One of my goals when I enlisted in the USAF was to use military tuition assistance benefits and/or the GI Bill to achieve my college degree. I wasn’t sure how or where I would accomplish that goal, or if I would have to wait until I separated from the military so I could use the GI Bill.
Thankfully, I was able to use tuition assistance and earn my Bachelor’s Degree while on active duty. Of course, this took a lot of hard work and the cooperation of my supervisors, who allowed me to work the night shift for two years while I took night classes and correspondence courses. One of the big reasons I was able to complete my degree so quickly is because I was able to test out of about 10 college level classes by taking free college level examinations to receive credits that would count toward my college degree. In each instance the tests were free to take, saved me months of class work, and saved me money on books and unused tuition assistance and GI Bill benefits.
I want to share with you the types of tests available to military members, and how to pass the tests and gain college credits. And the good news is almost anyone can do it – all you need to do is take some time to study the practice guides and learn a few test taking skills.
Earning College Credits by Examination While in the Military
Military members have two basic types of college level exams available to them for free, and a third option which used to be free, but can still save you time and money:
- CLEP Tests
- DANTES Exams (DSST)
- Excelsior Exams*
We’ll cover each of these and give a few tips to help you pass these exams and earn free college credits. *as of Oct 1, 2011, Excelsior exams are no longer free for military members.
CLEP Tests – College Level Examination Program
A CLEP test, or College Level Examination Program, is a standard college level exam program that is accepted by many colleges and universities around the US. There are approximately 35 different exams you can take which, when passed, give you corresponding college level credits. Depending on the university, they may or may not apply to your GPA, since the tests are usually given on a pass/fail basis. Each of the 35 test can be taken via a computer based test, and there are 14 available in paper format.
You should expect to wait approximately 4-6 weeks to get your test results, and you can also opt to have the test results sent to your school, which makes it easier to have the college credits applied to your degree program (I recommend this if you are currently enrolled in a degree program as it will save you time and money). In most cases you will need to send away for an official transcript before you are able to officially apply these credits to your degree program, so it’s usually best to wait until you are done taking CLEP tests so you don’t have to pay for multiple transcripts.
Preparing for CLEP tests: There are specific study guides for each CLEP Test, and they are usually available at your base library. There may be a waiting list for some of the more popular titles, especially when it is close to graduation time as many people try to squeeze in extra credits to avoid waiting another semester to graduate. The study guides are usually multiple choice and are designed to test you on the topic, not teach you much new information. Because of this, I recommend studying the topic on your own to learn the knowledge before using the study guides. Note: Be sure you are ready to take the exam because you have to wait 180 days to retake it if you fail.
Here is more information for CLEP Preparation Resources for Military Service Members.
DANTES – Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support
DANTES, or Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support, is a large educational program which supports the off-duty education of Department of Defense members. DANTES offers a variety of educational programs as well as a testing program which can help DoD members earn college credit for the education or experience they have. These tests, which are now known as DSST tests (formerly DANTES Subject Standardized Tests), are offered free to military members, DoD personnel, and some others. Learn more about eligibility.
DANTES does more than just offer the DSST exams, as they are also responsible for offering a wide variety of other tests and entrance exams available through your base education office, including administering the CLEP tests, Excelsior tests, and entrance exams such as the ACT, SAT, GMAT, GRE, and more. DANTES also runs the popular Troops to Teachers Program, which helps veterans begin a second career as a public school teacher, often by offering free or reduced education programs and/or grants.
Excelsior College Examinations
Excelsior tests are similar to the CLEP tests and DSST exams. Unfortunately, I just found out these tests are no longer paid for by DANTES: Effective October 1, 2011, DANTES will no longer fund ECEs. Even though these exams are no longer funded by DANTES, service members can still take these exams on their own dime, and they are still an option worth consideration. Visit www.excelsior.edu for more information about available courses and test centers.
Tips for Passing CLEP Tests and DSST Exams
I took and passed 10 CLEP, DSST and Excelsior exams on the first try. Want to know how I did it? There is no big secret here – I studied for the exams before taking them. But how I studied is more important than just saying I studied. Instead of grabbing the “Official CLEP Study Guide” or similar multiple choice study guide, I first visited the website and copied the outline for the exam (here is an example of the outline for the American Government Exam). The outlines give you a break down of not only the contents of the exam by topic, but the percentage those topics take on the exam. This helps you best know which areas to focus on when studying how to allocate your study time. From this outline, I researched each topic and created my own set of notes (just create an outline and spend a couple hours looking up each topic on Google – it works!). These customized study guides gave me enough knowledge to understand the topic and pass the test (remember, multiple choice study guides don’t teach you the subject matter, they only give you practice questions — learn the info first!). This process worked – I didn’t score the top mark on each exam, but I passed each test I took on the first try.
Which College Placement Exams are Best?
It’s best to do a little research before you get gung-ho and start taking every test in sight. The reason is that not all of these tests are accepted by each university or degree plan. In most cases, you will probably find the CLEP tests are more widely accepted than the other tests, but it varies by school. My recommendation is to first meet with your college counselor and come up with a degree plan and list of tests which will help you reach your educational goals.
The next tip is to make sure you are absolutely ready before taking the exam. You can retake CLEP tests without charge (but you have to wait), but recent changes in DSST exam procedures don’t cover the costs of retaking the exam if you fail, though you can still retake it if you are willing to pay for it yourself. Finally, don’t write off the Excelsior exams, even though they are no longer free for military members. If your degree program accepts the exams and you can work it into your schedule, then these exams may still save you a lot of time and money.
Testing out of College Courses Helped Me Achieve My Goals
My goal was to complete my degree as quickly as possible, so I met with my guidance counselor to come up with a plan that would help me achieve my Bachelor’s degree in less than two years. I had a head start from a year of college I took before I enlisted in the military, and I was able to apply quite a few credits from my military training, including credits for technical training and military leadership courses (the Community College of the Air Force and Professional Military Education (PME) played a big role in the credits I received for military training).
After applying these credits, I was able to take 10 classes via CLEP and DANTES exams, which shaved off over a full year of school and left me with less than two years worth of classes to achieve my Bachelor’s Degree. I took the remaining college classes via night classes that were offered on our installation, and via online courses while I was deployed to the Middle East. It was a challenge working the courses into my full-time military schedule, particularly while deployed, but I was motivated to achieve my degree as quickly as I could. Here is more about my experiences of taking classes while on active duty.
Do you have any advice for taking examination tests or testing out of classes?