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Cedar Falls High School senior Xiang Zhao scored a perfect 36 on the ACT.

CEDAR FALLS — Xiang Zhao admits to having spent “quite a lot” of time preparing for the ACT.

The Cedar Falls High School senior, known to most people as Shawn, studied a little bit daily for the college entrance exam in the month before taking it his first two times. That became “a lot every day” for his final attempt at the test in early June.

But Zhao’s preparation to do well on the ACT didn’t begin in the past year. “If we start with the time my mother started buying ACT books, that was all the way back in grade school,” he recalled.

Well, the effort’s paid off.

Zhao’s composite score was 36 out of a possible 36 the last time he took the ACT.

How did he feel upon hearing the news? “Mostly shocked, really happy, surprised,” he said.

“My goal was to get at least a 34, 35. I wasn’t expecting to get a 36 at all,” he added.

It’s a rare feat accomplished by fewer than 1 percent of the 2.03 million seniors nationwide from the class of 2017, the students who graduated last spring. Data for Zhao’s class is not yet available.

Although there was a 2017 Cedar Falls High graduate who also achieved a 36, it doesn’t happen most years at the school.

“I was happy for Shawn,” said Principal Jason Wedgbury. “Getting a 36 out of 36 is a hard thing to obtain.”

The perfect score often indicates few — rather than zero — mistakes on the tests that make up the exam, which has more than 36 questions in each section. Zhao said he missed “four or six” questions on the English section, “two or four” on the math section “and I missed none on the reading and none on the science.”

Zhao did very well on his first two attempts at the test, but didn’t meet his goal those times. The first time “I got a 32 and the second one I improved my score by one point,” he said.

What held him back was the English score, a 29 both times. Before the third test, his study focused on English.

“I basically took, like, two practice English tests and then I figured out what I didn’t know and researched those things online,” said Zhao. One example was the difference in usage between a semicolon, colon and dash.

The practice and research paid off. He earned a 35 on the English section of the test the third time. Although he spent a lot of time preparing, Zhao didn’t participate in any ACT prep courses.

“I like to do things on my own, because I do things in a weird way and I can go at my own pace, too,” he said, noting there’s a lot of time management involved in effectively studying for the test. “The best way is to learn one section at a time.”

Zhao is still in the process of applying to colleges. He is deciding between majors in mechanical and electrical engineering or double majoring in the two subjects.

While the ACT score will be a very important part of his college application, he advises students to keep their grade point average up and participate in extracurricular activities and volunteering, as well.

“Colleges don’t just look at one thing,” said Zhao. “So don’t think ACT is an end-all be-all for college admission.”


Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Courier

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