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.


Starting SAT Preparation Early


My son is in the 10th grade and my daughter is in the 9th grade. When should we begin preparing for the SAT?

Some  SAT preparation is long-term and is more an acquisition of basic skills – reading, math, vocabulary, writing, and analysis.  Students who fail to develop these will struggle on the SAT.  Usually students learn the necessary content in school and you would only seek extra help if your child struggles in a particular subject.

True SAT preparation is best done right before taking the test, for most students that will be sometime junior year.  Complete test prep is like training for a marathon. You have a particular date. You have a particular goal in mind and you’re going to have a singular focus on that for a period of time.

I’ve found that students don’t do well prepping over long periods, which is why I don’t recommend you begin before junior year. Students lose interest. They burn out. They lose momentum before it really counts.

High-scoring juniors who seek to qualify for National Merit Scholarships will want to prepare before the October PSAT.  Everyone else can prepare when a class best fits into his or her schedule.  Look for a time during the school year with the fewest conflicts with activities, sports, or other academic obligations.  All juniors should take the SAT by the end of the year; you find the test date that works best for your student.

If you want to give your 9th and 10th grader an advantage before you begin an SAT prep class, there are a few things you can do.

1.     Vocabulary.

50% of a student’s SAT Reading score is based on knowledge of college-bound vocabulary, something students can’t cram in a 5-8 week prep class.  I offer the My Vocabulary Success Coach program, which for $10 a month provides weekly vocabulary words, audio files, study activities, and tips.  I developed this program because I consistently found students in my SAT class lacking vocabulary necessary to succeed on the SAT.  Even my best students who attend highly competitive high schools could use some extra work in this area.  I’d recommend all students begin a program of vocabulary development as early as 7th or 8th grade.  For more on my vocabulary program visit: My Vocabulary Success Coach

2.     SAT Question of the Day

You can receive an official College Board question in your email inbox everyday if you subscribe to the SAT Question of the Day.  Even if students save the questions during the week and do them all on Saturday, seeing the types of questions on the test offers long-term benefits.  Subscribe for free at SAT Question of the Day.

So I recommend early preparation for 9th and 10th grade students and complete SAT prep for juniors.  Waiting until senior year to prepare for the SAT may be too late.


Questions About the SAT

Students working in classroom

Year after year high school students and their families struggle with the SAT.  When is the best time to take the SAT?  How many times should a student take the test?  How will colleges view multiple attempts at the SAT? What is a good score? What exactly is tested on the current test?  Should students have learned all the test content in school?  What can students do to improve their scores?  Will prep books or classes actually help?  How important are SAT scores in the bigger picture of college admission?  The questions go on and on.

If you are concerned about the SAT, you are likely a high school student preparing for college admission or the parent of a student who is. You’ve gotten suggestions from friends, neighbors, teachers, counselors, and sometimes strangers. You know there are important steps you can take to improve your admission options; you know there are ways to improve your SAT scores. There are piles of book dealing with SAT preparation and an equally high pile of college admissions books and articles. But where should you begin?

Sometime having too much information can be a problem. A lot of test prep books take the “bigger is better” approach and try to cover every possible topic from fifth grade long division and how to tell Greek from Latin roots to subordinating conjunctions and nonlinear differential equations. It is enough to make anyone’s head spin.

With all the arguments for and against the SAT, the pressure on students to perform, and the overwhelming amount of conflicting information, it is enough to make those facing the SAT throw their hands in the air and yell in frustration, “Who cares about the SAT?”

There is hope!  For the month of April I am going to devote multiple blog posts to answering common questions about the SAT.  You can also check out my four free video lessons – part of my online SAT Mastermind program at

Help me out — what questions would you like me to answer?  Post suggestions and questions below.

SAT Essay: Know Your Reality TV to Ace the SAT?

Who knew hour after hour of “Jersey Shore,” “The Bachelor,” “American Idol,” or “Survivor” could actually help you on the SAT essay!  Last Saturday’s SAT (March 2011) essay prompt asked whether people benefit or are harmed by so-called reality entertainment and has created considerable controversy.

Some are outraged that the College Board would ask a question seemingly biased against students who don’t waste their time on such base forms of media.  Why offer a prompt that panders to those who watch reality tv?  Others feel the topic is fair game for all test takers.  The College Board has responded by saying everything a student needed was included in the question.

I graded SAT essays when the writing section was added to the SAT in 2005, and I’ve spent years helping students prepare for the SAT.  I think the March 2011 topic was perfectly reasonable for the SAT.  Essays are scored half on what and half on how a student writes.

Growing up, I didn’t have a television at home.  This didn’t mean I wasn’t aware of the popular shows or issues in the media. A student doesn’t need to watch any television in order to form and articulate arguments on the merits of “reality” tv.

Take a look at what students saw on the test, and share your thoughts.  Here’s the exact writing prompt from the College Board:


Think carefully about the issue presented in the following excerpt and the assignment below.

Reality television programs, which feature real people engaged in real activities rather than professional actors performing scripted scenes, are increasingly popular. These shows depict ordinary people competing in everything from singing and dancing to losing weight, or just living their everyday lives. Most people believe that the reality these shows portray is authentic, but they are being misled. How authentic can these shows be when producers design challenges for the participants and then editors alter filmed scenes?

Assignment: Do people benefit from forms of entertainment that show so-called reality, or are such forms of entertainment harmful? Plan and write an essay in which you develop your point of view on this issue. Support your position with reasoning and examples taken from your reading, studies, experience, or observations.

What do you think? 

Is this a fair question?  Would you be able to formulate an essay on this topic?