How to Earn College Credits While in High School

Students with work experience, military experience, or professional certification can take DSST or CLEP exams for college credit.

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How to Get College Credits in High School

Getting a headstart on college credits during high school will save you money, impress college admissions departments, and offer you greater degree flexibility. Earning college credits in high school is a great way for students to take initiative, strengthen their chances of admission, explore their interests, or try something new. By gaining credits toward a degree while still in high school, students can graduate faster, spend less money, and position themselves for success.

There are several ways to earn college credit while still in high school, including taking college or AP classes, testing out of requirements, and enrolling early. Explore these and other options below.

7 Ways to Earn College Credits During High School

  1. Advanced Placement Classes
  2. Cambridge AICE Classes
  3. International Baccalaureate Diploma Program
  4. College Level Examination Program Exams
  5. Dual Enrollment
  6. Summer College
  7. Early Enrollment

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1. Advanced Placement Classes

Developed by CollegeBoard, a national education nonprofit, advanced placement (AP) classes prepare students for college-level tests in over 30 subjects. Learners who pass AP tests at the end of the year receive college credits that are applicable at institutions in North America.

High schools with AP programs usually offer classes in key competency areas like English language composition, U.S. history, computer science, chemistry, and music theory. Most exams cost $95, but students in financial need may be eligible for fee reductions. Exams occur in May each year and score students on a 1-5 scale.

Credit and admission policies for AP students vary by college or university. CollegeBoard reports that most schools offer placement or credits for students with scores of three or higher, but it's good to check with your intended school to get its exact policies.

2. Cambridge AICE Classes

Students can also earn college credits in high school by taking Cambridge Advanced International Certificate of Education (AICE) classes. These courses cover over 50 subjects in four main groups: mathematics and science, languages, humanities and arts, and interdisciplinary subjects. These classes allow learners to explore their interests while gaining additional academic skills.

Universities worldwide recognize Cambridge AICE classes for their comprehensive rigor. Qualified learners can sit for advanced (A) or advanced subsidiary (AS) exams each summer. A-level courses adopt a more extensive approach and typically take longer to complete than AS courses. Students can begin with an AS curriculum before extending to A-level classes.

Cambridge AICE grades classes on a scale from A (highest performance) to E (minimal performance). Exam outcomes result in a certain number of credits — more for A-level, fewer for AS-levels — and students with at least seven credits can receive the Cambridge AICE Diploma.

3. International Baccalaureate Diploma Program

The International Baccalaureate (IB) Program uses a similar approach to Cambridge AICE but assesses different content areas and takes around two years to complete. Graduates receive an internationally recognized diploma that demonstrates proficiency and skill in three core elements and a single subject as chosen by each student. Options include math, science, or the arts. Only approved schools can administer IB diploma programming.

IB exam sections are scored on a 1-7 scale and include written assessments in each course or program area. IB combines individual assessment scores to calculate a final diploma result. Diploma-seekers need at least 24 points.

Over 3,000 colleges and universities throughout the world accept IB diploma transcripts, but as with other methods of earning college credits in high school, individual policies vary.

4. College Level Examination Program Exams

College Level Examination Program (CLEP) exams are a great way for motivated students with strong study skills to obtain college credits in high school. These tests are similar to AP exams, but they do not offer structured classes ahead of assessment. Instead, students prepare on their own, building their own college-level knowledge of key subjects.

CollegeBoard administers CLEP exams throughout the year at approved test centers and recently began implementing remote proctoring. Exams cost $89 and cover composition and literature, world languages, history and science, business, and science and mathematics.

Test-takers receive a scaled score for each exam, ranging from 20-80 points. According to CollegeBoard, the American Council on Education recommends that universities grant credit for scores of 50 or higher. Individual schools may set their own score thresholds.

5. Dual Enrollment

Unlike AP, IB, or Cambridge AICE options, which all offer preparatory instruction intended for high school students, dual enrollment means you enroll in full college classes while still attending high school. Learners complete college-level assignments and receive credit that applies to both their high school diplomas and subsequent college degrees.

According to the Community College Research Center, over 70% of high schools across the U.S offer dual enrollment to help facilitate the college transition. Organizations like the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships establish guidelines that inform this practice.

Students interested in dual enrollment should consult their high school counselors to learn about their options and determine which courses to pursue. Each college differs in how it handles instruction for dual enrollment, so it's best to do your own research. Some programs offer online options to increase accessibility.

6. Summer College

Students can also gain college credits in high school by participating in summer programs. These programs prepare students for the college experience, allowing them to spend some time meeting new people and exploring their academic interests in a college setting.

A typical summer college program offers for-credit courses in areas like computer science, economics, history, and the classics. Summer courses often only take seven weeks to complete, giving students extra time to make new connections, gain practical skills, or work on college applications.

Eligible applicants must be advanced high school students, and some programs require students to earn admission to the college to participate. Others offer online options to increase accessibility.

7. Early Enrollment

Sometimes called "early admission," this practice gives particularly advanced students an opportunity to enroll in college well before the usual deadlines. As CollegeBoard points out, this is a great option for students who know what school they want to attend and have already visited campus to make connections there. In some cases, students can enroll up to a year in advance.

Early enrollment can give students a sense of ease, but it is not for everyone. If tuition rates and available scholarships are a concern, early admission might not make financial sense because it limits students' opportunities for finding scholarships. Some students may also need extra time to build their applications or academic achievements, which early enrollment does not allow.

Most schools extend different options for early enrollment students. Some plans allow more room for flexibility and choice, while others include restrictions. Understanding the policy at your intended school can help you make a more informed decision. Learn more about each type of early enrollment plan below.

Early Decision Plans

Applicants must attend the school if admitted. This restrictive plan requires students to withdraw applications from other colleges, meaning they cannot apply via early decision to more than one school. Candidates typically use this option for only their top school.

Early Action Plans

This plan offers a bit more flexibility because it does not require a binding decision, so students can use it with multiple schools. Schools notify early action applicants about admission decisions before the general pool of applicants, allowing them more time to make informed decisions, especially when dealing with multiple deadlines.

Single-Choice Early Action Plans

While not as restrictive as early decision, single-choice action plans bar students from applying to other schools using early action or early decision. This means they must submit applications to other schools through the traditional admissions process. This option does not require a binding commitment.

Benefits of Earning College Credits in High School

Earning college credits in high school can set you apart when it comes to college admission and future employment. Other benefits include:

  • Save Money

    Earning credits in advance can help cut tuition costs in the long run.
  • Challenge Yourself

    Starting early gives you more time to study new subjects or try out new disciplines.
  • Enhance Your College Application

    You can strengthen your application by demonstrating proficiency in college-level material.
  • Explore Your Interests

    If you're interested in a particular area of study, earning college credits while in high school can help you explore that interest before committing to it.
  • Gain New Skills

    College-level courses help students develop soft skills like time management, critical thinking, and communication.
  • Prepare for Advanced Courses

    Testing out of introductory or remedial courses paves the way for study at higher levels.
  • Meet New Peers and Faculty

    Networking plays a significant role in college and careers. Enrolling in advanced courses allows you to establish professional connections with like-minded people.
  • Graduate Faster

    Earning college credits in high school means you won't need to take those courses later on, saving you time and tuition.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Is College Credit?

College credit is a standardized way of measuring educational requirements and progress toward a degree. Most college classes result in 3-5 credits, which schools apply toward your course of study.

How Many College Credits Can You Get in High School?

Your course load depends on your circumstances and the schools you attend. Interested students should work with school counselors and consult prospective colleges for more information.

What Is it Called When You Take College Classes in High School?

This practice is often referred to as "dual enrollment" or "concurrent enrollment." Students take college-level courses while also completing the final requirements for their high school diplomas.

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