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How to Get the Perfect ACT Score

Picture of Michal Goldstein
By Michal Goldstein on April, 13 2023 | 11 minute read

If you’re shooting for a perfect (or near-perfect) ACT score, you’ve come to the right place. Collegewise’s Tutoring and Testing Team is here to help you find your way to the top, with some useful tips to consider in your pursuit of test perfection.

What is a Perfect ACT Score?

A perfect score on the ACT is a 36. The test itself is scored on a scale from a minimum of 1 to a maximum of 36, compiled from four primary sections: English, Math, Reading, and Science.

Each individual section is scored in one-point increments, so it is possible to receive a 1, a 2, a 3, and so on, all the way up to a 36 in each subject. To compile a test-taker’s composite, the ACT averages the four section scores to create the composite outcome. So, if a test-taker receives a 25 on the English section, a 23 on the Math, a 26 on the Reading, and a 30 on the Science, the composite score would be the sum of those four numbers (25 + 23 + 26 + 30) divided by four for a composite outcome of 26.

Note: if a test-taker’s composite averages out to a decimal—like a 23.5 or a 29.75—the composite rounds up for decimals .5 and above. The composite rounds down from .25. So, if you take the ACT and get a 24 on the English, a 22 on the Math, a 25 on the Reading, and a 30 on the Science, the average would be a 25.25 and round down to a 25.

Do I Have to Get Every Question Right on the ACT to Get a Perfect Score?

No. In fact, far from it, and here is where the ACT’s unusual scoring composite works in test-takers’ favor. It helps to know just a little bit about the ACT’s structure and content to understand why.

The ACT’s four sections—English, Math, Reading, and Science—are all weighed evenly within the scoring scale, but the sections themselves vary in terms of number of questions. The English section has a whopping 75 questions; the Math section has 60; the Reading and Science sections have comparatively fewer at 40 each.

Notice that the Reading and Science sections have roughly the same number of questions (40) as there are total scoring increments (36). That means that for any given Reading and Science test, one test question equals roughly one point along the scoring scale. It is sometimes the case that test-takers can get a question or two wrong in the Reading or Science sections and still get a perfect score: some tests are challenging enough that missing one question doesn’t move the scoring needle.

By extension, there are many, many more questions in the English (75) and Math (60) than there are scoring increments (36 in each of those sections). On the English and Math, test-takers can often get two (and sometimes three) questions wrong and still receive a perfect score on those individual sections.

That means that a person can still get a 36 composite score, even if they get a total of 5-7 questions wrong spread across the entire exam. Not a bad deal for a driven test-taker. Moreover, there’s another positive for high-flying test-takers who are looking for the highest possible outcomes. Because the ACT composite is an average of all four sections that rounds up, a test-taker can get an average composite of a 35.5 and still receive a 36. So, for example, if you take the ACT and get a 35 on the English and a 35 on the Math and a 36 on the Reading and a 36 on the Science, that averages to a 35.5 and rounds up to a 36.

To paraphrase Anchorman, that’s kind of a big deal. It means that even test-takers who get perfect scores aren’t really performing perfectly, and it means if you yourself want to earn a 36, you have a lot of room for error across the exam. That’s a great thing: it takes the pressure off your work, and it means that you can afford to treat the Math section, for example, as a kind of 58-problem test with two bonus questions at the end.

To be sure, getting a 36 on the ACT—and even getting a 36 on any one section—is no mean feat, but there are small ways in which the ACT is surprisingly generous with respect to its scoring outcomes.

Do I Need a Perfect ACT Score? What's the Value?

Having a perfect ACT score is very rare: Nearly 1.35 million test-takers took the ACT in 2022, and of those, only 3,376 received a 36. Thousands more received perfect scores on individual sections (for example, nearly 25,000 test-takers scored perfectly on the ACT Reading, according to the most recent data). But, if only 3,376 test-takers out of nearly 1.35 million received perfect composites, that means that less than half of one percent of all test-takers received perfect results. Just under 10,500 received 35’s, and just under 13,600 received 34 composites.

Do perfect scores have value? In a single, very affirmative word, yes, though the best question to raise—and the best answer—is a little more nuanced than that. Until the start of the pandemic, there were some universities that had scholarships specifically for students who had perfect test scores, though those policies have changed in an increasingly test-optional (or test-free) environment. While no schools require a perfect score for admission, higher scores are almost always helpful in the admissions process when test scores are applicable, and a perfect ACT score is certainly a feather in one’s academic hat. However, test scores are never the most important component of an application.

Always remember that a good score is one that aligns with the school of your choosing, whether that’s a 20, a 25, a 30, a 35, or anything else.

How Do I Get a Perfect Score on the ACT?

Start by taking a diagnostic test under realistic, timed conditions in a quiet setting. Set aside some three hours for standard pace, or upwards of four and a half hours if you’ll be testing under time and a half pacing. Ideally, take one with a group like Collegewise that offers free diagnostic tests and will provide you with descriptive feedback along with your test results. When you’ve received or tabulated your outcomes, spend time getting a sense of where you’re starting, and where your strengths and areas of need can be found. How close or far are you from your ultimate goals?

From there, build a plan—with a reasonable timeline—to get there. In addition to identifying your areas of strength and need, think about what worked for you, and what didn’t. If it makes sense to pursue outside help with studying for the ACT, we’re here to help with that part of the journey.

Test-takers who earn perfect ACT scores typically have a few habits and descriptive qualities that set them apart from test-takers who earn lower scores:

  1. Notably – and I’m emphasizing this - they’ll take rigorous courses in high school. It’s impossible to develop the Reading, English, Math, and Analytical skills necessary to answer nearly every question correctly on the ACT without having taken classes to prepare you for the journey ahead. That means taking Algebra II by sophomore year and likely taking AP-level English or humanities courses heading into junior year. Is it necessary to take all AP- and honors-level classes in order to do well on these tests? Absolutely not. But if you set high goals for yourself, make sure you’ve got the skills and tools necessary to meet those goals.
  2. Leading up to the ACT, perfect scorers will work with materials that are comparable to recent versions of the exam itself. They will use official ACT practice material and often refer to recently retired exams to make sure they are familiar with the test’s content, stylization, pacing, and structure. If you look at every available ACT going back to the turn of the millennium, you’ll find that, superficially, the ACT looks remarkably unchanged. But over time, the exam has come to include more integrated and advanced English grammar, Mathematics, Reading, and Science literacy tasks. This means that it’s helpful, if not essential, to be up to date on the exam’s dominant areas of focus.
  3. Perfect scorers will practice as they play: beyond reviewing the content of the test and being familiar with the concepts featured on the exam, perfect-scoring test-takers will work on timed segments of the test at the passage level and the section level. For example, there are four passages in each Reading section, which clocks in at a total of 35 minutes. This means that each passage affords eight minutes and 45 seconds of focused work. A perfect-scoring test-taker will have a great sense of what it feels like to work through a passage at that pace not just once but four times in a row (as would be represented in a full reading section). Moreover, they’ll be able to sustain high-quality work from start to finish within a section and then from section to section. In sum, perfect-scoring test-takers will start their test on the right foot, work through the exam at a high level, and finish strong.
  4. Perfect-scoring test-takers treat the ACT as a skills-application test. If you look at one copy of the ACT, it looks pretty random: there are Reading passages from a host of topics, grammar questions that seem arbitrary, and math problems that seem pretty disconnected from one another. But, if you look at two copies of the ACT, side-by-side, you notice almost immediately that the exams have a lot of similarities: every ACT Reading section, for example, starts with a Literary Analysis reading passage. Every math section will feature one logarithm problem. Every grammar passage will ask if this semicolon is used properly (and expect you to know that a semicolon is often used similarly to a period.). To earn a perfect score, a test-taker will have to know the test through and through and know how to apply concepts from section to section.
  5. Because perfect-scoring test-takers will be familiar with the pacing, content, and structure of the exam, they’ll have time to review questions at the end of each section, check their work, and make sure they crossed their t’s and dotted every i. To get there, perfect-scorers will practice at test pace and make sure they know what it feels like to finish an English grammar passage in 9 minutes under standard time conditions without having to frequently check the clock or navigate a Science passage within five minutes and fifty seconds. The ACT is demanding with respect to its pacing, but working quickly and accurately is a necessity for high-performers.
  6. Finally, perfect-scoring test-takers will have a little luck on their side. By and large, there are always questions we need to intuit our way through and questions that feature a concept that we just happen to have reviewed recently. It is certainly the case that chance favors the prepared mind—which is to say, luck will find you if you’re ready—but it’s also the case that questions featured on the exam will align with that test-taker’s strengths.

We've covered a lot of tips in this blog that can help students see better performance, but if your family could use a tutoring session or two, Collegewise's renowned tutoring programs help take the pressure off of students. 

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