Tips For The ACT From A Perfect Scorer

As ACT test dates draw closer, kids around the country scramble to memorize the necessary math formulas, learn the proper grammar formations, and master speed-reading. It may seem like a crazy amount of information to process, but every year a few students are rewarded for their mastery with a stunning 36 composite score.

You might be wondering, how rare is a perfect score on the ACT? Well, in 2017, only 0.136% of test-takers received a 36. That’s not even one percent! In addition, only 1.756% of test takers received a 34+.1

The stats may be daunting, but they also prove that is indeed possible to achieve a good score on the ACT. So the real question is – how do these kids do it? How does one get a perfect score on the ACT? To find out, I interviewed Alli Prestby, a senior at Alexandria High School in Minnesota, in order to try to uncover what the secrets are to achieving the coveted 36 so that you can implement it into your own life! (Also, if you aren’t chasing a 36, these tips and tools will still help you work towards whatever your goal score is.)

But, before I get into that, I want to explain two big reasons for why you should care.

  1. Scholarships

Some schools basically hand out full rides for good ACT scores, like the University of Alabama. To be named a Presidential Scholar, you need at least a 32 ACT and a 3.5 GPA, and you will receive $99,800 over four years.2 And you don’t need to score in the high-20’s or 30’s to get a significant chunk of money. Just one example of a school that will offer scholarships for a low-20 ACT is the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio. With a 21 ACT and a “B” GPA, you can receive $7,500 annually.

(Sidenote: Most merit scholarships look at your test scores and GPA – so make sure you aren’t slacking in the classroom!)

Also, one point can make a big difference. At the University of Mississippi, the difference between a 24 and a 25 is $2,000 over four years, and at West Virginia University, the difference between a 23 and a 24 is $4,000 over four years. The gap becomes even bigger when you start talking about jumping from a 29 to a 30. At Lousiana State University, a 29 will get you $20,000 over four years, and a 30 will get you $40,000 over four years. Basically, you should be fighting for every point, because it can save you a lot of money.3

2. Acceptance to Selective Universities (or guaranteed acceptance to less-selective)

First, let me remind you that colleges are going to look at so much more than your ACT score. A 36 will not solidify acceptance into Harvard, just like how a 32 won’t keep you out. However, it does help.

According to this article on Harvard Admissions Chances, your probability of acceptance can drastically increase with a higher ACT score. A 31 gives you a less than 3% chance of admittance, while a 35+ gives you an 11% chance. That is huge. Your ACT score is only one piece of the puzzle, but it still is a piece, and when applying to selective universities you want as much going for you as possible.4

Basically, when it comes to applying to colleges, the higher you are above their average ACT score, the better. If you want to attend a college with a 25 average and you have a 29, you should be feeling pretty good. However, if you are applying to this same college with a 21, you better hope the rest of your application is pretty strong.

act exam pic

Now that you know that getting a good score on the ACT can be a great goal to have, let’s focus on how people actually do it.

This is why I talked to Alli Prestby, one of the 2,760 students who got a perfect score on the ACT in 2017.1 That takes brains. I wanted to dive into what helped her to succeed on the ACT test by looking into what has helped her to achieve great things academically, and there were a couple things I uncovered.

  1. Reading

Not only is being able to read and comprehend a crucial skill on the ACT, but it is beneficial to your overall intelligence. Those that read have been found to have higher GPA’s, intelligence and general knowledge compared to those that don’t.5 I asked Alli about how much she read, and she answered that My dad started taking my sister and me to the library when we were really young, so I’ve grown up as a reader. I always loved going to the library and grabbing as many books as I could until my dad told me, ‘That’s probably enough!'”

Not only does there seem to be a correlation between reading and higher intelligence, but reading has also been found to result in better memory, concentration, and lower stress.6

Higher Intelligence + Better Memory + Better Concentration + Lower Stress = A pretty good recipe for a solid ACT score! Especially when it comes to tackling time constraints – if you want to read faster you need to practice reading, which means you need to read more.

2. Enjoyment (or at least tolerance) of School

Lauren Schiller, a PhD student at Harvard University, and Christina Hinton, a lecturer on education at Harvard University, wrote on The Conversation about one study that evaluated elementary, middle and high school students. They found that there was “a statistically significant correlation between happiness and students’ GPA.”7 Finding engagement in school, or even the ACT test, can dramatically improve the results you receive.

I asked Alli about how she felt about school, and she said that when you add everything together (friends + activities + classes) she would give school a 10/10.

While classes alone can be enjoyable, I’m really a fan of all the extracurriculars I’m involved in and the people I get to spend time with. I am the president of Student Council, so I am constantly busy planning events and working with the rest of the members of the Executive Board. I’m also in tennis and golf and am the captain of both those sports this year, which is a great opportunity to push myself to be the best I can be and also have fun being with my friends doing something I love every day. My grandpa always says that education is more than just what happens in the classroom. So if “school” contains everything in and around the building itself, I’d definitely give it a 10. – Alli Prestby

Just how finding enjoyment in school can produce better results on your transcript, finding some excitement in the ACT can have similar results.

When you sit down and start reading an ACT Reading, Science or English passage (math doesn’t really apply here, but maybe word problems) force yourself to be eager to learn about what you are reading. Be passionate about it. Be curious about it. This will lead to greater engagement, greater focus, and a greater likelihood of getting the answers right.

engaged quote

These are some helpful ways to achieve success in school that will also pool over to standardized tests, but what about things that will specifically help you on the ACT test? Concerning that, I want to first address the mindset.

I had a lot of feelings going into the ACT. I was stressed and nervous because I wanted to perform well, but I also knew that I had the capability to score highly if I just relaxed and trusted myself. – Alli Prestby

Feeling stressed, nervous, or anxious about standardized tests is not a rare phenomena. However, you don’t have to let it affect you. Just like Alli said – if you relax, believe in your capabilities, and trust your preparation, you will put yourself in the best mental mindset for success. This can specifically be beneficial when it comes to handling the time limits.

I asked Alli about how she dealt with time constraint, and she mentioned that being able to stay calm and relaxed helped her be more efficient and productive throughout the exam. She said, “when it came time to take the real test, I had to remind myself quite a few times to relax. At a certain point during the test, I’m pretty sure I actually set down my pencil, closed my eyes, and took a deep breath.” 
She also specifically mentioned these tips to help combat test anxiety:

  1. Take the practice test at least once. You’ll feel so much more prepared going into the real test, and you’ll also know what areas you need help in.
  2. Don’t study the night before. Personally, I hung out with a friend the night before I took the ACT, to get my mind off things. Then I came home at a decent time, went to bed early, and woke up feeling refreshed and ready for the test.
  3. When you get a bathroom break, use it. Don’t stay sitting in the room; your brain needs a break!
  4. Wear a watch, and write down the time you started the section at. Usually, your proctor will have a clock and write this down for you, but it helped me feel more in control.

Some other ways to stay calm during the test are maintaining a positive attitude, and stretching and shaking out your arms to stay loose.

Second, when it comes to the actual test material, Alli said that reviewing what she didn’t know or remember helped her tackle her toughest subjects.

Math was the most difficult for me, because I had a hard time remembering math subjects from several years ago. Subjects like english and reading are areas that I am constantly using in my day-to-day life, but I can’t say I practice trigonometry daily. So after I took the practice ACT and saw that I got the most questions wrong in the math section, I reviewed the math areas that I struggled with to refresh my mind. – Alli Prestby

In my opinion, this is the most important strategy when it comes to studying for the ACT. Take practice tests, find out what you don’t know, and then study it! If you continue this process, the number of things you don’t know will start to dwindle, and you will be better prepared for the real test.

The best advice I ever received for the ACT was to keep track of all the questions I missed and understand why I got them wrong. If I didn’t understand the why, I would keep making the same mistake over and over again. This is why you need to be relentless in understanding what you get wrong. It’s one thing to take a practice test; it’s a whole different ball game to take a practice test and analyze it. I actually kept a special “ACT notebook” where I documented all my incorrect answers, and it helped me to be able to find patterns in what I was got wrong.

mistake pic

Getting a question wrong boils down to these four reasons:

  1. You literally did not know what the question was asking.
  2. You took your best guess but guessed wrong.
  3. You made a careless mistake.
  4. You ran out of time.

Making sure you take practice tests and go over what you got wrong will help eliminate the frequency of reason #1 and #2. Making sure you stay relaxed and have a positive mindset will help you conquer #3 and #4. The more you reduce the probability of encountering these reasons, the better your score will be!

So whether you are chasing a 36 or a different score, I hope this blog post helped. If you ever have any questions, feel free to comment below or send me an email in the contact section. I would love to help anyone who is willing to put in the work. 🙂 And remember, YOU are more than an ACT score. No matter what, do not let something like a standardized test score make you forget how awesome you are.

“Everybody is a genius. But, if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing its stupid.” – Albert Einstein

So, take a deep breath, remind yourself that you are can do this, and go take an ACT practice test. Your future self will thank you. 🙂

— Brynn


1. How Many People Get a 34, 35, 36 on the ACT? Score Breakdown
2. Top 10 Merit Based Scholarship Schools
3. SAT/ACT and GPA requirements for Scholarship for 100+ Colleges/Universities
4. Harvard Admission Chances
5. 8 Benefits of Reading (or Ways Reading Makes You Better at Life)
7. It’s true: happier students get higher grades

Just a precaution: I wanted to let you know ACT is a registered trademark of ACT, Inc., which is not affiliated with the content or owners of this site. 🙂

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