A 36 is a perfect score on the ACT math exam, and for many students, whether you are an A-student who desires to get the perfect score and get into a prestigious college or are not the best at math but still desire to get into a good college… you won’t be alone in the stress, as that demand for a perfect score can put stress on anyone.

You might think that long sleepless nights in front of a math textbook or countless hours quizzing yourself on equations is the only fate resigned for those who strive for perfection, and to an extent, you’d be right. However, there are various strategies you can use to put the maximum amount of hours into your brain and not only give yourself some much-needed sleep, but also make your work time as beneficial as possible.

Getting that 36

Now a 34 is the threshold for getting into a top college’s watchlist, so if you are making a 34, 35, or 36 on the math ACT then you can breathe easy. The top colleges are watching you, and now your other ACT scores, academic record, and other parts of the college application need to wow them for you to actually get in.

However, a 33 or lower won’t get you into a top college, so taking the time to even go one number higher on your ACT score is not only worth it, but it is also the weight that could tip the scales of favor from one college to another regarding letting you in.

High scores in any one ACT test can balance out your weaknesses in another test. For example, If you are a great math student and score a 36, then scoring a 24 on reading won’t automatically sink your chances of getting into a top college, as most colleges look at all your scores together as an average when they decide to let you in and unless the college is branded as a subject heavy school then you have a chance to get in with a diverse score set and as long as your average scores are 34 or higher you can still qualify to get into even tough schools.

Where should you go?

A perfect score on the math ACT is extremely valuable if you are seeking to make any sort of math or science subjects your majors or if you desire to go into a technical school that can only accept a few applicants each year. When you apply for a math-focused school, ACT math might be very easy to you, but chances are that it’s also very easy for the other applicants and this moves the average bar for acceptance up even higher, to an extent where a 34 on an ACT is below average, making that 36 all the more important.

For math-focused schools and colleges, a 36 in math is almost expected because math is supposed to be your forte, otherwise, you wouldn’t be applying for the math-heavy school in the first place. A 36 will show that you can handle the rigors of the math-focused colleges.

It’s possible (even if you hate math)

There is no inborn talent certain people have that makes them math people and makes the rest of the world not math people. Those people who ‘get’ math might have an advantage, but no advantage can’t be overcome with hard work and smart studying. If you believe you are going to get a perfect score and devote time and energy to make that belief a reality, then there is no reason you couldn’t get a perfect score.

The math ACT is all about universal high school math because it’s a worldwide standardized test and not every student has taken an AP level math course, so it would be unfair to test people on that. Instead, the ACT covers high school math courses, such as Algebra, geometry, and fractions to name a few subjects that every student has taken.

Since all this is learned by basically every high school student in the world, using those subjects on the math ACT make it able to give every student a full and fair chance to get a perfect score on the test.  The only way most students do not score high scores consistently is because the ACT presents these concepts in strange ways.

The test will twist even the simplest problem until it looks nothing like its former self, often giving you several step problems that require several varied pieces of math to solve each step. These various steps often trip up students who don’t expect to use something like geometry to solve a quadratic equation, and its this unexpectedness that the ACT uses to trip students up.

It needs to be an obsession

With perfection in any area of work, you need to work hard, but when professionals talk about what made them the highest paying, smartest working, I-can-make-anything-look-simple people they all seem to have one thing in common.

They want it. A want that turns into a desire and that desire turns into an obsession.  The pros don’t study another subject in case it doesn’t work out or work so much on fully fleshing out a backup plan that they never work on their primary goal. They fight tooth and nail for their primary goal, evaluating distractions and other commitments and making a plan to either ignore them or schedule them around furious prep.

Motivation is the key force that separates winners from losers and having clear goals that can motivate you in times of stress and crisis can keep you chugging along even when things are at their darkest.

Before you decide to achieve the perfect 36 and shoulder the burden it comes with, you should write down your goals and exactly why you want to tackle this massive task. It could be because an Ivy League school could help you in your carrier, or maybe you want to make your parents happy or prove someone right or wrong.

Whatever your goals are, you need to have them egg you on, and they need to be goals you can’t read without feeling motivated.

Let those goals fuel a desire and think about all the good things your life will achieve if you reach that desire. Then let that desire become an obsession, an obsession stronger than any mistakes, self-doubt, or stress.

Now, let me make it clear that you shouldn’t be working yourself to exhaustion or not paying attention to your body while you work. You need to schedule time for sleep, meals, and some time either with friends or by yourself where the ACT is the furthest thing from your mind. As long as you manage that time away from work and keep it scheduled, you don’t have to feel guilty when you have a night off to just rest, or go to lunch with friends, or spend an hour playing video games or reading a book.

Working yourself past your limit does far more harm than good but taking some time to decompress and allowing yourself to absorb the information passively while your brain does something else can get you back into the fight with even more vigor. So, let the work become an obsession, but also don’t let that obsession control your life. It’s a tricky balance act, but its one that all professionals and even normal people have done.

So why not you?

Study smarter, not harder.

The ACT has a lot of test booklets, practice websites, quizzes, and tutors that can help you study and get that 100%

However, most of these are not the quality resources you need and some are simply not helpful at all. When you are aiming for total perfection, the number of resources that can really train you are even scarcer.  You need to collect resources that not only help you understand what you need to do but also why you made the mistakes you made and why you succeeded the way you did.

The explanation is the best thing you can take away from any practice test. Knowing what you did to get that 34 or 26 can go a long way towards either keeping or improving your score and can help you pick out your strengths so you can focus more on your weaknesses. If you have a tutor or even five minutes to look at your mistakes, it can help you improve your test taking technique to get the greatest benefit from your studying.

Having strategies for your weaknesses can also help you study smarter. For example, if you have trouble with order of operations (or PEMDAS), then for each question you might consider writing down every step, as well as what parts of the problem correspond to each part of the operation. This extra information can ensure you don’t miss any important information and do each part in the correct order.

By having a battle plan for each type of tricky question, you’ll be able to get through them faster and then start to focus on the next troublesome area and so on, until you have no weaknesses that can be exploited by the test.

Beating the unexpected

In order to have a chance against the unexpected, it pays to be unexpected yourself. For every question don’t just rely on one method to answer it and be ready to have your brain adapt. Let your mind expand to even unorthodox ways to solve a problem. ACT practice tests can provide some help with this, giving you insight into the inner workings of the test and what the problems look like and the ways the test can trick you.

In order to get a perfect 36, it’s important to know how the tests are scored throughout all the subjects as some tests will allow you to miss some questions (normally just one) and still get a perfect score, while others require a perfect score of 100% right answers. The best strategy to employ if you don’t know how a test is scored is to simply aim for a perfect score and be secure in your strategy, but it does pay off to look up how the tests are scored and if you have any margin for error. If you do, it can certainly reduce stress to know that you have a lifeline and you can miss a question. You shouldn’t be aiming to use it, but it’s good to know it’s there.

Now we’ll look at some tips, tricks, and strategies to ace the test and ensure you are fully prepared and have the best chance possible to get that perfect score, while also being able to get some sleep and take some pressure free time for yourself.

1. The enemy is called time!

While answering the math questions perfectly and trying to keep track of all the data you need is hard enough, the ACT gives you a time crunch. 60 minutes for 60 questions, and not a second more.

With the questions ranging from easy to difficult, it makes sense to tackle them strategically and not take on a question a minute as most people do, which leads to rushed answers and more stress because you need to take your time, and it isn’t a sound strategy to cram every question into a one-minute box. After all, if you can finish 20 easy questions in ten minutes you have 40 minutes to tackle the hard ones.

Flipping through the test for a minute and analyzing the questions to see which ones are easy for you and which ones are hard can give you a map to deal with the test. If one topic is easier for you than the next, then do all those questions right from the start and then move on to the harder ones.

Using practice tests and putting the time limit of one hour on yourself while you do them is a good strategy to get your brain used to the time limit, and when time runs out you can finish the test if you aren’t done and then mark the questions you answered during extra time. Using the extra time shows what your answers would be if you didn’t have the time crunch and if your extra time score isn’t a 34-36 then you need to start reviewing the concepts that gave you trouble. Look at the questions you missed and try to find some patterns or topics that you have trouble with and focus on studying those.

If the 60 questions you answered in the hour give you a score of 34-36, then you are doing well. If your hour-long score is less than 34-36, then you need to figure out how you can not only study up on your topics but also work on the harder questions faster.

2. Take problems in pieces

Especially on the problems that are hard for you, it can make sense to cut each problem into manageable pieces and save yourself time and effort as well as prevent some misunderstandings with the information. This pattern is not a one size fits all, but with some changes, it could work for your specific needs.

  •         Read everything about the problem, including answer choices, the question itself, and any other instructions.
  •         Solve the problem and use the answers to help you when you have an equation. Try to approach it from many different angles if you are stuck.
  •         Eliminate answers you know are wrong
  •         Make the best guess you can using evidence and move on if you have no answer.

Tackling harder problems in pieces can stop you from drawing a blank when problems are too tough because you will at least have something to work off of. Even a bad plan is better than no plan at all.

3. Understand why you mess up

Every mistake has a reason. Sometimes it’s a silly mistake, sometimes your numbers get messed up, or maybe a negative sign looked like a minus sign. Sometimes you don’t understand the concept or the way it is presented can mess you up, and other times you are just having a rough time of it and the answer is evading you.

They can be simple mistakes or bigger mistakes because you do not know the material, but it’s important to understand how you messed up so you can catch those mistakes on the real test.

Marking the questions that you are unsure of with circles or stars during practice tests, regardless of whether you gave them an answer or not, will allow you to go back after the time is up and really take your time on your mistakes. Use a calculator, outside resources, or ask for help until you know the missed material backward and forward, also putting the tips and why you missed the question in an easily accessible place so you can review it before the test and know what it is you need to look out for.

Always look at every question you missed and understand why you missed it. If you didn’t understand the questions, look at the mistakes you made and try to understand what you misunderstood. What skills do you need to learn? How do you solve certain questions? How do you avoid common pitfalls?

4. Master your calculator.

The ACT math test allows you to use a calculator for every problem and knowing how to use it will give you a huge advantage in terms of speed and accuracy. For most graphing calculators you will need to understand how to chart graphs and measure equations for sequences, and mistakes here can cost you valuable time when trying to go over every question. Things like parentheses and exponents, especially during the order of operations questions, can be misread by the calculator and the process could spit out an answer that isn’t the correct answer.

It does help to do as much of the complicated things, such as parentheses or equations with multiple steps, either in the calculator with one step at a time or do the multi-step stuff by hand and then plug the simpler equation into the calculator and get a reliable answer without the risks of the machine doing the steps out of order.

You can simply insert the multi step equation into the calculator, but it does require some extra studying into how to structure the equation to ensure that the calculator does the steps in a correct order. If you want to learn that method then you can take the time to do so, or you can just use the calculator to put in the steps one by one and then check your answer.

When you use the calculator, ensure that it is in the right mode, is using the right programs, and is not using any banned apps or options. The rules for what your calculator can and can’t do for you are self-explanatory, but it pays to go over them before the test.

Writing down the common programs or what buttons you need to press to get your calculator into the correct mode is a good idea, especially if you are having trouble remembering how to put the calculator into graph mode or how to make it give you a certain type of number.

A graphing calculator is a great tool, and like all tools, it needs to be mastered and understood before you can use it effectively and depend on it to help you work harder and move faster on certain questions. Just remember the calculator is only as smart as the person using it, so be sure to master the machine and it will be the smartest tool you have.

5. Become a master of all

The ACT has several skills that it covers in its questions, such as quadratic equations, PEMDAS, geometry, algebra, and probability to name a few, and each skill has subsets that require memorization and mastery. Like all skills across all things, you as a test taker will be very good at some and will struggle with others. Taking the time to recognize which skills require a little extra help and effort will aid your work in the long run, as you can focus on your trouble spots.

Analyzing the types of problems that you spend the most time on will help you understand how and what to study. For example, if you can breeze through Algebra with no difficulty but struggle with geometry, then geometry is where you need to focus your skills and time. Taking a little extra time to memorize key formulas or do a few extra practice problems will pay off in the long run, as you’ll be less likely to get those questions wrong and then lose those precious points on test day.

Doing this for all the topics on the ACT and figuring out a tactical battle plan will help you during the actual test. One battle plan is to write down the formulas and tools you’ll need, and any common mistakes you might make (for example misreading a negative sign as a minus sign) in a notebook and then read them before the test starts. That way it can give you a refresher on how to deal with your weak spots that will be fresh in your brain.

6. Work backward to move forward

The best thing about the answers in multiple choice tests is that one of them is always right. No matter the style of the problem or the subject of the test, this fact will always hold true. Especially if you are solving for a variable that goes into an equation. If you are stuck on a question and can’t get anywhere, try to use the answers within the process of solving the question.

Insert the answers into the variables and try to see if it works or if you get anywhere with the problem-solving process. Normally, backsolving can help you get through a problem and perhaps give you a way to find the right answer. It does take some extra time, but at least you are moving forward with the problem and will lead you to the right answer.

7. If at first you don’t succeed, try again.

A common problem with any form of studying is that when a question is wrong, we simply go to the back of the book and see the answer. However, we often don’t go back and redo the question to get to that right answer. We don’t take the time to solve the problem, instead, we only look at the solution and move on.

The mistake needs to be analyzed and understood by you before you move on because that style of questions that tripped you up will be on the test. Going over the question again while knowing the answer can help you figure out if you are on one of two paths:

You either were on the right track and maybe messed up a formula/number or just made a mistake and were about to get the right answer if not for a mistake.

Or you were nowhere near the correct answer because you didn’t understand the question or didn’t know the topic. If so you need to go back and try to understand the topic before attacking the question again.

Resolving the question will enable the information to remain in your head longer and will help the correct method go into your head just like when you solved the problem yourself.

Then, when you practice again, mix the questions you had trouble with along with all the other questions or topics you have trouble with and then resolve the problem during your practice and see if you get the problem right.

8. Use your enemy wisely

Earlier it was stated that the enemy was time, and that is still true. However, knowing how to make your enemy work for you is a good weapon to have in your arsenal. Solving 60 problems in 60 minutes is hard enough while barely finishing the test by the skin of your teeth, however trying to solve 60 problems in half the time while also having time to recheck answers might sound impossible, and to many it is.

However, constant practice will enable you to find the patterns in every question and move through them. While ACT books are not copies of the test, they can prove valuable in showing you what the test looks like, as many of the same styles of questions from the practice books will appear on the test. That is why they update the practice books so often after all!

One of the worst things you can do, even if you are aiming for a perfect score, is change the answers to the questions you are sure on. A good way to ensure that you don’t waste time on questions you’ve already answered is that when you answer a question and you know it’s right, is to not ever look at it again.

However, if you are even the slightest bit unsure about your answer or the question, then take the time to go back and either try to solve the question again or find a step that you are confident in and try to resolve the problem again. If you get a different answer, then stick with that and don’t look at the question again. Backsolving can help here a lot, especially with problems that require algebra and you can insert the answer into the equation.

We’ll be going over bubbling in a later section, but saving time while bubbling as you go, especially for the questions that you know are correct, can stop you from rushing at the end to scribble in those last few bubbles. About five minutes before the test’s end, go back and double check your answers to ensure you haven’t missed a question or have mis-bubbled an answer and have to redo all the questions after the mistakes.

Use any and every strategy to finish the test quickly yet thoroughly and have enough time to not only do the questions you missed but also check for mistakes. This is where knowing what questions are easy, knowing how to solve the hard questions, and avoiding costly mistakes can really come in handy. Then you can take it slow on the second and third read throughs.

Also, on most ACT tests there will either be someone calling out the times or there will be a clock on the wall that shows you how much time is remaining, so you’ll always know the time you have left and this will help you plan out the strategy for the rest of the test.

9. Stop careless mistakes from plaguing you.

As stated before, the ACT takes simple high-school level content and twists it into tricky questions that can trick even the greatest math whizzes. A simple question misread can lead to losing points, which no one wants, especially if perfection is your goal. Everyone misreads a question for some reason, whether you didn’t understand what the question was asking, misremembered a unit, or didn’t convert properly. Thankfully there are some ACT tips that can stop you from making these silly mistakes and ensure you can focus on the question without fear of tripping up.

First, you can mark all the important parts of the question with circles or underlines. This may sound silly, but these markings actually draw your eyes to certain parts of the question and keep the important information relevant in your mind.

Second, you can write down any formulas or units you need for the question below the question, so that way you have all the information in front of you. Also, check and double check your calculator equations to ensure all parentheses, exponents, and signs are correct before you hit enter to avoid mistakes. Remember the calculator is only as smart as the person inputting the information!

Knowing the questions can also help you break the problem down into steps, as many ACT questions have several parts you need to solve before you can find the true answer. For example, if a problem has you searching for probability and then you have to insert that value into a quadratic equation to find the true answer, then write every step down and the equation you need to solve each problem before moving onto each step. Solve one piece at the time and be sure you know what that part is asking you before moving onto the next step.

10. Bubble, bubble, can cause you trouble

Every single ACT test has bubble sheets, and chances are you have encountered them before. They require dark bubbles from pencils, and they need to be very clear and correct in order for your answers to count. Scantrons are used and are often all that people will look at when they look at your test, so it makes sense to take your time to get the scantron right.

You can either bubble in all your answers as you go, or finish the test, bubble in the answers for the questions you’ve marked, then go through the test and solve the questions you skipped and bubble in those answers and so on. Whichever one works for you.

It often saves time to go through the scantron after you go through the test, just to ensure that you can focus solely on the test and then solely on the scantron without dividing your attention and slowing down your time.

This can also help you avoid mis-bubbles and can ensure you don’t skip a question or bubble a wrong answer into the wrong number, which is frustrating and time-consuming. As always be sure to fully and clearly bubble in the answers, ensure the letter cannot be seen, make sure the circle is dark and no marks exist outside the lines, and if you have to change an answer be sure to erase fully and then fill in the new answer. If you have trouble keeping your bubbles neat and dark, then take your time on the scantron or find a way to practice quickly and neatly bubbling in answers. That way you won’t be stumped on the test.

11. Understand relationships and formulas.

As you take a practice test and try to understand your weaknesses and strengths, you’ll come across a few formulas you’ll need to memorize, whether for their usefulness throughout the test or because they’ll give you an edge on your weaknesses. While the ACT does not include a formula sheet, that doesn’t stop you from taking a minute to write down the common formulas you’ll need to know before moving forward.

Common math knowledge such as prime numbers, the angles of right triangles, sequences, area and perimeter, and so on, as well as equations for quadratics, geometry, and algebraic equations should all be either memorized so you can bring them up on demand or written down the second the clock starts on a sheet of scratch paper. That way they can be called up and used without you using precious time to rack your brain for the correct equation or even worse, miswriting the equation and missing a key component that will throw off the rest of your answers.

Using common equations or tips and knowing what the equations for your weaknesses are, can save you time and give you a key tool to use on those tougher questions. You can also write down the equations you need in a notebook and look over it the morning before the test in order to have everything you need at the forefront of your brain.

When you make creating a formula sheet the top priority before even opening the test booklet, it can be a grand opening salvo to push your way to victory, and ensure careless mistakes or missteps are not made.

12. Keep a cool head

If you haven’t read and absorbed anything else in this article, then please read and absorb this section. It’s the single most effective weapon in your arsenal for taking any test, not just the ACT.

Now if you haven’t realized this already, having a perfect score of 36 on the ACT is not easy, and the fleeting can’t-make-a-single mistake attitude can easily cause some heavy stress to befall you in addition to all the normal stress that rears its ugly head whenever you are forced to take a test.

We’ve all tried to be perfect at something in our lives, maybe getting a perfect video game score or getting a perfect grade on an essay, or working out for an hour a day for a perfect week.

How many times have we actually succeeded at that? Even better, how many times have we succeeded without any stress piled on top of us?

If you’re getting low numbers for the answers to the above questions, that will give you a good idea of the stress you’ll feel as you aim for perfection on the ACT. Freezing up and panicking during the test can happen to even the best test takers and can grind a perfect plan to succeed into a train wreck of a stalling mess.

The number one strategy you can use during a test is knowing its okay to skip and come back. No matter how hard you study (for any test, not just the ACT) there will always be a question that trips you up. Whether you don’t understand the question, simply misread it, or are simply not in the frame of mind to answer the question… you’ll get tripped up.

The important thing is to keep on going, never stop getting up. Take a deep breath, get the rest of the test done, and then come back and devote the remainder of your time to answering the question. Once you are free of the time pressure and have a good few minutes to focus your brain on the one or two trouble questions, you will find that you can solve them easily and the stress will fade away into determination.

Having a notebook full of the problems, tips, and formulas you need to memorize or have troubles with to look over before the test can free you from the stress of your biggest problems. Also, giving yourself a pep talk and reassuring yourself that you can do this, will help you more than anything else.

It sounds silly, but a few deep breaths, a clear head, and some muttered affirmations can really knock the stress for a loop and reassure you on what you already know… you got this and can make a perfect score. All your hard work has lead to this, you know the math, and you’re prepared to solve the other problems. Keep up the positive mindset and any score you get will feel like a win.

13. Never stop trying

All the resources, helpful blog posts, and practice quizzes in the world won’t be able to help you if you crumble to the pressure of the ACT. A perfect score for ACT math is difficult and rare, but certainly not at all impossible for the right student with a boatload of grit, determination, and a little bit of luck.

You don’t have to be super smart, an A-plus grade student, a genius or prodigy, or even good at math to aim for perfection on the ACT. All it requires is a drive so large it becomes an obsession, and a hardworking mindset. Work as hard as you can and you’ll make it, that I can say with certainty.

If you get up and keep focusing every time you mess up a practice test, if you try harder every time you make a silly mistake or forget to convert your minutes answer into seconds, if your only solution to the mistakes you make is to work harder and keep going even when the world tells you to stop… then going for a perfect ACT score is for you.

All you need is that mindset and motivation to keep you going, and you’ll be as talented, strong-willed, and as fast as the people who are ‘good’ at math or the professionals who are masters at their fields. If you can honestly say that a perfect ACT score is do or die and you will do any amount of work to get it, then you can get a perfect score.

Never give up, that’s the best skill you can bring to the test and the mantra you can use while preparing it. Never stop trying.

In conclusion

Spend time on your weaknesses, not just fixing them, but also moving to make yourself completely immune to them. Figure out how and why you are making a mistake, and then ensure you will never make that mistake again. Work with a timer and understand the time limitations you will be under so you will have ample time to answer every question, and you’ll know which questions to skip and then work on once you have finished the text and have more time.

Spend about three to five minutes on the scantron. It might not seem super important, but a messed up scantron could cause some serious problems and a mistake there could ruin your score. Taking the time to bubble it in and triple check that you got your answers in the right numbers and bubbles can really take a load off your chest and help you focus.

Finally, always keep working on getting better, and focus on managing your time so you are still sleeping, eating, and relaxing.

Then on test day, be sure to destress, take a deep breath, and know that you have done everything you can to get a perfect score and now you have to show the colleges and the world what you know.