Your Guide to Getting College Credit for Life Experience

You’ve probably seen ads for schools insisting that you can earn a degree with them based solely on your previous life experience. The deal is this: you send them a resume, they review it, and they send you back a degree. It’s a common diploma mill scam. What many people don’t realize is that legitimate, regionally-accredited traditional and online colleges also offer credit for life experience. But the process of defining that experience is much more rigorous.

Life experience credits are typically given to nontraditional students who have significant work experience. If you’ve been working for years or have gone through workplace training or professional certification, you may be able to cash in on that experience when you sign up for college classes. Life experience credits can save you significant tuition costs and time spent earning a degree.

But to pull it off, you’ll have to prove that your life experience is applicable to a certain course of study—and often to specific classes within that program.

Standardized Testing for Life Experience Credit

As part of the process of applying for life experience credit, you may be asked to take a standardized test. The College Board’s CLEP tests are designed to test competency in over 34 subjects including literature, foreign language, history, science and business. The tests are often used by schools to judge competency related to specific classes to determine whether the student already has the requisite knowledge provided in the class—and whether the classes are necessary. You will probably have to earn above a certain minimum score to get life experience credit, although the required minimum will vary by school.

A job-ready assessment is another standardized test sometimes used by colleges to judge eligibility for life experience credit. Job-ready assessments have a more vocational focus, and there are over 75 subject areas to test in. As with the CLEP tests, these tests may be used by schools to determine a candidate’s skill set.

Your Portfolio

As part of the application process, you may be asked to submit a portfolio outlining your qualifications for life experience credit.

To build a winning portfolio, look through the school’s course catalog and keep in mind that you’re trying to demonstrate specific skills or knowledge taught in individual classes so that you can earn an exemption or a free credit for that class. Assemble your portfolio with an eye toward demonstrating that you already know what’s taught in some classes.

Items for your portfolio may include samples of work (or pictures of samples of work), essays, standardized test scores, transcripts from professional development classes, letters of recommendation from coworkers, direct reports or supervisors, and so on.

Other Steps to Take in Landing Life Experience Credit

If you’re interested in applying for credit, your first step should be to talk to the college. An admissions counselor should be able to advise you of the process you’ll need to go through to demonstrate your eligibility for life experience credit. The process varies from school to school and may involve submitting a portfolio of work, taking standardized tests, undergoing interviews, or writing essays—usually a combination.

Certification in a professional area may help you maximize your chances to earn life experience credit. You may have to demonstrate that your certification proves your expertise in subjects already taught in some classes, but if you can, you may be able to earn life experience credit in those classes.

If you’ve taken workplace training classes, these may also give you an edge. Some on-the-job training programs are administered under the American Council on Education’s College Credit Recommendation Service (ACE CREDIT), and are designed to provide returning students with life experience credit. Participating schools may automatically accept these programs as replacements for certain classes.

Legitimate schools don’t just give credits away—and that’s why the screening process for life experience credits is often so exhaustive. Be sure to tailor your portfolio and application to the knowledge you possess that applies to specific classes—this is the only way you’ll be able to get credit for those classes. Talk to the school’s credit counselors beforehand to determine their process and expectations, and you should be able to save time and money on your degree.