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Advising 101: What You Need to know about “Challenge Exams”

Welcome to Advising 101. In this series, I’m highlighting a key concept that will help YOU become your teen’s best high school guidance counselor. Institutional challenge exams may seem like a good alternative to AP, CLEP, or DSST, but there are a few things you need to know.

Challenge Exam

What is it?

Simply put, a challenge exam is given by a college and allows you to “test out” or “test in” to a class at that college.

Why is it important?

A challenge exam is used internally by a college, or a department, and often authored by a college professor or department chair. It would be rare for the college to award a letter grade for passing a challenge exam, but if yours does, that improves transferability significantly.

  • Example A: The student with high school credit in Spanish may take a challenge exam to test into Spanish 2. In this case, the student didn’t get college credit for Spanish 1, rather they just started at a higher level.
  • Example B: A freshman student with exceptional musical proficiency takes a challenge exam to get permission to take a musical course usually reserved for juniors and seniors.
  • Example C: A college allows students with a certificate, license, CEU, or other non-college credential to skip a course requirement by demonstrating competency via challenge exam.

HS4CC parents should note that a challenge exam does not serve the teen in the same way as credit by exam or a college class. With regard to transferability, you’re better off using credit by exam (CLEP, AP, DSST, etc.) than an institutional challenge exam. and except for special circumstance, it’s less helpful than using credit by exam or a college class.

  1. Credit earned via challenge exam probably will not transfer.
  2. Credit attempted via challenge exam may cost full tuition.
  3. Credit attempted via challenge exam may be very textbook-specific (find out!)
  4. Credit attempted via challenge exam may be graded by one professor and cover material specific to what is taught in his/her lectures (almost impossible to pass).
  5. Credit attempted via challenge exam may be conducted by someone without experience writing, administering, or evaluating challenge exams.
  6. Credit via challenge exam may be useful for students already enrolled in a degree program but aren’t allowed to bring in transfer credit.
  7. Credit via challenge exam may be college major-specific. If an economics major has challenged a general education course, changing to a different major or college within the university may disqualify that credit.
  8. A challenge exam serves a very narrow group of students.

Where do I find it?

Current Academic Catalog. Search term “challenge exam” or “institutional exam.”


Executive Director of Homeschooling for College Credit

2 thoughts on “Advising 101: What You Need to know about “Challenge Exams”

  1. I think you cover this well elsewhere, but it’s important to differentiate between challenge exams and placement exams, as some colleges get them confused.

    Challenge exams offer the ability to challenge a course for credit, while placement exams do not offer any credits and are instead used to determine whether an individual is academically ready to take a course.

    Both are sometimes labeled as “test out” exams, but each are different.

    1. You are EXACTLY right Jesse! Thanks for the reminder. As a quick distinction, challenge exams test “out” of a class while placement exams allow you to test “in” to a class. I think you’ve inspired me to post about that again.

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