I Got a Perfect Score on the New SAT!

SAT Scores Dashboard

And a 7/7/7 on the essay (New SAT Essay book here).

I guess an old panda can do new tricks.

Read all about my experience and my thoughts + tips on the new exam here.

I took the ACT three times to figure out the best strategies–—here's what happened

Because I used the SAT (pre-2016) instead of the ACT for college admissions, it's only relatively recently that I've started to delve into the ACT.

Due to the updates to the exam in 2015, which include a complete overhaul to the essay and a dual reading passage, many students and parents have been wondering what the best way to prepare is. The lack of resources has brought about a lot of uncertainty—only one practice exam with the new changes has been released and the ACT has not yet published an updated official guide, which has misled some students into preparing for the old exam format. Other books, such as the ones from major test prep companies, are written by academics who haven't taken the exam themselves. Much of their material isn't battle-tested or it's too broad and simplistic to be useful for top-performing students.

In teaching students, I myself had to wrestle with the best way to tackle the new essay. There just wasn't enough information out there to follow. No one really knew what worked and what didn't.

So to get a grip on the new test, I decided to sit for three official administrations of the exam—Dec 2015, Feb 2016, and Apr 2016. As a tutor who has already graduated from college, my goal wasn't exactly to get a perfect score. Instead, I went into the exams with the following agenda in mind:

  • Test out an essay template that was designed to work for any prompt.
  • Test out strategies for the reading and science sections, which are notorious for their time pressure.
  • Get a sense of any updated question types on the ACT English section (The 2015-2016 ACT booklet suggests that there has been a slight shift).
  • Check whether the exam as a whole has gotten tougher (The 2015-2016 ACT booklet suggests that it has).
December 2015:

ACT Test December Score Report

My Thoughts:

The English section has definitely gotten a bit tougher. Expect to see a lot more sentence placement questions. Also, some inside advice: know the rules for dashes inside and out. There were quite a few tricky punctuation questions involving dashes that you typically wouldn't see on the old exam.

The dual reading passage isn't any more difficult than the single passages. Don't be intimidated by it. The math and reading sections are pretty much the same as they were before and you should be fine practicing for these sections using old exams.

On initial practice tests, I struggled horribly to finish the reading section on time. At one point, I almost thought it was impossible. Fortunately, I was able to train myself to perform under time pressure. If you're having trouble finishing on time, this post details how I practiced my timing with this watch. I attribute my 36 on reading to this way of practicing.

I sort of dropped the ball on the science section. For some reason, my mind hit a brick wall and I struggled to grasp one of the passages. I ended up wasting way too much time trying to chase the answers down. Lesson learned—you can't give any questions more time than they deserve. My goal next time would be to tackle the science section in a more strategic and disciplined way.

Overall I'd say the science section was tougher than usual and the exam overall was also a bit tougher. UPDATE: I finally received the curve for this exam, which pretty much confirms my suspicions that the exam was tougher.

The highlight of this exam was the perfect score I got on the ACT essay. Why? Because I managed to crush it with an essay template that I developed.

Since the announcement of the new ACT essay, it's been a mysterious black box that no one has truly figured out. So my approach was to do an experiment to figure out what worked and what didn't. In this experiment, I used an essay template that I believed would be flexible enough for any prompt. It contained the exact words and sentences I would use as well as prepared examples and a predetermined structure.

As you can see, it worked extremely well.

And because I took the exam in December, I was able to retrieve a copy of my essay from the ACT's Test Information Release Service, which is offered only in December, April, and June.

To see my template and my actual essay from the December 2015 exam, get my ACT essay book. It goes way beyond the simple writing tips that you read in every other test prep book.

Now getting a perfect 36 on the essay meant that I could try new things on the next two exams to further see what worked and what didn't.

February 2016:

ACT Test February Score Report

My Thoughts:

As you can see, my tweaks to the essay only hurt me, which is ok since I was able to learn even more about what the ACT graders are looking for. Again, get the ACT Essay book if you'd like to know what tweaks I made so that you can avoid the mistakes.

Moving to the other sections, I was able to tackle the science section in a much better way, hence the higher score, but there was still room to refine my approach. My main goal for the next exam would be to score a 35-36 on the science section.

My thoughts on the math, reading, and English sections are pretty much the same as they were for the Dec 2015 exam. The exam overall continued the trend of being a bit harder than the old pre-2015 exam, but there wasn't anything that really surprised me.

April 2016:

ACT Test April Score Report

My Thoughts:

This was my best performance on the ACT. Even though my goal wasn't necessarily to get a perfect score, I'm proud that I came close.

As you can see, I got my science strategy down cold and will be writing more about it soon. If I can go from a 30 to a 33 to a 35, so can you.

I tried something new on the essay and it totally didn't work out. I can now state for sure that I nailed the approach the first time around on the December exam and that it's the approach everyone should be using.

Having taken the exam twice already, I encountered no surprises on the other sections. The math, reading, and English sections all felt the same. I'll be posting the curve for this exam once I get it.

One of my biggest takeaways from this whole experience is the great potential in retaking the exam. Even though I dreaded all the Saturday mornings I would have to go in for the ACT, I can't tell you how much more relaxed and focused I became from the first exam to the third. While it's true that I was better prepared each time around, I know for a fact I was mentally tougher on the second and third retakes. On the first exam, I psyched myself out a bit and the pressure got to me on the science section. By the third exam, I was a seasoned pro and finished with time to spare on nearly every section. My results speak for themselves.

If you've taken the exam just once and you're on the fence about retaking, I highly recommend that you do. You don't have much to lose and you might be surprised at how well you perform the next time around.

Lastly, if you've been wondering all this time how I consistently got 35's on the ACT English section, get the ACT English book. It contains everything I know about that section and covers all the question types you'll see on the updated exam.

If you've been wondering how I got perfect scores on the math section three times, a math book will be coming soon.

Feel free to contact me with any questions. Again, the ACT is relatively new to me so I haven't been able to write a lot about it. Expect a lot more soon!

About Nielson

About Nielson PhuNielson Phu is a teacher, author, and engineer. Since graduating from NYU with a degree in Actuarial Science, he has helped hundreds of students throughout Boston and Hong Kong improve their SAT and ACT scores with a unique approach that goes far beyond the basic strategies found in typical test prep material. In 2013, he started The College Panda blog, which now attracts over 15,000 readers each month. His best test scores are listed below:

  • New SAT: 1600
  • Old SAT: 2400
  • ACT: 35
  • SAT Math 2 Subject Test: 800
  • SAT Physics Subject Test: 780
  • SAT Chemistry Subject Test: 780