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DSST for Dummies

Abigail Endsley
Abigail Endsley

November 17, 2018

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Unbound has a history of attracting dedicated students. And when I say dedicated, I mean graduate-in-2-years-or-less dedicated.

That may sound a little intimidating (not to mention a lot impossible), but it’s true. Our students have the unique ability to graduate on their time schedule—and sometimes that means really darn fast.

But let me be clear. These exceptional, get ‘er done students aren’t attending classes 24/7. They’re not sleeping at their desks or neglecting their families in order to study.

They’ve simply taken advantage of alternative forms of earning college credit. They’ve traded in classrooms and lecture halls for lots of reading and a single final exam.

Enter the DSST.

DSST: A History

The DSST originated in 1974 as the U.S. Department of Defence’s way to help military personnel earn college credit. As you can imagine, serving in the military makes attending class a tad difficult, so the Department of Defence created a way for those in service to learn college material outside of the classroom, then prove their knowledge of a subject with a single test.

DSSTs (also known as Dantes exams) are competency-based exams, meaning they award college credit not based on the hours a student spent in a classroom, but by the cumulative knowledge demonstrated.

In 2004, however, these tests were made available to the general public and now serve as yet another way for self-motivated, goal-oriented college students to pick up speed as they race toward the finish line. And at approximately $130 a pop—that’s $43 per credit hour—they also reign as some of the cheapest alternative credit sources available.

Still interested in taking a DSST? Here’s everything you need to know:

Studying

Study methods for DSST vary, but not by much, and the materials aren’t hard to come by. Our Unbound coaches recommend:

While these resources are probably enough to suffice, taking a competency-based exam is always something of a gamble. There’s no way to know exactly which questions will be asked on a test, or which specifics they’ll choose to cover. So if you’re going to make DSSTs a part of your self-paced college experiment, be thorough. Study hard, and be sure you can pass a couple DSST practice tests before scheduling your exam.

Once you think you’re ready, just head to DSST’s website to purchase and schedule your exam at a testing center near you.

Testing Day

DSSTs are multiple choice, pass/fail exams—pretty much the most considerate college exams you could ask for.

Once you begin your exam, you have 2 hours to answer 80-120 questions. Unlike the SAT, DSST exams don’t punish you for an incorrect answer. Instead, your final score is tallied by counting the number of correct answers you choose and simply ignoring the incorrect answers. The pro tip for testers here is: if you draw a blank on a question, it’s better to guess than not answer. As I said, these are the most considerate college tests you could ask for.

But just because they’re nice doesn’t mean they’re easy. For example, DSST’s “Civil War and Reconstruction” test boasts a pass rate of only 46%. Testing out of a whole semesters worth of advanced content isn’t a walk in the park.

The passing score for a DSST is 400 with the highest attainable score being 500. Unless your test requires a written essay (some do), your score will by auto-calculated and you’ll get your results as soon as you complete the exam.

Transfering Your DSST Credit

So far, so good. DSSTs are a wonderfully cheap and convenient way to earn credit—especially if you already have experience with the subject.

Where DSSTs most often fail is transferability. Credit-by-exam, in general, is not as widely accepted by colleges as a student might hope.

The American Council on Education (ACE), a well-respected educational advisor, has recommended that each DSST is worth 3 college credits in a certain study area—upper or lower level, depending on the depth of the given material. That gives these tests some serious heft!

However, it’s still up to the college to decide whether or not they will honor this recommendation and award you with said credit.

This means taking a DSST is not a guarantee of earning credit at every college. So, what do you do? Just skip this amazing opportunity altogether because it’s a little risky?

No. Instead, you take the risk out of the equation. You have two options for doing this:

Option 1: Do the Research

Most colleges post their transfer credit policies online. With a little digging, you can use this to understand whether or not your college will honor the DSST you’re interested in taking. Just make sure it also aligns with your particular degree requirements. (You can learn more about transferring credit by reading “How to Transfer Colleges Without Losing Credit.”)

Or, if you don’t want to go through the painstaking research of aligning a DSST with a particular course code only to find out you made some mistake along the way…

Option 2: Let Us Do the Research

Negotiating transfer policies and building fool-proof, debt-free degree plans is what we do every day.

So if you’re interested in taking DSSTs (or any other form of alternative credit) as part of your self-directed college education, we can ensure you’re doing it right. We’ll help you take inexpensive credit that helps you reach your goals and is guaranteed to be honored by the college you want to graduate from.

And best of all, this process is free. So it’s worth chatting with one of our Admissions Advisors about what kind of help we can give you.

Conclusion: who should take a DSST?

If this blog post has scared or made you feel overwhelmed by the prospect of taking on so much responsibility when it comes to your education, DSST might not be for you.

That’s okay! Not everyone is cut out for this kind of learning—in fact, most of us aren’t. Perhaps a more structured approach to independent learning, like self-paced online courses, will be more your style.

However, if you’re a self-directed learner who doesn’t need a classroom to thrive, are eager to take on the brunt of the educational process, and are willing to go above and beyond to research colleges and transfer policies (or enlist the help of someone like Unbound), DSSTs might be your golden ticket.

Pick a test, study hard, and in no time you’ll be on your way to graduating college in 2 years or less.

If you enjoyed this post, you may enjoy reading Why is College So Expensive? College’s Sneakiest Expenses and How to Avoid Them.

Abigail Endsley
Abigail Endsley

A former student counselor and Unbound student, Abigail is passionate about empowering others to achieve their goals. When she’s not dreaming with her friends, you can find her reading or singing Broadway songs. Loudly.

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