Preparing To Take The SAT Or ACT For Duke TIP

I’m not suggesting we begin test prep at an early age, but many seventh graders will take the SAT or ACT this winter to qualify for the Duke Talent Identification Program (Duke TIP).  The TIP program is NOT affiliated with Duke University, so this won’t be a foot in the door for admission to Duke.  It is an enrichment program for academically gifted students, which offers local activities, a summer program at Duke, online programs, and opportunities for independent study.  I’ve outlined pros and cons of the program here.  In order to qualify, seventh graders must take either the SAT or ACT leaving many parents wondering about the best way to help their child prepare.

SAT or ACT For Duke TIP?

The SAT and ACT are both standardized tests for college admission geared towards high school juniors and seniors.  Both contain multiple-choice questions with math, reading passages, and grammar.  Overall, they are more similar than different.  (I discuss which test is easier here.)

Some students will prefer one test to the other.  Usually the difference in scores is slight, but for Duke TIP, just as for college admission, sometimes that slight difference can be the difference between getting in and getting denied.

The only way you will know which test is best for your child is to experiment with both.  Unfortunately, Duke TIP does not allow you to take both tests for the program.  However, you can take practice tests at home using official SAT and ACT tests and make the determination on your own.  A full length SAT is available online from College Board and both the SAT and ACT make full-length tests available to schools.  Check with the guidance counselors at school; you may have to contact your local high school if your middle school or junior high does not have the tests.

Is Test Prep Helpful For Duke TIP?

Once you decide which test your child should take, you want to make sure he or she is prepared.  Many parents consider a test prep course.  I’ve been in the test prep business for 18 years and know that most test prep courses are not necessary for the Duke TIP qualification process.

Here’s why.  Your child needs the following to perform well on the test:

  • Confidence
  • Understanding of the material
  • Familiarity with the test structure and grading

A full SAT or ACT preparation program may actually erode the confidence of many seventh graders as they continue to see questions they are academically unprepared to answer.  In a two month SAT class, I can help high school students who have already taken Algebra I and Geometry prepare for the math they will encounter on the SAT, but I can’t offer test strategies AND teach the curriculum of two years of math in that time.  In attempting to enhance students’ understanding of the material, a prep course may significantly undermine their confidence.

I recommend students gain familiarity with the test structure and grading.  This may be done in a session or two with a quality instructor, but taking official practice tests at your kitchen table can also do it.  Both SAT and ACT have free materials on their websites.  For the purposes of Duke TIP, a limited amount of test practice is often the best preparation.

You Know Your Child Best

I intentionally listed confidence first under the three elements your child needs to perform well.  These seventh graders are already good students used to getting questions correct on all their tests.  They tend to be high-achieving students who are often perfectionists, people pleasers, and hard on themselves when they don’t get things right.

As a counselor, I used to hate giving the December and January tests because I’d see all the little seventh graders come into test at the high school looking like deer in the headlights.  Some looked terrified before we even began the exam. Many were afraid they would let their parents down if they didn’t score well. You know your child best.  Will he or she enjoy the challenge?  Or will it be too much pressure on an already anxious child?

Additionally, will the Duke TIP program be right for your child if he or she qualifies?  Do you plan to take advantage of the enrichment programs?  If not, is it the right decision to make your seventh grader take a test that is hard for high school seniors, just so you can have a certificate to add to your scrapbook?

You know your child best.  Evaluate the pros and cons of the Duke TIP program.  Help your child decide if the SAT or ACT is best.  Offer limited opportunities for preparation but don’t over do it.  Focus on confidence and the fun of having a challenging experience.  Finally, don’t hesitate to say no if this opportunity isn’t right for your child or your family.

Increase Your ACT Reading Score

Reading is a deceptive section on the ACT.  It looks so simple—no vocabulary laden sentence completions like the SAT, just basic reading passages with questions.  Yet the reading part of the ACT isn’t as simple as it first appears.

In order to be an effective college admissions test, the ACT has to structure questions to fool intelligent high school students.  Think about it.  Would colleges use ACT scores if everyone got all the questions right?  How would Harvard know to let in?  Admissions tests have to be structured so that grades are distributed along the entire grading scale.  As a result ACT reading passages contain easy, medium, and hard questions.

ACT reading is intended to represent college-bound reading situations.  You need to

  • Read for detail and precise meaning
  • Understand main ideas and the sequence of events
  • Make generalizations and draw inferences
  • Compare similar answers to find the “best” response
  • Go beyond what is written and evaluate implied meanings

Just because you’ve been successful on high school reading comprehension tests, don’t assume the ACT reading will be easy.

The first challenge is completing the section in 35 minutes.  ACT reading passages are always divided into four categories:  prose fiction, social studies, natural science, and humanities.  Each passage has ten questions.  You may decide you can only finish two or three and you will “letter of the day” the rest. Don’t feel you need to answer questions in order.  If you don’t like the prose fiction passage, skip it and move on to the rest of the section.

Skim each passage before you begin, but don’t spend more than a couple minutes on the passage before beginning the questions.  ACT reading questions appear in mixed-up order.  Unlike the SAT, the ACT questions do NOT tend to follow the order of the passage. Expect to jump from the beginning of the passage to the end and back to the middle.  As you skim, make note of where to find information, so you can come back to answer detail questions.

Like all the other sections of the ACT, reading success depends on accuracy.  Determine how many questions you need to answer correctly in order to earn the score you want.  If you need 25 questions, you can complete three of the passages and “letter of the day” the fourth passage.  This means you now have 30 instead of 40 questions to complete in 35 minutes.  You have more time per question, so you can go back to the passage, find the answer, jot down your solution, carefully evaluate and compare the answer choices before selecting an answer.

Although the ACT doesn’t have as much vocabulary as the SAT reading section, don’t underestimate the section.  Be ready to read, interpret and analyze on a college-bound level, keeping in mind that accuracy is more important than finishing every question.

Top 5 Tips for ACT Math

Albert Einstein said, “Do not worry about your difficulties in mathematics, I assure you that mine are greater.”  While Einstein’s mathematical woes were weighty, the challenge of accurately completing 60 ACT math questions in 60 minutes appears equally serious to most test takers.

The ACT math section covers fundamental skills, algebra, geometry, and basic trigonometry.  The questions begin easier and become progressively harder as you work through the section.  Some students prefer the ACT math because it seems more like problems they see in school and tends to be less tricky that SAT questions.  But don’t be fooled, ACT math isn’t easy.

Here are 5 tips to improve your ACT math scores:

1.  Know your formulasYou will not be given any formulas on the test, so be sure to review area, circumference, triangles, and basic math equations you usually look up on the  SAT or other standardized tests.

2.  Plan for the 4 or 5 trig questions.  Students who are taking pre-calculus or trigonometry in school should be fine.  You need to know sin, cos, tan; the sin & cos curves; and the unit circle.  If you have not studied these topics in school, I’d suggest you “letter of the day” these questions and move onto problems you are more likely to get right.

3.  Remember it is multiple-choice math.  Before you begin long, complex calculations, look at the answer choices.  Could you test these five options by plugging them into the problem?  Can you eliminate some choices using estimation?  The answer is on the paper; you just need to find it.

4.  Bring an approved calculator.  ACT calculator rules are stricter than those for the SAT.  You may NOT use calculators with built-in computer algebra systems, cell phones, computers, or tablets. TI- 89s, TI-92s, HP 48GIIs, HP 40Gs, 49Gs or 50Gs are NOT permitted.  According to ACT, “using the TI-89 is the most common reason students are dismissed fro the ACT for prohibited calculator use.”  Make sure your calculator is permitted.

5.  Write it out.  Do not attempt to do all the math in your head.  I’m a math person by nature.  (Maybe you didn’t know this, but I was captain of my high school math team!) I understand how tempting it is to do all the calculations in your head.  You may be able to answer some of the easier questions at the beginning with no calculations, but by the time you reach the middle of the ACT math section, problems require multiple steps and students who write out at least part of the problem, earn higher scores.  Avoid careless errors, increase your accuracy, and improve your score by working problems in the test booklet.

Remember to apply strategies such as the “letter of the day” because accuracy and educated guessing are key to your ACT success.  As Paul R Halmos said, “”To be a scholar of mathematics you must be born with talent, insight, concentration, taste, luck, drive and the ability to visualize and guess.”

Keys to the ACT English Section

Section one of every ACT is a 45-minute English section with 75 questions testing students’ knowledge of grammar and usage.  This part of the test is divided into five passages of 15 questions each.  The idea is that each passage represents a piece of student writing and the questions help test takers make peer review edits to the grammar, punctuation, style, and organization of the piece.

More than half of the questions test what the ACT writers call “usage and mechanics”, in other words rules of grammar.  These questions often present an underlined portion of the passage and students much pick the best choice.  The first answer choice is always “no error” which is correct about 20 to 25% of the time.

The remaining questions focus on what the ACT labels “rhetorical skills”, organization, style, and overall purpose.  My best tip for these questions if to think of writing the way your seventh grade English teacher taught you.  Each essay has a thesis statement or purpose.  Each paragraph has a topic sentence that supports the overall thesis.  Every example in the paragraph supports the topic sentence.  For most juniors and seniors this is a very simplistic and formulaic way of writing, but if you look at the ACT English questions with this in mind, you will score better.

ACT  English, unlike SAT writing, tests punctuation.  You will need to be familiar with proper uses for commas, apostrophes, and semicolons.  The rest of the grammar errors are similar to those found on the SAT and include:  subject / verb agreement, pronouns, modifiers, adjective and adverb errors, and ambiguity errors.

Here are a few tips to earn your best score on ACT English:

  • Read the entire sentence, not just the underlined portion.  Sometimes the error is in the connection between the two parts.
  • Compare answer choices.  What changes?  If the only difference in the answer choices is the placement of the commas, you know you are dealing with a punctuation question.
  • Keep in mind the passages are intended to represent student writing and will not be perfect.  Be ready to identify information which is out of place or irrelevant.
  • Re-read your answer choice into the entire sentence before you select it.  Does it fix the initial error without adding any new ones?
  • When answering organization or style questions, take time to identify the author’s purpose.  Why did he or she write the passage?  Why is a particular example given?

ACT English passages contain easy, medium, and difficult questions.  The hard questions are mixed in with everything else, so pay attention.  As I mentioned in a previous article, your score depends on the number of questions you answer correctly.   You may choose to answer three or four of the five passages and “letter of the day” the remaining questions.  Accuracy is always key.


Next week I’ll give my top 5 tips for ACT math.