How I Passed the Chemistry CLEP – for Non-Science Majors
Credit: Pamela Warr

Big deal, you say? That’s what I thought too. But here’s the revealing fact.

Only 6% of those who attempt the Chemistry CLEP pass it.

So, let’s get this straight right up front. I am not encouraging you to take this test. It is really, really hard. But if you decide on your own to take it, I hope my experience helps you to pass. And, secondly, understand that I am NOT a science major, far from it. I started out as a dance major and graduated in Liberal Studies. I don’t even like science.  If you have an affinity for carbon atoms and stoichiometry, by all means, go for it!

What is CLEP?

CLEP ( College-Level Examination Program) is a credit-by-examination program accepted by most colleges and universities in lieu of traditional classroom course credit. It was developed by the College Board, the people behind AP and SAT, to help traditional and non-traditional students (military, returning, home-schooled, etc.) gain credit for knowledge gained outside of the classroom.  If you, like me, are returning to school while working, the CLEP tests can be huge time and money savers. And many of them are not all that difficult.  While completing my BA at UNC Greensboro, I was able to easily add (12) credit hours to my completed degree requirements by passing these three CLEP exams:  

  • Introduction to Psychology
  • Introduction to Sociology
  • Analyzing and Interpreting Literature

Unfortunately, passing those tests with minimal study and effort lulled me into a false sense of security when it came to the Chemistry CLEP.

Why I Even Tried the Chemistry CLEP

After completing all of the other BA requirements for my degree, I still needed (6) hours of Physical Science in order to graduate. I couldn’t consider a traditional classroom course because of my location and work schedule, and there was not an online course available to meet the Science requirement.

The main reason I chose the Chemistry CLEP, however, is that it counts for not three, but SIX, credit hours.

Also, it costs about $100 to take a CLEP test. With an additional $20 for a textbook, that was a steal compared to two semesters of online college courses. (And I had not yet come across that revealing fact above.)

How I Succeeded

The only way I passed this test was to fail the first time.  Bummer.  Hopefully, you won’t have to learn the way I did.  I had studied for about 6 months and I was determined to graduate in the spring, so I really wanted to get it over with. That was a big mistake, and an inexcusable one. There is a practice test available. You just download it from the College Board site and see how you do.  And there were practice tests and quizzes in each of the (4) textbooks that I ultimately purchased.  When I sat for the CLEP, I hadn’t passed any of those test quizzes with flying colors.
But the Psychology and Sociology exams had seemed so EASY! And I now knew more Chemistry than I ever thought possible. So, I didn’t do so well on the practice test, I still thought I should be able to get over the pass/fail threshold of 50% on the actual exam. Well, I made it to 45%. That is why they call it pass/fail.

I had to start over.

To make matters worse, if you fail a CLEP, you have to wait six months to take it again. No way could I hold  all those facts in my brain for six months. And I was really sick of studying.  But I really, really wanted to graduate, and I now had a huge time investment in the Chemistry CLEP, not to mention a considerable investment in textbooks.
So, I took a couple of months off to lick my wounds. Then I started over with this one huge clue to passing the exam:

There is not enough time to go back and answer the hard questions.

The test is 75 questions, multiple-choice, that have to be answered in 90 minutes.  On most tests, especially multiple-choice, it is a good idea to quickly answer all of the questions that you are sure about and then return to the more difficult ones, but on this test, that approach spelled doom. There weren’t enough truly easy answers. The questions are complex and just reading them takes some time. Of course, I was not really ready for the test, so I couldn’t answer enough on the first pass.
But this is the one strategy that I changed in order to pass the test a year later. I made an answer choice on each question as I read them. If it was really a guess, I made the choice fairly quickly and marked the question to return to it. And return, I did. On the second go, after putting in two more months of study, the questions were still extremely hard for me.  Multiple choice should be pretty easy, but on this test there are right answers and more-right answers. You have to choose the most right answer.

How I Passed - Study Resources

By now you realize I am not being modest. I’m not very good at science. I’m a right-brainer for sure. I Googled “Chemistry CLEP” for any help I could find, then "Chemistry CLEP study resources" for book suggestions. None of the ones I found are on the College Board Study Resources list, so you may want to consider some of those too.  I also used books from the public library. I actually found the science section in the children’s room useful .

These are the books that I purchased and how I used each to study:

Chemistry: Concepts and Problems: A Self-Teaching Guide
Amazon Price: $23.95 $8.97 Buy Now
(price as of Jul 5, 2016)

Chemistry: Concepts and Problems: A Self-Teaching Guide (Wiley Self-Teaching Guides)
This one is loaded with worksheets every few pages to help you retain information as it piles up in your brain. I studied this one from front to back then took practice tests from this one –

The Best Test Preparation for the CLEP Chemistry
While definitely not “The Best Test Preparation” book that I found, this one was very helpful in becoming comfortable with the testing format. 

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Chemistry, 2nd Edition
Sort of a desperation buy, this is really just an overview of chemistry, but there were a few take-aways from it. The reality is that I needed ALL of these books because some concepts just didn’t sink in with one explanation.

Chemistry the Easy Way [Barron's E-Z] by Mascetta, Joseph [Barron's Educational Series,2003]
This book was suggested as a great resource for the Chemistry AP (similar test) and it is VERY thorough. It is organized like a classroom textbook, with quizzes and tests along the way.  I worked through this book second.

Flash Cards & MP3

A lot of my study time was on my commute to and from work and there is lots of memorization in Chemistry. I recorded certain items (stuff like oxidation numbers and solubilities) on my mp3 player so that I could quiz myself in the car. I also made up a stack of flash cards with words on the front and related definitions/formulas/facts on the back. These were great when I had a few minutes to kill.

The Game Changer – Kahn Academy

I wish I had found Kahn Academy much earlier on. I could not have passed this test without it. Kahn Academy is a not-for-profit education site offering a free world-class education for anyone anywhere. How cool is that? Sal Kahn started his teaching career tutoring a relative. His short, clear teaching videos are like a private session with your favorite teacher ever.
On Kahn Academy, there are (73) videos covering Physical Chemistry and over (200) covering Organic Chemistry. I completed (88) of them and watched many of them more than once.  These videos not only clarified difficult concepts for me, but connected the different areas of chemistry so that I could apply the knowledge.

Why the Chemistry CLEP is So Hard

The Chemistry CLEP doesn't just test your knowledge of Chemistry basics. It tests your ability to use the basics to solve problems.  You don’t just need to regurgitate memorized information, you have to figure out what information is needed AND how to apply that information.  There were many times during my study, that I really did have fun with it. Kind of like working Sudokus and Crosswords. The problems could be mind-bending, but it was very fulfilling to figure them out. Here is how the challenge is stated by the College Board –

Knowledge and Skills Required
Questions on the Chemistry examination require candidates to demonstrate one or more of the following abilities.

  • Recall - remember specific facts; demonstrate straightforward knowledge of information and familiarity with terminology
  • Application - understand concepts and reformulate information into other equivalent terms; apply knowledge to unfamiliar and/or practical situations; use mathematics to solve chemistry problems
  • Interpretation - infer and deduce from data available and integrate information to form conclusions; recognize unstated assumptions

The underlines are mine. These are the elements that make the test a killer and prove that you actually understand some Chemistry.

The Second Chance

I have to admit that I didn’t feel very secure as I arrived to take the Chemistry CLEP the second time. I had gained a lot more knowledge, but I only decided the time was right to test because I couldn’t retain it all much longer.  I followed my own advice and recorded an answer for each question as I read it. When the 90 minutes ran out and the computer shut my test down, I had almost finished reviewing and changing those first guesses as necessary.

As soon as your 90 minutes are up, the test shuts down and you are given an opportunity to see your test score. At this point on my first attempt, I was heartsick because I knew I had not done well.  When my 45% score popped up, I was just disgusted. On this second attempt, I felt much more confident in my success. But when I hit that button and my score popped up, my heart began to beat wildly and I couldn’t help but gasp. I passed with a 51% score. That’s why they call it pass/fail. I’m done.

My (5) Tips for Success on the Chemistry CLEP . . .  if You Still Want Them

  1. Plan time on a daily basis to study and review. Use several different study resources.
  2. Check out Kahn Academy. In fact, maybe do this before you buy a book. It may help you decide if you want to take the test.
  3. Don’t take the CLEP until you can pass the available quizzes and pre-tests.
  4. Record an answer to EVERY question on the first read-through. You can go back and make changes as you need to.
  5. Think twice before electing to take the Chemistry CLEP. If you take it, I wish you great success.