1200 each last time I took them (2005). On the other hand, DSST tests were around $75 each (2005-2008).

Go on to Part 2…

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