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The secret of the 36: How students say they achieved that perfect ACT score

SALT LAKE CITY — It's Tuesday afternoon, and in her Salt Lake City home, Rebecca Nickerson is twirling her pencil in her hand as she tries to solve a crossword puzzle. This is part of the 16-year-old's after-school routine — come home, do a couple of crossword puzzles, finish homework, read, teach herself how to play the guitar.

The sophomore at West High School isn't sure what she wants to do with her life, probably something that includes math and science and is "fun," but her opportunities became even wider in late December when she found out she got a 36 on the ACT.

Nickerson was one of just a handful in Utah to get the highest score possible on the standardized college admission exam in the past year.

The ACT is broken up into four main parts: English, math, reading and science, with the option of a writing portion. Students are then given a score of 1 to 36 on each section, and the average score is the composite or final score.

Fewer than one-tenth of 1 percent of students get a final score of 36, says Nancy Owen, ACT media relations specialist. In 2010, about 1.56 million students took the ACT and 588 got the top score, she said. In 2009, 1.48 million took the test and 638 got a top score.

The average national score in 2010 was 21, just slightly lower than in years past; Utah's average in 2010 was 21.8.

In Utah last year, just seven graduating seniors got a perfect score. And last month, five students (ages 16 to 18) were recognized at a banquet for getting a 36. They also got a glass plaque shaped like Utah that said "'The perfect score' of 36" on the front.

Judah Evangelista, a senior at Kanab High School, is the first in at least 12 years from his school to get a perfect score.

He took the ACT in April 2010 and got a 34 and was happy with the outcome, but took the test again in October because he wanted to complete the writing portion of the test.

"About a month after the test I signed in on the school computer to look at my score," Evangelista said. "I just kept staring at the score in disbelief. Then I jumped up and hugged everyone I knew in the room."

Evangelista said he took a practice test every week for a month leading up to the first time he took the ACT. The second time, he was able to just relax. It is about having a passion for learning, he said. He also recommends people take at least two practice exams before taking the test.

Timothy Kuhn, a senior at Sky View High School in Cache County, owes his 36 in part to his mom, who pushed him to take the test one more time after he had already gotten a 33 the second time he took it. He said he figured this would be the last time he ever took the ACT, so he studied. He took at least two full practice tests and took a few more practice tests of just science, the portion he had the hardest time with.

"I think the most important part is understanding the basics of how the test works and answering as many of the questions as possible," he said.

He was in his basement on his computer when he found out his score. "I thought yes, yes, yes, yes," said Kuhn, who is going to BYU next year and is hoping to study engineering. "You probably could've heard me upstairs."

Sam Watson, a senior at Hillcrest High School in Midvale, also took the test three times. He got a 33 the first two times and said his dad pushed him to take it again to qualify for more scholarships. But before he took the test a third time he started tutoring one of mom's friend's daughters in geometry and said that review really helped him in the math section. Many students take geometry in junior high school and forget many of the formulas by the time they take the ACT, he said.

"I don't think it's just luck," Watson said of getting a 36. "A lot of it's studying and doing your best. My parents taught me that you're supposed to do everything you can and pray for the rest of it, and it works out that way some times."

The ACT reports that 55 percent of students who take the test a second time improve their score, while 23 percent of students do worse. Students can take the test up to 12 times.

Nickerson first took the ACT in sixth grade — she got a 26. In seventh grade, she got a 32. At that point, her dad said, she began to humble him. Part of the reason her dad thinks she does so well on the test is because of her math skills. She has competed in dozens of math contests and consistently scores among the top in the state. She started taking Advanced Placement math courses as a freshman.

"I think a lot of doing well on the test is about staying calm and being able to apply what you learn in school," Rebecca Nickerson said. She also recommends students push themselves to work on problems that are harder than they think they can do.

Landon Willey, a junior at Viewmont High School, is somewhat of an anomaly in Utah in that he took the test the first time in March and got a perfect score.

"I'm blessed with a good memory, and parents who push me, and older siblings who taught me a lot," Willey said. He also thinks just being a good student and working hard to understand concepts throughout his high school career helped him attain the 36.

What stood out to one of the 36ers' moms was how well-rounded the students who scored a 36 are. Not only have all of them taken many advanced placement classes (some as many as 10) or dual-enrollment classes, they are all involved in a variety of activities outside of school.

Evangelista, Kuhn and Nickerson all are involved in music. Evangelista is composing his own music and Nickerson has won competitions in playing the piano and is now teaching herself guitar.

Kuhn and Watson are both in the process of writing books. Peter Daniels, who also took the ACT three times before getting that perfect score in April 2010, loves the outdoors and participates in Logan Youth Shakespeare. And Wiley has been doing Tae Kwon Du since he was a kindergartner.

Most of the 36er also said they enjoyed every subject in school. Kuhn wants to be an engineer or math teacher, Evangelista wants to do something in the arts, Daniels wants to study international relations, Watson is thinking about being a seminary teacher, and both Nickerson and Willey want to do something that involves math and science.

Christopher Roundy, a senior at Westminster University who is studying biology, has been tutoring students who are preparing for the ACT for the last four years. He said students seem to have the toughest time with the math and science sections. He also teaches them critical reading as all the sections but the math have it in there.

"A huge part of getting ready is content-awareness," Roundy said. "If they are comfortable with what type of questions they will be asked, they will do much better."

And ACT's advice: "We always say take the toughest classes offered at your high school," Owens said, "because the test is based on what you learn in high school."