‘I hope he’s my doctor one day.’ Merced County student earns perfect score on ACT test

Modesto Teen Tells How To Ace The ACT

Enochs high senior Kane Wu shares the strategy that got him to the top tenth of the top percent of scores on the pre-college ACT test for 2015. (Nan Austin/
Up Next
Enochs high senior Kane Wu shares the strategy that got him to the top tenth of the top percent of scores on the pre-college ACT test for 2015. (Nan Austin/

El Captian High junior Derrick Ma’s college applications were already impressive.

Ma, 16, is near the top of his class with a 4.71 GPA. He’s received straight A’s all through high school and middle school. He’s also been involved in sports, band and clubs on campus.

Ma added a perfect score of 36 on the ACT exam he took in February.

“I knew I had a 36, but when I first found out, I didn’t know the implications,” Ma said. “I’m proud of it. More importantly, I’m glad it opens up more opportunities for my future.”

How rare is a perfect score on the ACT?

According to a news release sent out by, only two-tenths of one percent of students who take the ACT, which is a standardized test many colleges use for admission, earn a composite score of 36.

The ACT consists of tests in English, mathematics, reading and science, each scored on a scale of 1–36. A student’s composite score is the average of the four test scores.

In the California high school graduating class of 2018, 619 students out of 118,521 test-takers earned a 36. In the U.S. graduating class, only 3,741 out of more than 1.9 million graduates earned a top score.

“I hope he’s my doctor one day if that what he wants to do,” said El Capitan boys water polo and swimming coach Rodd Parker, who’s coached Ma in high school. “You’d never know how smart he is because he’s very humble. Although just talking to Derek, you can tell he’s very intelligent, but he doesn’t throw it at you. He’s very down to earth.”

Ma hasn’t put together his list of colleges he’s interested in but does plan to visit MIT and Harvard during his spring vacation. He’s currently looking into summer college programs.

Right now, he’s interested in becoming an engineer or going into the medical field. He’s been accepted to participate in a summer program at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland.

“A perfect score on the ACT is really good to submit,” said Ma.

Ma scored a 1580 on the SAT exam. He just missed a perfect score by one missed question.

“That was my mom’s reaction,” he said. “You were so close to a perfect score.”

Ma’s able to maintain his robust GPA despite a heavy class schedule. He starts each day at 7 a.m. by meeting with the academic decathlon team, which he’s been a member all three years at El Capitan.

His class schedule includes biotechnology, advanced placement physics, AP U.S. History, AP English, AP Statistics and then Spanish 2. He then finds time to do homework around water polo practice in the fall and swimming practice in the spring. His two main swimming events are the 200-yard individual medley and the 100 backstroke.

“He just does everything, sports, band, a tough school schedule,” Parker said. “He knows how to prioritize his time.”

Parker says he’s been surrounded by smart aquatic athletes this year.

“It’s funny, we were at a water polo tournament in Rocklin this fall,” Parker said. “We went 3-1 in the tournament. We finished fifth in a pretty big tournament. We played some great water polo, but when we got in the vans everyone was opening up their e-mails to check their SAT scores. Nobody was talking about water polo, it was all about their SAT scores.”

Ma says he wasn’t always a great student. When his family moved to Merced from Los Angeles in 2009, he struggled in school at first.

“When I got into seventh grade, a lot of my friends skipped up to eighth grade math,” Ma said. “I didn’t want to be left behind so I did too. My parents also explained to me in the future, I won’t just be competing with my classmates here in Merced. I’ll be competing with people from all over the world for colleges and job placements.”