Kate Sundquist 5 min read AP Guides, Standardized Tests

CLEP vs. AP: What’s the Difference?

Did you know that reviewing essays makes you a better writer?

Our free Peer Essay Review allows you to get feedback on your own essay and review your peers' essays. Sign up now to review essays and improve you writing skills.

Between dual-enrollment programs, Advanced Placement classes (AP), and the College-Level Examination Program (CLEP), there are many chances for high school students to tackle and master introductory college-level work. While you may only have access to one of these choices (or even none!), some students find themselves in a position to choose between many. If this is the case, you’ll need to make sure you understand the differences between your options. 

 

AP and CLEP exams may seem fairly similar at first glance, but their nuanced distinctions can make a big difference over the long term. When it comes to these two options, you should make sure you have all the facts before diving into one over the other. To learn the subtle differences between the AP and CLEP exams, and how these can turn into a big deal over time, make sure you keep reading. 

 

What is the AP Program?

 

The Advanced Placement program is administered by the College Board and provides a standardized, college-level curriculum that is offered in thousands of high schools across the country. Students can choose to enroll in AP level classes, which they typically take for the full school year, and then take an AP exam in May to assess their knowledge. 

 

The content of each AP class and exam is intended to be similar to the content covered in a single semester-long college course. This means that many colleges will accept passing scores on the AP exam to award college credit or to place out of introductory college courses. The exact standards and process for this varies according to the college, so it’s important that you research the policies at the school you hope to attend. 

 

It’s also important to know that you don’t have to take an AP class to take the AP exam. Many students successfully self-study for AP exams and achieve passing grades. Students may choose to do this when AP classes are not offered at their school, when specific offerings don’t fit their schedules, or when they believe this will be a more efficient use of their study time. 

 

Ultimately, AP classes and exams can be a great way for high school students to get a little head start in their college careers. To learn more about them, don’t miss our posts How to Choose Which AP Courses and Exams to Take and How Important Are AP Scores for College Admissions?

 

What Are CLEP Exams?

 

Like Advanced Placement Exams, the College-Level Examination Program is administered by the College Board and tests knowledge in introductory college level classes. This program is designed to show that test takers have mastered certain fields of study. 

 

There is no specific CLEP curriculum or courses, so students must self-study for these exams. Students who pass them can use these scores to earn college credit, place out of introductory level classes, or show proficiency on job applications. 

 

CLEP exams are not administered by high schools. Instead, they take place at any of the more than 1,800 CLEP test centers around the country. To learn more about the CLEP exams, don’t miss our post What Is the CLEP Exam? Which Colleges Accept CLEP Credits?

 

Want a free essay review?

Improve your essay and impress admissions officers with our free Peer Essay Review. Submit your essay now to get fast feedback.

 

How are AP Exams and CLEP Exams Similar?

 

Both AP and CLEP exams aim to assess knowledge of entry-level college coursework.  While AP exams are available in 38 different subject areas, CLEP exams are available in 34. There are even many exams that overlap quite closely. For example, both programs offer exams in common areas of study like US History, biology, calculus, and languages. 

 

Costs are also fairly similar, too. The CLEP exams cost $85 per test, while AP exams cost $95 per test. On both, students can select which schools to send free score reports to, or can pay later to send additional score reports. CLEP transcripts cost $20 each if not requested during registration or testing, and AP score reports cost $15 each for those not designated on test day.  

 

While it’s hard to say objectively which tests are easier, average pass rates on the exams are also very close. There is of course some variability each year, but in general about 60% of students who take CLEP exams meet the passing score of 50, and roughly the same percentage of students who take AP exams meet the passing score of 3. 

 

How Are CLEP and AP Exams Different?

 

First of all, AP scores are much more widely accepted at colleges than CLEP exams. CLEP exams are accepted at just under 3,000 schools nationwide, and while this may seem pretty good, CLEP exams are only rarely accepted at selective or top-ranked colleges. Some of the top schools that do accept CLEP scores include University of Massachusetts, Texas A&M University, and Purdue University. 

 

In contrast, AP exams are accepted at most schools across the country at some level, but just how they are used by those schools varies widely. For example, Harvard does not accept AP exams at all, but Princeton offers advanced standing or college credits for scores of 4 or 5. Still others may accept credit only for specific AP classes. Again, before banking on using your AP credits at a specific school, be sure to do your own research using the AP Credit Policy Search site. 

 

Another notable difference between the CLEP and AP exams are target audience. AP exams are tailored specifically for high school students. Classes are offered through high schools across the country, and testing is done according to a traditional school year calendar, delivered onsite at these same schools. 

 

The CLEP, however, is more targeted towards adult learners. Free testing is provided for military service members as well as eligible spouses and civil service employees. Tests are offered throughout the school year, at satellite testing centers across the country. CLEP exams may also benefit adults returning to college, master’s degree program candidates, and professionals who want to brush up on specific subject knowledge. 

 

AP vs. CLEP: Which Test Should You Take?

 

Generally, AP exams are a more popular choice for traditional high school students who want to receive college credit for their work. This is because the tests are specifically tailored to high schoolers, widely available through schools, and widely accepted by colleges. This doesn’t mean that they are always the right choice though. 

 

While both the AP and CLEP exams serve a similar purpose through similar means, there are significant differences between the two that could be very important in the end. Most important among these is the wide variability in schools that accept these scores, and how the scores are used by those schools. Ultimately, if you are considering these tests, you should most definitely do your research to find out which colleges on your list will accept scores, and how those scores can be used. 

 

For more help planning your path to college, sign up for your free CollegeVine account. On our free college admissions platform, you can explore colleges, see your chances of getting into your dream school, estimate your cost of attendance, and more.

Want more college admissions tips?

We'll send you information to help you throughout the college admissions process.


Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.