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The Best Way to Study and Practice for ACT Science

Posted by Dora Seigel | Jun 2, 2015 8:30:00 AM

ACT Strategies, ACT Science



The ACT Science is like a double rainbow: unique, complicated to understand, and people freak out when they see it. Unlike a double rainbow, which tends to freak people out because of its awesomeness, the ACT Science section tends to freak people out because of the crazy time crunch with only 35 minutes to answer 40 questions. 

Even so, if you want to do well on the ACT Science, you can't avoid it. You have to buckle down and create a great study plan. The good news is there are several easy steps to take to make sure you are studying for the ACT Science section in the right way. 

Here is an overview of what this guide covers:

  • Which study materials to use
  • The importance of using realistic timing
  • How you should be reviewing your practice tests
  • Memorizing what the ACT Science expects you to know


Step #1: Study With Real Materials 

This step may seem obvious, but in order to get the most out of your studying, you need to study with ACT Science specific material. As I said before, the ACT Science section is unlike other Science tests you've taken; your AP or IB Science study materials will not help you here. You need to find ACT study materials that you like working with and that fit your study schedule. 

The highest quality source of practice tests is almost always official ACT practice tests.

If you like my approach below, you’ll love PrepScholar’s program. We do the heavy lifting for you, by splitting up our prep material into specific skills. We'll detect your weaknesses automatically and give you focused lessons and quizzes to improve those skills.

Also, check out our article on recommended ACT prep books. You should take a minimum of 4 full-length practice ACT Science sections before your test date. 


Step #2: Stick to the Real Timing

The ACT Science section is the tightest time crunch of any section of the test: 7 passages, 40 questions, 35 minutes, leaving only 52.5 seconds to answer each question. 

You need to keep yourself to a 5 minutes per passage pace. If you do not do this in your practice, you will not be able to do it the day of the test. You should be taking a minimum of 4 practice tests, but I'd argue you should take around 7-8 practice ACT Science sections to nail this timing.


Don't disturb the dragon.

Step #3: Review Your Mistakes 

This is the MOST important step of all.

After taking your practice test, don't just score your test and move on to the next one. You need to actually review your mistakes. 

When reviewing practice tests, people tend to have some or all of these wrong impulses:

  • Impulse 1: Focusing on what you did well and ignoring what you did wrong (not helpful).
  • Impulse 2: Disregarding questions you got wrong because they were just "careless mistakes" (not helpful).
  • Impulse 3: Focusing on the fact that you got things wrong and ignoring review in favor of self-loathing (popular among some overachievers, and yet...still not helpful).

These impulses are not helpful! Review is the most important step in your study process. It is how you learn and improve. 

Your review of your ACT Science questions should be different depending on the type of passage. If you do not know the 3 types of ACT Science Passages, I recommend reading our other article first before continuing to read this article.

As a brief review, there are 3 types of ACT Science Passages:

  • 3 Data Representation Passages
  • 3 Research Summary Passages
  • 1 Conflicting Viewpoints Passage

Data Representation Passages and Research Summary Passages are very similar. Both use visuals (graphs, tables, etc.) as the primary way to convey information. We will evaluate your mistakes for both in the same way.

Conflicting Viewpoints Passages are the most unique since they typically do not have any visuals. We will use a different approach for evaluating your mistakes. 


Reviewing Research Summary and Data Representation Passages

Start by analyzing your confidence for each question. 


We can't always be invincible. 


Categorize each question as skipped, guessed (after process of elimination), or (you thought you) knew. Do this for all questions even the ones you got right. Be sure to review all questions that you skipped or guessed (even if you got some of the guessed ones right)

For the skipped questions: Why did you skip? Did you run out of time? You should never skip on the ACT since there is no penalty for guessing. Make sure you leave yourself enough time at the end to at least pick a letter to bubble in for the remaining questions. 

For the guessed questions: Why did you guess right? Why did you guess wrong? Is there a difference in the way you approached the guessed questions you got right versus those you got wrong?


Next, understand the reason you got the question wrong.

Categorize your mistakes into 1 of 6 areas.

  1. Misreading the visuals
  2. Not understanding a trend
  3. Not understanding the setup of the experiment
  4. Misreading the passage
  5. Not knowing a science fact
  6. Careless error

I will go into more detail on each type of mistake below.


Mistake Type 1: Misreading the Visuals

This is one of the most common mistakes since it's easy to do, and it applies to a lot of questions in ACT science.

If you read our article on the 3 types of act science passages, this mistake is usually connected to factual questions and interpreting experiments questions. Did you not read the graphs, tables, scatterplots or diagrams correctly? If so, what did you misread? What did you not understand? Make sure to drill this skill, as it is the most tested on the ACT Science section. Here is an example of a factual question:



There are several mistakes you can make when misreading graphs.

  • Did you look at the wrong figure entirely? 
    • Example: Did you accidentally use the top graph of the percent of captured finches from Island A? You should have used the two bottom graphs that covered the percent of captured finches from Island B and C. 
  • Did you misread the values along the x-axis or y-axis?
    • Example: Did you think it said 8 instead of 10?
  • Did you misread the labels along the x-axis or y-axis?
    • Example: Did you think beak depth was measured along the y-axis?
  • Did you not notice a key?
    • Example: Many visuals will have a key with them. Keys are usually very important. Do not ignore them. 


You will recognize these mistakes when your answer choice is very different from the correct answer. If you think you may have misread the visual, start by analyzing the question. Did it refer to a specific figure? Did you look at Figure 2 when it said Figure 1?

If it did not refer to a specific figure in the question, did the answer choices have numbers? For example, in question 1 above, the answers A, B, C, and D all have numbers: 8 mm, 9 mm, 10 mm, etc. If the answer choices contain numbers, it is a safe bet that you either needed to read a visual or understand a trend to answer the question correctly. I will explore understanding a trend mistakes next. 

If you think you struggle to understand visuals, you need to focus on improving this skill since it is the most tested skill on the ACT Science section. In order to improve, I'd recommend taking a few untimed ACT Science sections. Take as much time as you need to answer each question and dissect the visuals provided. Write out the control and variable(s). Write out the values at each data point.

By doing this seemingly tedious step, you will be making sure you understand the information the visual is trying to convey. After reaching an acceptable score when taking untimed sections, I'd start taking timed sections immediately. As I said before, you will need to nail the 5-minute per passage timing to succeed on the ACT Science section. 


Mistake Type 2: Not Understanding a Trend

If you read our article on the 3 types of ACT science passages, this mistake is usually connected to interpreting trends questions and calculations questions. Were you not able to describe the relationship of the data? Increasing, decreasing, direct, indirect? Were you not able to extrapolate / interpolate a trend?

Here's an example of an interpreting trends question:



Answering this question requires understanding what caused small seeds or large seeds to be more abundant. In this case, this graph below and the two sentences directly above it provide the information you need. If you misread the graph or mixed up these sentences, you may have gotten the answer wrong. 

According to the two sentences, small seeds are abundant during wet years. According to the graph, 1984 was a wet year, so J. 1984 is the correct answer. 

I'd recommend the same approach to fixing this problem as with misreading the visuals. Take untimed practice sections. Try to draw on the visuals the extrapolation of the data. Draw the line as if it went out further. Follow the table. Put up and down arrows for if the data is going up from point to point or down from point to point. Once you start excelling at these interpreting trends and calculations questions, go back to the 5-minute per passage pace. 


Mistake Type 3: Not Understanding the Setup of the Experiment 

If you read our article on the 3 types of act science passages, this mistake is usually connected to experimental design/research intent questions and hypothetical experimental questions. Did you not understand the researcher’s intent? Did you not understand the experiment’s design? Did you not know the control versus variables? 

Here's an example of an experimental design question:


Answering this question requires understanding what the titrant and sample solution were. In this case, the passage defines what a titrant is and what a sample solution is, but if you misread the passage, it's easy to mix it up, especially since it's just a bunch of liquid being mixed together anyway. 

Be sure to skim the passage for this information if you cannot figure it out from the visuals alone. 


Mistake Type 4: Misreading the Passage

Did you miss key information from the passage needed to answer the questions? Make sure you read carefully. If you are not 100% sure what the answer is, go back and skim if you have the time. Try to be 100% sure before you move on to the next question. 

Regarding the question in mistake type 2, it would be easy to misread the two sentences you need to answer the question correctly. If you were reading too quickly, you may think that the small seeds were abundant during dry years and answer incorrectly. Take your time and make sure you understand what you read, so you get the correct answer. 


Mistake Type 5: Not Knowing a Science Fact

If you read our article on the only actual science you need to know for the ACT science, this mistake is on those questions. These questions only appear about 4 times per test and require outside science knowledge.

To make sure the mistake is because of a lack of outside knowledge, re-read the entire passage and make sure they do not give you the information you needed to answer the question. If you still think it is an outside knowledge question, make a flashcard with the information you didn’t know. 

Study the flashcards, so you get the information down. You should make flashcards for all the topics from the only actual science article and drill yourself. Also, be sure to do some additional light research to refresh your memory of that concept. It is not necessary to read a book on the subject, but just be sure you have a basic understanding of the concept.

The question below expects you to know that protons are positively charged, electrons are negatively charged, like charges repel each other, and opposite charges attract each other. Nowhere in the passage is this property of charges stated - you just have to know this from your science class experience. Knowing what you do, you can eliminate F and H. In this case, the passage stated the reaction uses protons, so the answer is G. 


Knowing this material is the only way to get a score between 31 and 36. If you are aiming for a score of 30 or below on the ACT Science section, you do not need to spend as much time focused on these questions, since they only account for about 4 questions per test.  


Mistake Type 6: Careless Error

Did you make a small calculation error in question that requires basic math? Did you misread the question? Did you not see a NOT or EXCEPT? Make sure to read the questions closely and circle or underline the NOT or EXCEPT so you don’t miss it.


It would be very easy to read this too fast and think the question is asking which of the following is true. I have watched many of the students I tutor make that mistake, and I have made that mistake myself. Try to read carefully to avoid these careless mistakes. 


Reviewing Conflicting Viewpoints Passages

Again, start by analyzing your confidence for each question.

Label them as either skipped, guessed, or knew. Try not to skip in the future since you are not penalized for guessing on the ACT. Review all skipped and guessed problems (even if you got some guessed questions right).


Understand the reason you got the question wrong.

Categorize mistakes into two categories:

  1. Not understanding the point of view
  2. Not understanding the differences and similarities in the points of view


Mistake Type 1: Not Understanding the Point of View

If you read our article on the 3 types of act science passages, this mistake is usually connected to understanding of viewpoints questions. If you continue to struggle with theses types of question, circle and/or underline as you read the passage to make sure you remember the point of view of each student/scientist. 

What is their argument? What do they believe? Write yourself a three word or less summary after reading the paragraph i.e. “pro-comet theory,” “anti-comet theory.”


Answering this question requires understanding Student 2's point of view. In this case, Student 2 said that Algol B became a part of the Algol system because Algol B intersected orbits with the original Algol system, so the original Algol system exerted a gravitational force on Algol B. Therefore, the answer is H. If you did not understand Student 2's argument, you would get this question wrong. 


Mistake Type 2: Not Understanding the Differences and Similarities in the Points of View

If you read our article on the 3 types of act science passages, this mistake is usually connected to comparing viewpoints questions. Were you able to differentiate between the two scientists/students? How were their viewpoints similar?


Answering this question requires understanding both Scientist 1's and Scientist 2's point of view and knowing the similarities between them. In this case, both agreed the object exploded at 8 km above the Earth, so we can eliminate B, C, and D. Therefore, the answer is A. If you did not know this key similarity between them, you probably would have answered incorrectly. 


Step #4: Study the Science Subjects That the ACT Expects You to Know

As I mentioned briefly above, check out our other article on the only actual science you need to know for the ACT Science section. Do some light research to make sure you have a basic understanding of each topic. 

Make flashcards of that material. Drill yourself until you know it. Because there are 13 topics mentioned in that article and only around 4 used per practice test, it is possible you may not come across all of them in your studies. You do not want to be surprised the day of the test, so make flashcards and make sure you know them! 


Recap to the Best Way to Study ACT Science

Here are the steps to success:

  1. Study with real ACT Science materials
  2. When you take practice sections, make sure you are sticking to the real timing! (5 minutes per passage)
  3. Review your mistakes from your practice tests. (Don't ignore them! This is the most important step!)
  4. Study the science subjects that the ACT expects you to know

I hope you see know that the ACT Science is easy if you have a good study plan.


What's Next?

Study hard, review like a pro, and get a 36 on the ACT Science section!

Get more help cracking the ACT Science section. Learn the big secret of ACT Science. Find out the science you have to know, and learn the best way to read ACT Science passages

Not sure where you want to go to college? Learn how to do college research rightOnce, you know where you want to go to school, pick your ACT target score

Aiming for a top college? Read our advice on getting into Harvard, the Ivy League, and Stanford


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Dora Seigel
About the Author

As an SAT/ACT tutor, Dora has guided many students to test prep success. She loves watching students succeed and is committed to helping you get there. Dora received a full-tuition merit based scholarship to University of Southern California. She graduated magna cum laude and scored in the 99th percentile on the ACT. She is also passionate about acting, writing, and photography.

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