10 Tips for Acing the ACT Science Section

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One of the main differences between the ACT and the SAT is the ACT’s science section. It is uniquely designed to measure interpretation, analysis, evaluation, reasoning, and problem-solving skills required in the natural sciences with 40 questions in 35 minutes. 

 

Many students pick the ACT because of their strengths in the math and English sections, but they may struggle with some of the science skills, especially if they haven’t been reviewed much at their school. In this post we’ll go over our top 10 tips for ACT science success!

 

10 Tips for Mastering the Science ACT

 

1. Know the Three ACT Question Types

 

You will encounter three types of ACT science questions:

 

2-3 Data Representation Passages, with 5 or 6 questions per passage.

 

2-3 Research Summary Passages, with 5 or 6 questions per passage.

 

1 Conflicting Viewpoints Passage, with 7 questions per passage.

 

It’s important to be able to understand and identify each question type, as each requires a different strategy. Don’t treat them all the same! We’ll go over the differences and definitions of each in the next few tips, as defined by ACT.org.

 

Standardized multiple-choice exams usually test your ability to get as many questions correct as possible, not your holistic understanding of the material. Each ACT question is worth the same point value, so you shouldn’t spend too much time on one question. Instead, we strongly recommend practicing each question type to see which comes the easiest and fastest for you, and which require additional practice. 

 

2. Data Representation Passage Tips

 

This question type focuses mostly on charts, graphs, and tables. It is designed to measure your ability to recognize relationships among data in tables and graphs, and interpolate, extrapolate, and translate tabular data into graphs. To improve on this passage type, practice identifying variables, units, and trends.

 

These questions can be pretty approachable if you’ve mastered reading graphs. To save time, focus on visuals instead of reading the passages when answering these. We especially recommend this technique for slower readers. Lightly skim the passages and refer back to them if you must. But, for the most part you won’t actually need to read the passage to find your answer. Most questions just ask about the data presented in the visuals, and at the very least, the data can help you with process of elimination.

 

3. Research Summary Passage Tips

 

These passages provide descriptions and results from one or more related experiments. The questions focus on experimental design and the interpretation of experimental results.

 

Like the data representation passages, these are often approached best by focusing on graphic information instead of unnecessarily wasting time reading the passages in-depth. The answers to these questions will often be found directly in the graphs, though it will often be helpful to refer to the passage to double check your logic.

 

4. Conflicting Viewpoints Passage Tips

 

These questions present two or more conflicting explanations for the same scientific phenomena. They are inconsistent with one another because they are based on either different premises or incomplete data. Conflicting viewpoints passages test your ability to understand, analyze, and compare alternative viewpoints and hypotheses.

 

In contrast to the cases of data representation and research summary questions, we strongly recommend reading the full passage for this one before going into the questions because it requires an in-depth understanding of both arguments and how they compare. 

 

Because these questions require a thorough understanding of the text, they are often the most time-consuming for students. If you struggle with completing the ACT on time, we strongly recommend leaving this question type for last. Remember, each question is worth the same, so it’s best to get as many “easy” ones correct as possible early on in the exam in order to A) give you a solid time cushion for the more time-consuming ones, and B) save you from missing questions that you would’ve otherwise easily answered correctly if you’d had the time.

 

5. Identify Your Weak Spots

 

As mentioned before, we recommend focusing your studying on the passage types that are most difficult for you. However, weak spots aren’t exclusively limited to question types. Many students struggle with time management, attention to detail, or other small mistakes. It’s your main job to identify what yours are. After taking each practice test, check back on the questions you missed. Try to concretely understand why you missed these questions, and see if there are any commonalities between the ones you missed.

 

It’s also important to understand timing. While taking the test, note which questions take longer than others, and try to understand why. Of course, passage-based ones like conflicting viewpoints are often simply meant to take longer, but sometimes you’re chipping away at your time by taking too long to read graphs because you’re unfamiliar with certain types. Or, maybe you often refer back to the passages to answer questions when the answer could be more readily found in the graph.

 

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6. Employ the Process of Elimination

 

This is a classic test-taking strategy, and there are a few ways to apply them to the science ACT in particular. As you go through potential answers, immediately cross out everything that you know is absolutely not the correct answer, especially those referencing inaccurate or mislabeled data. That way you’ll be left with far fewer options (ideally only one) to choose from. Keep yourself from being tripped up by clear non-answers!

 

7. Mark Up the Passage

 

Scientific questions are often data-and-detail-driven, so mark crucial information as you skim through the passages. You’ll probably need it later, and you’ll save yourself the time you might otherwise spend re-reading. If you like, you can even read the questions before the passage in order to get a good idea of what to look for. 

 

As you read the passages, keep these questions in mind to guide your reading:

 

What did the scientists study? 

How did they study it?

What did the scientists measure, and what did they control?

Why did they set up the experiment this way?

What were the scientists’ findings? Did any patterns emerge?

 

When reading conflicting viewpoints passages, think about:

 

What are the similarities between the two viewpoints/experiments? 

What are the differences?

 

8. Know Only the Necessary Vocabulary

 

Here’s the thing: you aren’t being tested on your knowledge of science as a whole. You won’t be volunteering any memorized information of your own regarding your knowledge of cellular processes or material physics. After all, the science curriculum is rather different at every school, and not all 11th and 12th graders will have taken the same science classes. Instead, the ACT is a skills test, intended to reveal your ability to apply scientific thoughts and processes to actual problems. Therefore, you shouldn’t “study science” in preparation for this test. This vocabulary will often be sufficiently defined in the text and it shouldn’t impede your ability to answer the questions correctly. In fact, you won’t even be expected to know all of these fancy terms, so if a word in the questions is unfamiliar, you can always refer back to the passage for clarification.

 

However, you should be familiar these terms:

 

Independent variable: the variable that scientists purposefully change with the intent of measuring how it impacts the dependent variable.

 

Dependent variable(s): the variable(s) that the scientists are measuring, which is often impacted by the independent variable.

 

Constants: elements of the experiment that the scientists keep the same.

 

Direct relationship: a relationship in which the dependent variable increases as the independent variable increases.

 

Indirect relationship: a relationship in which the dependent variable decreases as the independent variable increases, or vice versa.

 

These terms are commonly used in the science community and you will almost certainly have come across them in your studies. This is just a reminder. 

 

9. Know That Trends Continue

 

Some questions will ask you about a data point that is not actually shown on the table or graph. In these situations, you can estimate the value of the new point or just extend the graph’s trend line. Feel free to draw in the test booklet!

 

10. Avoid Careless Mistakes

 

Many students with a “big-picture” thought process struggle a little bit when it comes to test-taking, as even small, careless mistakes can stop you from showing your true skill set. Therefore, you must use an analytical and detail-oriented approach to keep yourself from mixing up labels, reading the wrong graph, or misremembering a numerical value. 

 

This is a tricky thing to work on, but it’s still entirely possible. Even small steps, like showing up well-rested and hydrated, can help you wake up with a clear mind on test day. 

 

Practice reading and interpreting a wide range of graphs, especially tricky and hard-to-read ones, and concentrate on what each question is specifically asking for. Never simply skim a question or its answer; that’s where the ACT test makers might try to trip you up with highly-specific wording or close but incorrect answer choices. Despite all of our advice about time-consciousness, moments like this require taking things slow and double checking your answer. 

 

How Will the ACT Impact My College Chances?

 

Most colleges accept both the ACT or SAT and heavily consider it as a predictor of college success (outside of non-COVID years). In fact, selective schools often use grades and test scores as a filter, so if your academics don’t make the cut, your full application may not even be considered. If you’d like additional tips, check out our Guide to the ACT Science Section.

 

If you want to know how your ACT score impacts your chances of acceptance to your dream schools, you can check out our free Chancing Engine. It will help predict your odds, compare your profile to that of other applicants, and make suggestions for improving your profile. Unlike other solely stats-based chancing calculators, ours considers many aspects of your profile, including your stats, extracurriculars, and background. 

 

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Michelle Foley
Essay Breakdown Writer at CollegeVine
Short bio
Michelle Foley is currently taking a gap year before starting at Yale College in Fall '21, where she is considering majoring in Art, English, or Cognitive Studies while earning her Spanish certificate. In her free time, she likes to paint, run, and read!