What is a CLEP or DSST test?
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:
- You can take CLEP/DSST tests at that school for credit, and
- 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.