Why Top Math Students Struggle to Get a 36 on ACT Math

You take an ACT practice test for what seems like the millionth time. You feel really good about it this time, and you start to compare your answers with the answer key.

Ouch! Again, you missed out on a 36 on the math section by one or two questions.

Many students are continually frustrated by their inability to get an ACT math perfect score despite the fact that they have a strong math background. There seems to be an invisible wall at 34 or 35, and the lack of improvement is a tough pill to swallow.

Why is it so difficult to get that 36? Let’s find out.

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Reasons Why Getting an ACT Math Perfect Score Is Tough


1. Only the last 5-10 problems are actually challenging.

This might be a little counterintuitive, since you might be thinking that this is a good thing. Anyone aiming for a good score would take an easy problem versus a hard problem any day.

Yes, if you’re scoring 34s and 35s, you are most likely getting the first 40 questions right most of the time. This also means that if you are trying to improve by doing ACT practice tests from start to finish, you’re spending most of your time drilling easy problems and less time on the hard ones.

In other words, you’re becoming really, really good at answering math questions that you don’t need more practice on. Not only is this a huge waste of time, it also wears down your motivation and willpower to study.

What you should do instead is drill the last 5-10 problems of the math section. Focus on your problem areas, and notice specific gaps in your math knowledge. Then hit the books and make sure you know those topics inside and out.

2. You aren’t distributing your time wisely.

You have 60 minutes to finish 60 questions, so on average, you have one minute to spend on each problem. However, you definitely do not want to literally spend one minute per problem.

When you are going through those first 40 or so questions, you want to be spend as little time as possible so that you have ample time to spare thinking over the harder questions at the end.

The ACT is all about making the best use of your limited time, so make it count.

On the Road to ACT Math 36

Now that you have an idea on how to improve the way you study, it’s time to put these tips to good use. A good example of an ACT study plan would be to drill the hard questions every night for at least 15 minutes, and then practice an entire section on the weekends.


  • Minh Nguyen

    Minh's passion for helping students succeed grew during his time as a career counselor at the University of California, Irvine. Now, he's helping students all over the world by spilling SAT/ACT secrets through blog posts on Magoosh. When he's not busy tutoring or writing, he enjoys playing guitar, traveling, and talking about himself in third-person.

By the way, Magoosh can help you study for both the SAT and ACT exams. Click here to learn more!

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