Should Seventh Graders Take the SAT or ACT for Duke TIP?

Preparing To Take The SAT Or ACT For Duke TIP   This has been a popular question over the past month as seventh graders and their parents nationwide receive notification of a student’s qualification to participate in the Duke Talent Identification Program (TIP.)


First, parents need to know that the TIP program is a wonderful opportunity for enrichment and many students enjoy their programs every year, but families should enter the qualification process with a clear understanding of what the program does and doesn’t do.
  • Duke TIP DOES NOT give a student “a leg up” for college admissions.  Colleges have more to evaluate than what a student did in seventh grade! Yes, TIP can start a student on a path to academic enrichment, but colleges will look towards high school achievements.
  • SAT / ACT scores from seventh grade DO NOT factor into college admission. Students will need to take admissions exams as juniors or seniors and colleges look at those scores.
  • The TIP program offers excellent regional and national programs, but they ARE NOT the only opportunities for academic exploration or enrichment.
  • Yes, it can be a nice honor to score well on the SAT or ACT as a seventh grader and receive recognition on a school or regional level, but the prestige is often exaggerated by school officials presenting the opportunity.  Qualifying for Duke TIP is something hundreds of students across the nation do every year; it is NOT on par with winning the Scripps Spelling Bee or national science fair. Sorry.
So if you and your seventh grader understand the results of the Duke TIP program will not make or break future college plans, you can decide which test your student should take. A few more words of warning: the SAT and ACT are challenging tests for high school juniors and seniors. Most seventh graders are not familiar with the material tested.  For above average students used to getting test questions right, this can be stressful.  You know your child best and can determine whether the test will be a fun challenge or and unnecessary source of anxiety.  

So, Which Test?

I’ll give you the honest answer up front; there is no universally recognized “best” test.   The SAT and ACT are like the Coke and Pepsi of the admissions test world.  Some people prefer one, some prefer the other, and for many, they are both about the same. With that said, my seventh grader is going to take the December ACT this year.  Here’s how I came to that conclusion.

Test Length

The SAT is a solid four hours of test content, which takes four and a half to five hours to administer once paperwork and breaks are added.  FOUR HOURS! The ACT isn’t that much better, but with three hours of tested content, it is 25% shorter than the SAT.  Seventh graders don’t need to take the ACT + Writing, so they “only” have three hours to focus, think, and process.

Test Structure

The SAT tests reading, math, and writing with a test that is divided into ten timed sections, one of which doesn’t count towards a student’s score.  Students alternate back and forth among the different subjects, having to change focus every 25 minutes.  On the ACT, students face four sections:  one each of English, math, reading, and science. The order and timing are always the same and there less need to “switch gears”.  I know my daughter will be more comfortable with a predictable test structure. Not a factor for my daughter, but something to think about, the ACT sections are between 35 and 60 minutes long. On the ACT, English is 45 minutes and math is 60 minutes.  I know many high school students who cannot focus on one topic for this length of time.  If you have a student who would be more productive if he or she could switch topics every 25 minutes, the SAT may be a better choice.


Here’s where the arguments become more personalized.  None of the content on either test is geared towards seventh graders.  When working with high school students, I remind them the ACT has four or five trig questions, so students who have not had sufficient exposure to trigonometry may prefer the SAT which does not go beyond any concepts taught in Algebra II. However, there may be reasons to gravitate towards one test over the other. The SAT begins with a 25 minute written essay; the ACT does not have a written essay.  The SAT is more obvious in testing college-bound vocabulary, whereas the ACT blends the vocabulary into reading passages offering some hope that students could use context clues.  The SAT provides basic formulas at the beginning of each math section; the ACT forces students to recall formulas for area, circumference, etc.  Don’t get excited about the ACT science section.  It doesn’t require knowledge of science; it tests reading with charts and graphs. Content wasn’t a factor in our decision, but I have a friend who has a very math focused child.  She didn’t want him to start the SAT with an essay that might undermine his confidence before he could get to the math.  You decide if content is an issue for your student.

Opportunities to Qualify

The final deciding factor for me was that the ACT has four sub-sections which means students have four opportunities to earn scores that meet the Duke TIP qualifications.  The SAT has only three sections.  I can’t say without giving a full-length practice test (which we haven’t done yet) on which test or sections my daughter will score best, but I’m happy to play the odds and go with the shorter test that offers an additional opportunity to qualify.


The above information was accurate when published, but since then the SAT has changed format significantly. If you are trying to decide between SAT and ACT for your child, here are the relevant updates:
  1. Length — both tests are similar in length. This is no longer a deciding factor.
  2. Test structure — the SAT is now formatted like the ACT— four long sections with all like content grouped into a single section, Again, no longer a deciding factor.
  3. Content— the updated SAT is now more math heavy than ever, including multiple questions that involve Algebra II skills, an entire 25 minute no-calculator section, and about 20% of the questions which require students to produce their own answers (not multiple-choice.)
  4. Opportunities— The SAT is now graded in two sections, meaning students have only two opportunities to qualify. The ACT still offers four. This is a significant factor in choosing a test for Duke TIP. 


Yes, we could have been a lot more scientific about this decision.  I have practice tests at home, but we want to encourage academic curiosity and the idea that taking these tests as a seventh grader is a fun challenge.  Consider the key factors that will influence your child’s testing comfort and confidence.  Understand there is no right or wrong answer and students who do well on one test generally do well on the other.  This is an opportunity, but it is not the only opportunity your child will have, so make the best decision you can with the information you have.  Then relax!    ]]>

Comments (3)

  • Please note that this info is dated 2013. It is my understanding some of this info is out of date. Neither SAT nor ACT has a written section as of 2018.

    • Nonie,
      Thanks for pointing out the publish date. (Guess I need to add some updates!)
      Currently the SAT has two scored sections: Evidence Based Reading & Writing and Math. The ACT has four scored sections: English, Math, Reading, and Science. The SAT changed in 2016, so now there is even more reason for families to consider the ACT for their Duke TIP testing.

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