Fastest Ways to Earn College Credit

Sitting through a semester-long course can feel unnecessary. Here's how to get college credits faster so you can graduate early and start your career.
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Updated on February 27, 2024
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Tyler Epps is an editor for BestColleges. He writes and edits content about higher education, specializing in degree planning and college rankings. He is passionate about helping students prepare for college and navigate their educational journey. He...
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You're smart — which means you don't want to waste any time or money sitting through college classes if you don't have to. We'll walk you through the fastest ways to earn college credits so you can reduce the number of classes you have to take and graduate as quickly as possible.

Remember, every class you can earn credit for is a class you don't have to take — or pay tuition for. So save your wallet some stress and take advantage of these tips and tricks.

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How to Get College Credits

Most people get college credits by enrolling in courses at an accredited college or university, either in-person or online. But is it possible to get college credits before actually enrolling in college? Yes. There are numerous ways to accumulate college credits, some of which don't require any time in a university classroom.

High school students can earn college credit through AP exams. Nontraditional or self-taught students can take CLEP and DSST exams. Even military students can receive credits for their experience.

We'll dive into all the options you have to accelerate your degree to help you make an informed decision about your educational journey.

1. AP Exams

Cost: $97 per exam

Ideal for: High school students enrolled in AP classes

Not only do high school AP courses look great on college applications, but they also prepare you for AP exams. AP exams are a fantastic opportunity for high school students looking to accumulate college credits even before they step foot on a college campus.

There are 38 AP tests to choose from. A passing score on an AP exam could provide you with credit for that subject, enabling you to bypass some lower-level courses. A passing exam score ranges from 3-5, depending on the college.

High school AP coordinators help students register for the exams through the College Board.

2. Accelerated College Classes

Cost: Varies

Ideal for: Working students or students with family obligations, but any college student might benefit from accelerated courses

Traditional college courses typically last 14-15 weeks, with breaks between semesters for summer and winter holidays. Accelerated college classes — often offered for online degrees — go much faster.

You can find courses that are only 4 weeks, 5 weeks, 6 weeks, and 8 weeks long. That means you can complete more classes in the academic year and graduate sooner.

3. CLEP Exams

Cost: $93 in 2023-2024 (plus the test center registration fee)

Ideal for: Any high school or college student interested in earning credit by taking College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) exams

The College-Level Examination Program, or CLEP, can be a lifesaver if you're looking to earn college credits on a budget. These exams are more affordable than college courses and accelerate your academic progress by enabling you to skip over introductory college-level courses.

By passing any of the 34 CLEP exams, you can earn a minimum of three credits recognized by over 2,900 schools across the U.S. Exams take about 90 minutes to complete and include 60-100 questions. The College Board offers free study practice and test prep materials online.

4. DSST Exams

Cost: $100 (plus administrative fees at the testing site)

Ideal for: Undergraduate and graduate students, including veterans and active-duty military personnel

DANTES Subject Standardized Tests (DSST) are no longer limited to military personnel and their families. Now, every college student can take advantage of them to earn college credit.

DSST exams present a flexible and cost-effective method for students to gain college credits.

These exams allow you to 'test out' of some courses, enabling you to progress to advanced-level coursework. Prometric offers exam proctoring for up to 30 subjects, and each exam counts for up to 2.5 college credits — but not all schools accept the results. Policies vary by institution, so be sure to do your research first.

5. TECEP Exams

Cost: $52-$77

Ideal for: College students enrolled at any institution

The Thomas Edison Credit-by-Examination Program (TECEP) lets you earn credit for relevant job experience, volunteering, or independent study. With 43 exams available, there are plenty of options to choose from. TECEP provides open resources to help with studying, and the exams are primarily multiple-choice.

They are graded on a credit/no credit scale based on a minimum score and won't affect your GPA. You'll be awarded credit if you score equivalent to a 'C' grade or above in a TECEP exam.

6. Certifications & Licenses

In addition to creating career advancement opportunities, certificates and licenses can also lead to college credit. You can earn them through professional organizations, state agencies, vocational schools, junior colleges, and universities. Common licenses and certificates that count toward college credit include nursing and information technology credentials.

Schools usually rely on independent bodies like the American Council on Education (ACE) to evaluate these credentials for credit, assessing their educational worth. However, you should check with your academic institution to make sure the courses you take in your program count towards a four-year degree.

7. Military Experience

If you're a veteran or active-duty servicemember, you may be able to earn college credit for your military training and experience. The American Council on Education evaluates your military records for eligibility and includes that information on your Joint Services Transcript (JST).

Each school has the authority to decide the number of credits they're willing to accept, but over 2,300 schools accept credits based on the JST. Some military-friendly colleges offer even more benefits to service members and their families, so make sure to check their website for what veteran services they offer.

8. Volunteering

Did you know that you can earn college credit while gaining on-the-job experience and building your professional network? At some colleges, you can get credit for internships and volunteer work, so you can earn credit outside the traditional classroom and boost your resume at the same time.

Some schools may give you credit for relevant volunteer work completed before enrollment or provide volunteer opportunities for class credit during college. Be sure to look for opportunities with local and international nonprofits and organizations. Academic advisors can help you find acceptable internships and volunteer work.

9. NYU Language Exams

Cost: $329 | $529 | $629

Ideal for: Students attending classes at New York University (NYU) and elsewhere, as well as working professionals

Good news, language learners: NYU's School of Professional Studies offers online language proficiency exams for working professionals, college students, as well as teachers and government workers who need proof of language competency. Exams are offered in 30 languages, including French, Armenian, Bengali, Hebrew, Hindi, and Japanese.

You can choose from three different exam options, depending on your goals: a 4-point exam, a 12-point exam, and a 16-point exam. Points correspond to college credits. The exams have reading, writing, and listening components, as well as oral assignments and multiple-choice questions.

Schools may use these exams to offer academic credit or allow advanced placement in language courses. The validity of these exam scores lasts over three years.

10. University Challenge Exams

Cost: $100-$200

Ideal for: Any college student at a participating institution

University Challenge Exams, also known as Credit by Examinations (CBEs), are testing opportunities provided by universities. These exams give you the chance to earn undergraduate credits or bypass graduate course requirements by showing your expertise in a specific subject.

This advantage is especially useful if you have obtained knowledge equivalent to a university course, perhaps through attending a school with restrictive transfer policies or from relevant job experience. Exams are pass/fail. If you fail an exam, you can retake it after a specified waiting period (you'll have to pay the exam fee again).

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Do College Credits Expire?

If you've earned college credits in the past, you might be wondering, "How long do college credits last?"

College credits typically don't expire and stay on your academic record forever. However, your ability to transfer them to another degree program is subject to the receiving program's policies, which may consider how relevant and recent the credits are, as well as your original institution's accreditation status.

For example, since the content in STEM and graduate courses evolve more rapidly, you may have to retake courses that you took more than 10 years ago. Check with the admissions office for their specific credit transfer guidelines.

Frequently Asked Questions About the Fastest Ways to Earn College Credits

What is the fastest way to get 60 college credits?

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At some schools, you can get up to 60 credits through prior learning credits, including CLEP exams, DSST exams, UExcel exams, and AP exams.

You may also be able to earn additional credits for work and life experience, professional certifications and licenses, and military training. Accelerated degrees also provide a faster route to 60 credits.

How can I finish college faster?

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The best way to graduate from college in less time than the traditional four years is to show up with a ton of transfer credits — either from previous institutions you've attended, AP testing, or other credit-earning efforts — and then fit the rest of your coursework into condensed terms by enrolling in an accelerated program.

Can you earn credits before college?

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Yes. High school students can take AP classes, participate in IB programs, or engage in dual enrollment with colleges to earn college credits.

Nontraditional students can take CLEP exams, DSST exams, and university challenge exams to earn credit for prior learning. Military students may receive credits for their training via JST or CCAF transcripts. Additionally, online courses, including massive open online courses, may offer credits that some colleges, like Arizona State University, will accept.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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