SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

How to Get a Perfect ACT Score, by a 36 Full Scorer

Posted by Allen Cheng | Feb 2, 2015 6:01:00 PM

ACT Strategies

 

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The maximum score on the ACT is a 36. Out of the 1.8 million students who take the test every year, only about 1,000 get the highest possible ACT score. This elusive perfect score places you at the top of millions of high school students and can be a big boost to your college applications.

I scored a perfect score on the ACT. 

Most of the advice out there about how to get a perfect score come from people who didn't get perfect scores. In this exclusive article, I'll be breaking down exactly what it takes, and the techniques I used to get a perfect score.

Quick Disclaimer

Let me start with a disclaimer: I'm a humble person, and I don't like talking about my accomplishments without good reason. I know a lot of you are looking to score the highest ACT score possible, so I've written this guide to help you get there. So whatever I say here, please take it as advice from a mentor eager to help, not as a braggart strutting his stuff.

(Even if you're not aiming for a perfect score, you're going to find this helpful).

Another disclaimer: I co-founded the company PrepScholar - we create online ACT/SAT prep programs that adapt to you and your strengths and weaknesses. I want to emphasize that you do NOT need to buy a full prep program to get a great score. If you follow the principles below and are very driven, you'll do just fine.

I do believe that PrepScholar is the best ACT program available right now, especially if you find it hard to organize your prep and don't know what to study. I'll refer to decisions we made in creating the program to flesh out principles I discuss below. 

 

What It Takes to Get a 36 on the ACT

At the top end of the scoring range, the ACT is not forgiving. You need to aim for perfection.

Because the ACT uses Composite scores, what you need to aim for is a 35.5 average or higher. This means you can get two 35's and two 36's, or one 34 and three 36's. If you get even one 33, you're already not going to score a perfect ACT score. 

What does it take to get a 36 in each section? This varies a little from test to test, as each test has different difficulty levels. I studied the scoring charts of 5 practice tests, and here are the conclusions:

  • in English, you can miss 0 questions. This means a full raw score of 75. If you miss 1 question, you always got a 35. 
  • in Math, you can miss 0 questions or 1 question. Two practice tests let you miss 1 question to keep a 36. The other three tests gave a 35 if you missed 1 question.
  • in Reading, you can miss 0 questions. In one practice test only, you could miss 2 questions - this test likely contained an abnormally difficult passage. 
  • in Science, you can miss 0 questions. In all five practice tests, missing a single question brought your Science score down to a 35 or even a 34.

Here's a sample score chart from an official ACT test:

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Essentially, you need to aim for perfection during your prep. If you're consistently missing 1 or more questions on each section, you're not performing consistently enough to be safe for a 36. We'll go into more detail about this below.

If you want to confirm my statements here, check out the ACT score charts for official practice tests.

One last question to answer before my actual advice on how to get a 36 on the ACT:

 

But wait...are you just smart? Will this advice work for me?

You may have heard about perfect students who just rolled out of bed, strolled to the ACT test center, and scored the highest possible ACT score without any prep.

This was not me. Some people like the ones above may in fact exist, but they're rare. In high school, I was naturally stronger at math - I participated in math and science competitions - and I could reliably get 800's on the SAT math section (I focused my prep for the SAT).

But my reading and writing needed work. When I started off, I consistently got in the 700 range. Now, this is already pretty high, but it wasn't enough for Ivy League schools and other colleges I wanted to go to. I just wasn't that accustomed to the ACT reading passages and the types of questions they asked.

It took a lot of hard work for me to learn how the ACT works, how it tries to trick students, and how to find a strategy that worked for myself so I could reliably get top scores. My co-founder at PrepScholar had a similar story.

Since I'm older, I also have the benefit of seeing whether my methods worked over time, or just on the ACT. Emphatically, the principles below have worked throughout my academic career.

Here's another example. As an undergraduate in college, I planned to attend medical school, so I had to take the MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test). In my view, this is a much harder test than the ACT. It covers many more topics: general chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, biology, and verbal reasoning. Furthermore, you're competing with pre-med students across the nation, people who are naturally driven and dying to get into medical school, not just average high school students.

When I started studying for the MCAT, I scored around the low 30's. The test is scored out of 45, and it's curved very aggressively. Again, this was already well above average, but it wasn't enough for the top medical schools I was going for. 

So I worked hard. I put in the time, covered all the subjects I needed to know, and was ruthless about my prep. In the very end, I scored a 44:

 

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As the testing organization notes, this is in the 99.9 percentile rank, with 0.0% achieving this score (this figure is rounded). I had multiple medical advisers tell me that they had never seen a score this high before, and there might indeed be fewer than 3 people per year - or none at all - who get a 44. Scoring this high definitely helped me get into the MD-PhD program at Harvard Medical School and MIT.

I wish I were talented enough to get these test scores naturally without hundreds of hours of hard work. That would be the cooler thing to say.

But it wasn't true for me, and it probably won't be true for you either.

With this foundation laid, here's the meat of what I want to say:

 

What do you need to do to get a perfect 36 ACT score?

In broad strokes, it takes a lot of hard work, a lot of smart work, and some amount of luck. But this isn't helpful. Let's dig deeper.

You have to want it. Really, really want it.

You need the drive to push yourself. You need to put ACT prep as one of your top priorities in life, overcoming watching Youtube or hanging out at the mall.

In the darkest of days, when you take a practice test and drop 3 points inexplicably, and your parents are freaking out, and you're worried you're never getting into Harvard, you need the inner fire to not fall into a rut. Instead, you need to pull yourself up and calmly rip apart your mistakes so you don't repeat them.

People don't often mention motivation when talking about test prep, but in my view this is one of the most important pieces that differentiate successful people from not, in all aspects of life. It's much more important than just being smart.

Make a list of all the reasons you want to get a perfect score. Write them down. Stare at them when you lose energy or motivation.

Want to get into Harvard or an Ivy League school? Want to make up for a bad GPA? Want to prove to your parents that you can beat their expectations? Want to compete with your friends? Want to show up your 3rd grade teacher who said you would never amount to anything? 

That's all good. Anything that drives you from within is a valid reason to work hard.

In my personal case, beyond the academic benefits, I thought the ACT was a dumb test that was impeding my life. I was angry at test writers who devised tricks to fool students. I approached it like a video game - the ACT was a boss that I needed to dominate. Plus, my brother had a near-perfect score, and I wanted to one-up him.

Write down all the reasons you want a perfect score and use it to motivate yourself every study session.

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Exclusive Blog Bonus: We've written a popular free guide on 5 tips to improving your ACT score by 4+ points. Get a free download here.

 

Do high-quality practice. Avoid low-quality materials.

The ACT is a weird test. It's unlike tests that you've taken throughout school. There's a specific format to each section, and it tests concepts in ways that are likely different from what you've studied in school. It also tends to trick you with lots of bait wrong answers, and if you're not careful, you'll continue to fall for these.

To excel at this test, you need the highest quality practice materials. Because the ACT has questions that are twisted in a particular way, you need to train in exactly the way they're twisted so you learn the patterns.

As we've said before, by far the best practice material comes directly from the ACT in the form of official ACT practice tests. We include these tests in our ACT prep program at PrepScholar.

Just like the mantra about your diet and body, what you put in is what you get out. Trash in, trash out. If you train yourself on questions that aren't anything like what the ACT writes, you're going to learn the wrong patterns.

Using bad materials is like training for baseball by playing tee-ball. Yes, if you spend 1000 hours practicing tee-ball, you'll be a pro at hitting a ball off a stick. But when someone pitches a real baseball at you, you're going to get super confused and likely end up striking out.

 

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This is what you're doing if you study with bad materials.

 

To be frank, most of the books available on the market are trash. They have a lot of questions, but they're written by people who aren't truly experts on the test. This means the questions don't test concepts in the same way; the answers are sometimes ambiguous; the questions don't trick you in the same way the ACT does.

When I was studying, I devoured every ACT practice test I could find. I took over 15 full-length practice tests and was ruthless about finding my mistakes, as I'll talk about soon.

Now, a major weakness of the ACT practice tests is that their explanations aren't very good (and sometimes nonexistent). If you don't know how to teach yourself from your mistakes, you may need supplemental materials focused on a single section. Generally, books rated 4.5 stars and above on Amazon are pre-vetted to be pretty good (read here for my reviews of the best ACT prep books).

In my company PrepScholar, we hired only ACT full-scorers and 99 percentile scorers to write all our questions. You need to have mastered the test to really understand the intricacies of how the ACT works. We turned away applicants who scored below a 33 since they really don't understand the test well enough. 

We then triple-checked all our content for quality and resemblance to the real ACT test so that our students have the best possible prep materials.

Collect good prep materials and study using only these.

 

Quality first, quantity second.

Now you have a lot of materials, whether it's through PrepScholar or prep books. Some students focus hard on getting through every single page of every book they have. They might not know why they're studying what they're studying, but at least they sure put in a lot of time and effort!

This is the wrong idea. You don't want to pound your head against the wall and use a brute force approach. 

Improving your ACT score is about quality first, and quantity second.

It's so tempting to just focus on getting work done, because that's the easy part. "Mom, I'm studying hard, I did 10 practice tests this week!"

Great - you probably didn't have any time to review your mistakes, and I bet your score didn't improve from test to test.

Understanding your weaknesses, as we discuss below, is what takes real energy and insight, and it's what really works.

Think about it this way - let's say you're learning to throw a football with a perfect spiral. You can pick up a football and, by trial and error, if you throw it 1,000 times, you'll make some progress.

Now imagine you have New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady standing by your side. You throw the ball once, and he corrects your technique. Angle your leg back this way, have your hand follow a certain motion, and follow through. You try again, and it's way better.

In throwing 50 balls this way, I'm certain you'd end up doing better than 1,000 by yourself.

I'm not suggesting that Tom Brady in this analogy is a tutor, and that you must have a tutor. You can be your own Tom Brady, and we discuss below how to do that. But you need to make sure you get the most out of your studying and make it as efficient as possible to have a chance at a perfect ACT score.

 

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You need your own ACT Tom Brady.

 

Be ruthless about understanding your mistakes. 

When you're actually studying, this is by far the most important way you'll succeed over other students.

Every mistake you make on a test happens for a reason. If you don't understand exactly why you missed that question, you will make that mistake over and over again.

If you're performing at the 32 level, you're missing around 10% of the questions. This means you have some consistent errors that are holding back your score.

This is what you need to do:

  • on every practice test or question set that you take, mark every question that you're even 20% unsure about
  • when you grade your test or quiz, review every single question that you marked, and every incorrect question. This way even if you guessed a question correctly, you'll make sure to review it.
  • in a notebook, write down the gist of the question, why you missed it, and what you'll do to avoid that mistake in the future. Have separate sections by subject and sub-topic (english - grammar rule vs rhetorical skill, math - numbers vs algebra vs geometry, etc.)

It's not enough to just think about it and move on. It's not enough to just read the answer explanation passively.

You have to think hard about why you specifically failed on this question.

By taking this strict, regimented approach to your mistakes, you'll now have a running log of every question you missed, and your reflection on why.

Everyone who wants to get to an 36 on a section has different weaknessses from you. It's important that you discover for yourself what those are.

Now, what are some common reasons that you missed a question? Don't just say, "I didn't get this question." Always take it one step further - what specifically did you miss, and what do you have to improve in the future?

Here are some examples of common reasons you miss a question, and how you take the analysis one step further:

Content: I didn't have the skill or knowledge needed to answer this question.

One step further: What specific skill do I need to learn, and how will I train this skill?

 

Incorrect Approach: I knew the content, but I didn't know how to approach this question.

One step further: How do I solve the question, and is there a general rule that I need to know for the future?

 

Wrong Guess: I was stuck between two answer choices, and I guessed wrong.

One step further: Why could I not eliminate one of the last answer choices? Knowing the correct answer now, how I can eliminate it? Does this suggest a strategy I can remember for the future?

 

Careless Error: I misread what the question was asking for or solved for the wrong thing

One step further: Why did I misread the question? What should I do in the future to avoid this? 

 

Does this seem hard? It is - you have to think hard about why you're falling short and understand yourself in a way that no one else can. But few students actually put in the effort to do this analysis, and this is how you'll pull ahead.

By the end of my studying, I had notebooks filled with practice questions that I'd missed, and when eating breakfast I could thumb through them to review them, like flashcards. Each mistake understood brought me closer to a perfect ACT score.

Adopt a no-mistake-left-behind policy toward your mistakes. Letting one slip through can mean you make the same mistake on your real ACT.

 

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No excuses when it comes to your mistakes.

 
 

Find Patterns in Your Weaknesses, and Drill Them to Perfection

Now that you're collecting mistakes in a notebook, you'll be able to start finding patterns to your weaknesses. This might be a content area - like problems with math circle problems, or a specific grammar rule. Or it might be a personal habit of yours, like misreading the passage or eliminating the wrong answer.

Focusing on your weaknesses is important because you have a limited amount of time to study, and you need to spend that time on the areas that will get you the biggest score improvement. I've worked with students who just love drilling their strong points because it's comfortable. Of course, this is a waste of time - you have to confront your demons and pick at where you're weak, which is uncomfortable and difficult.

I kept track of my mistakes in an Excel spreadsheet. I found, for example, that I consistently missed Reading passage questions about inferences because I was reading too far into what the author was saying.

I then focused on drilling those specific types of questions until I had developed my own strategy for solving the questions.

As another example, you might find that you get confused by certain ACT vocabulary. The ACT doesn't test vocabulary nearly as much as the SAT does, but it tends to use the same words over and over again. We've compiled the most important ACT vocabulary you need to know, with a guide on the best way to memorize vocab words.

Depending on your area of weakness, you may need to search online for resources for that content area, or use a high quality book, as I mentioned above. In our PrepScholar program, we detect your weaknesses and automatically organize your quizzes by skill so that you can focus on learning and not on the higher-level activities of analyzing your own progress.

By the way, a quick side point - be suspicious of any content-level strategies that promise you results. By content-level, I mean strategies that tell you how you must solve a type of question. At your level, you need to focus on what works best for you. For example, people approach reading passages differently. Some read the passage first, then answer questions. Some skim questions first, then go back to the passage. I know what works best for me, but that's not necessarily what works best for you.

What you will have to do is aggregate strategies for your weaknesses, then test them out yourself to see if they work for you. Specific strategies for each weakness is out of scope of this article, but we'll post examples later - make sure you subscribe to our blog to get the most recent updates.

 

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Find the weak link in your chain.
 
 

Eliminate Careless Errors

These types of mistakes are by far the most frustrating. You know the content, you know how to solve it, but because of a misreading of the question, you miss a point from your raw score. This can already disqualify you from a 36 in every single section.

In my own ACT, I made careless errors because I was trying to finish early and save time for the end, so I would rush through questions too quickly. I hated myself every time I made a careless error. But when I focused on the two things below, I was able to claim back my lost points.

1) Double check that you're answering the right question. The ACT is designed to ask you tricky questions. You might find the area of the square, but the question actually asks for the perimeter. To eliminate this, always underline what the question asks you to solve for. Don’t stop your work until you solve for the correct thing. Another strategy is to write what the question is looking for in your scratch area. For example, if it asks for seconds instead of minutes, write “= ____ seconds” and circle it before you start your work.

This might sound like extra work, but how you defeat careless errors is by having a reliable, failproof system.

2) For English, a common careless error is choosing "(A) NO CHANGE" in sentence error questions. Whenever this happens, make sure you double check the other answer choices to make sure that NO CHANGE is absolutely the best answer choice.

You should check especially for grammar rules that are easy to overlook, like Subject-Verb Agreement and Misplaced Modifier. By analyzing your mistakes, you'll be able to find patterns in grammar rule weaknesses that you have. You can then build your own system for grammar rules that you often miss - for example, for Subject-Verb Agreement, identify the subject and the verb, and then make sure they match. 

 

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Watch out for the banana peel of the ACTs - careless errors.
 
 

Time Management, and Double Checking Your Answers

Now that you’re aiming for a top score, you need to finish each section ahead of time to give yourself time to double check your answers. A good rule of thumb is to finish the section with at least 5 minutes to spare. As you get better at the ACT, this will be easier to accomplish since you’ll solve each question in less time.

The ACT has pretty intense time pressure - moreso than the SAT. Where on the SAT I reliably finished each section with 5-10 minutes to spare, on the ACT I was often left with just 5. 

But with this time, I would mark any questions that I felt I had to return to and double-check. I had enough time to review all my answers at least once.

The real time-killers are questions you get stuck on. It’s very easy to get sucked into a question for five minutes, frustrated that the ACT is taking a point away from you. Avoid this temptation. Follow this rule: if you’ve spent 30 seconds on a question and can’t see how you’re going to get to the answer, circle the question, and skip it. You’ll have time at the end to come back to it. For now, you need to work on the other questions.

How do you double check effectively? It varies between sections. For math, you should try to re-solve the question quickly in a different way. For some questions, you’ll be able to plug the answer back in. For others, you’ll just need to check your steps you took the first time around.

For English, confirm that the answer choice fixes the original grammatical error. Again, for NO CHANGE answer choices, make sure you aren't missing something in the question.

For Reading, confirm that there is no other better answer choice than the one you picked. For passage questions, make sure you rule out 3 incorrect answers.

For Science, make sure you calculated correctly (if it's a calculation question), or that you're reading the right graphs on the test. It's easy to mix up Figure 2 and Figure 3 when you're moving fast.

As you get better at the test, you'll have more time left. Aim for at least 5 minutes left after each section, and use that time to doublecheck your answers.

 

Don't Get Inside Your Own Head During the Test

If you're vying for a perfect 36 score, you'll face pressure during the test. You know how little room for error there is.

This means that if you're having trouble with a question, it's easy to psyche yourself out. "Oh no! I'm having trouble with this math question. If I don't get this right, my 36 in math is gone!" This will make you nervous, which makes you even less likely to answer the question, which makes you more nervous, and so forth. This vicious spiral can suck you down for the rest of the test.

Controlling your mental status is important during the test. Just like a pro athlete or performer, you need to be confident about your skills. You already put in a ton of work, and you've learned most of what the ACT has to throw at you. The last thing you want to do now is ruin more of the test.

So it's a single question you're unsure about - this doesn't affect your performance on any other question. Try your best and clear your head, then move on.

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Stay calm during the test, even if you get confused on a question.

 

Does all of this really work?

I can say from personal experience that these are the principles that I used to excel in academics. If you follow these principles for your own classes and in college, you'll do an amazing job. I would also be hard-pressed to find any top scoring student who doesn't agree whole-heartedly with the advice above.

This advice also works if you're not aiming for a 36. If you want to improve from an 24 to a 30, you can use these principles to power your learning.

These principles also work in life. As a startup founder, I adhere to lean principles to constantly analyze where my weaknesses are, how to build them, and how to focus on what's really important for our company.

While the ACT tests specific skills that you may not use in everyday life, the process of preparing for it can teach you a lot about yourself, your limits, and your ambitions. This sounds a little hokey, but take it from this old man, you can learn a lot about yourself.

Finally, keep in mind that you don't need a 36 to get into top colleges! A 34+ will make you more than competitive for top schools, like the Ivy League. If you get a 34, your time is better spent building up the rest of your application than eking out a few more points.

Quick Plug: I've mentioned my company PrepScholar a few times. If you agree with what I say above, you'd like my course. I designed our ACT course around the principles above, knowing that most students don't have the energy or expertise to diagnose their own weaknesses. PrepScholar automatically figures out what you need to work on and focuses your learning by drilling your weak skills. It also builds in motivational features so you're up to date on your progress and commit to more study time.

Check out our ACT program here.

 

What Now?

Now that you've learned how to get a perfect score on the ACT, the hard work is ahead. 

Check out our guides on getting a 36 on each of the ACT sections: English, Math, and Reading (Science coming soon).

If you liked this article, you'll also like our logistics articles on choosing the best test dates and the best test locations. Every detail matters.

If you missed the link above, here's the ACT vocabulary you must know.

Finally, check out our online ACT prep program. We have a 4+ point money back guarantee: if you finish our course and don't improve by 4 points, you get all your money back, no questions asked.

Try our program with a 5-day free trial today:

ACT Free Signup

 

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Allen Cheng
About the Author

As co-founder and head of product design at PrepScholar, Allen has guided thousands of students to success in SAT/ACT prep and college admissions. He's committed to providing the highest quality resources to help you succeed. Allen graduated from Harvard University summa cum laude and earned two perfect scores on the SAT (1600 in 2004, and 2400 in 2014) and a perfect score on the ACT.



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