Every year I get dozens of comments that I’m too negative when discussing the pros and cons of the Duke Talent Identification Program (TIP). So I thought I’d share my positive personal experience.

This past fall my daughter came home from school with a letter inviting her to participate in the 7th grade Duke TIP by taking either the SAT or ACT. We got past the fact the “counselor lady” at school was mistaken when she said taking the SAT in 7th grade would “look good to colleges” (colleges have enough to consider without going back to one’s 7th grade accomplishments!). My daughter really wanted to participate and see how she would score.


We had a number of conversations emphasizing what I felt were key points:

  • The SAT & ACT are challenging for high school students; they will be even harder for a 7th grader.
  • Scoring well on standardized tests has its benefits (mom’s business is one example) but many top students are not great test takers.
  • Duke TIP does not determine if you are smart. This program doesn’t determine one’s academic ability or potential for future success.
  • We are only doing this for the fun of having a challenge. This is not something that should cause stress.

So I signed my daughter up to take the December ACT. (More about my decision to take the ACT instead of SAT here.)


Yes, I actually practice what I preach! We did not do any test prep for the ACT.

What I did do was show my daughter a practice test. We discussed the organization and scoring of the ACT and I continued to stress that my high school students struggled with this exam and they had four more years of math than she did.

In the week before the ACT we had time for her to take two of the four sections timed and look over the rest. We checked her work, scored it, and discussed how she could approach the test on Saturday. Looking back, it may have been better to allow time to do all four sections, but I didn’t want to push.

Getting a chance to look over a practice test gave my daughter confidence going into the ACT. She also knew to expect questions, particularly in math, which she wouldn’t be able to solve. Getting a chance to score those practice sections gave me greater confidence. I knew she was good at the English grammar section and even though she hasn’t taken Algebra I, I knew she wouldn’t panic on the math portion.

(Translate: I knew going into the test she had a fair shot of qualifying for Duke TIP recognition. Earning recognition wasn’t a high priority for me, but I didn’t want to spend three months trying to rebuild the confidence of my 13-year-old daughter once scores came back. I had a good idea that we were setting her up for success not disappointment.)

The Experience

There were two other seven graders taking the December ACT that day; the rest of the students were high school juniors and seniors. The older kids were intrigued by these 7th graders and kept asking if they were geniuses. My daughter got a real kick out of the attention.

The test went as expected and when I picked her up, her first comment was, “That was fun!” (That’s my child!) We went out to lunch to celebrate. Taking the test was an accomplishment. We weren’t looking for anything else. She met the challenge with confidence and we were proud of her.


We received ACT results in the mail a few weeks later. I was familiar with the Duke TIP criteria and knew she qualified for state recognition.

The current recognition criteria are:

ACT English > 21

ACT Math > 21

ACT Reading > 21

ACT Science > 21


SAT Reading > 510

SAT Math > 530

SAT Writing > 500

Students may also qualify with three ACT sections at 20 or above or with two of the three SAT scores R=500, M=520 or W=490.

We talked about the ACT scores at home, stressing how well she did on a test that was meant for high school juniors and seniors.

Update: The SAT changed in March 2016 and now has only two graded sections, meaning students have only two chances to qualify if they take the SAT. Additionally, Duke TIP has increased the scores needed to qualify for state recognition. Students must now score:

  • ACT English > 22
  • ACT Math > 22
  • ACT Reading > 23
  • ACT Science > 22
  • SAT Evidence Based Reading & Writing > 550
  • SAT Math > 540


In the past few months Duke TIP items have been arriving in the mail– first a letter of congratulations, then an invitation to attend a state recognition ceremony, and a certificate. We’ve also received invitations to participate in summer institutes, online classes, and other enrichment opportunities.

Last weekend we drove to Dallas to attend one of the state-level recognition ceremonies for students in Texas. We took advantage of the opportunity to visit a college campus and hear from speakers who emphasized that this was just the beginning of a pattern of academic achievement.

As a parent, the recognition has been the best part of the Duke TIP experience. Maybe it is just my daughter, but 7th grade can be hard. Sometimes she questions herself, her value, and her ability. To receive certificates, medals, and praise reinforcing her academic aptitude has been great.

What Duke TIP Was

Duke TIP was

  • An opportunity to take a challenging test.
  • A chance to face an unfamiliar and potentially stressful situation of taking the ACT with a group of high school students and come out feeling successful.
  • A confidence building experience with external reinforcement and recognition.
  • A chance to talk about college admissions and standardized tests (“mom’s work”).

What Duke TIP Wasn’t

We took great care to avoid the problems many families face with the Duke TIP process. For us, Duke TIP was NOT:

  • A high-pressure situation with the goal of qualifying for recognition.
  • Endless test prep. (Believe me, I have the materials and ability to do FULL test prep, but didn’t.)
  • A way to judge ability or success. We celebrated taking the test more than we celebrated the scores.
  • A way to start college application building for my 13 year old.

I doubt my daughter will attend any of the Duke TIP summer institutes. Yes, they look interesting; students can live in the dorms on a college campus for three weeks studying topics such as psychology, engineering design, creative writing, biology, and architecture. I know many students love the summer programs and benefit from finding peers who share the same passion for learning. I have always maintained that the down side to these programs is the cost, which averages $3750.

We are going to save our $3700. Instead my daughter will spend one week on the church mission trip repairing the homes of families in need right here in Texas. She will spend another week at Girl Scout camp, but that costs just under $400! In the future, we may take advantage of some of the Duke TIP scholar weekends or online courses, but we have no plans to do so this summer.

“So How Can I Get In On This?”

The Duke TIP process was a positive experience for our family this year. As a parent I’m always on the lookout for experiences that will benefit my children. How can you get your child involved?

Duke TIP recognition is based solely on test taking skills. Students are invited to participate because they have done well on tests given at the state or local level. Check with your school guidance counselor or visit the Duke TIP website for more information.

Trying to take an average test taker and force him or her into the Duke TIP program will backfire. Instead of confidence and pride in overcoming a challenge, you will have a stressed out student or one who feels worse about him or herself for failing to do well on a test that was never intended for seventh graders.

If you don’t have a natural born test taker, there are other things you can do.

1. Look for confidence boosters. Recognition comes in many forms. Find an area in which your child can excel and receive recognition for his or her achievement. Students can
  • Take a leadership position in religious youth group
  • Advance in Scouting and earn awards for achievements
  • Try out for a part in a school or community production
  • Help with Special Olympics or similar local programs
  • Earn a new belt in martial arts
  • Audition for a higher chair in the band or orchestra
  • Volunteer to help younger students (tutoring, sports, etc.)
2. Find enrichment opportunities. Duke TIP sponsors summer camps, scholar weekends, and online courses, but they aren’t the only game in town. You can find plenty of enrichment opportunities to meet your child’s interests, talents, and abilities.


We had a positive experience with the 7th grade Duke TIP program, but we also had everything go right—a strong test taker who wasn’t nervous on test day and thought the experience was fun.

The Duke TIP program isn’t for everyone, even if they are super test takers. We didn’t have a stressed out child who panicked when faced with test questions she didn’t understand. We didn’t have to watch peers receive recognition while feeling bad because our best efforts still weren’t good enough. We didn’t have to experience any of the potential drawbacks.

Duke TIP can be a positive experience, but you have to determine what is best for your child and your family.