You’re aiming for a perfect ACT score. Great! What’s your magic number?
If you said 36, I’ll give you partial credit. Nope, the number I’m thinking of is 2,760.
Give up? That’s the number of students who scored a perfect 36 on the ACT in 2017. If that sounds like a small number to you, that’s because, in a sense, it is: 2.03 million graduating seniors took the test last year.
But I want you to think about 2,760 in a different way. Think about it as schools and schools full of students. Think about it as more than 50 perfect ACT scores per state. Think about it as a goal you can attain.
Now, those 2,760 students didn’t just roll out of bed, hop over to the test center and start flipping through their test booklets at superhuman speed. They prepared. They took practice tests. They got scores that were far—sometimes very far—from perfect on those tests, or even on official exams they took before obtaining that perfect score.
In short? They prepped.
How do we know? We’ve scoured the country for perfect scorers and talked with them. We’ve heard what they’ve had to say about the work they did and why they believe they got a perfect ACT score. We’ve asked them some unexpected questions, too. (Did you know that one thing they all have in common is that they ate breakfast the day of the exam? True story!)
How can this post help you? First, we’ll summarize what we noticed when we examined the info perfect scorers gave us. Then, we’ll profile some of those perfect ACT scorers, their prep strategies, and their breakfast foods (you think I’m joking?). So if you’re aiming for a perfect ACT score, read on!
What Does It Take to Get a Perfect ACT Score?
High quality materials, reviewing your work, and staying motivated are just a few ways to achieve a perfect ACT score of 36. When we talked to perfect ACT scorers from around the country, they varied by gender, race, state, and so many other factors. But they still had a lot in common: specifically, their scores and study tips.
Let’s look at how they got to those perfect 36s…
- Don’t settle for second best when it comes to materials. Almost every single student we spoke to emphasized the importance of good materials. Actually, think about that slightly differently: there are helpful materials out there, and there are unhelpful materials. What’s the difference? Helpful materials are either official or precisely mirror what you’ll see on test day. This is one place where you need to do your research. (Luckily, we can help you—we’ve reviewed the major ACT books on the market here!) What if you were to practice a tennis serve wrong for 50 hours? What if you were to run with a bad stride for 20 hours? You’d most likely get injured—and that’s what will happen to your ACT score if you don’t use the best possible materials.
- Ambition. As one of our high scorers noted, “Look into the vast number of scholarships that are offered by colleges and other organizations for high ACT scores.” Why? Because it helps motivate you. There will absolutely be times in your ACT prep when you want to give up, when you’re tired, when you’re frustrated. Having a goal in mind, whether it’s those scholarships or a picture of your dream school hanging over your desk, will make all the difference in getting you through them.
- Review everything. Not all the materials (although a strong ACT study plan will help you do this), but your performance. Just taking practice tests isn’t enough; you need to study how you did on them. Where did you score amazingly well? Where is there room for improvement? Keep a log of the problems you miss and look for patterns (and then go back and re-try those problems periodically). Several students stressed the importance of going over your work in ACT prep.
- Keep going. Persistence is key. As one super-achieving scorer said, “A lot of people laugh when I tell them I’ve taken the ACT 10 times and counting, but when your score continues to increase there’s no reason to stop.” We’re not suggesting you take the ACT 10+ times, but the student’s point is well-made: if a perfect ACT score is your goal and the drive for it isn’t harming other areas of your life, keep going!
- ACT/life balance. This is one time when knowing your ambition will really help keep you on track. Why are you trying to get such a high score on the ACT? Most likely so that you can achieve your life goals. But don’t let the future block out the present. Not only are your grades in school still the most important factor in college admissions (tests come second), but you’re far more likely to do well on the exam if you’re prepared—yet relaxed. As one high ACT scorer advises, “Let yourself take a break the week before the test.”
- Keep going! No, that’s not a typo. If a 36 on the ACT is your goal and you’re progressing towards it, don’t be deterred by short plateaus or temporary frustrations. One of our students advises that “as long as you’re improving you’re on the right track.” We couldn’t agree more!
So who are these students who got a perfect ACT score, or another high score? Here they are—along with their advice, direct to you.
Perfect 36: Perfect ACT Scorers
Tanay from Michigan achieved a perfect 36 on the ACT, with sectional scores of 35 (English), 36 (Math), 35 (Reading), and 36 (Science). A major accomplishment! Tanay took the exam twice—you’ll see this over and over (and over and over) with top-scoring students! He used Magoosh and Khan Academy for his prep, in addition to a tutor, for a total of around 20-24 hours test preparation in nine weeks. The day of the test, Cheerios were his go-to morning pick-me-up. Tanay’s hard work paid off: he’ll be attending Case Western Reserve University.
His advice is simple but vital: “Don’t give up,” adding, “as long as you’re improving you’re on the right track.”
You might remember Srikhar from Lousiana from our Perfect Score on the SAT post. Not one to rest on his laurels, Srikhar outdid his near-perfect 1550 SAT score with a perfect 36 on the ACT. His sectional scores are also a great example of how the ACT works in your favor by rounding up your averages for your composite score: Srikhar did score a 35 on one section, but still got a 36 overall.
Is Srikhar’s story one of overnight success? Nope (hint: in test prep, stories almost never are!)—it’s one of hard work and dedication. He got his perfect score the third time he took the exam. And for both exams combined, he estimates he spent 200 hours over 9-10 weeks studying. On test day, he brought his A game from the get-go, starting out with a breakfast of seasoned potato and eggs.
Srikhar recommends looking into organizations that will give you scholarships for high ACT scores to motivate you, and has even more great advice for students whose inspiration is flagging:
“Tell your family your goal score is a 36 and ask them to establish potential rewards if you successfully achieve that score, all before starting any practice. The idea of my school, state, and even the whole nation giving me special recognition for getting a 36 was phenomenal. For me, this was one major driving factor during my practice period, pushing me through each day of repetitive practice. This adds more weight to the reward of achieving your goal score, keeping you even more motivated to continue working hard.”
Jack from Illinois also got a perfect score on the ACT. As he told the Chicago Sun-Times, his strategy was to print out PDFs and take them with a timer. His goal? To “recognize the tricks they’re trying to play on you.” Elaborating on that, Jack told the paper that he used this strategy “so we knew more of what they were looking for. The questions are really repetitive. Every single practice test starts to feel the same after a while.” All the more reason to work on your own practice tests!
Dorothy from Illinois also talked to the Chicago Sun-Times about her perfect ACT score. For Dorothy, her prep focused on learning about the test’s format and style. “People try to relearn concepts,” Dorothy said to reporter Lauren FitzPatrick. “From what I’ve seen, we all just focused on mastering the format of the test. You already know the math, reading and science concepts you need to know.”
In the end, Dorothy wanted to keep her score in perspective: “A score’s just a score,” she told the paper. “It can’t do much for you except to signal to a college that you [did] well on a test.”
Connor from Oklahoma also had a perfect 36 on the ACT. As he told the Edmond Sun, the ultimate motivation to study for the test had to come from within, not from his parents: “They encouraged me to study for the test a little bit, but they ultimately decided that they trusted my ability to study and that I would study however much I felt was necessary to prepare.” This was Connor’s fifth time taking the ACT since seventh grade, but only his second time during his junior year. The first time, he scored a 33. As for prep, he took some practice tests to prepare and found they were vital to success. In addition—even though math is a strong subject for him—he reviewed math formulas (Hey! We can help you do that, too!)
According to the Sun, what’s Connor’s advice? “I would encourage students to take practice tests,” Connor said. “The best way to get a feel for the real test is to take tests very similar to it, with real questions that have been used before. Practice tests are also good for getting a feel for the time constraints and how you have to pace yourself on the test.”
Over in Ohio, Ella is another perfect scorer. As Westlake Patch writes, her secret to success was “Practice and preparation. Simple as that.” Ella herself explained that she took a practice course and tons of practice tests to prepare. We have no idea what she ate for breakfast, but we’re willing to bet that it had some protein in it!
In Tennessee, the Jackson Sun writes about Robert’s modesty regarding his perfect ACT score. Apparently, he didn’t expect a 36, and walked out of the test center thinking he scored in the upper 20s or low 30s. Robert’s study plan was equally low-key, with just two practice tests. His attitude is as admirable as his scores: “For me, education is something that, as long as you apply yourself, there will be some kind of reward. Getting a lower score doesn’t mean you’re less smart.”
In Kentucky, John took the ACT five times before getting his perfect score. The Courier-Journal reports that this was part of the Duke University TIP program, which familiarizes students with the exam. John actually took it for the first time in seventh grade! It was only when he scored a 34 later that he realized “[t]here was more I could do to train myself, and the 36 was in reach. And that it was worth going for.”
John’s advice for future test-takers? “On the ACT there’s a wide range of questions they can ask, but at the heart of it, it’s the same stuff. In English, the most concise way is the clearest,” he explained to the Courier-Journal. Just as in real life, “…adding more verbiage actually does not sound smarter.” And his tip for the Science test is gold: “it’s not what you know but how well you can analyze what’s given.”
The advice Liam from Illinois gave to students in the Beverly Review should be taken to heart. “You have to remember that sometimes this is the luck of how you’re feeling one day,” Liam told the paper. “And you have to remember that everyone is at different levels. Everyone goes at their own pace. You shouldn’t think that you are better than someone because this one test tells you that you have a higher score than someone else.”
Liam also had advice for test-takers on particular sections. “Make sure you’re not trying to read for complete comprehension in the reading section … try to skim it. With the science portion, don’t get freaked out if it seems like Greek. You can get a lot of the answers from the graphs or from your own knowledge of science.”
James from Georgia also got a perfect 36 on the ACT. As the Ledger-Enquirer reports, the study plan James used relied on lots of practice tests, reviewing and classifying your wrong answers. And, like a lot of top-scoring students, relaxing was also key: James ran into a friend at the test center beforehand, which he believes helped him do his best.
34+ ACT Scorers
You may remember Lizzie from Arizona from her top-notch SAT score in our Perfect SAT Scores post. Guess what? Lizzie also killed it on the ACT, with a 34 overall and perfect English and Reading scores (though her 32s in Math and Science were far from shabby!). Lizzie took the ACT three times, just as she did with the SAT, using Magoosh, all the free practice tests she could find, and a prep course with ePrep. Still, she estimates that she put in no more than 20 hours prep for either test in the month or two beforehand. (Her usual breakfast is an English muffin and tea, if you’re superstitious and/or feeling like being in a Downton Abbey mood on test day.)
Lizzie will be attending Notre Dame, though her acceptance list is equally impressive. Her advice? “Whatever you put in beforehand is worth it. The worst feeling in the world is knowing that you could’ve done more. Make the most of the chances you have to do your very best, and buckle down and do it. Testing certainly isn’t everything, but it does deserve your best efforts. You can do it!”
32+ ACT Scorers
Meredith from Nevada scored a 33 on the ACT, with a perfect 36 in English and outstanding scores in other sections. Her SAT scores were also awesome; she took that test three times and the ACT twice (notice a pattern?!). Her prep strategy? “Magoosh babyyyy!” Yesss! (Though she also recommends Khan Academy and the official ACT guide, AKA the “red book”).
For both tests, Meredith estimates that she put in around 100 hours of prep in all. This is a pattern you might have noticed: students who took both tests definitely had to do more prep to get these awesome scores. And, in fact, Meredith’s pretty sure that finally relaxing had something to do with her top scores: “The time I got a 33 on the ACT I didn’t study at all! I think it was best to let my brain rest and not overstudy and stress like I [did] for the other tests.” We’re sure her power-packed breakfast of two eggs, toast, and avocado didn’t hurt, either.
Despite her relaxation strategy, Meredith still stresses the importance of actually putting in the legwork. It’s a fine balance: “Start studying early but don’t overthink everything,” she advises.
Signe scored a 33 on the ACT, with massive scores of 35 in both English and Reading. Like a lot of other successful students (notice how many there are in this post alone!), she took the exam twice to get the best results. She prepped with “Magoosh and lots of practice tests” (well done, Signe!). On test day, she powered up with a muffin and a smoothie. Now, Signe’s hoping to translate that score into admission at a top public university in the Midwest.
Her words of advice are short and sweet: “Just keep on trucking.”
Ori from Washington D.C. scored a perfect 36 in both Reading and Writing, and achieved an overall score of 33. He used Magoosh exclusively for his prep and, like a lot of students, maximized his score by taking the exam twice. Ori estimates that he spent around 40 hours prepping, starting about six weeks before the first exam and three weeks before the second exam. Protein was a big part of Ori’s test-day mornings: on the morning of both exams, he ate a CLIF bar and peanut butter toast. We couldn’t have made a better test-day meal plan ourselves! Ori will be attending Wesleyan University next year.
Ori’s advice is all about the mental game, noting “the ACT is about endurance and not freaking out when something looks really hard. The questions aren’t designed to trick you, so if you stay calm and just remind yourself, ‘I know this stuff, I’ve been studying this for weeks and I’ve got this,’ then you’ll be fine.” He should know!
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About Rachel Kapelke-Dale
Rachel is a High School and Graduate Exams blogger at Magoosh. She has a Bachelor of Arts from Brown University, an MA from the Université de Paris VII, and a PhD from University College London. She has taught test preparation and consulted on admissions practices for over eight years. Currently, Rachel divides her time between the US and London. Follow Rachel on Twitter, or learn more about her writing here!
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