At first glance, the ACT science section looks intimidating. This is especially true for students who don’t quite love setting up experiments, analyzing data, and coming to scientific conclusions afterwards. But even if you are not amazing in your science classes, these ACT science tips will help you improve your science section scores.
In this post, we will focus on:
- how the ACT science section is set up (and why this information is important)
- how to identify each type of question on the science part of the exam
- strategies to efficiently answer each type of question
- tips for answering exam questions faster
You don’t need to sink a lot of your time into learning new concepts to do well on the ACT exam. Use these ACT science tips to strengthen your test taking abilities, which will improve your scores.
How is the ACT science section set up?
The science portion of the ACT looks more like a reading test, with passages and multiple choice questions, than a math test. You might be surprised to hear this, since a strong foundation in math is often required to do well in science.
That’s because the test is about whether you understand the logic behind experimental setups and can analyze the data. (You inevitably have to look over data in an information-driven world at some point in your life.) You’re tested on whether you can read visuals, decide if data supports someone’s conclusion, and how an outcome might change if you change something within an experiment.
This sounds intimidating. But remember that so many things could be considered an experiment. For example, you could add a new spice to your favorite food and analyze what happens.
The ACT science section tests you on the logic of testing things, rather than scientific facts or math skills.
Related: You need great reading skills to do well on the ACT. Here is how to improve your reading skills in five easy steps!
The Structure of the Test:
The science ACT has 6-7 reading passages, with three types of information given in passages:
- Data Representation (in 25–35% of questions): graphs, charts, and tables similar to ones you’d encounter in scientific/research journals
- Research Summaries (in 45–60% of questions): descriptions and results of one or more related experiments
Conflicting Viewpoints (in 15–20% of questions): two or more explanations for a different scientific phenomena are given
College Board separates the exam into three different categories:
- Interpretation of Data
- Scientific Investigation (analyzing experimental setups)
- Evaluation of Models, Inferences, and Experimental Results (deciding whether the results and conclusions of an experiment make sense)
You have 35 minutes to answer 40 multiple choice questions, so you have about 53 seconds to answer each question.
You are not allowed to use a calculator on the exam.
One of the most helpful ACT science tips: Don't try to learn a bunch of new subject-specific information.
The test contains questions related to biology, chemistry, physics, and earth/science science.
However, the official ACT science section description states that: “Advanced knowledge in these areas is not required, but background knowledge acquired in general, introductory science courses may be needed to correctly answer some of the questions.”
You are given the definitions of science-related words, informational diagrams, and explanations of different concepts/processes when needed.
The subject matter just sets up an experiment or presents you with some data. You are not being tested on whether you can balance chemical reactions or name all the parts of a plant cell.
Bottom line: Don’t spend any of your time learning any specific, higher level knowledge in any of the content areas of the exam. You don’t need it!
ACT Science Tips for When You're Studying
1. Take some practice tests before trying to study specific types of questions.
We’ve established that the ACT science test is unlike any other test you’ve taken in your science classes – and if you are not a fan of your science classes, this is great.
However, that also means that you don’t know what to expect when it comes to exam formatting.
Before you do anything else, get an official ACT science practice exam. Put on a timer for 35 minutes and go through the questions like you will on exam day.
After this initial exposure to the test, you’ll understand more about how the test is structured, what kinds of reading passages you’re better at, and where you make simple mistakes.
Essentially, get used to the exam and gain some self awareness with “real-testing” conditions and environments.
Related: Here is how to effectively simulate a test environment.
2. Learn to identify what each type of question looks like on the exam.
A lot of our ACT science tips are geared towards certain types of passages and given information. That’s why the ability to identify what kind of passage you’re analyzing is really important.
Here is how to tell the type of any passage visually, before you actually read it:
- data representation passages usually involve short paragraphs with one or more visuals such as graphs, tables, or scatterplots; sections of the passage itself are labeled Study 1, Study 2, and so on
- research summary passages include illustrations of study setups, and are worded as a “student” or “researcher” doing the experiment; sections are often labeled by the word Experiment instead of Study
- conflicting viewpoint passages are usually blocks of text, with the opinions/hypotheses of two or more students, scientists, or researchers split into sections
3. Pinpoint and focus on your weak areas.
Some students like passages that involve straightforward questions about charts and graphs. Big block texts that make up conflicting viewpoint questions can be terrifying, especially for slower readers.
Others might like critically analyzing viewpoints – it’s almost like analyzing arguments on the ACT reading section!
After your initial interactions with the various categories of passages, you’ll know which parts of the test you’re best (and worst) at.
Concentrate more on those weaker areas as you move on to specific practice questions.
4. Practice reading and interpreting visuals.
You are guaranteed to run into graphs, so make sure you can quickly pull information from them.
Since data representation questions are straightforward, try to answer them quickly on the exam.
To do that, you need to read visuals fast. And since you probably don’t read graphs as often as you read sentences, you should spend some time practicing how to read them (and charts, and any other visuals you may run into.)
5. Make sure you know these core terms.
You don’t need to know the definition of “titration” or “sublimation” to do well on this test.
But you do need to know some simple terms to understand what a question is asking about.
And this list of ACT science tips would not be complete without a list of these essential terms:
- independent variable: the variable (such as heat, pressure, solution, type of material, speed, etc.) of the experiment that researchers change on purpose, to see how it affects other variables
- dependent variable(s): the variable(s) that researchers are measuring, to see how they change due to manipulating the independent variable
- constants: parts of the experiment that stay the same throughout
- trend: a general direction of data over a period of time
- direct variation/direct relationship: when two variables change in the same way over time (e.g. as the temperature of a gas increases, so does the pressure)
indirect or inverse variation/relationship: when two variables change in opposite ways
Make sure you understand what they mean and how they are used in actual passage questions.
If you are a student who does not excel at writing lab reports, this tip is very important for you.
6. Identify your mistakes.
A lot of the time, students tend to focus on what they did well. And then they take another practice test without actually looking at the mistakes.
But mistakes are a gold mine of information. They tell you what skills you don’t have, where you get careless, and guides you towards what you should focus on next.
So, make sure to go through your practice tests. Review the ones you got wrong, and figure out why you thought the (wrong) answer was right. Then correct the mistake on the next practice test.
7. Get outside help to prepare for the ACT.
These tips make it sound like studying for the ACT is straightforward – and it is.
But sometimes it’s hard to self-manage, to work on your weak points, and to consistently practice on your own.
Instead of worrying about your study timeline, whether you’re taking enough practice tests, and whether you’re actually getting any better at taking the test, eliminate the guess work, and just get an online tutor.
FLOAT Prep offers group and private ACT prep sessions that prepare you for all sections of the ACT.
Focus on the right things, and watch your scores improve, with the help of an experienced test prep specialist.
Related: Now that you know more about the ACT, you can decide whether to take the SAT or ACT, or both.