SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

How to Get 36 on ACT Science: 13 Strategies from a Perfect Scorer

Posted by Allen Cheng | Jan 23, 2016 9:00:00 AM

ACT Strategies, ACT Science

 

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Are you scoring between 26-34 on ACT Science? Do you want to raise that score as high as possible - to a perfect 36?

Getting to a 36 ACT Science score isn't easy. It'll require perfection. But with hard work and my strategies below, you'll be able to do it. I've consistently scored 36 on Science on my real ACTs, and I know what it takes. Follow my advice, and you'll get a perfect score - or very close.

Brief note: This article is suited for students already scoring a 26 on ACT Science or above. If you're below this range, my "How to improve your ACT Science score" article (coming soon) is more appropriate for you. Follow the advice in that article, then come back to this one when you've reached a 26.

 

Overview

For some reason, there aren't very many ACT Science guides out there. There's a lot of material for ACT Math and ACT Reading, but people just seem to shy away from the science section.

In contrast, at PrepScholar we've written what we believe are the best guides to ACT Science available anywhere, and we've published them online for free.

In this article, I'm going to discuss why scoring a 36 in ACT Science is a good idea, what it takes to score a 36, and then go into the 13 key ACT Science strategies so you know how to get a 36 on ACT Science.

Stick with me - as an advanced student, you probably already know that scoring high is good. But it's important to know why a 36 Science score is useful, since this will fuel your motivation to get a high score. Then we'll get into the meat of the article.

Finally, in this guide, I talk mainly about getting to a 36. But if your goal is a 32, these strategies still equally apply.

 

Understand the Stakes: Why a 36 ACT Science?

Let's make something clear: for college applications, a 34 composite on an ACT is equivalent to a perfect 36. NO top college is going to give you more credit for a 36 than a 34. You've already crossed their score threshold, and whether you get in now depends on the rest of your application.

So if you're already scoring a 34, don't waste your time studying trying to get a 36. You're already set for the top colleges, and it's time to work on strengthening your extracurriculars, coursework, and overall application.

But if you're scoring a 33 or below AND you want to go to a top 10 college, it's worth your time to push your score up to a 34 or above. There's a big difference between a 32 and a 34, largely because it's easy for top students to get a 32 and a lot harder to get a 34.

A 33 places you right around average at Harvard and Princeton, and being average is bad in terms of admissions, since the admissions rate is typically below 10%.

So why get a 36 on ACT Science? Because it helps you compensate for weaknesses in other sections like Reading or English.

By and large, schools consider your ACT composite score moreso than your individual section scores. If you can get a 36 in ACT Science, that gives you more flexibility in your English, Math, and Reading scores. It can compensate for a 32 in one other section, for example, to bring your average back up to 34.

 

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MIT expects a 36 in ACT Math.

 

There are two other scenarios where a 36 in ACT Science is really important. First is if you're planning for a science or quantitative major (like biology, physics, statistics, chemistry). The second is if you're applying to a highly selective technical school like MIT or Caltech.

Here's the reason: college admissions is all about comparisons between applicants. The school wants to admit the best, and you're competing with other people in the same "bucket" as you.

By applying as a math/science major, you're competing against other math/science folks: people for whom ACT Science is easy. Really easy.

Even though schools don't typically release their ACT scores by section, they do release SAT section scores. As a proxy for ACT Science, we can take a look at SAT Math scores at top schools. (I know ACT Science and SAT Math are different, but I'm going to bet that people who are good at math are also going to score high on ACT Science).

Here are a few real examples. For Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Caltech, and even less selective schools like Harvey Mudd, the 75th percentile SAT Math score is an 800 (or equivalent to an ACT 36). That means at least 25% of all students at these schools have an 800 in SAT Math, or a 36 on ACT Math.

Even more surprising: the 25th percentile score for SAT Math at MIT and Caltech are 750 and 770, respectively, or a 34 on the ACT! This means if you score a 34 on your ACT Math, you're well below average for these schools! That's how competitive these top-tier colleges are.

I'm not going to lie. ACT Science was easy for me. I got 36 on pretty much every practice test and official ACT I ever took. This was largely because I was a science nerd in high school, competing in the academic olympiads and doing a ton of science research as an extracurricular. I also practiced hard and applied the strategies below to achieve perfection. So reading science passages was like reading English to me.

You're competing against people like me. And if you apply as a science major with a 34 or below on Science, schools like MIT, Harvard, and Princeton are going to doubt your ability. Because ACT Science is supposed to be easy for you.

But if you can work your way to a 36, you show that you're at an equal level (at least on this metric). Even if it takes you a ton of work, all that matters is the score you achieve at the end. 

 

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Know that You Can Do It

This isn't just some fuzzy feel-good message you see on the back of a Starbucks cup.

I mean, literally, you and every other reasonably intelligent student can score a 36 on ACT Science.

The reason most people don't is they don't try hard enough or they don't study the right way.

Even if you don't consider yourself a science geek, or you got a B in Biology, you're capable of this. 

Because I know that more than anything else, your ACT score is a reflection of how hard you work and how strategically you study.

Here's why: the ACT is a weird test. When you take it, don't you get the sense that many questions are nothing like what you've seen in school?

It's purposely designed this way. The ACT can't test difficult concepts, because this would be unfair for students who never took AP Physics. The ACT Science section can't ask you to solve cold fusion or build a rocket to get to Mars. The ACT is a national test, which means it needs to be a level playing field for ALL students around the country.

So it HAS to test scientific concepts that every high school student will cover: how to interpret data graphs, what the scientific method is, how scientific theories disagree from each other.

You've learned all of this before in high school.

But if all the questions were easy and straightforward, then everyone would score too high. So the ACT needs to test these concepts in strange ways. This trips up students who don't prepare, but it rewards students who can predict exactly how the test is going to work.

Here's an example graph from a real ACT test:

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This is one of the most complex graphs I've seen in ACT Science. I can guarantee you've never seen something like this graph before in school.

But there's good news - every other high school student in America hasn't seen this graph before either!

This means that the ACT expects you to be able to understand this graph using the basic science skills. Skills like looking at the two axes, understanding how a plot works, and how to get data values from this graph. 

Just to prove this to you, further down we're going to understand this graph and go through a sample question. 

On ACT Science, there will always be weird scenarios you've never seen before, from composition of sediment to dinosaur claw sizes. But more than anything, ACT Science isn't actually about science - it's a lot more about reading comprehension and logic.

The key to improving your ACT Science score is to:

  • master the types of passages the ACT tests
  • draw on the basic skills you already know to solve the questions
  • practice on a lot of questions so you learn from your mistakes and know the test inside and out.

I'll go into more detail about exactly how to do this. First, let's see how many questions you need to get right to score a 36.

 

What It Takes to Get a 36 in Science

If we have a target score in mind, it helps to understand what you need to get that score on the actual test.

I compiled the raw score to ACT Science Score conversion tables from 4 official ACT tests. (If you could use a refresher on how the ACT is scored and how raw scores are calculated, read this.)

Raw Score Test 1 Test 2 Test 3 Test 4
40 (miss 0) 36 36 36 36
39 (miss 1) 34 34 35 35
38 (miss 2) 32 32 33 34
37 (miss 3) 30 30 32 33
36 (miss 4) 29 29 30 31
35 (miss 5) 28 28 29 30
34 (miss 6) 27 27 28 29

 Source: ACT

On all 4 of these tests, if you get a perfect raw score and miss 0 questions, you get a perfect 36 score. No surprise there.

But if you miss just ONE question, you immediately drop down to a 34 or a 35.

Miss another, and you drop to a 32, 33, or 34. 

This goes to show that the stakes are high. The more difficult the test is, the more leeway you have, but the grading scale is tough. 

The safest thing to do is to aim for perfection. On every practice test, you need to aim for a perfect raw score for a 36.

Whatever you're scoring now, take note of the difference you need to get to a 36. For example, if you're scoring a 30 now, you need to answer 3-4 more questions right to get to a 36.

As a final example, here's a screenshot from my exact score report:

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OK - so we've covered why scoring a higher ACT science score is important, why you specifically are capable of improving your score, and the raw score you need to get to your target.

Now we'll actually get into actionable strategies that you should use in your own studying to maximize your score improvement.

 

Strategies to Get a 36 on ACT Science

 

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What's your greatest weakness?

 

Strategy 1: Understand Your High Level Weakness: Content or Time Management

Knowing your weaknesses in ACT prep is SUPER important. When you know your weaknesses, you can surgically focus your time on what will improve your score most. When you don't, it'll feel like pounding your head against the wall. 

Every student has different flaws in ACT Science. Some aren't comfortable with underlying skills, like reading data graphs. Others get bogged down in the minutiae of science passages and can't solve questions in time. 

(As we'll discuss, the ACT Science section applies pretty heavy time pressure. So you likely do suffer from some time pressure - we're trying to figure out how much)

Here's how you can figure out which one applies more to you:

  • For that section, use a timer for 35 minutes. Treat it like a real test.
  • If time runs out and you're not done yet, keep working for as long as you need. But starting now, for every new answer or answer that you change, mark it with a special note as "Extra Time."
  • Grade your test using the answer key and score chart, but we want two scores: 1) The Realistic score you got under normal timing conditions, 2) The Extra Time score. This is why you marked the questions you answered or changed during Extra Time.

See what we're doing here? By marking which questions you did under Extra Time, we can figure out what score you got if you were given all the time you needed. This will help us figure out where your weaknesses lie.

If you didn't take any extra time, then your Extra Time score is the same as your Realistic score.

Here's a flowchart to help you figure this out:

Was your Extra Time score a 32 or above?

If NO (Extra Time score < 32), then you have remaining content weaknesses. You might have weaknesses across a range of skills, or a deep weakness in only a few skills. (We'll cover this later). Your first plan of attack should be to develop more comfort with ACT Science question types and passages.

If YES (Extra Time score > 32), then:

Was your Realistic score a 32 or above?

If NO (Extra Time score > 32, Realistic < 32), then that means you have a difference between your Extra Time score and your Realistic score. If this difference is more than 2 points, then you have some big problems with time management. We need to figure out why this is. Are you getting bogged down reading the science passages? Or did specific types of problems slow you down? If you practice a lot and learn more efficient ways to tackle science passages, you'll be able to reduce your time significantly. More on this later.

If YES (both Extra Time and Realistic scores > 32), then you have a really good shot at getting a 36. Compare your Extra Time and Realistic score - if they differed by more than 1 point, then you would benefit from learning how to solve questions more quickly. If not, then you likely can benefit from shoring up on your last content weaknesses and avoiding careless mistakes (more on this strategy later).

Hopefully that makes sense. Typically I see that students have both timing and content issues in ACT Science, but you might find that one is much more dominant for you than the other. For example, if you can get a 36 with extra time, but score a 32 in regular time, you know exactly that you need to work on time management to get a 36.

This perfect ACT Science guide covers both time management and content issues, so you're in luck.

If you learn that time management is a big problem, here's one of the most likely problems with the way you approach ACT Science...

 

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Strategy 2: Don't Waste Time In the Passage and Figures

ACT Science passages are full of scientific details that don’t actually matter to answering the questions. This is especially true of charts.

The ACT does this on purpose to confuse you, and to mimic what real scientific research looks like. But you aren’t reading a science journal – you’re answering ACT Science questions. 

A common mistake people make is to try too hard to understand the passage in its entirety. They want to understand every detail in every chart.

This can happen regardless of how strong a scientist you think you are. If you’re a science geek, you’re tempted to understand all the details since you want to flex your science muscle.  If you’re not a science geek, it’s harder to distinguish what’s useful or not, since it all looks the same.

Trying to understand the entire passage is a HUGE waste of time because most of the passage isn’t going to have a question asked about it. This is true in ACT Reading, and it’s even more true in ACT Science.

So what should you do instead?

Skim the passage and understand the passage at a very high level. Answer these two questions only:

  • What’s the main point here?
  • What’s the figure showing?

That’s it. When I read ACT Science passages, I don’t understand the deep details of what’s happening. I get the gist and I move on to the questions.

Let’s try an example from a real ACT Science passage. I’m going to show you how useless most of the passage is and how little you need to understand to answer the questions.

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My skimming: There is an old lake. The lake sediment tells us about the climate in the past. They mention average temperature for figure 3, so that’s probably what the main point is.  There’s a weird oxygen symbol 18O, but all I need to know is that SMALLER values mean COLDER.

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This is a map showing 3 sites. We’ll probably be looking at samples from these 3 sites.

 

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This shows us a cutaway section of the lake, with the 3 sites from Figure 1. The y-axis is elevation.

The key shows that each colored section is a different layer. Lake clay, glacial till, bedrock. The layers change as you move across the graph. How they change I’m not going to care about until I get asked about it.

I have no idea what the hell “glacial till” is but I’m not going to worry about that, since I’ll bet the ACT isn’t going to ask me to define it.

 

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Oh lord, a bunch of graphs designed to be confusing. OK.

Well they all look about the same. We’ll just look at Site 1. The y-axis shows depth, so the further down the deeper we go. The x-axis shows the 18O thing. From left to right, this value gets larger. From the passage we know that the SMALLER 18O is, the COLDER it is. So the LARGER 18O is, the HOTTER it is.

What Site 1 shows is as you go UP in depth, you get a LARGER 18O value, which means it’s getting HOTTER.

Now look at the other 2 Sites. Site 2 looks about the same, except for a glacial till boundary. Site 3 looks the same as Site 1.

And now there’s this formula. I’m not even going to bother with this crap until they ask me a question about it.

 

Notice from my notes that I really understand the passage only at a high level. I’m not getting bogged down in details, and I’m not understanding every detail of every graph. Doing that would be a waste of time.

Just to convince you this high level of understanding works, we’re actually going to answer all 5 questions for this passage.

 

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Lake clay is gray. Where is it thinnest?

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Winnipeg, F.

You actually didn't even have to read the passage to solve this! You could solve it just by looking at the picture.

 

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We want to find the SMALLEST 18O value, which means it’s more on the LEFT side of the graph.

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From the dots we see that’s going to be at the BOTTOM LEFT of the figure. Choice C.

Once again, you barely had to read the passage to solve this! It's just figuring out where the dots are.

 

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OK, so figure 2. We start from Grand Forks on the right, then move to Site 3.

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Lake clay, the gray piece, gets THICKER. They say this in the question, and we see it in the figure.

The question asked about glacial till, the striped layer under it. It gets THINNER as you go from Grand Forks to Site 3.

So thickness DECREASES, choice J.

Yet once again, you barely had to know the passage to solve this!

 

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OK, we want the elevation of the TOP of GLACIAL TILL at each of 3 sites.

Glacial till is the STRIPED layer. 

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At Site 1, the top is 200. At Site 2, the top is 205ish. At site 3, it’s 180 ish.

Answer choice C is the only one that fits these values.

YET AGAIN you barely had to know the passage!

 

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To rephrase: it rains. Water gets to 3m deep. What is the 18O 3m deep?

Look at figure 3 at a depth of 3m. In each figure, it’s around -15. Answer J.

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Finally, surprise surprise, you didn't have to know the passage at all to answer this question.

 

EASY PEASY. Notice all the crap we didn’t have to care about:

  • In the passage, we didn’t have to care about how old the lake was or how it formed.
  • Against my expectation, we didn’t even have to care about what 18O means about temperature, so I actually over-read the passage and wasted my time!
  • We didn’t use Figure 1 at all. Stupid map.
  • In figure 2, we didn’t care at all about bedrock. Also, we only needed to care about how the layers changed when we were asked about it.
  • In figure 3, we didn’t have to care at all about how Site 2 had a glacial till layer. We sure as hell didn’t have to know what the formula meant. 

 

I hope you get the point. So much of each passage is USELESS to getting the questions right.

The stupid ACT knows this, and they WANT you to get bogged down. “Oh gee, I wonder what bedrock is? How might they ask questions about this?”

“Boy this formula looks real tough. What is 18O, and what is 16O? What’s groundwater and what’s standard water? Why multiply by 1,000?”

You can waste so many minutes trying to make sense of the entire passage. If you have time management problems, skimming the passage can be a huge time savings for you!

Again, when you read the passage focus on only two questions:

  • What is the MAIN POINT of the passage?
  • What is the MAIN POINT of each figure?

I’ve started yelling more just because of how angry this test makes me. So let me take a deep breath. 

Moving on…

Disappointed with your ACT scores? Want to improve your ACT score by 4+ points? Download our free guide to the top 5 strategies you need in your prep to improve your ACT score dramatically.

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Strategy 3: Understand EVERY Type of ACT Science Passage and Question

ACT Science stands out as the most structured and predictable section on the ACT. What I mean by that is ACT Science has 3 passage types, and each passage type has specific question types associated with it.

This is unlike ACT English, where all 5 passages have all sorts of random question types associated with it.

The great thing about predictability is that it's really easy to diagnose where your problems are, then to get focused practice on your weaknesses.

Here are the passage types and question types associated with them:

Here's a helpful writeup of the 3 types of ACT Science passages and an overview of question types.

I've linked to our guides for every question type, but first I suggest you finish reading this 36 guide to get the high level picture, then come back to the detailed guides

Understanding the content on ACT Science is critical because you next have to understand precisely where you make your mistakes.

Our PrepScholar ACT program does the hard work for you by dividing up the entire test into specific skills you need to master. For every skill in ACT Science and every other section, you'll get a focused lesson and a quiz customized to your skill level. This is how I studied for the ACT and got a perfect score, so that's how I designed our prep program to work.

If you could use help breaking down the ACT like this, definitely check out our PrepScholar ACT program.

 

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Strategy 4: Do a Ton of Practice, and Understand Every Single Mistake

On the path to perfection, you need to make sure every single one of your weak points is covered. Even one mistake on ACT Science will knock you down from a 36.

The first step is simply to do a ton of practice. If you're studying from free materials or from books, you have access to a lot of practice questions in bulk. As part of our PrepScholar program, we have over 1,500 ACT questions customized to each skill.

The second step - and the more important part - is to be ruthless about understanding your mistakes.

Every mistake you make on a test happens for a reason. If you don't understand exactly why you missed that question, you will make that mistake over and over again.

I've seen students who have completed 10 official ACT practice tests. They've solved over 400 science questions, but they're still nowhere near a 36 on ACT Science.

Why? They never truly understood their mistakes. They just pounded their heads against the wall over and over again.

Think of yourself as an exterminator, and your mistakes are cockroaches. You need to eliminate every single one - and find the source of each one - or else the infestation is going to continue and your restaurant's going to be shut down.

Here's what you need to do:

  • on every practice test or question set that you take, mark every question that you're even 20% unsure about
  • when you grade your test or quiz, review every single question that you marked, and every incorrect question. This way even if you guessed a question correctly, you'll make sure to review it.
  • in a notebook, write down the gist of the question, why you missed it, and what you'll do to avoid that mistake in the future. Have separate sections by passage type and skill (like data representation - calculations, or conflicting viewpoint)

It's not enough to just think about it and move on. It's not enough to just read the answer explanation. It's not even enough to understand how to get the right answer.

You have to think HARD about why you SPECIFICALLY failed on this question.

By taking this structured approach to your mistakes, you'll now have a running log of every question you missed, and your reflection on why.

 

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No excuses when it comes to your mistakes.

 

Always Go Deeper - WHY Did You Miss a Science Question?

Now, what are some common reasons that you missed a question? Don't just say, "I didn't get this question right." That's a cop out.

Always take it one step further - what specifically did you miss, and what do you have to improve in the future?

Here are some examples of common reasons you miss an ACT Science question, and how you take the analysis one step further:

Content: I didn't have the science knowledge to understand what was being described in the passage. Example: "I forgot how forces work in physics."

One step further: What specific content do I learn, and how will I learn this? How could I have done better, even without understanding the passage?

 

Incorrect Approach: I understood the passage, but I didn't know how to solve this question. Example: "I didn't know how to extrapolate the line in the graph."

One step further: How do I solve the question? Where have I seen other questions like this? How will I similar questions in the future?

 

Careless Error: I misread what the question was asking for or solved for the wrong thing. Example: "I confused Scientist 2's perspective with Scientist 1's."

One step further: WHY did I misread the question? What should I do in the future to avoid this? 

 

Get the idea? You're really digging into understanding why you're making every single mistake.

Yes, this is hard, and it's draining, and it takes work. That's why most students who study ineffectively don't improve. 

But you're different. Just by reading this guide, you're already proving that you care more than other students. And if you apply these principles and analyze your mistakes, you'll improve more than other students too.

 

Bonus: If all of this is making sense to you, you'd love our ACT prep program, PrepScholar.

We designed our program around the concepts in this article, because they actually work. When you start with PrepScholar, you’ll take a diagnostic that will determine your weaknesses in over forty ACT skills, including the ACT Science skills above. PrepScholar then creates a study program specifically customized for you.

To improve each skill, you’ll take focused lessons dedicated to each skill, with over 20 practice questions per skill. This will train you for your specific area weaknesses, so your time is always spent most effectively to raise your score.

We also force you to focus on understanding your mistakes and learning from them. If you make the same mistake over and over again, we'll call you out on it. We also explain the ways every question tries to trick you so you won't get fooled again.

There’s no other prep system out there that does it this way, which is why we get better score results than any other program on the market.

Check it out today with a 5-day free trial:

ACT Free Signup

 

Strategy 5: If You Miss a Question, Re-Solve It

When you're doing ACT Science practice questions, the first thing you probably do when reviewing is read the answer explanation and think about it a little.

This is too easy. I consider this passive learning - you're not actively engaging with the mistake you made.

Instead, try something different - find the correct answer choice (A-D or F-J), but don't look at the explanation. Instead, try to resolve the question once over again and try to get the correct answer.

This will often be hard. You couldn't solve it the first time, so why could you solve it the second time around?

But this time, with less time pressure, you might spot a new strategy, or something else will pop up. Something will just "click" for you.

When this happens, what you learned will stick with you for 20 times longer than if you just read an answer explanation. I know this from personal experience. Because you've struggled with it and reached a breakthrough, you retain that information FAR better than if you just passively absorbed the information.

It's too easy to just read an answer explanation and have it go in one ear and out the other. You won't actually learn from your mistake, and you'll make that mistake over and over again.

Treat each wrong question like a puzzle. Struggle with each wrong answer for up to 10 minutes. Only then if you don't get it should you read the answer explanation.

Then, log your mistakes in your notebook, like I recommended in Strategy 3. 

 

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Strategy 6: If You Miss a Question, Generate New Questions

Missed questions are such important learning opportunities that I have yet another strategy for missed questions.

After you fully review your question and understand exactly why you missed it, create 2 more questions yourself in the very same style. Then solve them.

These questions are meant to be close replicas of the original question, so they test the same skill with the same passage, but use slightly different scenarios.

If it's a graph-related question, then change the numbers so you're looking at a different part of the graph.

If it's about conflicting viewpoints, then change which scientist you're talking about.

This is perfect for ACT Science because the questions are so stylistically formulaic, it's a lot easier to generate realistic questions. (Contrast this to ACT Reading, where it's tougher to come up with your own questions because of how passage-dependent the reading questions are.)

What do you gain from doing this? First, you have a few more chances to practice the very question you just missed. This gives you instant reinforcement of your weakness.

Think about it this way - if you're learning how to throw footballs with Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, and he gives you some advice, do you drop your football right at that moment and refuse to throw another one? 

No! You instantly use his advice to correct your next few throws! 

The same is true of the ACT, and especially ACT Science. If you instantly practice right after noticing a weakness, you'll get rid of your weakness far more quickly.

The other thing you get out of doing this is you put yourself in the mind of the question maker - the ACT - which helps you understand how the test is constructed.

Here are a few examples:

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1) Change the question so instead you look at the LARGEST 18O value in lake clay.

2) Change the question so you look at the smallest 18O value in GLACIAL TILL

 

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1) Change the question so it's about 15 m below the surface.

2) Change the question so it's about 30 m below the surface. 

 

If you make a mistake on a question and you review it well, you'll be able to answer your two variants 100%.

When I was taking tests for high school and college, I used this strategy all the time. It gave me a lot more practice in areas I already knew I was weak in.

 

 

Strategy 7: Get Used to Weird ACT Science Graphs

On every single test, there will be a weird way to present data that you’ve never seen before.

Like this graph of rock types at different temperatures and pressures:

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or this graph of sediment types and their characteristics:

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or this masterpiece on hearing:

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This last one is the craziest figure I’ve ever seen on an ACT science test.

Don’t be alarmed by these complex graphs. Remember what I said in the beginning? To make the test difficult, the ACT has to test SIMPLE concepts in COMPLICATED ways.

In this case, that means using the same simple graph reading skills, you can understand EVERY graph the ACT throws at you

Don’t panic – just remember the same basic rules:

  • What does each axis represent?
  • What does the graph show?

 

We're going to tackle, step by step, the last graph about hearing. So scroll up, skim the passage and graph (remember Strategy 2), and then work on this question:

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...

Ready? Did you give it a good try?

It's really easy to get tripped up by a problem like this without knowing where to start. There are all these squiggly lines and even a curve that loops back on itself. 

But remember the fundamental principles that apply to every single graph.

First, let's start by understanding what the graph is even showing. As the text says, "the figure below displays, for sounds in water and in air, the human thresholds of hearing and of pain." And in the paragraph above, it says that "the human threshold of hearing is the minimum intensity at each sound frequency required for a sound to be heard by humans."

The critical first step for every graph is to look at the two axes - what's being shown here?

On the x-axis is the intensity of the sound (in decibels, or db). As we move left, we lower the intensity. As we move right, we raise the intensity.

On the y-axis is the frequency of the sound (in hertz, or Hz). As we move up, we increase the frequency. As we move down, we decrease the frequency.

Both axes, intensity and frequency, relate to the definition of "human threshold of hearing" above.

body_36science_weird3a1.jpg

Next, on the graph we locate the curved line called "threshold of hearing." Again, this is a weird line, but remember the threshold is the MINIMUM intensity at a specific frequency to be heard by humans. Below that intensity, humans can't hear the sound. Above that intensity, we can.

For example, let's pick a frequency: 1 x 102 (or 100) Hz. The threshold of hearing line is an intensity of roughly 40 db. Above 40db, humans can hear a sound at 100 Hz. Below 40db, humans can't hear a sound at 100 Hz.

But the threshold of hearing intensity isn't the same at other frequencies! Let's pick 103 (or 1000) Hz. The line is much lower in intensity - around 0db. So at this frequency, the threshold of hearing is lower than at 100 Hz. 

As you follow the "threshold of hearing" line up and down, you'll see the intensity increase and decrease. At each frequency, there is a minimum intensity required to be heard by humans.

Great - so now we understand the graph. We don't really care WHY this is actually true in real life. For this test, we just need to be able to read the graph.

Now, the question - "which of the following is closest to the lowest frequency that can be heard by a human being?"

We know that the "threshold of hearing" line defines what can be heard by humans. "Lowest frequency" suggests that we need to look downward on the y-axis. 

Here's the graph again:

body_36science_weird3a1.jpg

Look at the threshold of hearing line and follow it downward in frequency until....wait. It disappears. What does this mean?

It must mean that humans can't hear the sound, no matter what the intensity is!

Now, the question asks, at what frequency does this happen? To figure this out, you need to look at the y-axis. I draw a line from the point where the line disappears to the left:

body_36science_weird3a.jpg

So we see the frequency is 2 x 101 Hz, or 20 Hz. That's answer G, which is correct.

Whew - that was a handful, and one of the most difficult graphs I've seen on ACT Science. 

You're going to see crazy graphs like this, and possibly even more complicated graphs, on your ACT Science test. 

DON'T BE INTIMIDATED. Remember Strategy 2? You're not going to need most of the figure anyway!

Break every figure down:

  • What does each axis represent?
  • What does the graph show?

I guarantee that if you can answer these questions for each graph, you'll be able to answer every question relating to the graph.

 

 

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Strategy 8: Eliminate Careless Mistakes

In your quest to get a perfect ACT science score, you need absolute perfection. Probably the most frustrating type of mistake is a careless mistake. You understand the question, you know the answer, but you get excited and slip up. 

Oops - they were asking about Scientist 2, but you answered for Scientist 1 instead. There goes your 36.

These types of errors are the most costly and frustrating. You've already put in a ton of work to master the underlying material, and here a question has tricked you into losing a point.

ACT Science has a few especially tricky question types that are purpose built to trick you. If you understand this beforehand and know how to defeat them, you’ll be in a much more secure position. 

The first type is the Interpreting Experiments Question. The answer choices for these are almost always in this form:

  • No, because A
  • No, because B
  • Yes, because A
  • Yes, because B

Here's a real example question:

body_36science_careless1.jpg

(The answer to this question is A.)

The tricky part to these questions is that you can focus on getting one half right (especially the A/B part which has more words), and then miss the other half.

For example, you might focus so much on verifying whether the solution was blue or yellow that you pick answer choice C, which has the same second half as A, but is Yes instead of No.

To combat this, answer each half independently.

“Do the results of Experiment 2 support this claim?” No – because the pH is higher at 1.8 mL.

“If no, why not?” Because the solution was yello at 0.2 and blue at 1.8mL.

OK - then it's answer A.

This way, you're less likely to make a careless mistake by misinterpreting the question. Make sure BOTH parts of the answer are correct!

 

The other type of question that breeds careless mistakes is the Understanding Viewpoints questions. The passages will give you the perspectives of 2 or 3 scientists, and the questions will ask you about how each one behaves.

Here's an example:

body_36science_careless3.jpg

So here you're tasked with finding the perspective of Student 2. 

But notice how they bury "Student 2" in the mess of the rest of the question. No doubt the ACT wants you to get distracted and forget which Student you should be thinking about.

The correct answer is G. But if you had accidentally identified Student 1, you would have incorrectly answered J! 

One way to solve this is to circle the "Student 2" in the question text. 

Then, when you answer the question, think explicitly in your head, "Student 2 believes that..."

Avoid considering the wrong perspective at all costs!

 

 

Strategy 9: Drill Your Weaknesses Until They Disappear

When your dentist inspects your mouth and finds a cavity, does she just ignore it and move on to looking at your other teeth?

No! She cleans out the entire cavity with a drill so that the rotting doesn't continue. Then she fills in the hole with a filling. This completely solves the problem and prevents future cavities in the same location.

You should treat every mistake you make like a cavity. Every question you miss on ACT Science points to an infection - a weakness that you have with ACT Science.

To clear out the infection, you need to practice on the same type of question repeatedly until you COMPLETELY get rid of your weakness.

Again, to get a perfect 36, you can't afford to make any mistakes.

 

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Fill in the potholes of your understanding.
 

 

Remember the listing of every passage and question type in Strategy 3? When you grade your practice test, you MUST keep track of how many questions you are missing in which categories. Be scientific about this - you put in a lot of hard work in the practice test, now get the most out of it!

Then, find a LOT of practice questions to keep drilling that specific weakness.

Do you keep getting thrown off by complicated figures and charts? Find those charts and practice with them!

Do you keep making careless mistakes on Viewpoints questions? Then keep practicing them until you don't anymore!

In our ACT prep program PrepScholar, we do that work for you by splitting up our 1,500+ practice questions by skill and difficulty. If you're weak in graph reading, we're going to give you a ton of questions on graphs of all kinds. If you don't know how to interpret experiments, you'll get 20+ questions in a quiz dealing specifically with that skill.

This repetitive practice fills up your content gap far better than any other method I know.

 

 

40_chemistry.jpg

 

Strategy 10: Be Fluent with Basic Scientific Concepts

By and large, ACT Science is far more a reading and logic test than it is a science test. You can get a good score without understanding much science at all. 

But if you want a PERFECT score, you will have to understand the most important scientific concepts. The ACT DOES expect you to know these by heart, even if the information isn't included in the passage.

Here's a notable example:

body_36science_basic.jpg

(there's more to this passage, but this is all that's relevant for the next two questions)

body_36science_basic1-1.jpg

This question asks about the function of organelles. This info isn't provided in the passage! You have to know that photosynthesis occurs in chloroplasts.

Another question: 

body_36science_basic2-1.jpg

Once again, you have to know that C6H12O6 represents glucose in the photosynthesis equation. It's not in the passage - otherwise this would be trivial to answer.

Luckily, we've gathered every scientific concept you have to know in our guide, "The Only Actual Science You Have to Know for ACT Science. We scoured dozens of official ACT tests to collect the scientific concepts you need that won't show up in the passage text. This includes concepts like:

  • pH, acids and bases
  • how charges attract and repel
  • the scientific method
  • natural selection

and more. To get a perfect 36, you HAVE to know some science - here's what you need.

 

 

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Strategy 11: Pace Your Time Section by Section, Question by Question

In my experience, ACT Science has the second most intense time pressure on the ACT (first is ACT Math). For ACT Science, you have to answer 40 questions across 7 passages in 35 minutes.

And if you want a perfect 36, you'll need to finish the section with time to spare so you can go back and check your work.

This is why I recommend aiming to finish the entire ACT science section in 25 minutes.

This gives you 10 minutes to spare to go back to questions you weren't sure about and make sure you're not making any careless mistakes.

What this also means is that you should try to finish each passage and all associated questions within 4 minutes. Some passages are easier than others, but this should be your average.

This is hard. Even though I'm pretty good at science, I still need 25 minutes or so to finish the section, because some passages really are pretty tricky.

But this is what you should aim for. If you can accomplish this regularly, not only do you have extra time to perfect your answers, you've also reached a level of mastery that puts you on the path to a 36 score.

It's important to pace yourself section by section and question by question because you do NOT want to obsess over a passage and waste time.

The trouble with trying to get a perfect 36 is that you KNOW you have to miss zero questions, so you're more likely to fret about a single hard question. Before you know it, you've sunk 3 minutes on a single question.

So if you spend over 30 seconds on a question, just skip it. You can always come back to it later, and right now it's most important to rack up as many points as possible.

 

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Quick Tip: Bubbling Answers

Here's a bubbling tip that will save you 5 minutes, automatically.

If you've read my other ACT 36 guides, then you'll already know this. 

When I first started test taking in high school, I did what many students do: after I finished one question, I went to the bubble sheet and filled it in. Then I solved the next question. Finish question 1, bubble in answer 1. Finish question 2, bubble in answer 2. And so forth.

This actually wastes a lot of time. You're distracting yourself between two distinct tasks - solving questions, and bubbling in answers. This costs you time in both mental switching costs and in physically moving your hand and eyes to different areas of the test.

Here's a better method: solve all your questions first in the book, then bubble all of them in at once.

This has several huge advantages: you focus on each task one at a time, rather than switching between two different tasks. You also eliminate careless entry errors, like if you skip question 7 and bubble in question 8's answer into question 7's slot.

By saving just 5 seconds per question, you get back 200 seconds on the 40 questions. This is huge.

Note: Be careful that you don't run out of time before bubbling in answer choices! If the instructor calls time and you haven't bubbled anything, you're screwed.

 

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Strategy 12: DON'T Study with Actual Science Journals

If you actually like science, you may be tempted to pick up an academic journal like Science or Nature to study for ACT Science. "If the test is about science research, then why wouldn't reading science research help?"

Don't do it. ACT Science is superficially about science research, but it is VERY simplified for high schoolers.

Remember that the ACT needs to be appropriate for high school students around the country, not for leading scientists with PhDs. The time you spend trying to understand what in the world is going on in a study like this is far better spent actually doing ACT Science questions.

Furthermore, ACT Science asks questions in a very specific way about their passages. You don't do this when you read research journals, so you don't get to practice the actual skills you need to perfect. 

Now, if you get a kick out of science research, then by all means do read science journals - for fun. Since I did a lot of science research in high school, I tried to read some academic literature too.

Just don't expect it to improve your ACT Science score.

 
 

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Strategy 13: Keep a Calm Mind During the Test, No Matter What

Now you know what it takes to achieve perfection on ACT Science.

You know that to get a 36, you have to aim for ZERO missed questions. Otherwise, you might get a 35.

This makes a lot of high-achieving students nervous during the test.

"I don't get this passage...I can't solve this question...my 36 is gone...I'm getting more nervous and I have to skip the next question too...oh dear...I don't think I know how to read anymore..."

You can see how quickly you can fall into a vicious cycle because you have really high goals. Before you know it, your anxiety leads to a worse score than you would have ever expected.

You need to learn to be mentally strong, like an athlete on game day.

You have to roll with the punches.

Yes, you might have to skip a question on the first pass through. Maybe even two in a row.

But you've practiced hard up to this point. You know this stuff, and you'll come back to those questions and get it later. (especially if you've been using the time-saving strategies above)

You need to keep up a positive mindset during the test, or you'll crumble.

And in the worst case, maybe you won't get a 36. But if you've consistently been getting 36's on the practice tests, you likely won't go much lower than 34 - and that's still an awesome score, even for the best colleges in the United States.

 

In Overview

Those are the main strategies I have for you to improve your ACT Science score to a 36. If you're scoring above a 26 right now, with hard work and smart studying, you can raise it to a perfect ACT Science score.

Notice how much I talked about reviewing your mistakes, understanding your weaknesses, and drilling them with good practice. I don't tell you that there's a magic solution to getting a 36 that works for everyone.

That's because one-size-fits-all, guaranteed strategies don't really exist. (And anyone who tells you this is deceiving you). Every student is different.

Instead, you need to understand where you're falling short, and drill those weaknesses continuously. You also need to be thoughtful about your mistakes and leave no mistake ignored.

If you want to go back and review any of the strategies above, here's a list of all the strategies:

Strategy 1: Understand Your High Level Weakness: Content or Time Management
Strategy 2: Don't Waste Time In the Passage and Figures
Strategy 3: Understand EVERY Type of ACT Science Passage and Question
Strategy 4: Do a Ton of Practice, and Understand Every Single Mistake
Strategy 5: If You Miss a Question, Re-Solve It
Strategy 6: If You Miss a Question, Generate New Questions
Strategy 7: Get Used to Weird ACT Science Graphs
Strategy 8: Eliminate Careless Mistakes
Strategy 9: Drill Your Weaknesses Until They Disappear
Strategy 10: Be Fluent with Basic Scientific Concepts
Strategy 11: Pace Your Time Section by Section, Question by Question
Strategy 12: Don't Study with Actual Science Journals
Strategy 13: Keep a Calm Mind During the Test, No Matter What

 

Keep reading for more resources on how to boost your ACT score.

 

What's Next?

We have a lot more useful guides to raise your ACT score.

Read our complete guide to a perfect 36, written by me, a perfect scorer.

Also check out our 36 Math, 36 Reading, and 36 English guides.

Learn how to write a perfect-scoring 12 ACT essay, step by step.

 

Like this article? Want to improve your ACT score by 4 points? 

Check out our best-in-class online ACT prep program. We guarantee your money back if you don't improve your ACT score by 4 points or more.

Our program is entirely online, and it customizes what you study to your strengths and weaknesses. If you liked this Science lesson, you'll love our program. Along with more detailed lessons, you'll get thousands of practice problems organized by individual skills so you learn most effectively. We'll also give you a step-by-step program to follow so you'll never be confused about what to study next.

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Allen Cheng
About the Author

As co-founder and head of product design at PrepScholar, Allen has guided thousands of students to success in SAT/ACT prep and college admissions. He's committed to providing the highest quality resources to help you succeed. Allen graduated from Harvard University summa cum laude and earned two perfect scores on the SAT (1600 in 2004, and 2400 in 2014) and a perfect score on the ACT.



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