CLEP vs. AP: What Are the Key Differences?

Students preparing for college often opt for the chance to test out of some lower-level college courses, allowing them to get ahead in their pursuit of a degree and save some tuition money.

CLEP Exams

The College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) has been around for more than half a century. For all that time, students have taken CLEP exams to accrue some college credits before ever arriving on campus.

Prospective college students of any age or background have the opportunity to undertake independent study of one or more subjects, then take as many CLEP exams as they wish. Currently, there are more than 30 CLEP exams available, including:

  • American Literature
  • Biology
  • College Algebra
  • College Composition
  • English Literature
  • Financial Accounting
  • French 1 and 2
  • German 1 and 2
  • History of the United States I
  • History of the United States II
  • Information Systems
  • Introduction to Educational Psychology
  • Introductory Business Law
  • Introductory Psychology
  • Introductory Sociology
  • Precalculus
  • Principles of Marketing
  • Spanish 1 and 2
  • Western Civilization I: Ancient Near East to 1648
  • Western Civilization II: 1648 to the Present

Advantages of taking the CLEP tests as opposed to another system include the lack of limitations presented by coursework required by the AP program. While you need to take AP classes before taking an AP exam (meaning you have to be in high school to do so), CLEP’s use of the independent study model means that anyone can take a CLEP exam.

This fact goes to the root of the CLEP program, which started in 1967. The idea was to allow people to go back to college or try it for the first time after having been out of school and in the adult world for some time. Military personnel reaped the benefits of this much as they did the GI Bill following the second world war.

In fact, military members, their spouses, and many civil servants have the opportunity for the U.S. government to pay for the CLEP exams they wish to take.

Even people unaffiliated with the armed forces can take CLEP exams, though, as it’s not just a military program. While high school students can take CLEP tests, the program is intended for just about anyone with the wherewithal to study and learn the subject matter and sit for the exams.

The program has its drawbacks. CLEP exam results are not as widely honored by universities as AP tests. Before registering for CLEP tests, check with the college or university you plan to attend to be sure it will honor the test results.

Also, independent study requires discipline and individual effort that may be harder to sustain when not undertaken in a class setting.

Study materials are available, including some free study guides online, and myriad study guides are available for purchase, whether it’s an all-encompassing CLEP study guide or any number of guides specific to the subject matter of individual exams.

AP Courses and Exams

The Advanced Placement program (AP) is a curriculum offered by the College Board, a non-profit that has helped connect students with college educational opportunities for more than a century.

By taking AP exams, students have the chance, as with CLEP tests, to test out of specific college courses and receive credit for those hours on their college transcript. The primary difference in AP tests, as opposed to CLEP exams, is that students must first complete an AP course in high school to take an AP exam.

With curricula designed and overseen by the College Board, these courses offer rigorous instruction modeled on the introductory-level college courses for which the students hope to receive credit. Whereas just about anyone can sign up for a CLEP exam, the AP test requires completion of an AP class, so your average adult who wants to go to college in her 30s wouldn’t qualify for AP testing.

AP class offerings (with concomitant tests) include:

  • Art History
  • Biology
  • Calculus
  • Chemistry
  • Computer Science
  • English Language and Composition
  • English Literature and Composition
  • Environmental Science
  • European History
  • Human Geography
  • Languages including Latin, French, Spanish, Chinese, and Japanese
  • Macroeconomics
  • Microeconomics
  • Music Theory
  • Psychology
  • Statistics
  • Three different Physics courses
  • United States History
  • World History

As with CLEP exams, all colleges do not accept AP test results universally, although their acceptance is more widespread than CLEP’s. Check with your preferred university. An upside to this is that if you’re taking AP courses, you are in high school and probably have access to a guidance counselor who knows what schools will and will not award AP credit based on exam results.

Choosing the Right Test For You

With either set of exams, students have the chance to arrive on a college campus on their very first day as sophomores. Depending on the university in question, you can arrive at school having knocked a year or so off your projected time pursuing your degree. However, keep in mind that not all colleges accept CLEP or AP credits, and some schools limit the number of hours a student can place out of.

The right test for you is evident if you are an adult— the AP exam isn’t available to you since you can’t take the courses since you’re not in high school.

However, even high school students might benefit more from one test or the other. One advantage CLEP tests have over their AP counterparts is that students can take the tests year-round. AP exam testing only occurs during the first two weeks of May.

Finally, fewer testing sites exist for CLEP tests (about 2,000, as opposed to the more than 20,000 AP testing sites), but for high school students attending a school without any AP programs, finding one of those 2,000-odd CLEP testing sites can be an invaluable discovery.

Here are some of the key differences between the two types of exams:

AP examCLEP exam
Exam Cost$94$89
Exam TypeMultiple-choice, free-response, and short-answerMostly multiple choice with some composition and language tests requiring essays
ScoringScores range from 1 to 5. A passing score is 3 or higher.Scores range from 20 to 80. A passing score is 50 or higher.
Test DatesFirst two weeks in MayYear-round
Test PreparationStudents take AP courses in high schoolsResources are available but test preparation is strictly independent study
Test SitesOver 20,000 sites include high schools in the U.S. and other countriesAround 2,000 test centers in the U.S. and other countries include high schools and private testing sites

Frequently Asked Questions

With such a large collection of test subjects and all the ins and outs of which colleges accept which test, many prospective test-takers may still have questions. Here are some of the more common ones.

Which Is Easier— AP or CLEP?

Looking exclusively at statistics, it would appear that CLEP tests are slightly easier since 68% of test-takers pass CLEP tests, and 65% pass AP tests. However, more than 30 times as many people take AP exams than CLEP, so this 3% difference may be relatively meaningless.

If anything, CLEP might be more difficult because of the self-guided study it requires since there are no CLEP courses to take in school. But if you’re looking to take AP or CLEP tests to give yourself some advantages in the realm of higher education, finding the easiest solution probably isn’t something you’re super interested in doing.

Do Colleges Prefer CLEP or AP?

About 2,900 colleges in the United States accept CLEP test results. More accept AP tests, but the exact number is hazy since some colleges require a 4 out of 5 score before they’ll grant credit. Some colleges accept AP test results but only use them to determine a student’s class placement and do not award credit hours.

Technically, more colleges accept AP than CLEP, but your individual needs and your college choices should dictate your decision much more than should the answer to this one question.

Can You CLEP an Entire Degree?

No, nor can you use AP credits to place out of all classes in your desired degree. First of all, both CLEP and AP exams cover lower-level college classes— the 100s and 200s. Also, depending on your major, there may be fewer applicable courses. A music major, for instance, can only place out of Music Theory, but there are no AP or CLEP exams for music history classes, composition, conducting, and on and on.

Further, most colleges limit the number of credit hours a student can place out of. A recent study found that 86% of colleges that accept AP test results restrict how they can be applied— perhaps allowing for class level placement but not awarding credit hours or limiting the number of hours one can receive.


An AP or CLEP test will cost you less than $100. It can allow you to receive three hours of college credit. Considering the exorbitant cost of higher education, that can translate into thousands of dollars of savings. Both tests can offer great value and allow students to save time on their graduation plans.

However, each test type has its pros and cons, so if you have the opportunity to choose one or the other, the information contained here can figure largely into your decision. Still, you must also check with your preferred college or university. The highest possible CLEP and AP test scores will be meaningless if the college you want to attend doesn’t honor them.

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Matt Lane

Matt graduated with a BSEd in Kinesiology from University of Georgia and is now pursuing a medical degree. He enjoys sharing his experience with other ambitious young people.