Paul Laurence Dunbar High School Senior Zsombor Gal likes to think of the ACT as a game.
“It’s a game where the time is really important and you really can’t afford to make any mistakes, at least for a 36,” said Gal, 17.
A 36 is a perfect score on the ACT standardized test, which Gal and 12 other Fayette County public school students earned in the 2016-17 school year. Gal took the exam twice and scored a 36 both times.
Nationally, and in Kentucky, only around one-tenth of 1 percent of students who take the ACT earn a top score of 36, according to ACT spokesman Ed Colby.
Kentucky is one of 16 states in which every student is required to take the ACT. In Kentucky, only 40 of the 51,203 graduating seniors in 2017 received a perfect 36, Colby said. Nationally that number was 2,760 out of more than 2 million graduating seniors who took it, he said.
“I think I got a 36 on the ACT because my goal is just to keep moving through each question,” said Augustine “Gus” Carlson from Henry Clay High School. “I don’t spend a lot of time on each thing. I just focus on keep moving so I have to answer every question and not letting anything get left unanswered.”
The ACT requires fast thinking and steady pacing, the Kaplan test prep website said. The ACT covers 215 questions in 2 hours and 55 minutes, plus an optional 40-minute Writing Test. That’s less than one minute per question.
“There’s a lot of tips and tricks which can help you beat the game of ACT,” said Gal. “You can go into the science section knowing nothing about science. All the information is right there in the passage.”
The ACT consists of tests in English, mathematics, reading, and science. Each is scored on a scale of 1 to 36, and the student’s composite score is the average of the four tests, a district news release said.
Nationwide and in Fayette County, the average score was 21 in 2016-17. In Kentucky for that school year, it was 19.8, according to the Kentucky Department of Education website.
Austin Booth, a senior at Lafayette High School, said he thought one reason he made a perfect score was that he kept up with his school work throughout the year.
“A lot of the stuff on the ACT you can just learn by paying attention in class and doing all your homework,” Booth said.” It’s not necessary to take a private class or anything you have to pay money for. Just make sure you always do your school work and If you are a good student through out the year you are going to do well on the ACT.”
“You can learn a lot of the information just inside your classes,” said David Thomas Litster, a student at Lafayette. ”Your teachers will do a good job of preparing you that way but then if you find that certain parts of the practice tests ... are giving you some trouble that you should spend a little extra time focusing and studying on those parts.”
Students who earned a perfect score said there’s not one path to success.
“I practiced some of the more difficult sections beforehand,” said Jons Theodore Ehrenborg, a Henry Clay student, “and I also felt really rested before the actual test” Ehrenborg looked over the format of the questions beforehand so he wouldn’t be surprised. In general, he studies between 30 minutes to an hour each evening.
Ehrenborg was a sophomore in 2016-17 when he took the ACT. Two other students who received a 36, Joel Ahne who has graduated from Lafayette High School and Jan Balk, who graduated from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, are now in college and could not be reached for comment.
All other students who scored a 36 were juniors in 2016-17 when they took it. School district officials said a student from Henry Clay who earned a perfect score asked them not to release his name.
“There are a couple of techniques that I think are helpful,” said Kelly Chen, now a senior Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. “For example, instead of just doing practice tests, really focus on what you are bad at. If you are doing math and you are bad at slope for example just practice slope questions and really get the fundamentals of the concept but I also want to say that a lot of times the 36 isn’t just based off of individual ability. Once you reach a certain point of competency with all of the skills a lot of it is also based on chance. “
“I did a lot of preparation for this exam,” Emma Draper, a senior at Paul Laurence Dunbar said about the ACT. “Every thing I’ve ever done I kind of consider preparation because as you go through schooling you’re learning and you’re capturing the concepts that you’ll need to know.. Get yourself a prep book if you can and read through it. Think about ‘what do I already know, what do I not know, what do I need to focus on?’ For me that was science.”
But Chris Duncan, now a senior at Dunbar said, “I didn’t really do as much studying and preparation as a lot of people tend to do. My parents just told me ‘Hey, You go in there do your best and that’s all you really need to do. I’m fine with whatever you get.”
“Don’t put pressure on yourself. Just go in there with confidence,” said Duncan.
“The ACT measures what you’ve learned in school,” said ACT spokesman Colby. “That’s why Kentucky uses it to measure learning.”
Students with a perfect 36 “likely have taken challenging courses in school and have worked very hard to learn that material,” Colby said..“They are likely to be ready to hit the ground running in college from an academic standpoint. They’ve learned all the core skills they need to succeed in first year college course work.”
“I think what’s really important is understanding the test,” said David Ma, a senior at Dunbar High School. “Think from the perspective of a test writer, not just of a test taker. Also think about why some of those answers are incorrect. When you are choosing between certain answers you really have to be able to pick between two, why they put both of those answers on there and If there is a way to show one of them as incorrect.”
“Get a practice test,” said Joshua Pe, now a senior at Henry Clay. “Practicing a lot, getting familiar with the tests is what really helps me.”
The ACT, Joshua said, “is really a measurement of your academic aptitude. It’s not a measurement of intelligence or anything. It’s a test of how well you know the material. Knowing the material really well is what can get you a higher score, what can get you a 36.”
Don Witt, a University of Kentucky associate provost, said the students who received a perfect score on the ACT are being invited to UK’s campus by recruiters for campus tours and for meetings with people in their academic areas of interest.
Earning a 36 on the ACT makes students “very competitive” in the college admissions process, because it’s “very rare,” Witt said.
However, an ACT score is just one factor that admission officials look at. They look at grade point averages and whether students had leadership roles and extra curricular activities, he said. Witt said 47 current students at UK have earned a perfect score on the ACT or the SAT.
“I would say that a 36 is something to be proud of but it’s not the only measurement of somebody’s ability,” student Kelly Chen said. “ A lot of it is luck-based especially with the questions you get and the types of prompts you get. Making sure you ... have a good understanding of all the concepts will increase your chances of acing the ACT.”
They’re not always studying: From Chinese Dance to Alzheimer’s disease research
The Lexington students who received perfect scores on the ACT last year also have plenty of extra-curricular or outside activities when they’re not studying.
Jons Theodore Ehrenborg is a leader in the Math Club.
In addition to being involved in academic bowl teams, Dunbar’s Zsombor Gal said, “I do archery and I weight lift.” Gal also conducts research through Dunbar’s Math, Science, and Technology Center (MSTC). He’s focusing on integrating computational methods into Alzheimer’s disease research.
Dunbar student Chris Duncan, 18, said he plays soccer competitively and is involved in service and honor clubs.
“I’ve been playing violin most of my life,” said Dunbar’s David Ma. “I really enjoy playing in groups, playing by myself. I also am part of Dunbar’s Speech and Debate Team. I also conduct research on the side. I’ve been doing research since 8th grade. It started as environmental research but now it’s more focused on computer science and more medicine research.”
“My big thing is theater,” said Emma Draper. “I’ve been involved in seven or eight Dunbar productions at this point. So, really , performing is my big thing.”
“ I really really like to dance,” said Kelly Chen, also a Dunbar student. “ I actually do Chinese dance. Speech and debate, that’s my other thing. A lot of public speaking, acting. “
Austin Booth and David Thomas Litster are members of the storied Lafayette Band. Litster sings with the choir and plays piano. “When I have free time I like to play role playing games, Dungeons and Dragons and stuff like that.” he said.
Booth likes to fish and likes “to swim in my free time and read and I like to travel. I always like to go to new places and try new things and eat new foods.”
Henry Clay student Joshua Pe said, “I really like to cook. Every weekend. I get in the kitchen and I cook for a couple of hours. Right now I’m really into Japanese food.”