strategies for ACT science, how to prepare for ACT science, how to study for ACT science

5 Strategies for ACT Science to Improve Your Score

Your ACT test is approaching soon…

…and you’re particularly worried about the science questions. Perhaps science isn’t your strongest subject in school, and you’re in need of strategies for the ACT science section? Don’t fear, we’re here to help.


Almost two million students take the ACT each year as part of their journey towards college applications. The ACT is popular because, unlike the SAT, the test does not generally depend on tricky questions and confusingly worded answer choices. Instead, the ACT is primarily designed as a knowledge-based test on which students must demonstrate what they have learned over the last several years covering topics in math and English language arts. The challenge is not about figuring out what the questions are even asking, as on the SAT, but in identifying information and applying learned skills in a timely manner.


The ACT English, math, and reading sections follow this pattern. The passages and questions are relatively straightforward with answers that reflect information either accessible in the reading passage or attainable through mathematical calculation. The difficulty of the ACT is primarily attuned through the timing mechanism which rarely allots enough time to complete all of the tasks within the limit. The science section, however, is different.


The biggest concern that most students have about the ACT science section is that they aren’t good enough at science to do well on the section. Luckily for most students, the ACT science section is not really about science. Sure, the test writers have constructed the section around science-themed passages, but actual science knowledge is not necessary for success. Unlike the English, math, and reading sections, the ACT science section is not about demonstrating knowledge accumulated in a topic over several years, but instead an examination of the students’ facility with critical thinking and problem solving. Science topics are merely the delivery mechanism.


Instead of reviewing science classes taken over the last several years, students can follow these five strategies applicable to the ACT science section in order to achieve noticeable improvement.


1. Prepare for what you will encounter on the section


While the ACT science section passages do not test your science knowledge, they do refer to science concepts and terms. Be prepared for what you will encounter on the test so you are not surprised, distracted, or dismayed.


The passages draw concepts primarily from high school level biology, chemistry, and physics classes. Don’t panic, however, if you have not yet taken one or more of these classes, or worse yet, did take these classes and fared poorly. None of the passages or questions require you to actually know anything from these classes. All of the information required to answer the questions is in the passages. Just be prepared to encounter terms from these classes.


Additionally, some of the passages will refer to science concepts from topics such as astronomy, geology, and oceanography, none of which you will encounter in most high school science classes. Again, don’t panic. The test writers will seed all of the answers in the passages and their charts, tables, and graphs. No outside knowledge is necessary.


The only science concept we recommend reviewing is the scientific method. Make sure you are familiar with the process of science: question, hypothesis, prediction, experiment, and analysis. All of the passages and questions are based on this core framework.


2. Identify the passage type


Far more important than the science content of any individual passage is the structure and format, or passage type. There are three distinct passage types: Data Representation, Research Summaries, and Conflicting Viewpoints. You should be able to identify each type of passage by sight. Each of the three passage types has a unique conceptual structure and tends to ask different and specific questions of you.


A Data Representation passage shows you the raw data collected from a series of experiments on a given topic. The questions tend to ask you to interpret the raw data, draw conclusions from the data, and extrapolate on the data.


A Research Summaries passage describes research complete by a “student” in a given topic. While you will encounter charts, tables, and graphs containing raw data from two distinct experiments, you will also encounter a diagram of an experimental rig designed by the imaginary student. The questions for this passage may refer to the raw data, but tend to ask you to examine the concept of experimental design.


A Conflicting Viewpoints passage addresses a larger scientific theory or area of study, rather than a specific experiment. Four “students” then present their differing theories or conclusions based on the scientific concept. You will encounter a few questions on the concept in general, but most of the questions will ask you to compare and contrast the four “students” ideas.

3. Become an expert in interpreting charts, tables, and graphs


The majority of what you will experience on the ACT science section will be random bits of data arranged into charts, tables, and graphs. If you are not already so, become an expert in interpreting them. The ACT test writers will organize the charts, tables, and graphs so that all of the information you need to answer questions is laid out in front of you, hidden in plain sight. Your job is to examine the charts, tables, and graphs to eliminate the irrelevant information and focus on the data relevant to answering the questions.


4. Solve the questions to solve the answers


Unlike the rest of the ACT, the science section is the only one that focuses primarily on critical thinking and problem solving. You can see this in the way the test writers structure the questions. The ACT science questions are verbose, full of scientific jargon and technical terms. In order to answer the question, you first have to solve the question.


Translate the question from jargon to English. You can begin to answer a question only after you understand the question. Literally translate the question into plain English. That will tell you what you are looking for.


Keep in mind that most of the ACT science questions will literally tell you where in the passage to look for the answers. Most questions will refer to Table 1, Experiment 2, or Student 3. Let this be your guide where to look for the answers.


Don’t overthink the questions. An ACT science question will never ask you about anything that is not specifically in the passage. You never need to depend on prior or outside knowledge. Everything you need to answer the question is right in front of you on the page of the test booklet.


5. Build a treasure map


The vast majority of you will take the ACT as a paper-based test. Use that to your advantage. Write on the test booklet. Mark up the page. Build yourself a treasure map that leads you to the answer hidden in the charts, tables, and graphs, diagrams, experiments, and more. Underline and circle information that is relevant to your search for answers. Cross off irrelevant data points. Draw lines and arrows between important pieces of information strewn across the page. Your most valuable tool on the ACT science section, other than your brain, is your pencil. Use it.


Author: Jason Breitkopf