A Guide to the Science Section of the ACT
The ACT is a standardized test most often taken by high school students as a measure of their college readiness. ACT scores are used by many college admissions committees as they assess college applicants for admission. Along with the SAT, the ACT is one of the most common standardized tests taken by high school students nationwide. In fact, in some states it is a high school graduation requirement.
Unlike the SAT, the ACT tests a broader range of subject areas. While both tests measure skills in the humanities and math, only the ACT measures skills in science. The Science section of the ACT has been a part of the test since it was first introduced in 1959. Originally termed Natural Sciences, it was changed to Science Reasoning in 1989 and is now simply called Science.
In this post, we will guide you through what you can expect on the Science section of the ACT. First, we’ll discuss the specifics in terms of format and scoring, and then we’ll move on to the skills that the test assesses. Finally, we’ll offer some of our favorite strategies for mastering the Science ACT.
What is the format of the Science ACT?
The Science section of the ACT consists of 40 multiple-choice questions that you’ll answer over the course of 35 minutes. This section is the last required part of the ACT; the Writing section that follows it is optional. Some students may find that when they arrive at this part of the test, they are beginning to feel fatigued or somewhat bored. If this is the case for you, you should try to refuel between the beginning of the Science section and the Reading section that precedes it.
Some common strategies include deep, meditative breathing, stretching your shoulders, neck, or back, or even closing your eyes and envisioning yourself finishing the Science ACT. Try out some of these tips during timed practice tests, and see which works best for you. Having a strategy to stay focused through the duration of the test will definitely work to your advantage.
The Science ACT consists of seven brief passages, divided among the categories of Data Representation, Research Summary, and Conflicting Viewpoints. Typically, there are three passages each of Data Representation and Research Summary, with the remaining passage being Conflicting Viewpoints. Each passage will be accompanied by five to seven multiple-choice questions.
Many of the passages will also include charts, tables, graphs, or figures, and you will often be asked to interpret these. Although some basic computational skills may be required, they are not directly assessed and the use of a calculator is not allowed on the Science section of the ACT.
How is the Science ACT Scored?
Just like the other sections of the ACT, the score that you receive on the Science section of the ACT will be a scaled score ranging from 1-36. This number is scaled from your raw score, which is the number of questions that you got correct on the Science section.
Scaling is an important process in the scoring of the ACT. It differs from the more traditional curved grading system which adjusts your score according to how your peers perform on the same test as you. Rather than accounting for peer performance, the scaling system accounts for very slight differences in the difficulty of each test. The goal of scaling is to ensure that the level of mastery required to achieve a specific score is the same from one test to the next.
Your scaled score ranging from 1-36 on the Science section is the number that will be used to average into your overall composite ACT score. Each section of the test is weighed equally and averaged to calculate your composite score.
In the Detailed Results portion of your score report, you will see a series of subscores underneath your Science score. These include Interpretation of Data, Scientific Investigation, and Evaluation of Models, Inferences & Experimental Results.
Beside each of your subscores for the Science section, you will see a bar graph that displays your performance within that subscore’s content area. Above the bar, an ACT Readiness Range is displayed for each subscore, represented by a purple line. A checkmark will be displayed next to the graph if you have met the ACT College Readiness Benchmark.
ACT College Readiness Benchmarks are standards meant to predict a 50% chance of obtaining a B or higher, or about a 75% chance of obtaining a C or higher, in a corresponding first-year college course.
You should not spend much time worrying about specific subscores. While they are worthwhile for your own review and as a tool to shape your studying for any future ACTs, they’re not specifically used to calculate your section score, and colleges do not generally give them any weight during the college admissions process.
What Skills Are Assessed on the Science ACT?
Some students see the word Science and panic a little bit. Some are even deterred from taking the ACT altogether because it has a Science section. It can be tempting for students who do not think of themselves as “science students” to take the SAT instead simply due to the inclusion of a Science section on the ACT.
But the truth is, you can think of it as more of a nonfiction, critical reading, and thinking section. In actuality, the Science section does NOT specifically test your knowledge of advanced scientific concepts. Instead, it is intended to test your ability to solve problems using scientific analysis and reasoning with the information you’re given. Although it does require a base level of knowledge and grasp of science terms, most of the information that you need to apply your scientific thinking and analysis will be provided in the passages.
The Science section of the ACT covers materials related to biology, chemistry, physics, and Earth/space sciences, but the specific skills it assesses are more abstract.
On the Data Representation passages, you will be asked to read a description of a study and interpret graphs and charts related to it. Questions on these passages may ask you to calculate values or identify trends from informational graphics. There is a heavy emphasis on interpreting graphical representations of data in these questions.
On the Research Summary passages, you’ll evaluate written descriptions of research, assess experimental design, and interpret results. Much of this section will rely on knowledge of the scientific method. You might also be asked to make predictions about hypothetical changes in the experiments described.
On the Conflicting Viewpoints passages, you will analyze and compare incompatible analyses based on different or incomplete data. Questions will assess whether you understand each viewpoint, and ask you to compare them.
What Are Some Good Strategies for the Science Section of the ACT?
1. Don’t try to understand the entire passage.
You are probably a little confused by this strategy at first glance. You thought reading comprehension was a critical skill on the Science section of the ACT, right? Well, you’re right about that, but it’s not critical in the same way it is on the Reading section. Instead, your reading comprehension skills on the Science section of the ACT are assessed more sporadically and through more specific questions.
If you try to understand every word of every sentence on the Science section, you will quickly get bogged down by technical terms or complex topics. And this is a purposeful design feature of the test. Remember, the test assesses your ability to apply your knowledge about what’s presented, not summarize complete passages. Don’t spend too much time or energy trying to wrap your head around every detail of the text. Instead, wait until you know what details are important for answering the questions.
Your time is best spent skimming the passages to get the general idea of their content, and then reading the questions and selectively reviewing the passage in more detail as necessary. In fact, sometimes, especially on Data Representation portions, the questions will apply solely to informational graphics without any mention of the passage at all. And that brings us to our next point…
2. Master the art of reading graphs, charts, and figures.
This is one of the two skills most explicitly tested on the Science section of the ACT. (We will get to the other skill next). There will definitely be several questions, if not more, that ask you to read and interpret information that is presented graphically. And some of the graphs can be fairly complex.
Make sure that you are familiar with various graphs, charts, maps, and figures. Each time you evaluate one, be sure to read the title and labels carefully. Know what each axis represents and understand the relationship between them. Look for trends or anomalies. The informational graphics on the Science section of the ACT are often selected for their complexity, so make sure to take lots of practice tests to familiarize yourself with them.
Remember that any question about a value relating to a graph or chart will have that value represented on the graphic somewhere. If you can locate it, you’ll get the answer correct. If the value of an answer option is not represented anywhere on the graph, you should cross it off immediately. It is not a feasible answer.
3. Be an expert on the scientific method.
This is the other skill most explicitly tested on the Science section of the ACT. Much of the Research Summary portion will directly or indirectly relate to the scientific method. You should know each step of it in detail and be able to offer critiques of its effectiveness as applied to sample research.
Common questions related to the scientific method will include identifying independent and dependent variables, why the scientists made certain choices during their experiment, and how hypothetical changes to the experiment might affect the results.
You will need to be comfortable differentiating between experimental and observational studies, recognizing how variables are isolated, and interpreting how experimental design affects results.
4. Track your errors as you practice.
The best way to prepare for the Science section of the ACT is to take lots of practice Science ACT questions and complete practice ACT tests. The format and pacing of the test are so unique that it’s unlikely that any other sort of practice will prepare you as well as actual test question practice.
In order to get the most out of your practice, keep a running tally of your mistakes. Each time you make an error, classify it according to the type of question and the type of passage. Usually the official ACT practice tests will tell you which subscore each question falls into, so this will help you classify your mistakes.
Once you have a better idea of where you’re making mistakes, you’ll have a good idea of where to focus your improvements. Use your tally to guide future studying and shape your understanding of your own strengths and areas in need of further reinforcement.
5. Brush up on your content knowledge.
Although not much of the Science section of the ACT relies on pre-existing knowledge, there will be some questions on each test that do. In order to really maximize your chances of achieving the highest score possible, you should spend some time reviewing key concepts.
These commonly include: basic atomic structure, fundamentals of cell biology including photosynthesis, basic genetics with an understanding of alleles, traits, and inheritance, and basic physics concepts regarding kinetic and potential energy and mass versus weight.
Where can I find free study materials?
The ACT website provides a number of sample test questions that are a useful resource for test practice. The website also provides a free ACT study guide, which includes a complete overview of the test and some test strategy tips.
You should also create an account with ACT Profile online. This will give you access to the ACT Question of the Day that comes with an answer explanation. You will need this account to register for tests online and to access your online score report too, so it’s a good idea to open one, regardless of whether you plan to use the Question of the Day feature.
You may also find an official, full-length printable ACT practice test here.
Finally, you can find an extensive collection of free ACT Quizlets to reinforce specific science concepts and background knowledge.
To learn more about the ACT test, check out these CollegeVine posts:
- What Is a Good ACT Score?
- ACT vs SAT/SAT Subject Tests
- When Should I Take the SAT or ACT?
- 13 Tips for ACT Test Day
- How the ACT’s Graded: A Breakdown
- Which Section of the SAT and ACT Is Most Important?
- 3 Grammar Rules Every Student Messes Up On the ACT
- ACT Statistics: Participation and Rankings By State