About the ACT Science Section
Types of Passages
The ACT Science passages can be divided into three categories: data representation, research summaries, and conflicting viewpoints:
- Data Representation: Paired with five to six questions, data representation passages include both visual aspects and text descriptions of multiple studies. Each study will be testing various topics related to a central scientific question, the unifying factor of the passage, that is described before each study’s description.
- Research Summaries: Paired with five to six questions, the research summary passages are very similar to the data representation passages except that they focus on one or multiple specific experiments and give more context into the situation surrounding the experiment, such as the scientist(s) conducting it.
- Conflicting Viewpoints: Paired with seven questions, these passages are often thought to be the most difficult, or at least the most tedious. Usually exclusively text (in lieu of visual aspects, such as graphs or charts), the conflicting viewpoints passage presents an experiment or scientific question and follows that description with different hypotheses or reactions by multiple students. When reading these passages, be sure to note the differences between the viewpoints, and try to jot down the essential elements of each hypothesis for easy reference later.
Types of ACT Science Passages
|Charts and Graphs||5 Questions Each||-Always come with figures|
-Contain 1 or more charts,
tables, graphs, or illustrations
|Experiments||6 Questions Each||-Usually comes with figures|
-Describe several experiments
-Include more text than the charts
and graphs passages do
|Opposing Viewpoints||1 Passage, 7 Questions||-Sometimes come with figures|
-Feel more like the passages
on the ACT Reading Test
-Ask you to compare, contrast, and
synthesize different viewpoints
Types of Questions
While questions vary wildly, they can generally be categorized into five different types:
- Questions that ask you to locate a specific data point in a graph or chart: These are the most common type of question, and they often can be answered simply by following the logic of the question and crossing out elements of the graphs or charts where the answer could not be found.
- Questions that ask about the way the experiment is conducted and could be described as constructively critical: Go back to the description of the experiment setup (or to the diagram of the experiment setup) to make sure you understand how the scientist(s) designed the experiment and why,
- Questions that deal with hypothetical situations: These questions require the best understanding of the data because the answer cannot be found in the existing data. Often, these are good questions to leave until the end of the passage so you get the best idea possible of how to interpret the data and what different aspects’ significance is.
- Questions that track patterns of data: Similar to the hypothetical situation questions, these questions ask you to understand trends in the existing data, so they rely on a close examination of the presented data as a whole instead of one or two individual points.
- Questions that ask students to identify differences or similarities between studies, experiments, or hypotheses: These questions are also better left towards the end of the passage after you have had the chance to answer questions that relate to each of the separate experiments, studies, or hypotheses separately. Especially in the conflicting viewpoints passages, taking notes as you read can help to speed up these questions to minimize rereading the text.
What it Takes to Get a 36
The science section of the ACT is one of the toughest to get a 36 because it is tied with the reading section for the fewest number of questions (40). Typically, achieving a perfect score means answering every question correctly, and depending on the test’s curve, missing just one question can bump your score down to a 35 or even a 34. See the table below for the curves of four past ACT science sections.
General Strategies and Tips for the ACT Science Section
Don’t Waste Time in the Passage and Figures
While it might be tempting to read the passage and analyze the figures before diving into the questions, this actually isn’t the most effective and efficient way to approach the ACT science section. The questions for most passage types will guide you to the area of the graph or table, making a close reading of the content unnecessary. As a general ACT Strategy, the more visual components in a passage, the less important it is to closely read the accompanying paragraphs (and vice-versa). If you can read the graph or table and understand the trend of the data and have a loose idea of the experiment’s setup with minimal reading, then it’s best to skip scrutinizing every sentence in the passage in the interest of time.
Understand Your Strong and Weak Points
Over the course of multiple tests, track which questions are confusing and/or which ones you are consistently getting incorrect to better understand your strengths and weaknesses. The better you understand these strengths and weaknesses, the more targeted you can make your skimming of the passage’s content. While carefully reading the passages is not necessary, making sure to read aspects of the passage that correlate with your weaknesses in order to get a more solid understanding is a good middle ground to ensure you are not wasting your time while also not missing essential information. If you take the test more than once, look at your first score report for the subscores of the science section. Subscores describe which subcategories of each section of the test you struggled with the most and succeeded at the most, so if identifying struggles on your own proves difficult, the ACT will do it for you!
Know Basic Scientific Terms
The ACT claims that scientific knowledge is not required to take the exam, and while you won’t need to know chemical equations or study up on biology, a basic familiarity with scientific terms can help to make any technical jargon on the test easier to digest. Some basic vocabulary to brush up on could include the following: units of measurement, types of subatomic particles, frequently referenced elements, and aspects of a scientific experiment/the scientific process (ex: control group, dependent v. independent variables, hypothesis). While the definitions of these things will not be tested directly, it can save you significant time if you do not have to think extensively about what these terms mean on test day – do the leg work now! Most science concepts taught before high school are expected to be general knowledge, while more complex ideas introduced in high school courses are typically superfluous.
Do Not Get Caught Up in the Big Science Terms
While knowing those scientific terms is helpful, very specific and complicated terms (ex: bacteria names, chemical compounds, etc) are often included simply to make the passage less easily comprehensible at first glance. Even obscure processes, unless explained more thoroughly in the passage or essential to answering one of the questions, can usually be glanced over as long as you can recognize their role in the experiment. If a question asks you, for example, about four different types of bacteria and describes a process that each of these bacteria undergo, try labeling the bacteria with letters (A, B, C, D, for example) and boil the process down to its most essential, simple elements. Most of the questions will only track your ability to interpret the data in the figures, not to fully understand how the graph would have been drawn based on the experiment descriptions or a comprehensive understanding of the science behind those descriptions.
Use Process of Elimination
It’s important to use process of elimination in the science section so as not to be swayed or tricked by answer choices, especially numbers, that are mentioned in the figure but do not refer to the correct point, box, etc. The question will direct you to an increasingly specific area of the figure, and often, you can rule out an answer choice with each degree of specificity given by the question. For example, a question might begin with “In figure one”, continue on to ask “what is the maximum pressure,” and specify “when [other variable] is greater than 5?”. We can narrow our focus on the graph with each element, undoubtedly crossing off answer choices that are perhaps not seen in figure one, represent the minimum pressure, and/or appear when the second variable is less than or equal to 5. By making sure to eliminate these other answer choices as you go instead of simply searching for the particular point/number that the question is looking for, you are severely lessening the likelihood of choosing the incorrect answer because making a mistake will lead to a number that is either not an answer choice or an answer choice that has already unequivocally been eliminated.
Group Answer Choices
When possible, try to group your answer choices so that finding a problem with one answer choice could potentially allow you to eliminate another answer choice. This more general strategy can be applied to any section of the ACT, but in the Science section in particular, grouping answer choices is a great way to avoid careless mistakes.
Don’t Actually Study Science to Improve Your Score
Despite its name, the ACT science section tests your ability to quickly analyze data presented in charts and graphs just as much (if not more) as it tests your comfort answering questions about life sciences you might have seen in school courses such as Biology, Chemistry or Physics. Beyond knowing basic scientific vocabulary, as mentioned above, scientific knowledge is ironically not a prerequisite for the Science section. While familiarity with the content of a passage might be helpful for that passage specifically, it is virtually impossible to be familiar with every topic or experiment design that could be on the test. Considering that all answers can be reached without that knowledge, studying for content is completely inefficient.
Save the Conflicting Viewpoints Passage For Last
The conflicting viewpoints passage is often thought to be the most difficult (or at least the most time consuming) because you must read through the passage instead of being able to skip right to the questions. The visual aspects of these passages are much more limited in application, and many of the questions will ask about multiple students’ hypotheses, making it more efficient to read all students’ hypotheses first, rather than searching for the answer to each question separately.
Have An Overall Exam Strategy
Do you like to get the most difficult passages out of the way first? Do you like to leave them for last? Do you always run out of time, no matter how many strategies for efficiency you try to implement? These are all questions to ask yourself when preparing for the exam so that when test day arrives, you have a clear idea of how you are planning to mitigate those challenges.
ACT Science Tips and Tricks for Increasing Speed on the Exam
Get Familiar With the Types of Passages
Being able to succeed at each passage type’s questions is key, but being able to identify which type of passage you are dealing with is also important. The quicker you can identify what passage type you’re dealing with, the quicker you’ll be able to narrow your focus and employ the correct strategies, cutting down on your time. The more you can do this during preparation, the more adept you will also become at noticing any unique questions that do not fall into normal patterns for each passage types, allowing you to make better decisions about which questions to guess on and which ones to spend more time on.
Order the Passages
After understanding which passage types are your strong suit and which ones are typically more difficult, order the passages at the beginning of the test to determine which you will tackle first and which you will leave towards the end. Students often like to go either easiest to most difficult or most difficult to easiest. If you are typically finishing with time to spare, attacking the passages most difficult to easiest is a good strategy to try, but if timing is a weak point, then making sure to get the easiest passages done first is a great way to ensure you are prioritizing those questions you are more likely to get right.
Keep Track of Time
Not all passage types will require the same amount of time, but being generally aware of the time as you practice and eventually take the test is essential to making sure you finish on time because the ACT is a fast test. In case the testing center does not have a clock clearly displayed for you, bring an analog watch or a digital watch with no sounds or alarms to keep track of your time.
Practice As Much As Possible
Like the other ACT sections, the more variations you see by taking multiple practice tests, the more prepared you will be for any questions that could be thrown your way on test day. In addition to understanding the content, timing is an aspect of taking the ACT Science section that can be greatly improved by repetition. In fact, the two are very much in tandem because increased confidence leads to answering questions more quickly. Repetition can also help you to construct the most effective timing plan for test day. Once you feel confident understanding the content of most science passages you encounter on practice exams, start timing yourself per passage to understand which passage types typically take the most time to finish. For each passage type, average the time taken to complete for the last few tests you take and use that average as your goal time to complete that passage on test day.
Putting ACT Science Test Tips to the Practice
As you prepare for the Science section do not initially worry too much about the timing; while answering all of the questions within the time limit typically ends up being the most difficult aspect for most students, the first step is making sure that you understand the questions conceptually. As you gain more confidence in recognizing passage types, question types, and the strategies that go along with each of those, timing will naturally improve. Be sure to remember that the ACT Science section is administered last of the four core subject sections. Unless you are taking the Science portion alone to superscore, you will most likely already be a bit worn out from the three sections you’ve already completed. When preparing, try to take this information into account and not always take practice sections with a fresh mind. Preparing as closely to the test day conditions as possible can often determine whether or not you will be able to perform as well on test day as you do at home.
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SoFlo ACT Tutors know the difficulties of preparing for the ACT Science section alone, but we got through the test, and so can you. We’re eager to help students like you learn the ropes of the ACT science section by providing practice tests, strategies, and more personalized tips and tricks. Since there are few rules and individual facts to memorize for this section, unlike the Math or English sections, for example, one on one tutoring can make a big difference in Science scores especially.