Working Ahead in High School: How to Grab College Credits Early Getting a Leg Up in the Higher Education Game

Meet the Experts

Christopher Tremblay Research and marketing consultant, GATE at Michigan State University Read bio
Ruth Wilson Founder, Brightmont Academy Read bio
Janai Mungalsingh Youth programs portfolio manager, Babson College Read bio
Rod Raehsler Economics professor and honors program director, Clarion University Read bio

Written by…

Kenya McCullum Read bio

Gifted high school students often look for ways to challenge themselves, and participating in programs that allow them to earn college credits can provide the stimulation they need. In addition to helping students save money on tuition, these programs give them invaluable experience with college-level work and another opportunity to impress the admissions committees at the colleges to which they wish to apply. This guide includes information on how students can get college credit through summer college programs, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses.

Gifted Students and College Credit

When students are classified as gifted, it means they have abilities that are above the norm for their age group in one or more of six categories:

  • General intellectual ability

  • Leadership ability

  • Creative ability

  • Psychomotor ability

  • Visual and performing arts ability

  • Specific academic ability

This can result in students being able to excel in classes related to language arts, science and mathematics, among other areas. It can also lead to students’ gifted nature manifesting itself in a variety of ways, not all of them positive.

“A gifted student can look like many things in a classroom. They can be unruly, a know-it-all, an underachiever, a prodigy and everything in-between. Additionally, affective trait characteristics can set them apart in school, such as being deeply emotional and sensitive, idealistic, perfectionistic and (having) a high self-awareness of being different,”

says Dr. Christopher Tremblay, research and marketing consultant of Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) at Michigan State University.

“As a gifted student themselves, they can be highly motivated, underachieving and even lazy at times. Highly gifted students often have a passion for a topic, subject or academic discipline and this is all they wish to do,” Tremblay says. “This makes it difficult for the student and the teacher to try to keep the student interested in other areas, while they only wish to pursue one or two. Conversely, gifted students can also want to do everything and know about everything, a sort of ‘bucket-lister.’”

In response to this, some educators may believe the best way to engage with these students, and to ensure their need to be challenged is satisfied, is to load them up with more schoolwork. However, Ruth Wilson, founder of Brightmont Academy, warns this is not a useful strategy.

“Gifted students absorb information more quickly than we as teachers typically pace for, putting them at risk of boredom and disengagement when not placed in a class specifically designed for them,” she says. “However, being gifted doesn’t mean that the student can produce work quickly or that they should be given additional assignments as this can overwhelm and frustrate gifted students. Instead, we want to offer opportunities to explore topics in greater depth.”

One way that students can explore topics in greater depth, while positioning themselves to get a head start on their college careers, is to participate in activities that expose them to the rigors of undergraduate work. By participating in summer college, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs, students can get the academic challenges they crave while earning college credits.

Summer College

Summer college programs give gifted students the opportunity to get a real look at what college is like by taking undergraduate-level classes while living on campus. This kind of exposure can be invaluable, as it allows students to earn credits while getting the challenge they need during the summer months.

“Students often do not remain academically active during summer vacations and this can lead to some problems at the start of every school year,” says Dr. Rod D. Raehsler, professor of economics and honors program director for Clarion University. “Just like all students, high-achieving students need to have a learning activity every summer to serve as an important educational bridge between years. Summer programs can help provide this and can maintain a student’s desire to learn.”

Raehsler says students who participate in summer college programs have a real opportunity to become acquainted with different academic disciplines, which can go a long way toward helping them make decisions about what they’ll study when they enter college.

“In some sense, it is even important for students to attend a program outside their ‘comfort zone,’” he says.

Summer College Programs

The César E. Chávez Leadership Institute at Arizona State University allows high school students to develop their leadership skills during workshops, get advice from the school’s advisors and participate in community service activities. There are also summer programs available where students take courses in subjects such as engineering, Russian, computer programming and business.

The Brown University Pre-Baccalaureate Program is a seven-week program that includes the curriculum found in the first-year of undergraduate studies. Coursework covers cultural anthropology, history, philosophy, economics, physiology, media and culture, critical reasoning and physics. Also, the school offers programs that focus on global business, language and culture, leadership and STEM disciplines.

Carleton College has three-week programs for high school students who want to study the humanities, computer science, creative writing and global issues. These courses are offered through several programs, including the school’s Language and Global Issues Institute, Writing Program, Computer Science Institute, Quantitative Reasoning Institute and Science Institute.

Carnegie Mellon University offers several summer programs for high school juniors and seniors. For example, the advanced placement/early admission program is designed to give students an idea of what they can expect during the first year of college by offering a range of coursework in areas such as biology, astronomy, economics, mathematics, religion and social psychology. In addition, the school offers programs in drama, art, architecture and music.

Duke University’s Summer College for High School Students is a four-week program available to those in the 10th and 11th grades. Courses cover areas such as mathematics, philosophy, art, cultural anthropology, biology, psychology, political science, physics and English.

The Emory Pre-College Program for high school students is a six-week program that offers a variety of subjects, including chemistry, economics, dance, religious studies, screenwriting and calculus. In addition, the college allows students to earn credit by taking online courses through the program.

Georgetown University offers several one-week institutes and three-week immersion programs for high school students. For example, the school’s Medical Immersion provides a look at what it’s like to be a first-year medical student while studying anatomy, cardiology, endocrinology and immunity through laboratory and field work. The Law Institute allows students to get instruction from prosecutors, corporate attorneys, lawmakers and judges to examine the current legal climate. Other summer programs cover politics, business and leadership, foreign policy, data science, creative writing, forensics, public policy and economics.

The school’s pre-college program allows students to simultaneously earn college and high school credits from completing courses in areas such as mathematics, political science, public speaking, English, French, Spanish, economics, education and geology. There is also an immersive journalism institute that provides hands-on training for different journalism careers.

The Summer Scholars Program at Miami University gives students the opportunity to take courses and participate in workshops and activities during modules that last two weeks. Also, students who enroll in the program are familiarized with the college admissions process, as well as how to secure financial aid.

This summer program is available to gifted female students who want to study science and engineering, sustainability, writing and women’s history. Also, students in the program have access to a college admissions workshop.

Stanford University’s summer college program gives students access to over 145 classes that are offered by 30 departments across different schools. Students may enroll in courses including communication, mathematics, engineering, political science, statistics, sociology and linguistics.

Six-week programs are available for students who want to take courses in public communications, forensic science, media literacy and college writing; four-week programs include coursework in education and architecture; and two-week programs include classes in filmmaking, photography, graphic design, criminal and corporate law, creative writing, economics, engineering and computer animation.

The University of Chicago offers several programs where high school students can earn college credits, such as the Arts and Sciences Summer in Chicago, which includes coursework in the sciences, social sciences and humanities. Also, the school’s Stones and Bones program is a month-long paleontology practicum and the Research in the Biological Sciences program is an intensive training course that exposes students to the research methods used in laboratories that focus on cellular, molecular and microbiological techniques.

The University of Dallas offers the Summer Music Academy for students to immerse themselves in vocal, piano and strings courses, while the Arete program allows students to earn college credit by taking classes about the classics. The school also offers summer abroad programs in Italy.

The Vanderbilt Summer Academy is available to students who have scored in the 95th percentile on the ACT or SAT tests. During this program, students take accelerated courses, meet with the school’s professors and participate in recreational activities.

CLEP Exams

The College Board’s College-Level Examination Program, or CLEP, is a test that gifted high school students can take to demonstrate their expertise in specific subjects and earn college credit. The test, which is accepted by 2,900 colleges and universities around the country, costs $85 to take — making it a great way for students to lower their tuition costs as they challenge themselves while preparing for the exam.

CLEP Exam Tips

Janai Mungalsingh, manager of Babson College’s Youth Programs portfolio, provides the following suggestions to best prepare for a CLEP exam:

  • “Interact with college programs of the schools that you’re interested in attending. This will create a lens for the rigor and expectations of a college class environment.”

  • “Take the time to practice the exam in portions, so that you can see places where you need to practice and strengthen your skills.”

  • “Find an undergraduate mentor who can give you advice on how they navigated some challenges and where they found the tools they needed to be successful.”

CLEP Exam Subjects

The American Literature CLEP exam includes 100 questions that require students to analyze and interpret literary works from the colonial, romantic, naturalism, modernist and contemporary periods. Students need to demonstrate an understanding of verse, prose, literary devices and critical terms, as well as specific authors, characters and plots.

Students who take Biology 115-question test are expected to know topics related to cellular, molecular, population and organismal biology. Specific areas covered include cell structure and division, enzymes, energy transformations, DNA replication, food translocation and storage, animal reproduction, heredity and social biology.

Calculus CLEP exam includes questions about differential and integral calculus, including specific areas such as derivatives, differentiation, linear approximation, integration formulas and curve sketching. This exam consists of 45 questions that must be completed in about 90 minutes.

College Composition exam requires students to complete 50 multiple choice questions and two essays in two hours. During the multiple choice portion of the exam, students are asked questions about rhetorical analysis, making revisions to written works, using source materials effectively and standard written English. The essay section of the test asks students to express why they agree or disagree with a specific statement and create a coherent narrative using the sources provided.

Students who take the French Language CLEP are expected to answer 120 questions that test their listening and reading skills. Specific questions cover discrete sentences, short cloze passages and authentic stimulus materials.

The financial accounting CLEP is designed to measure students’ understanding of accounting principles, as well as how to prepare and analyze financial reports, solve computation problems and collect data. The test is made up of 75 questions that must be completed in 90 minutes.

Introductory Business Law exam is made up of 100 questions that cover broad topics such as contracts, legal systems and procedures, constitutional law history and torts. Specifically, students may be asked questions about breach of contract, legal ethics, product liability, employment law, joint obligations and the social responsibility to which companies are expected to adhere.

From personality development to psychological disorders to perception, the Introduction to Psychology CLEP is designed to test students on a wide range of concepts in the discipline. This test is made up of 95 questions that must be completed in 90 minutes.

In Introductory Sociology 100-question exam, students are tested on concepts related to social patterns, processes and stratification. Specific topics include economic, political and educational institutions; human ecology; culture; social class and mobility; aging; social control and deviance; and sex and gender roles.

Spanish Language test is made up of two listening sections where students are required to listen to short and long oral passages and answer questions based on what they heard. In addition, the reading portion of the 120-question exam consists of questions on the vocabulary and structure of short and long text passages.

AP and IB Programs

In addition to summer college programs, gifted students can earn college credit by taking Advanced Placement (AP) classes or completing an International Baccalaureate (IB) program. This section provides information on these options, as well as available subjects, tips on how to pass the exams and resources students can use.

Advanced Placement

Advanced Placement classes are semester-long courses that high school students can take on a variety of subjects, depending on what their school offers. At the end of each course students take a test, which is administered by the College Board, to get credit for the undergraduate equivalent of that course. If students are interested in a particular class that isn’t available at their school, they may enroll at another high school in their area or at a community college. Additionally, students with expertise in a certain area may take an AP exam without enrolling in a class.

AP Exam Tips

To get passing scores on your AP exams, our experts suggest the following tips:

  • “There are a number of resources available to help students prepare using online resources or published test books, and these can provide a nice supplement to the assignments from the teacher. The more comfortable a student is with the format and types of questions he or she is likely to run into, the more time they can focus on answering the question, rather than deciphering it.”

    — Ruth Wilson, founder of Brightmont Academy

  • “Study for all the tests in the course, not just the AP exam. You will be able to practice and assess your understanding of the material and keep your transcript strong.”

    — Janai Mungalsingh, manager of Babson College’s Youth Programs portfolio

  • “Students hoping to pass the AP exam with a score of four or five should plan to invest a great deal of time in preparing. Students should create a plan based on what they already know and what they need to know. AP exams are not something that can be crammed for.”

    Lindsay Muzzy, guidance counselor at Lindblom Math & Science Academy and community outreach director at My College Planning Team

  • “Review the released student examples and rubrics on AP Central related to the course-specific written examinations.”

    Dr. James Davis II, IB diploma coordinator for Northville High School

AP Course Topics and Resources

  • Art History

    Covers the historical, cultural and political contexts of different kinds of art, including painting, architecture and sculpture.

  • Computer Science Principles

    This course familiarizes students with computer science principles like cybersecurity, programming, abstractions and algorithms.

  • Chinese Language and Culture

    Students who take this course learn about the communication strategies, vocabulary usage and language control found in Mandarin Chinese.

  • Environmental Science

    Provides an overview of environmental science concepts and principles, and includes a discussion of human-made and natural environmental problems.

  • English Literature and Composition

    Gives students a look at what they can expect to study in literary analysis classes on the college level. Specific topics covered include symbolism, figurative language, essay writing techniques, tone and literary interpretation.

  • Macroeconomics

    Familiarizes students with stabilization policies, price-level determination, economic growth and performance measures, as well as instructs them on how to analyze and interpret data.

  • Research

    Students in this course are tasked with conducting their own original research for a year, creating a 4,000 to 5,000-word paper and presenting an oral defense for their work.

  • World History

    Explores significant historical periods from 8,000 B.C.E. to the present, as well as areas such as state building, economic systems, social structures and cultural conflict.

  • Latin

    This class requires students to translate Caesar’s “Gallic War” and Vergil’s “Aeneid,” as well as understand the cultural context of these classic works.

  • Human Geography

    Students in this course learn how geographers study the Earth, as well as how humans have used and altered the planet’s surface.

  • Comparative Government and Politics

    Provides an understanding of how political policies and economics are handled in Nigeria, Iran, Great Britain, Russia, China and Mexico.

  • Biology

    Explores topics such as genetics, ecology, cellular information transfer and evolution.

International Baccalaureate

International Baccalaureate programs allow 11th and 12th graders to earn college credit after completing a diploma or certificate. The diploma program requires students to enroll in a roster of courses over two years and write an extended essay, which is designed to evaluate their understanding of the work they completed throughout the program. To earn an IB certificate, students must successfully complete all coursework in a specific class and pass a final exam with a score of four or five.

Tips for IB Students

The following tips can help students get the most out of an IB program, as well as perform well on an IB test.

  • “Be prepared to immerse yourself in the IB experience. Unlike other advanced programs that allow students to select an area of strength, IB programs require students to be strong across all subjects, which both stretches them with new and unexpected challenges, as well as confirms their commitment to tackle the most rigorous offerings available.”

    — Ruth Wilson, founder of Brightmont Academy

  • “Plan their calendars for the three-week testing period carefully, so they know which parts of the syllabus are covered on what day of the exam cycle.”

    — Dr. James Davis II, IB diploma coordinator for Northville High School

  • “Find a near peer mentor. It will be helpful to talk to someone about their experience and the next steps they took for college admission.”

    — Janai Mungalsingh, manager of Babson College’s Youth Programs portfolio