January 5, 2018 - 3:40 pm
Updated January 6, 2018 - 9:16 pm
Sunny Lee has reached perfection — twice.
The 17-year-old Bishop Gorman High School junior recently received a perfect score of 36 on the ACT college entrance exam.
And then she did it again with the SAT.
That lands Lee among a tiny percentage of students who earn a perfect score on both exams. Among the graduating class of 2017, only about 0.1 percent of students earned a perfect score on the ACT. No current figures were available for the SAT, but a spokeswoman said the figure is roughly a fraction of 1 percent.
Lee’s achievement didn’t come easily. She spent countless hours studying and taking practice tests, and she took the ACT twice after falling slightly short of perfection the first time.
She said she initially focused on preparing for the SAT, but she got frustrated when her scores on practice tests slumped below her target in the high 1500s.
So she decided to try the ACT last fall instead.
“Honestly, I wasn’t really hoping for a specific score,” Lee said. “Just the change would bring me some new insight into these tests and how I would approach them.”
She reached a nearly perfect score of 35 on her first try, but she wasn’t satisfied with how well she did on the math section. Since one of her dream schools, the University of Chicago, considers the highest score a student can earn in each section of the ACT, she decided to retake the test for a better math score.
She was video chatting with her friends late one night when she realized her second ACT score was out.
“I logged onto the website, and I made my friend check my score for me, because I was like, ‘I can’t check it,’” she said. “Then he started screaming.”
At that point, Lee was already signed up to take the SAT in December. With a perfect score already in the bank, she didn’t feel as much pressure.
Maybe that’s why she walked out with a perfect score of 1600.
Lee, who is from South Korea but resides in the United States on a student visa, largely took it upon herself to prepare. She set aside four to five hours a week for studying and routinely took practice exams.
Her tutor, Brandon Kim of Excel Academy, said she likely completed more than 25 practice tests. He eventually ran out of different tests to give her.
Lee, whose Korean name is Seo Yeon, attributes her scores to three things: diligence, luck and mindset.
“The most important thing is doing it because you want to do it,” she said. “Not because anyone forces you to do it.”
Lee said she didn’t feel any pressure from her parents, who live in South Korea.
“The main thing that my parents care about for me is just my health and my happiness,” she said. “I think that just fostered a very positive mindset and mentality so that I could search for what I wanted to do on my own.”
At Bishop Gorman, Lee is involved in a number of activities. She works on the yearbook and has volunteered with an organization that fosters relationships for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. That aligns with her goal of becoming a pediatric psychologist.
She recently applied for an early college program at the University of Southern California, which would allow her to skip her senior year.
“In high school, they try to expose you to as many things as they can,” she said. “But since I’ve already found my passion, I want to pursue it in-depth, and I think going to college would be the right way for me.”
Lee encourages other students to consider their own future when preparing for the test — not other people’s desires.
“I believe you should be studying for the sake of only yourself, and not really for anyone else,” she said. “Find a reason why you’re doing it.”
What’s a perfect score?
On the ACT: 36 (English, math, reading and science, each worth 36 points and averaged for a composite score. Optional writing section.)
On the new SAT: 1600 (evidence-based reading and writing for 800 points, math for 800 points, optional essay)