The ACT Science section, more than any other, is about strategy over knowledge. Because every graduating high school senior has a varied level of science education, the only way to make a "fair" or "standardized" test is to test very basic concepts. If the ACT Science tested basic concepts in an easy way everyone would get a 36, so instead, the ACT tests these basic concepts in new and confusing ways.
In order to get the best score, you need to use a strategy to attack this strange test and practice the strategy on several ACT Science practice tests. For information about practice tests, check out our other article. You only have 35 minutes to answer 40 questions (or 52.5 seconds per question) and each question has the same point value, so you also need a strategy that helps you answer as many questions as possible in the shortest amount of time.
In this article, I will cover the basic ACT Science strategy:
- Knowing the section format and using it to your advantage
- 1-Save Conflicting Viewpoints for last, Start with Data Representation and Research Summaries Passages
- Conflicting Viewpoints Strategies
- 2-Write yourself brief summaries
- Data Representation and Research Summaries Passage Strategies
- 3-Do not read the passage on Data Representation and Research Summaries Passages
- 4-Start with the questions
- 5-Use every part of the visuals to your advantage
- 6-Skim only if absolutely necessary
- 7- Practicing is a key to success
- 8- Only use real ACT Science Practice Materials
- 9- Use the real timing when practicing.
- 10- Review your mistakes, so you improve.
- 11- Study the material the ACT Science section expects you to know
I will provide more information on each below:
Knowing the section format and using it to your advantage
If you were unfamiliar with the 3 Types of ACT Science Passages, I'd recommend reading that article first. As a brief summary, there are 3 types of passages (7 passages total) used on the test:
- 3 Data Representation Passages, 5 questions each
- 3 Research Summaries Passages, 6 questions each
- 1 Conflicting Viewpoints Passage, 7 questions
It is not important for you to be able to differentiate between Data Representation Passages and Research Summaries Passages because the strategy we will use for both is the same. Both of these passages use visuals as the primary way to convey information: there will be graphs, tables, scatterplots, and/or bar graphs.
It is important that you can separate the Conflicting Viewpoints Passage from the other two types because the strategy for this passage is very different. It should be pretty simple to identify because the Conflicting Viewpoints Passage has no graphs or tables. Instead, there are two or more scientists/students/theories presented in short paragraphs. The questions ask you about each viewpoint and the differences and similarities between the viewpoints. To answer the questions, you need to read and understand the entire passage; therefore, this passage will take the longest.
ACT Science Strategy #1: Save Conflicting Viewpoints for last, Start with Data Representation and Research Summaries Passages
As I said, you only have 52.5 seconds per question and each question has the same value. Since Conflicting Viewpoints takes longer, save it for last so it doesn't kill your pace. I will dive into the specific strategy for Conflicting Viewpoints passages next.
Conflicting Viewpoints Strategy
As I said before, Conflicting Viewpoints passages require you to read the entire passage to answer the questions. The two types of questions with Conflicting Viewpoints Passages are called Understanding Viewpoints Questions and Comparing Viewpoints Questions. To read more in-depth about Conflicting Viewpoints Passages and questions, read our article about Attacking Conflicting Viewpoints Questions.
As a brief overview, the passage starts with an introduction and then presents you with the viewpoint of 2 or more scientists/students/theories. Understanding viewpoints questions require you to understand what each scientist/student/theory is arguing. Comparing viewpoints questions require you to point out the similarities and differences of the viewpoints. When attacking conflicting viewpoints passage, start by reading the passage in its entirety (including the introduction).
ACT Science Strategy #2: Write yourself brief mini-summaries as you read each viewpoint.
Writing summaries will help you remember what each scientist/student/theory argued and will help you when answering the question. These summaries should be no more than 3-4 words, more than that and you are taking too much time. Here is an example from a real ACT Science practice test:
This way when you are asked a question such as:
Which of the following findings support Scientist 2?
A. A Scientist confirmed the fragments were from an asteroid
B. A Scientist confirmed the fragments were from a comet
C. A Scientist determined nothing struck the earth.
D. A Scientist found out a bomb exploded.
Obviously, this may be easier than other ACT Science questions, but the methodology is the same. Look back at your summary for Scientist 2. Our summary says, "Pro-Asteroid." That matches A, so A is the correct answer. Writing summaries saves you time that you would spend re-reading paragraphs and helps you get to the correct answer quicker. The strategy is very different for the other 2 passages:
Data Representation and Research Summaries Strategies
As I said before, distinguishing between these two passages is not important. If you would like to know the difference, it is that Data Representation Passages discusses experiments (like how varying amounts of enzyme concentrate changes reaction time) whereas Research Summaries Passages discuss summaries where something is observed (like the beak depth of finches in the wild). Knowing this difference does not help you answer questions.
Both of these passages have a brief introduction, a few paragraphs (separated by experiment 1/2/3 or student 1/2/3) and visuals (graphs, tables, scatterplots, bar graphs, etc.). Almost all of the questions require reading the visuals to answer the question.
ACT Science Strategy #3: Don't Read the Passage on Data Representation and Research Summaries Passages
It is a waste of your time to read these passages in their entirety. As I just said, to answer most of the questions, you just need to read the visuals, so:
ACT Science Strategy #4: Start With the Questions
Skip reading and go right to the questions. Then, look back at the corresponding visual(s) to try to answer the question.
ACT Science Strategy #5: Use Every Part of the Visuals to Your Advantage
The visuals contain the majority of the answers to the questions, so you need to become an expert at reading visuals and pulling tons of information out of a single visual. Check out our article on Factual Questions: How to Read Graphs, Visuals and Data for more information, but I will give a brief overview of how to get the most out of a visual. Sometimes, you will be looking at weird graphs like this one:
Yes, this is from a real ACT Science practice test. Here is the accompanying question:
Let's break it down. The question is asking you which of the answer choices has the highest intensity at a given frequency. Whenever a question states "at a given X," it means across all values of X. In other words, this question is asking you to pick the answer choice with the highest intensity across all frequencies.
There is a lot of information in the graph above, but the answer choices only require us to consider four conditions: in air or in water, and at S of 100% or at 10^-8%. Looking at the graph above, you may have no idea where to begin. Start by finding the locations of S 100% and S 10^-8% (it is completely fine that you don't understand what these mean). I don't even think the passage helped you understand what these mean. I don't know what they mean, but I can still answer the question correctly.
You see S 10^-8% is represented by the two vertical lines at the far left of the graph. S 100% is represented by the two vertical lines at the far right of the graph.
Now, you need to locate intensity, since the question asked specifically which has the highest intensity. Intensity is measured on the x-axis. Both lines for S 10^-8 % have a measured intensity between -20 and 0 db. Both lines for S 100% have a measured intensity between 180 and 220 db.
The S 100% are at a higher intensity, so we can eliminate both S 10^-8% answer choices, G and J. Now, to decide between F and H, we need to figure out whether the intensity was greater in water or air. To do this, we need to distinguish which S 100% line represents water and which one represents air.
According to the key, the small dotted line represents water, and the thicker line represents air. The small dotted line is just to the right of the thicker line, so it is at a higher intensity than the thicker line. S 100% in water has an intensity of approximately 205 db and S 100% in air has an intensity of approximately 195 db, so the answer is F.
To get the most out of visuals, you need to be scanning every axis, curve, and key. Pinpoint just what you need to answer the question and ignore what is not useful to you. Occasionally the visual alone will not be enough to answer the question, if you need more information, use our next strategy:
ACT Science Strategy #6: Skim Only If Absolutely Necessary
Usually, you don't need to read, as I just showed you in the addressing the last question. You will probably only need to read/skim for 2 out of 5 or 6 questions per passage. Save the question(s) that you can't answer with visuals alone for the end of the passage. Let's check out an ACT Science practice question where you need to skim:
In order to the answer this question, you need to start by looking at Figure 2 for Experiment 2. At 0.2 mL of titrant added, the color was yellow. At 1.8 mL of titrant added, the color was blue, so you can eliminate B and D. However, you don't know what the difference between yellow and blue means in terms of pH, so you need to skim. You only need this sentence from the very end of the introduction to find the final answer.
So, according to the passage, blue means greater pH than yellow, so the answer is A. You can now see how skimming can quickly lead you to the correct answer. Never ever take the time to read the entire passage. It is a waste of your valuable, precious, limited time. Just skim for key terms and you will get to the answer quicker.
ACT Science Strategy #7: Practicing Is the Key to Success.
I recommend taking a minimum of 7 practice tests. This test is so unique that during your first 2-3 practice tests you will just be getting used to the format. You need the additional 4-5 tests to solidify using all of the above strategies. I improved 5 points from my first ACT Science test to my last; if you want to see that kind of improvement or better, you need to put in the time. Make sure you have the best study materials available.
ACT Science Strategy #8: Only Use Real ACT Science Practice Materials.
The ACT Science section is so different from other tests that any old science study material will not cut it. As I said before, the ACT Science section is unique in that it tests basic science skills in new and confusing ways. Check out our article on where to find ACT Science practice materials (most of which is free!) and which practice materials to avoid. When studying, you also need to make sure you are paying attention to timing.
ACT Science Strategy #9: Use the Real Timing When Practicing.
One of the biggest challenges of the ACT Science section is time management. My problem when I first took the ACT Science section was that I couldn't finish the thing. With all of the above strategies, you should be able to finish in time. However, if you do not practice the timing, you will not finish in time.
Practice completing the entire section in 35 minutes, and try to limit yourself to 5 minutes per passage, so you keep yourself on track. Use this timing on every practice test, so that the fast pace becomes second nature to you. After taking a practice test, you need to review.
ACT Science Strategy #10: Review Your Mistakes, So You Improve.
The only way to get better is with practice and reviewing your mistakes. Not reviewing your mistakes is like a professional football team losing a game 60-0 and just moving on to the next one without a post-game review. It would never happen, and it should never happen for you.
Reviewing your mistakes allows you to process where you went wrong and make sure it doesn't happen again. For help in how to review your mistakes, check out our articles on The Best Way to Study and Practice for ACT Science and The 9 Reasons You Miss ACT Science Questions. Practice tests and review will not get you all the way to a 36.
ACT Science Strategy #11: Study the Material the ACT Science Section Expects You to Know.
On every ACT Science section, there are about 4 questions that you cannot answer correctly without outside knowledge. I wrote an entire article dedicated to these questions: The Only Actual Science You Have to Know for ACT Science. There are 13 topics that the ACT Science section expects you to know (all of them are covered in the other article). Make flashcards for these topics and study them until you know them cold.
The ACT Science section just expects you to have basic knowledge of these topics, so you don't need to study in-depth. Also, if you are aiming for a 30 or below on the ACT Science section, this step is not as important, as there are only 4 outside knowledge questions per test.
Apply these strategies to your ACT Science practice, and you'll be on your way to a 36 on the ACT Science section:
#1: Save Conflicting Viewpoints for last. Start with Data Representation and Research Summaries Passages.
#2: Write yourself brief mini-summaries for Conflicting Viewpoints Passages.
#3: Do not read the passage on Data Representation and Research Summaries Passages.
#4: For Data Representation and Research Summaries Passages, start with the questions.
#5: For Data Representation and Research Summaries Passages, use every part of the visuals to your advantage.
#6: For Data Representation and Research Summaries Passages, skim only if absolutely necessary.
#7: Practicing is the key to success.
#8: For practice, only use real ACT Science Materials.
#9: For practice, use the real timing.
#10: For practice, review your mistakes, so you improve.
#11: Study the material the ACT Science section expects you to know.
For future ACT Science study, I recommend checking out our other articles on the 3 Types of ACT Science passages to learn more about the other types of questions asked on the ACT Science section, factual questions to learn more about this question type and to practice your visual reading skills, and the best way to study and practice for ACT Science to make the most out of your limited study time.
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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.