Start Earning College Credit Early

You've been in school a lot of years, learning the traditional textbook way and picking up all sorts of valuable life lessons as you've moved closer to your college days. You can turn knowledge and experience gained through formal and informal means — such as on-the-job training, independent study, or life experience — into a head start on your college degree or certificate. Normally, you will need to be admitted to the college before pursuing this type of credit. Common methods include:

  • Credit earned in high school through dual enrollment

  • Credit by examination

  • Credit for nontraditional programs or life experience

  • Credit by transfer

Some colleges allow you to earn credit; others may not award credit but allow you to bypass or waive certain introductory courses, or advance to another level of coursework. Because college policies and standards differ, be sure to check with the office of admissions or registrar about what options are available to you. Usually, the college catalog will have the policies listed under a heading such as "Advanced Standing" or "Credit-by-Examination."

Credit through dual enrollment

Dual enrollment programs offer high school seniors the opportunity to earn college credit while still attending classes at their regular high school site.

Advantages of dual enrollment are:

  • You get a preview of college while in high school.

  • You might be able to take subjects that aren't offered at your high school.

  • Some high schools and community colleges allow students to receive credit for high school and college courses at the same time.

  • You might be able to reduce the time it takes to earn a college degree, which translates into saving money.

Check with your high school or local college about dual enrollment requirements, which often include getting written permission from your high school principal and your parent or guardian. Many programs also mandate a minimum GPA (grade point average) — find out early so you can earn the grades necessary to participate.

Credits earned through examination

Some common ways that you can earn credit by examination are:

  • Advanced Placement (AP) examinations. If you've recently taken Advancement Placement courses and examinations in high school or through independent study, your prospective college may award you credits in certain subject areas, depending on your exam scores and their policy.

  • College-Level Examination Program (CLEP). Taking CLEP exams, which test for material covered in introductory college courses, are a common way to earn credit by exam. You may have acquired the knowledge through self-study, your job or life experience, home schooling, advanced courses in high school, or many other ways.

    Depending on your college's policy, you may be able to earn 3 to12 credits per exam taken if you earn a passing score. CLEP exams are given in 34 specific subject areas and 5 liberal arts areas (English Composition, Humanities, Mathematics, Social Science and History, and Natural Science).

  • Credit by Departmental Examination. Your college may allow you to take a department-based examination in a specific subject such as a foreign language, mathematics, or computer science to demonstrate your understanding of skills and concepts covered by a college-level course. If you pass, you may be able to earn credit for that course or waive prerequisites for higher-level courses. Departmental examinations are often challenging examinations similar to a course's final examination.

Credits for nontraditional programs and life experience

You may be surprised to find how your life and work experience can count for college credit. You'll spend some time to document your experiences, but it may help you get a head start.

  • Workplace Training. Training that you have received in the workplace and through military service courses, computer certification coursework, or through various academies recognized by your college, such as a police and corrections academy or a federal government training center, may also allow you to qualify for credit, advanced standing, or a waiver of certain requirements.

  • Portfolio Evaluation Program. Your life or work experience may earn you college credit at some colleges through a portfolio evaluation.

    A portfolio is a written record of specific experience, accomplishments, knowledge, and documentation of learning related to the courses for which you would like credit or the degree you want to pursue.

    Typical elements of a portfolio include a life history essay; a statement about your short- and long-term goals; a discussion of major accomplishments and supporting documentation such as a performance evaluation from work, transcripts, and samples of work; and a narrative about your learning experience and how it relates to the core learning outcomes of the course(s) for which you are seeking credit.

    Faculty members in specific subject areas then evaluate the portfolio for credit.

    Creating a portfolio is not easy! Many colleges will require you to take a Portfolio Development course to help guide you through the process.

  • International Baccalaureate. The Swiss-based International Baccalaureate Organization, a nonprofit educational foundation, offers a curriculum and diploma recognized by colleges and universities worldwide. Check with your prospective college to see if they offer credit for this exam-based diploma or coursework taken through this program.

Credit by transfer

If you've earned college credit at another educational institution, be sure to speak to a transfer counselor about whether or not your credits will count at your new college. You already paid for them elsewhere, so it's worth seeing if you can get credit at your new institution.

Transfer credit for vocational/technical coursework may be accepted by your college, but it's more the exception than the rule, and may also have time limitations.

Colleges will also consider credit for military service school courses and skills, so be sure to check on your college's policy if you're a veteran or an active-duty service member.

If you are a foreign-born student or have taken college-level coursework overseas, you'll need to have your courses evaluated by an outside evaluation firm to see if the credits will transfer to your new college.