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Prior Learning Assessment Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Prior Learning Assessment?

A Prior Learning Assessment is a process created for you to demonstrate your expertise and knowledge in a particular field so you can earn credit.  A PLA typically reflects a combination of practical experience and theoretical knowledge.  This can be earned by:

  • Work Experience

  • Independent Study

  • Personal Interest or Reading

  • Volunteer Work

  • Non-College Courses

  • On-the-job Training or Apprenticeships

  • Workshops or Professional Development

 NOTE:  Credit is only awarded for what you have learned, not for the work you have done.

 What is a PLA Portfolio?

A PLA Portfolio Is a compilation of information that summarizes a student’s prior experience, training, and learning in a particular field.  It enables us to determine whether a student’s work or life experiences are equivalent to or generally accepted as specific courses offered by WSI.  Portfolios are reviewed by faculty to determine whether credit should be awarded.  Experiential essays are used by the student to help document their practical experience and theoretical knowledge.

 Are there limitations on the content areas I can use as the basis of my experiential essays?

Yes. Experiential essays will be accepted in the content areas that are covered within the majors, certificates, or areas of concentration for any WSI programs. At the discretion of the WSI, other content areas may be reviewed depending on the availability of WSI faculty with documented competence in a specific field. All other content areas may be reviewed, at the discretion of the WSI, but the student may be required to pay an additional fee for an external review. A student will be notified if an essay does not fall within these guidelines. The student then has the option to substitute the essays with new essays that fall within these guidelines or agree to the additional fee. In almost all cases, external reviews will take a significantly longer time to complete.

 Is there a fee to review my PLA Portfolio?

Yes, the portfolio review fee is $300 for the first 15 credits and an additional $300 for review of 16 to 30 credits.   

 Do I have to pay any fee for each credit awarded for my experiential essays?

No. WSI only charges a flat fee for the evaluation as a whole.

 What is the maximum number of credits I can receive?

No more than 30 credits can be awarded via a PLA Portfolio. A maximum of 15 credits can be awarded in any single category such as project management.

 Can I get credit for CEUs (continuing education credits)?

No. CEUs are not the same thing as academic credit, and these non-credit units can only be used as documentation for your PLA essays.

 Can I receive credits for any licenses or certifications I possess?

In most cases, simply having a license (such as real estate, aviation, inspector, FCC, etc.) does not count for credit. The major exceptions include PMI, AMA, and other similar organizations. Generally, all others must come in through the experiential credit route, and you will be required to write the appropriate essays and provide documentation.

 What are the standards for experiential essays?

All PLA essays must include a course name, description, college name and website, detailed analysis of your experiences and learning, and clearly referenced documentation.

  •  Course Description: First, ensure that the course you have presented is from an accredited college or university (this should be prominent on their website). Set off your course description from the text of your essay to ensure clarity and include the credits available. Include the website link, so the evaluators can check your information.

  • Length: Essays must be a minimum of three pages at a maximum of 12 point text size, single spaced (approximately 1,500 to 2,000 words, or about a single-spaced page per credit). If your topic takes longer to develop, then your essay will be longer; you should be sure to fully demonstrate your experiences AND reflect on your learning within the context of the course description you are using. This length requirement is exclusive of course descriptions and other auxiliary content. Students who do not meet this minimum will not be awarded the requested credits.

  • Documentation: Build in references to your documents in your essay to ensure that reviewers understand how the documents serve as evidence of your learning. Present your documents and essays in a clear, professional manner, so evaluators can efficiently review your work. For example, when developing what you learned from a training experience, you might refer to the certificate you earned and included as documentation like this (See Exhibit A for a certificate that verifies this training.) Then label your documents so the evaluators can find them easily (right after the text of your essay).

 What types of documentation do I need for my experiential essays?

All essays must have documentation: a certificate, picture, letter, CD with examples, etc., to help the evaluators confirm students' learning experiences. Students who do not include documentation with each essay that is clearly connected AND REFERENCED with a call out in the text  to the learning being discussed will not earn credit. Documents and other submissions become part of your permanent record at WSI, and will not be returned.

 What about apprenticeship credits?

Only ACE (American Council on Education) reviewed apprenticeships may potentially count as direct credit. Other ways that apprenticeships come in are with community colleges that offer associate degrees for apprenticeship programs. Other apprenticeships must come in through the experiential credit essay and documentation route.

 Are all apprenticeships worth the same amount of credits?

No, the maximum numbers offered in an ACE reviewed program may not necessarily be awarded to each apprentice. Variables such as year of graduation, specific courses taken within a program and apprenticeship concentration will impact the final total number of credits awarded. Each apprenticeship certificate is reviewed individually, and students should not assume they will be awarded the highest number mentioned for a particular apprenticeship.

 What about my military training?

First, find out if your training has been evaluated for credit. If it hasn't you can write about your learning in a PLA essay. Here's how to find out:

  • Army: To receive your Army, National Guard or Reserve transcript, go to the Army/American Council on Education Registry Transcript Service (AARTS) web site,

  • Navy/Marines: For Navy or Marine transcripts use the Sailor/Marine American Council on Education Registry Transcript (SMART) web site,

  • Air Force: The Community College of the Air Force issues Air Force transcripts. Visit their transcript web site for directions on requesting your transcript,

  • Coast Guard: To get the form to receive your Coast Guard transcript, go to the U.S. Coast Guard Institute web site at and click on the U.S. Coast Guard Transcript Request link. The request form must be submitted via regular mail.

  •  The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is the official repository for records of military personnel who have been discharged from the U.S. Air Force, Army, Marines, Navy and Coast Guard. You can request your DD21 via mail. To expedite this process use the online eVetRecs system web site at

  • If you have a transcript or DD214 that does not list the amount of credits awarded for training, research the credit awards on line at

  • I have taken a non-credit course with the same title and content as a course offered by the WSI or a partner, or a course that has been reviewed for credit by ACE but offered by another organization. Why can't I receive these credits on my transcript without writing an essay and providing documentation?

 The accreditation rules governing the awarding of credit either by transfer or ACE review are very clear in describing what can or cannot be accepted by the WSI. In all cases, only those courses offered by the WSI or a partnering organization can be potentially reviewed for direct transcript credit in these circumstances. This is the same for ACE reviewed courses. Only students taking the course from the specific sponsor and during the dates listed in the ACE materials can potentially be accepted. If in doubt, check with the WSI before assuming that courses are credit-worthy. In most cases, these courses can be considered for use in essays for your portfolio.

 How do I send college transcripts to WSI?

Make sure that you have official copies of all transcripts sent to:

 Office of the Registrar/Student Services

Western Shores Institute Inc.

10383 Southern Maryland Blvd

PO Box 81

Dunkirk, Maryland 20754-0081

 Unofficial or student copies of transcripts are not acceptable.  You must have an official copy sent from your previous accredited college or university directly to WSI. Non-credit certificates, CEUs, etc., should not be sent to the WSI registrar, but should be attached to your portfolio (if applicable).

 How should I forward my portfolio to the WSI?

Send your portfolio in a manner that allows you to track the package, and guarantee that it arrives at WSI. Expedited shipping is not necessary or recommended.  We recommend that you simply ship the most cost effective way possible. You can also personally drop off your portfolio to the admissions office on campus. In all cases send it to:

 Office of Admissions

Western Shores Institute Inc.

10383 Southern Maryland Blvd

PO Box 81

Dunkirk, Maryland 20754-0081.

 Portfolios are processed by WSI's Office of Admissions, who will confirm receipt and route portfolios to the appropriate faculty evaluators.

 How long does it take to review my portfolio and hear back from the WSI?

Generally, you should allow six to eight weeks for the process to be completed. Portfolios that need additional work will obviously take longer to complete. Holidays and other factors may delay portfolio review.

 Should I make a copy of my portfolio before I mail it?

Absolutely yes. Please do not include original certificates, as no materials will be returned to students.

 Who do I contact if I have questions concerning the PLA process, writing my essays, or providing documentation?

While you are enrolled in the PLA workshop, your instructors will be available to answer your questions. Your faculty advisor is also a valuable resource.