Posted in HS4CC

The Hardest CLEP Ever…..or not

The Humanities CLEP has a reputation for being one of the hardest CLEP exams. It is, after all, an extremely broad test covering literature, poetry, art, architecture, philosophy, and music that spans over two centuries. That is a lot of material to cover! (A description of the exam is located at the end of this post.)

It seems like a daunting test, doesn’t it? Jennifer Cook-DeRosa thinks so!

The CLEP exam that I do not like for humanities credit is the CLEP Humanities exam. If you haven’t looked at the content for that exam it is a huge exam covering practically everything under the sun….It’s insane how large this exam is!              ~Jennifer Cook-DeRosa

Before I heard of the exam’s “reputation,” my daughter took it and passed with a great score. Ignorance is bliss, in this case. She did a moderate amount of studying, but much of the groundwork came from her K-12 homeschool education. Piano lessons, studying art and going to museums, listening to classical music, reading literature (Austen, Dickens, Shakespeare) and using a history curriculum that wove the humanities throughout. Those were the parts of homeschooling we thoroughly enjoyed! In addition, she took Art Appreciation and Intro. to Music through a dual enrollment class.

So I started thinking that perhaps, depending on your student’s background and how you homeschool, this exam might not be as difficult as its reputation. Maybe this isn’t the worst CLEP to take. Maybe Jennifer is wrong. 🙂

But in order to test my theory and publicly disagree with Jennifer (on her own blog, nonetheless), I needed first hand experience. I needed to take the exam. I took a few practice exams and did fairly well. Beyond that, I decided not to study. My goal was to take the exam cold and determine if the homeschool curriculum we used was enough to pass. Because everything I learned about humanities came from teaching my girls. Or so I thought.

But before I tell you if I passed, let’s talk about the type of homeschool education that might be good preparation for this exam.

This test might be good for your student if they have…

  • taken music lessons, particularly where they focus on classical composers (Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt) and periods (Baroque).
  • read classic novels.
  • enjoyed studying works of art.
  • listened to classical music.
  • used a history curriculum that wove in the humanities. Some examples would be Tapestry of Grace and Mystery of History.
  • received a humanities-rich education. A Charlotte Mason education, in particular, would cover many of the topics on this test.
  • a knack for remembering names, authors, book titles and random facts.

And here are some tips…

  1. Take the practice test. If the test reveals that your student will be starting from ground zero, this may not be the test for them. But if they recognize many of the names and periods, consider filling in the gaps and moving forward.
  2. Start with these exams first. If they are planning to take the Analyzing and Interpreting Literature, American Literature, or English Literature CLEP exams, take them first.
  3. Know the time periods. Several questions will have you match people with their time periods.
  4. Pay attention to names. The humanities test has a lot of names. Don’t skim over them when you are studying.
  5. Study the gaps. If you don’t know much about Japanese art, watch a youtube video on it. If you are weak on modernist art (Cubism, Art Nouveau, Art Deco), spend some time studying it.

Did I pass? 

Yes, I passed. I attribute many, although not all, of my correct answers to the fact that I was exposed to the material through homeschooling. But there were a surprising amount of answers that I knew just from life experience.

Should your student take it?

This is not an easy test, but it is also not an impossible test. If this is a subject that your student is interested in and has a basic knowledge base of, go for it! But this would be hard to study for if they were starting from scratch and planning to absorb the learning in a short period of time. All of the names and dates would become one big jumble. I suggest taking a practice test to gauge how much studying would be needed and from there determine if they should take it.

Jennifer’s comments:

I love Jenny’s overview and willingness to jump in and try things before making a decision!  That’s obviously why she and I work so well together. I’d taken many CLEP exams myself (not this one) and so I broke my own rule by rushing to judgement here! But, I think we both ended up with the same option- this exam is best suited for families that spend a lot of time in the humanities. If your kids have naturally enjoyed and appreciated art, music, literature, etc. this won’t be nearly the stretch as those of you with a more “STEM” type of approach to homeschooling. As with most assessments of how “hard” a CLEP exam is, it’s all about what you’re good at and what you know.

From the College Board:

Humanities Overview

The Humanities exam tests general knowledge of literature, art, and music and the other performing arts. It is broad in its coverage, with questions on all periods from classical to contemporary and in many different fields: poetry, prose, philosophy, art, architecture, music, dance, theater, and film. The examination requires test takers to demonstrate their understanding of the humanities through recollection of specific information, comprehension and application of concepts, and analysis and interpretation of various works of art.

Because the exam is very broad in its coverage, it is unlikely that any one person will be well informed about all the fields it covers. The exam contains approximately 140 questions to be answered in 90 minutes. Some of these are pretest questions that will not be scored. Any time test takers spend on tutorials or providing personal information is in addition to the actual testing time.

For test takers with satisfactory scores on the Humanities exam, colleges may grant credit toward fulfillment of a distribution requirement. Some may grant credit for a particular course that matches the exam in content.

Note: This exam uses the chronological designations b.c.e. (before the common era) and c.e. (common era). These labels correspond to b.c. (before Christ) and a.d. (anno Domini), which are used in some textbooks.

Knowledge and Skills Required

Questions on the Humanities exam require test takers to demonstrate the abilities listed below, in the approximate percentages indicated. Some questions may require more than one of the abilities.

  • Knowledge of factual information (authors, works, etc.) (50% of the exam)
  • Recognition of techniques such as rhyme scheme, medium, and matters of style, and the ability to identify them as characteristics of certain writers, artists, schools, or periods (30% of the exam)
  • Understanding and interpretation of literary passages and art reproductions that are likely to be unfamiliar to most test takers (20% of the exam)

The subject matter of the Humanities exam is drawn from the following topics. The percentages next to the topics indicate the approximate percentages of exam questions on those topics.

Literature (50%)

  • 10% Drama
  • 10%–15% Poetry
  • 15%–20% Fiction
  • 10% Nonfiction (including philosophy)

The Arts (50%)

  • 20% Visual arts: painting, sculpture, etc.
  • 5% Visual arts: architecture
  • 15% Performing arts: music
  • 10% Performing arts: film, dance, etc

The exam questions, drawn from the entire history of art and culture, are fairly evenly divided among the following periods: Classical, Medieval and Renaissance, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, nineteenth century, and twentieth century. At least 5–10% of the questions draw on other cultures, such as African, Asian, and Latin American. Some of the questions cross disciplines and/or chronological periods, and a substantial number test knowledge of terminology, genre, and style.

Study Resources

Most textbooks used in college-level humanities courses cover the topics in the outline given earlier, but the approaches to certain topics and the emphases given to them may differ. To prepare for the Humanities exam, it is advisable to study one or more college textbooks, which can be found in most college bookstores. When selecting a textbook, check the table of contents against the knowledge and skills required for this test.

To do well on the Humanities exam, you should know something about each of the forms of literature and fine arts from the various periods and cultures listed in the exam description. It may also be helpful to refer to college textbooks, supplementary reading, and references for introductory courses in literature and fine arts at the college level.

Combined with reading, a lively interest in the arts (going to museums and concerts, attending plays, seeing motion pictures, watching public television programs such as Great Performances and Masterpiece Theatre, and listening to radio stations that play classical music and feature discussions of the arts) constitutes excellent preparation.


A survey conducted by CLEP found that the following textbooks are among those used by college faculty who teach the equivalent course. You might purchase one or more of these online or at your local college bookstore.

  • Adams, Exploring the Humanities (Prentice Hall)
  • Benton and DiYanni, Arts and Culture: Introduction to the Humanities(Prentice Hall)
  • Bishop, Adventures in the Human Spirit (Prentice Hall)
  • Cunningham, Culture and Values: A Survey of the Humanities(Wadsworth)
  • Fiero, The Humanistic Tradition (McGraw-Hill)
  • Martin, Humanities through the Arts (McGraw-Hill)
  • Sayre, The Humanities: Culture, Continuity, and Change, Vols. I and II(Prentice Hall)
  • Witt et al., The Humanities (Houghton-Mifflin)

Online Resources

These resources, compiled by the CLEP test development committee and staff members, may help you study for your exam. However, none of these sources are designed specifically to provide preparation for a CLEP exam. The College Board has no control over their content and cannot vouch for accuracy.

Score Information

Credit-Granting Score for Humanities

ACE Recommended Score*: 50
Semester Hours: 3