Last Updated: Apr 7, 2017
What high schooler wouldn’t want to see those little two numbers next to each other on their college applications: 36. A perfect score on the ACT. It’s holy, untouchable, the ultimate standardized test victory. But what does it really mean—and how do you get there?
My quest for ACT perfection
Personally, a 36 was all I could imagine whenever the ACT was brought up. Under the harsh glare of living room lamps, I would pore over stacks of test-prep bibles, my eyes darting across page after page from midnight until morning began to beckon its hello. And that magic number—36—was the dream that kept me going.
And you know what I got the first time I took the ACT? A 32. A fine score, but I knew I wanted more. So I got back at it, studied, and retook the test. Ultimately, I was able to improve my score by three points, and though my eventual ACT score of 35 wasn’t quite perfect, I am more than happy to count it as a win.
For me, the first thing I had to understand was that getting a 36 on the ACT is a long shot. But as long as I aimed for perfection, I could safely land at excellent. If I studied for a 36, then I could hopefully land at a 33 or 34.
That would be my first direction on the road to ACT perfection—it’s okay to not reach it. I know that’s a scary thought. If you’re concerned about getting a 36 on the ACT, you’re probably a high achiever anyway. But I promise you there is more to college, more to testing, and more to life than perfection. So be realistic: aim high in your standardized test goals but be happy with meaningful improvement, whether that improvement puts you at a 24 or a 34.
How to study for the ACT in 4 steps
So you've settled for making gains in the ACT department. Now how do you get there? There's the typical playbook: buy study guides, do the practice tests until your eyes hurt and your fingers are rubbed raw from pencil burn, rinse, repeat. There’s merit in that process, but you have to do it right.
Here are four key steps to effectively studying for the ACT:
1. Know what’s on the test
Most ACT study books come with a preface that summarizes the core concepts covered in each ACT section. Read it. I repeat, read it! That information is essential to success. What's the point of taking a standardized test if you don't know what's going to be on it? Don't start the practice tests until you have a firm grasp of the concepts being covered; otherwise you're practicing to fail.
2. Review the test material thoroughly
Say the last time you encountered coordinate planes was in your eighth grade geometry class—chances are you have some knowledge gaps that need to be refilled. Once you know what’s on the ACT (from step 1), you can find those gaps and eliminate them. Read up on forgotten material, and do ACT-style questions related to the material, even if they're not official ACT practice problems.
3. Take practice tests—and time them!
When you’re comfortable with the core material on the ACT, you're finally ready to tackle the practice tests. But remember: one does not simply approach a practice test without a proper game plan. For starters, make sure you’re timing yourself just like you would be on test day. Time is the tick-tocking killer of ACT scores, so if you master it now, you’ll have much greater success later. Also, make sure you have zero distractions while taking the tests. Texts, tweets, and snaps will still be there at the end of the exam—success, however, may not be.
4. Review your practice tests like a pro
Here’s another commonly fumbled step in prepping for the ACT. It’s not just enough to mark which questions you got wrong and calculate your score on your practice tests. You’ve got to assess, correct, and learn from every question you got wrong.
Think about why you chose the wrong answer; was it a lack of knowledge, did you run out of time, or was it just a reading or comprehension error? Whatever the reason, write it down. Committing the mistake to paper will help it stick in your brain. Next, redo the problem in its entirety. Take your time, write out your work, and analyze your process. Then, once you get the right answer, go back through your old work and find exactly where a mistake was made. Recognize and learn from that mistake, and commit to never making it again. You’ve got to be critical with your missteps. Yes, it’s hard, but it’s also arguably the most important step, because this is ultimately where you’ll learn and improve the most. So don’t breeze through it.
Achieve studying success
And there you have it: my four steps to studying success. This goes without saying, but these steps only work if you afford them enough time prior to your ACT test date.
Do an hour and a half of test prep a day, three days a week, a month and a half before the test. That’s 27 hours total. You could easily spend the same amount of time on Facebook, so just imagine if that time could be used towards your future success.
A great ACT score is totally achievable as long as you are willing to work for it. You may not get a 36, but even a one-point improvement might put you in the running for a new or better scholarship opportunity. So those hours spent studying for the ACT could mean a couple thousand dollars back in your piggy bank every semester at college. Be proactive, and you can get what you want, guaranteed.
How are you studying for the ACT, CollegeXpressers? Are you shooting for a 36 too? Share your tips and story in the comments. (And if you’re still looking for the perfect college to send that perfect ACT score to, you can find it here.)