All About Proficiency Exams



By Alayna Johnson, SCS Student Advising Leader 2018-2019:

Scary? Easy? A waste of time? A way to get ahead? There’s lots of buzz about proficiency exams and it can be difficult to know what’s true. I’ve taken and passed three of these exams and am here to spill the beans!

Illinois offers proficiency exams in integrative biology, molecular and cellular biology, computer science, economics, French, Japanese, Korean, Spanish, history, math, music, physics, psychology, and–of course–chemistry! The basic idea is pretty simple: you sit for an exam that covers the entirety of the course material (very similar to a final exam). If you pass, you get credit for the course and a PS on your transcript (not a letter grade) and if you don’t, nothing appears on your transcript. Other information, such as the number of allowed attempts, varies from exam to exam.

There are two main reasons you may be considering a proficiency exam.

  1. You took the course in high school or at another campus but for some reason (low AP/IB score, AP/IB exam not offered, the course didn’t transfer correctly, etc) you couldn’t get credit for it at Illinois.
  2. You have not taken the course before, but are willing to learn it yourself in order to satisfy a requirement or advance in your degree program. This is often referred to as “self-studying”.

If you fall into one or both of these categories, let’s take a look at the pros and cons of taking the exam:


  • The exam is free and conveniently offered on campus.
  • If you pass, you earn credit for the course. This can help you graduate early, get ahead in your requirements, and free up time for you to focus on other courses during the semester.


  • Some exams only allow one attempt. In this case, it is wise not to take the exam before you are ready so you don’t “waste” your attempt.
  • Exam preparation can be stressful and distract you from your other classes. However, a great way around this is to prepare during winter and summer break.
  • You may feel disappointed if you do not pass, especially if you worked hard to prepare.

As always, schedule an appointment with your advisor if you’re not sure if a proficiency exam is right for you. For more information, see the proficiency exam website.

Finally, for those of you who do decide to take the exam, here are some of my biggest tips for studying hard and passing.

  • Find a friend who has taken the course on campus and ask for a copy of their syllabus. This will give you a great idea of how much you need to know. This friend may also be able to lend you the appropriate textbook, which is a huge help when studying.
  • Make a study plan and stick to it. If you’re preparing over a short break instead of over an entire semester, you should plan to study every day.
  • Many classes have course materials published online for use. Jackpot! Study these carefully, especially if they post-practice exams. Your studying should be a good mix of note-taking, problem-solving, and completing practice exams.