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.

Beyond High School: 4 Reasons Parents Make Great Guidance Counselors

“What is your daughter (or son) doing after she graduates?”

“How many campuses has she visited?”

“What is she using for SAT/ACT prep?”

“Has she applied for any scholarships?”

“Does she plan to live at home after graduation?”

“What are her top schools?”

“Is she doing an internship this summer?”

“How are the college applications going?”


If questions like these have become a routine part of your life, you must be in the guidance counselor phase of parenthood. This blog series is for you!


Over the next few weeks, our “Beyond High School” series will offer practical advice about preparing for life after high school. Topics include: SAT and ACT preparation, the advantages of community college, alternatives to college, tips for minimizing college debt, and more. But first, I want to encourage you: even if you feel like you’re trekking through unmapped territory, you have four tools that make you a better guidance counselor than you might realize:

Fuschia 1


You have a Ph.D. in your child. 

You probably know your child’s personality, talents, limitations, and fears better than anyone. You’ve seen her areas of unusual strength, and weakness. Celebrate her natural abilities, and encourage her to cultivate them—to use, explore, and strengthen them. The insight you can offer her about herself is priceless. The better she knows herself, the easier it will be for her to make wise decisions about her future.


Fuschia 2


You have Google.

How many colleges should your child apply to? Can she get into her dream school with her SAT score? How much will her dream school cost? Google has the answers! If you have a few minutes and an internet connection, you can shrink a mountain of ignorance down to the size of an anthill. Here are a few examples of searches to inspire your own research:


–   “Average GPA of students at UNC-Chapel Hill”

–   “Do I have to take the SAT to go to community college?”

–   “Best SAT online prep services”

–   “Average SAT improvement”

–   “Most affordable colleges in North Carolina”

–   “Where can I go to college with a 20 ACT score?”

–   “How many colleges should I apply to?”


By setting aside 15-30 minutes per day to research your college-related questions, you will quickly have a realistic picture of your child’s options.


Fuschia 3


You have a larger perspective about the future than your child has.

Your child needs assurance that life is more than test scores, GPA, admissions letters, or scholarships. She may believe that her SAT score quantifies her identity, or that the prestige of her college determines who she is. She may think that her chances of a successful life depend on attending her dream school.

Remind her often that her identity and future are more than scores and schools. Encourage her to enjoy her family and friends, serve others, and pursue her interests, even if they won’t bolster her resume.


Fuschia 4


You have a base of operations.

High school is a pressure-cooker of test scores, GPA’s, and college plans. Comparison and competition among classmates make it even harder. Often, home is no better than school. But your home doesn’t have to be a source of pressure. It can be a refuge from comparison, where acceptance has nothing to do with performance. It can also be a base of operations, where you and your child work side by side to move towards her next phase.


So put on your guidance counselor hat, pull up a chair next to your child, and start researching, strategizing, and dreaming together! I wish you and your child perseverance, wisdom, and success as you blaze a trail to her life beyond high school.

–  Bethany


If you have a question you’d like us to answer in the “Beyond High School” series, we would love to hear from you! Email your questions to us at



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.




Your Living Room Needs a Makeover: How to Increase Family Time and Decrease Screen Time

I recently looked up from my phone after a quick cruise through Facebook, Goodreads, my email accounts, and a couple of websites. My baby son was watching me from across the living room in silence. When our eyes met he smiled, and I smiled back. But my heart stung a little because I realized that as soon as I’d latched onto my phone, I forgot about him. My body was there in the room with him, but my attention had wandered far away. Sure, it was only for a few seconds—or was it minutes?—but I forgot him.

Time at home sometimes feels slow and monotonous, and a smartphone takes the edge off of the boredom. But what’s the cost of using technology to escape—especially to escape from home? And who pays the price?

Like trading diamonds for gravel, we’re trading thousands of interactions with our little ones, teens, spouses, parents, etc. for time on our devices. Our homes fill with the beeps, buzzes, blare, and glare of multiple screens, replacing conversations, eye contact, creativity, and play—the warmth of really being together. If we allow it, technology will weaken our family relationships, one swipe at a time. We need some alternatives to those glowing escape hatches.


Becoming a Tech-Wise Family

In his book The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place, Andy Crouch offers this advice for families who want to spend less time on their devices and more time together:

“Fill the center of your life together—the literal center, the heart of your home, the place where you spend the most time together—with the things that reward creativity, relationship, and engagement. Push technology and cheap thrills to the edges; move deeper and more lasting things to the core.”1

When TVs and smartphones are the most visible and accessible “activities” in your home, it’s unlikely you or your children will choose anything else. So what changes can you make to “the heart of your home”—for most families, that’s the living room—that will encourage meaningful connection rather than mindless scrolling? Here are a few ideas:


  • Put a box of board games and playing cards in your living room. Don’t let the game box go stale—stoke your children’s interest by buying new games every now and then.
  • Start a challenging jigsaw puzzle that will take several days or weeks to complete. Puzzles provide wonderful opportunities for family teamwork and conversation. But beware: puzzles can be as addicting as Candy Crush!
  • Do you own musical instruments? Display them so your kids will reach for them instead of the TV remote. If you don’t have instruments, consider buying recorders, a harmonica, guitar, ukulele, or some simple percussion instruments. With a little searching, you can often find old pianos for under $100.
  • Collect coloring books, sketch pads, and craft supplies and store them in a handy spot. Many children also enjoy books with step-by-step instructions for drawing simple pictures.
  • Set out family photo albums from your childhood, youth, wedding, etc. Your kids will study them with amazement. Get ready: they will bombard you with questions that will lead to wonderful conversations!
  • Showcase eye-catching picture books in strategic places (i.e. where your children are sure to find them!).
  • If you have a young reader, try setting out children’s joke books on your coffee tables. Author Rob Elliott has written a series of joke books that will transform couch potatoes into comedians in no time!


Like any change, shifting your family’s focus away from screens will take time. It may require drastic measures: for example, requiring a daily break from all screens to encourage you and your kids to explore other ways to spend your time. I wish you and your family many happy hours of screen-free fun, conversation, and creativity!



1. Crouch, Andy, The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2017): 71.

Dr. Bethany Bowen-Wefuan (Ph.D., Carolina-Duke Graduate Program in German Studies) 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, one of her greatest pleasures is seeing students cultivate a joyful curiosity in words (German and English!) and the world.


Eight Strategies for Turning Reluctant Readers into Bookworms

Once upon a time, there was a little girl who hated reading. One sunny afternoon, when she was five years old, the girl approached her mother, who was vacuuming the carpet, with some news:

“Mommy, guess what?” Her mother switched off the vacuum.


“I like reading!”

A smile spread across the mother’s face. “You do?!”

She had labored, day after day, teaching her little daughter to read. This news was the encouragement she needed.

“Nope. Just joking!” Ha ha. Good one.

I was that little girl. As you might suspect, I never became a comedian. But eventually, I became an avid reader. Now thirty years later, I don’t like reading, I love it! It was my parents’ efforts to make reading a fun, consistent part of my childhood that made the difference.

Maybe your child is like I was: he doesn’t naturally enjoy reading. Not to worry! With some strategic planning and persistence, reading can become enjoyable for him—maybe even delightful! Here are eight strategies for turning reluctant readers into happy readers:



Turn off the screens and read.

Given a choice, most kids will spend hours on their devices, not in a book. Screens are so accessible, so enticing, so addictive—they’re almost impossible to resist. Your child needs your help: Carve out time every day for him to unplug, and read a fun book.




Allow your child to choose fun books.

Don’t worry if your child chooses The Hardy Boys and Jedi Academy over something more challenging or sophisticated. Remember: the goal is joy and pleasure. If the Hardy Boys make reading more exciting, they are your new best friends.

If your child needs book recommendations, the children’s librarian at your local library will be a wonderful resource. Also, the Read-Aloud Revival has many recommendations for kids of all ages, including several lists of titles geared towards boys.



Allow your child to read “below” his reading level.

Maybe your child often chooses books below his grade level. That’s okay! Reading below his grade level will teach him that reading isn’t always hard work. Especially for the struggling reader, easy books build confidence.




Reward your child with books.

Use books to reward or surprise your child. Take him to a bookstore and let him choose a book on his birthday. Or take him to a library book sale and let him fill up a bag of books. Offering books as gifts and rewards will train him to treasure them.




Make the library a home-away-from-home.

While books from the bookstore are like a delightful delicacy, books from the library are like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches—a yummy part of everyday life. Taking a weekly trip to the library weaves pleasure reading into your child’s routine.

Bonus idea! Pair your library trips with a special treat, like ice cream or a tasty drink. (I am completely serious—pull out all the stops to help your child associate fun, joy, and pleasure with reading!)



Let your child stay up late—to read.

I heard this idea from another parent, and I think it’s brilliant: Allow your child to stay up 15-20 minutes past his bedtime, but only if he’s reading. Otherwise, it’s off to bed as usual.

Bonus idea! Buy your child a “reading flashlight” to keep next to his bed for late-night reading.





Read aloud and listen to audiobooks.

Reading aloud and listening to audiobooks are additional ways to offer your child the pleasures of reading without the hard work of reading. Listen to Harry Potter as you drive your kids to their extra-curricular activities. Have a family read-aloud night regularly, kind of like a movie night. Pop some popcorn, fix your favorite snacks, and enjoy a good novel together.




Become a reader.

If our children are going to believe that reading is worthwhile, they must see us reading. My dad’s example was significant in my development as a reader. The set of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings that my dad grew up reading sat on our bookshelves, shrouded in tales of how he read them every summer as a teenager and young adult. It was a ritual that earned him the nickname Gandalf in college. Such stories fueled my desire to be a reader like my dad. (Sad to say, no one ever gave me a cool literary nickname.) Do you need book recommendations? Check out Modern Mrs. Darcy.

Bonus idea! Get book recommendations from your child. He will be thrilled to see you enjoying his favorite titles!


If this sounds like a lot of planning and effort—and it is effort!—read “Six Reasons to Prioritize your Child’s Reading Life.” A robust reading life will enrich your child now and for the rest of his life. And as you can see, it’s a journey the whole family can enjoy together.

Do you have suggestions for making reading more enjoyable? Please post them in the comments section below!


About Our Guest Expert:

Bethany Bowen-Wefuan is a wife, mom, and teacher. After receiving her PhD in German Studies, she began teaching German at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. She loves teaching in the college classroom and loves being home with her son Simeon. When he’s napping, she’s either writing or reading.