Not having a high school diploma can hinder an individual’s future potential earnings. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, someone with a high school diploma has median weekly earnings of $679, while those without one come in at $494. And because a high school diploma or its equivalent is necessary for college or other forms of postsecondary education, lacking one puts limits on earnings growth.
There are approximately 27 million adults in the United States who don’t have a high school diploma, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible for them to advance their careers and education. Approximately 43 percent of those who get their GED (General Educational Development or General Equivalency Diploma) will enroll in a postsecondary program within six years, putting them on the path for more career options and higher earnings.
This guide examines the various high school equivalency exams available and offers tips to help students decide which one is right for them.
High school serves as a prerequisite for many professional and education opportunities. Most jobs require at least a high school diploma, as does entrance into most colleges. But due to a variety of reasons, from family problems or lack of interest at the time, many students don’t finish high school as teenagers. High school equivalency exams bridge the gap so adults can get the background they need to succeed.
High school equivalency exams test students in subjects they would’ve learned in high school. They provide an opportunity for those who didn’t finish high school to prove they possess the same level of knowledge as a graduate. Most are offered in multiple languages, such as English, Spanish, French and Braille.
Until 2014, the GED was the standard high school equivalency exam. Since then, however, alternate options have been introduced, such as the HiSET and TASC, giving students the opportunity to choose the test that best showcases their knowledge and uses their skills. But how can you choose the right one? Some states offer only one exam, so students may have little choice. Beyond that, it comes down to understanding your particular style of learning and test-taking, and then matching those to the appropriate test.
“Students should assess what kind of learner they are with the help of their instructor,” says educator Johnna Ithier. “If students have begun taking one exam or the other, they should continue as the test modules are not interchangeable.”
The HiSET (High School Equivalency Test) is a high school equivalency exam that covers the academic subjects taught in a typical high school curriculum. Introduced to the market in 2014, the exam is for anyone who wants to receive their high school equivalency credential, including those still under the age of 18. However, minors wishing to take the HiSET must check with their respective state’s requirements to confirm eligibility.
$10 plus state-specific fees, which can range from $8 to $90.
Reading, writing, mathematics, science and social studies. Each section consists of either multiple choice or essay-style questions and takes from 65 to 120 minutes to complete.
Students need an overall score of 45 out of 100; in addition, no multiple-choice subset can score below an eight out of 20, and no essay subset can score under a two out of six.
Vary by state.
The HiSET is available in both computer and paper formats, although a particular state or test center may choose to offer only one format.
A subject subset of the HiSET exam may be taken up to three times in a calendar year.
Except for one essay, the HiSET is composed entirely of multiple-choice questions, so learn the strategies for eliminating wrong answers as well as choosing the right one. Many of the choices include negative words like “except” and “least” to prompt the test taker to identify which of the answers are incorrect. “When studying for multiple-choice questions make sure you’re able to distinguish between a good answer and the best answer,” advises Ithier.
Like the HiSET, the TASC (Test Assessing Secondary Completion) is a relatively new high school equivalency exam that provides another GED alternative. Those under the age of 18 are usually able to take the TASC, as long as they meet other eligibility requirements.
Varies based on testing center, but prices start at around $50, not including additional state or test center fees.
Math (both calculator and no-calculator sections), writing, reading, science and social studies. Test takers have between 50 and 110 minutes to complete each section.
At least a 500 in each subject area, and at least a two out of eight on the writing section.
Test takers must be at least 16 years old, must not have graduated from high school or be currently enrolled in high school, and must meet any other residency or state-specific requirements.
The TASC is available in both computer and paper formats.
Students who fail any section may retake up to two TASC sections free of charge. The waiting period for retaking is subject to state guidelines.
The TASC has a reputation for being the most difficult of the three high school equivalency exams, and if you take this one, it’s a good idea to brush up on your math skills. It’s only permissible to use a calculator on half of the math questions, so proficiency with mental math and pencil-and-paper calculations is a plus.
The NEDP (National External Diploma Program) is unique in that it’s not an exam and doesn’t provide a high school equivalency credential. Instead, it’s a self-paced program that results in the issuance of a high school diploma from the state’s respective education department.
Because the program takes place largely online and is self-paced, the time to complete it will vary based on the participant. The typical time to completion is between six and 12 months. Part of the NEDP requirements include applying knowledge to professional and life contexts, so participants can use their life experiences to meet program requirements. All these characteristics make the NEDP great for adults seeking a traditional high school diploma.
Varies based on the NEDP provider, but is typically a few hundred dollars.
Three foundational areas (communication and media literacy, applied math/numeracy and information and communication technology) and seven life skill areas (civil literacy and community participation, consumer awareness and financial literacy, cultural literacy, geography and history, health literacy, science and 21st century workplace).
Participants must demonstrate the ability to complete assignments.
Generally speaking, participants must be at least 18 years of age and live in the state providing the NEDP and can’t already have a high school diploma. Additionally, students may need to demonstrate an academic ability of at least the ninth-grade level for admission into an NEDP program.
Participants can complete the NEDP requirements anywhere they have access to a computer, although periodic check-ins with an assessor/adviser are required.
Participants will have to resubmit assignments that don’t demonstrate mastery of a particular area.
Learn how to leverage what you already know and be able to apply academic learning to real-world tasks. A large portion of the NEDP tests participants on their level of practical knowledge, such as being able to engage in comparison shopping to find the best deal or gauging the impact of different interest rates among financial products.
The GED (General Educational Development or General Equivalency Diploma) exam is the most well-known and widely accepted high school equivalency exam. It’s the most popular way to obtain a high school equivalency credential, with the vast majority of postsecondary schools and employers accepting it.
Varies based on the state the GED is administered in, but can range from free to several hundred dollars.
Four sections, including reasoning through language arts, mathematical reasoning, science and social studies. Each section takes between 70 and 150 minutes.
Participants must pass each section with a score of at least 145 on a scale of 100 to 200.
Besides state-specific requirements, such as residency, test takers must be at least 16 years old and may not have graduated or be currently enrolled in high school.
The GED is administered in most states; however, the following states DON’T use it:
The GED is available through computer-based testing only.
Each state will have its own retake policy, but as a general rule, test takers who fail a particular section only need to retake that part, not the sections they passed. Also, most states will allow up to three retakes of a specific section before imposing a retake waiting period. Discounts or fee waivers for retakes may also be available, depending on the state and test center.
The GED includes lots of different styles of questions, including multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, short answer and extended response (essay), so get comfortable with each format. The language arts portion of the exam requires the most complex essay response, asking test takers to read two differing viewpoints on a topic and write an essay that explains which one was best and why. Students can familiarize themselves with this style of writing by reading persuasive essays and articles and picking up strategies for evaluating arguments.
No matter which test you take, preparation is key. Develop a plan to choose which test will likely emphasize your strengths, give yourself ample time to study for it, and be ready when you walk through the door (with your ID)! Here, we offer some tips for gearing up in the months leading up to the test, as well as how to handle the exam itself.Getting Ready
Find a study buddy. Keep in mind that this person doesn’t necessarily have to be a tutor or someone who is also taking the GED. The study buddy’s most important role is to make sure the test taker is staying on schedule with his or her studies. The study buddy is like a personal trainer for the GED, keeping the test taker on track with learning the necessary material and information.
Identify problem subject areas. Some test takers won’t have enough time or resources to put forth maximum effort to study all the subject areas in-depth. Therefore, they will need to focus on subjects that give them the most difficulty. This targeted study is important; students must achieve a minimum score for each section, no matter how well they do in any other section.
Practice, practice, practice! Being familiar with the test format makes it easier to focus on the subject matter at hand, and not whether the questions have been answered properly or if the test taker is keeping up the pace to complete the exam within the allotted time. There are plenty of practice tests available, so plan to take several during your months of preparation. You can identify any places you’re doing poorly and give them extra attention.
Take a prep class. Especially if you’re unsure of what you need to work on, or how you plan to stay on track, get some outside help through a formal class that will lead you through the process. “If you plan on taking a class, make sure it fits your learning style, time schedule and overall educational goals. There are some programs that complete courses in 4-12 weeks and others in one year per subject,” Ithier says.
Take care of yourself. The “big day” actually starts the day before, and by now your prep work should have done its job. Don’t tire yourself out trying to cram in last-minute studying; make it a point to get enough sleep the night before. The tests take seven to eight hours, so being well-rested will ensure you feel at your best physically — and that translates to your best mental performance.
Never leave a question unanswered. Unlike standardized tests in the past, there is no penalty for guessing. So even if the test taker has no idea what the answer is to a multiple-choice question, there’s no harm in taking a guess.
Do the prep work. Of course, you prepared for the entire exam, but once you’re sitting at the desk, each task in front of you has its own version of preparation. If it’s a reading comprehension question or math equation, read the whole question before you attempt to answer. Rushing ahead to save time may cause you to miss valuable information and get the answer wrong. If you’re writing, plan to use a few minutes at the start outlining what you want to say. Organizing your thoughts up front will keep you focused and allow you to make the most of your time.
Pace Yourself. Don’t get bogged down on a question. If you don’t know the answer, take a guess or flag it to come back after you’ve finished the rest of the section. Aim to complete each section with at least a few minutes to spare. Those extra minutes provide a cushion in the event of a particularly tricky question, the need to rewrite a paragraph in the essay section or even the need to visit the restroom in the middle of the exam.
Just a few years ago, the GED was pretty much the only game in town. Now, there are several high school equivalency exams available, so it may be difficult to decide which one to take. Deciding on the best one will depend on several factors, including the personal traits of the person taking the exam.
Any exam or program will work for the high school dropout. However, if the individual is seeking more than the equivalent of a high school diploma (without having to go back to high school), enrolling in the NEDP might be an ideal choice. Remember, in most states, the NEDP will result in an actual diploma and not a high school equivalency diploma.
The working adult is probably going to appreciate flexibility, so those with unpredictable schedules and full-time jobs will appreciate NEDP’s self-pacing schedule. This will allow them to complete study at their own pace and schedule the assessments on a schedule that works for them.
Many people struggle with test anxiety, so this can make the TASC, GED or HiSET scary propositions. Luckily, there’s the NEDP, which has no high stakes exam, beyond diagnostic tests to provide an initial assessment of the student’s abilities and knowledge. This can mean much more success for those who are notoriously terrible at taking tests.
For those who enjoy taking an exam with a pencil and paper, the TASC or HiSET will be their only realistic option. Both the GED and NEDP are computer-based, so anyone who is intimidated by technology or has no idea how to use a computer might feel more at ease with the traditional test materials.
For more information about studying and taking a high school equivalency test, check out the following resources.
CareerOneStop – High School Equivalency: Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor, CareerOneStop provides comprehensive information to individuals interested in advancing their professional careers, including taking a high school equivalency exam.
IXL: IXL offers learning help over a comprehensive array of school subjects from kindergarten through 12th grade. Some resources are available only to paying members, but there are still many subject area practice materials available for free.
HiSET: On the test’s official website, prospective exam takers can learn more about what’s involved, such as choosing a test center, exam practice materials and state-specific requirements.
CliffsNotes: CliffsNotes is in the business of selling test prep materials, but also has plenty of free information, including a detailed overview of the different sections of the GED.
GED Testing Service: This is the official website for the GED, which is offered jointly by the American Council on Education and Pearson VUE. Here, individuals can get comprehensive information about the GED, including test prep materials.
Quizlet: Quizlet offers free test prep materials and resources to students looking for study materials online, including some designed specifically for high school equivalency exams. Simply type the name of the desired test into the search bar.
Khan Academy: The Khan Academy is one of the leaders in free online education. Its website provides lessons in a plethora of subjects, many of which are included in high school equivalency exams.
Magoosh – GED Basics: Magoosh is a leader in online test prep, and while they charge for many of their detailed test prep services, individuals can obtain a wealth of free knowledge about high school equivalency exams, including the GED.
National External Diploma Program (NEDP): The NEDP is administered by CASA. Students looking for more information about the NEDP can find it here, including how to complete the program online.
National Literacy Directory: The National Literacy Directory provides a database for adult learners to find local tutoring on academic subjects and on preparing for high school equivalency exams.
MathTV.com: A free online database of videos where math experts explain a variety of math problems and concepts.
Purplemath: Purplemath is a free online study resource for those seeking additional practice with their math skills.
Test Assessing Secondary Completion (TASC): On the official website for the TASC, potential test takers can find out what the exam covers, where to take it and state rules.
ThoughtCo.: ThoughtCo. offers readers numerous articles about the various high school equivalency exams available, and tips on how to make the most of them.