Beyond High School: Answering Questions about the SAT and ACT

It’s that time of year again! High school students across the nation are preparing for the SAT and ACT, fueled by steaming cups of pumpkin-flavored lattes. As stressful as test preparation is for students, it can be just as stressful for you, the parent, as you guide your child through the process. In this post, I answer four common questions about standardized tests.

Should my child take both the SAT and the ACT? Colleges and universities accept scores from either test, so strictly speaking, your child does not need to take both tests. The tests differ in several ways, and some students score much better on one test than the other. If you decide to focus on one test, take a look at the differences so you can choose the one that complements your child’s strengths.

How should he prepare?

SAT. Khan Academy is the best option for SAT prep. Their partnership with the creators of the SAT means that their videos, practice tests, timelines, and tips offer an insider’s view of the test. Also, Khan analyzes your child’s PSAT and SAT scores and uses them to create a personalized study plan. Even better: all of Khan’s services are free!



ACT. To prepare for the ACT, the ACT Online Prep and the ACT Prep Coach & Practice Test are excellent options. The first program was developed by ACT itself, so it offers reliable information about the in’s and out’s of the test. For $39.95, you get the online program—with practice tests, flashcards, personalized study goals, daily reminders, and more—and an app containing the same materials.



Image Courtesy of ACT at

The ACT Prep Coach & Practice Test is an online program that’s available in a free version and a paid premium version. The free version includes some video lessons and practice questions, while the paid version includes access to the full video lesson library and all practice questions, plus customized options for test practice. The cost of the premium plan is $79 for one month, $89 for three months, or $99 for 12 months.

Both the free and premium versions include a companion ACT Test Prep app, ideal for on-the-go study. (Speaking of apps, they also have a free ACT Flashcard app, which gives definitions and examples for concepts in English, math, and science.) I encourage you to keep it simple: choose one program, and put as many miles on it as you can!

Should my child retake the test? Whether he retakes one or both tests depends on whether his scores are competitive at the schools he plans to apply to. To find out if they’re competitive, search “average SAT score at [name of school].” As you compare those scores to your child’s, keep in mind that on average, students’ SAT scores improve 60-70 points the second time they take it. For the ACT, the average improvement is less than three points.

My child retested and his scores aren’t competitive. What now? For many students (and parents), it’s crushing to realize that their dream school is not an option. The future suddenly seems very unstable. Help your child focus on the facts: many people have successful careers and wonderful lives without attending a fancy university—even without a college degree! Hard work and determination open many doors. As you and your child make a new plan, consider non-traditional options, such as community college, vocational-technical schools, and apprenticeship programs. The next post in the “Beyond High School” series will take a closer look at these non-traditional educational options.

Until then, I wish you and your child optimism and determination as you tackle standardized testing! – Bethany


Dr. Bethany Bowen-Wefuan (Ph.D. in German Studies from Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill) is a teacher, writer, wife, and mom. She has taught German language and literature at Duke University, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, The University of North Carolina Wilmington, and the University of Missouri. As an educator, she loves helping students become more curious about words (German and English!) and the world.