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Efficient Studying for a CLEP exam

I recently read a student’s comments that he studied for 2 months for his CLEP exam but failed. I like to ask questions in this kind of situation because I find that a homeschool curriculum followed by 2 months of test prep studying is really more than almost anyone would need. So, what does “2 months of studying” look like?

Free of Distractions

I have teenage sons, and I can tell you 9 times out of 10, they define “studying” as having one tab open, music playing on another tab, texting people, and fielding interruptions from brothers….all the while telling me that this is studying (they really believe that they are!). After a half-hour, they have moved onto something else. They do this twice over a week, and they call it “studying for a week.” But by my definition, they haven’t studied at all!

Learn First

My favorite approach to any subject that we’re considering for a CLEP is to allow “slow learning” of the content over time. A semester, for example, that includes regularly paced homework, reading, writing, videos, etc. Then, for test prep, using content designed specifically for “test prep” will take away all the learning and simply help you study the key themes, main ideas, essential vocabulary, and important events. I’ve met people who skip learning and go straight to test prep. While it’s possible that this works sometimes, if the student doesn’t successfully pass their exam, they’ve now wasted money AND time.

Knowing what to Memorize

Since homeschooled kids don’t usually take as many standardized tests as public school kids, it’s reasonable that they haven’t developed their test-taking-muscles well. I spent a lot of time in high school teaching my kids about memorization. Sometimes memorizing facts can make it harder to pass a test, especially if you’ve memorized instead of learning a process.

Here’s an example:




Assuming you memorized those 3 math problems and answers perfectly doesn’t mean you know how to add! In fact, knowing those answers doesn’t give you any intuition about how to answer other questions. Rather than memorizing the answers to 3 problems, it is a more efficient use of time to learn how to add. When you learn how to add any two numbers, you now have the knowledge to answer an infinite number of addition problems.

Why Practice Tests are Useful

Building on the previous example, practice tests are very useful to help you find gaps in your knowledge- not because the question will appear on the real exam (it probably won’t).  I always value a practice question’s answer/choices as much as the question. The answer/choices are not random. Careful calculation goes into offering answers that pick up gaps in your learning. Answers/choices are deliberate, so don’t make the mistake of picking the right answer and moving on.

Sample Question:

  1.  Which of the following is NOT a primary color: red, green, yellow, blue?

To make the most of this question,  build a study process that uncovers what they really want you to know about the vocabulary and colors in the example.

a. What is a primary color?  (a color which other colors come from)

b. How many primary colors are there? (3)

c.  What are the primary colors? (red, blue, yellow)

d.  Why is green one of the choices?  (green is a secondary color)

e.  What is a secondary color?  (a blend of 2 primary colors)

f. How many secondary colors are there? (3)

f.  What are the secondary colors? (green, orange, purple)

By understanding why this question was asked, you’ve developed insight into the various ways it could be asked, and are ready to answer those questions on the real exam.

Finally, if possible, take many practice tests. I love practice tests because they really help focus our study in a very specific way AND they ask the same question many different ways. Being well prepared hedges your bets against failing. Good luck!


Executive Director of Homeschooling for College Credit

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