The ACT Science section is one of the bigger mysteries to students since it is the most different from the SAT, PSAT, and other tests you have taken. Here, I will try to unravel the mystery by explaining the types of passages on the ACT, as well as the unique question types for each of these passages.
By the end of this article, you will have a clear understanding of what the ACT Science section entails and how to best prepare for it.
The 3 Types of ACT Science Passages
There are always either six or seven passages in the ACT Science section, split among a few types.
Here is the overview of the types of the three questions you'll find:
- 2-3 Data Representation Passages
- 5 or 6 questions per passage
- 2-3 Research Summaries Passages
- 5 or 6 questions per passage
- 1 Conflicting Viewpoints Passage
- 7 questions per passage
I will delve into more detail on the specifics of each type below. Each passage type also has unique types of questions, all requiring their own approaches.
Passage Type 1: Data Representation Passages
These passages are similar to those found in science journals and texts.
They present you with a short paragraph or two as well as one to four visual representations of data (such as graphs, tables, and/or scatterplots). The passages will mention specific studies and label sections as Study 1, Study 2, and Study 3.
Here is a sample passage from an ACT practice test:
Each Data Representation Passage has 5 or 6 questions. In the PrepScholar ACT Program, we categorize the questions for Data Representation into three categories (not everyone categorizes them the same way).
Understanding these three categories is key to figuring out how to answer each question correctly, so let's take a closer look at the three question types below.
Question Type 1: Factual Questions
These questions simply ask you to relay factual information that is presented in the passage.
To answer these questions, you need to read the graphs, tables, and/or scatterplots. You'll also need to pull out specific data points from the passage without making further calculations or inferences.
The key here is to read carefully and be able to pick out and understand factual information.
For instance, here's an example from the above passage:
As you can see, as long as you understand how to read graphs, you should be able to answer this question easily.
There may also be more advanced versions of these questions in which you are asked to look at a weird graph. They can look pretty intimidating at first. Check out the "weird" graph below:
Is that English?
I don't understand.
The trick to tackling a crazy-looking chart is reading the question and the answers carefully. It will give you an idea about what information matters...and what information doesn't.
Question Type 2: Interpreting Trends Questions
These questions ask you to evaluate graphs, tables, and/or scatterplots to decide if there is a relationship. Is it increasing or decreasing? Is there an inverse relationship or direct relationship?
Here is an example from the above passage:
There may be more advanced versions of these questions in which there is no clear relationship between the data points. At that point, you'll have to make educated, scientific inferences from the information you've given.
Question Type 3: Calculations Questions
These questions ask you to take what is given and figure out where it is going. Given the data, what might Y be at value X? The questions ask you to make extrapolations and interpolations.
Here is an example related to the below passage:
Like we mentioned above, these types of questions ask you to draw conclusions from the data you've been given.
Passage Type 2: Research Summaries Passages
These passages look similar to the Data Representation Passages in that they usually present you with a short paragraph or two plus visuals (graphs, tables, scatterplots, or images).
The difference is that Research Summaries Passages focus on a specific experiment or a couple of experiments. The passages will usually label sections as Experiment 1, Experiment 2, and Experiment 3. Often, they'll mention a scientist or student who is conducting the experiment. There may also be an image of how the experiments are set up.
Below is an example of a Research Summaries Passage:
Notice how unlike the Type 1 Data Representation passages above, Type 2 Research Summary passages mention specific experiments.
Each Research Summaries Passage has 5 or 6 questions. The types of questions they ask are also very different from Type 1 Data Representation passages. Let's take a look at these new question types in a little more depth.
Question Type 4: Experimental Design/Researcher Intent Questions
These questions ask you to determine why the researcher designed the experiment a certain way. What are the controls and variables in the experiment? What is the hypothesis on which the experiment is based?
Here is an example from the above passage:
Question Type 5: Hypothetical Experimental Questions
These questions ask you to determine what would happen if there was a change in the experiment (in the temperature, solution, etc.). They often require you to understand the trend of the data to predict how the outcome would change if the experiment were changed.
Here is an example from the above passage:
Question Type 6: Interpreting Experiments Questions
These questions ask you interpret the information that you are given. Based on the data shown, is this statement supported? These questions are often framed in a 2x2 matrix: Yes because A, Yes because B, No because A, No because B.
Here is an example from the above passage
Break for Strategies: Data Representation and Research Summaries Passages
Data Representation and Research Summaries are similar in that both rely primarily on the visuals (graphs, tables, etc.) to relay information. You can use the same strategy for both passages.
It's easier than chess. Trust me.
Strategy: Go straight to the questions without reading. Try to answer all of the questions using only the visuals.
Many students get bogged down in reading the science passage. There are dozens of data points to consider, and most of them won't have any questions about them. So you'll end up wasting time trying to understand data that really aren't important.
Instead, try to answer questions without reading the passage. This lets you avoid wasting too much time understanding parts of the passage that aren't important.
Let’s use the very first question from the Data Representation section as an example.
It is okay if you don’t immediately understand what finches are or what beak depth means (since you haven’t read the passage).
After reading that question, you should jump to Figure 2, the visual associated with Study 1.
I can ignore the top chart, since it says "percent of captured finches from Island A" in the y-axis, and I only need to compare the beak depth for percent of captured finches from Island B and C (and I see Island B and C are on the y-axis for the middle and bottom charts, respectively).
Starting with the bottom chart, I see the highest percent of finches captured from Island C was around 35%, if I follow that bar down to the x-axis, I see that the corresponding beak depth was 10 mm.
I am now pretty sure the answer is D since that is the only answer choice which says the beak depth is 10 mm for Island C finches. I will check the Island B finch chart to be sure.
Looking at the middle chart, I see the highest percent is about 33%, if I follow that bar down to the x-axis, I see the corresponding beak depth is 10 mm.
Now, I know for sure the answer is D!
Sometimes, this method of answering questions will require a little inference and/or your deduction skills, so it may not work for everyone on every question.
Let’s take for example the last question from the Research Summaries section above:
It is okay if you don’t immediately understand what the words "titrant" or "sample solution" mean (since you haven’t read the passage). After reading that question, you should jump to Figure 2, the visual associated with Experiment 2.
Then, check out the pH color and conductivity at 0.2 mL of titrant added. Even if I don’t know what titrant is (because I didn’t read the passage), I can see that volume of titrant added is on the x-axis. Following the x-axis to 0.2 ml of titrant added, I find the conductivity is less than 0.5 kS/cm (it is okay if I don’t understand the unit measurement). Based on the heavily dotted line, according to the key, the color is yellow.
Already with this information alone, I could go ahead and eliminate answer choices B and D since both say the color is blue at 0.2 ml of titrant added. I will double check by finding the conductivity and color at 1.8 ml of titrant added.
Using the graph, I see the conductivity is between 2.5 and 3 kS/cm. Based on the wider spaced line, according to the key, the color is blue.
So yes, I was correct to eliminate B and D. I now have to choose between A and C.
At this point, I need to use a little deduction if I choose not to read/skim the passage. The question is asking whether the pH is greater at 0.2 ml than at 1.8 ml of titrant added. Well, I know the conductivity is less at 0.2 ml than at 1.8 ml, but as far as pH I only know the color and don’t know what the colors mean. I know from my previous knowledge that pH and conductivity are directly related. So as one increases, so does the other.
Side note: I actually did a science fair experiment in middle school testing the differing conductivity of acidic fruit based on their pH levels.
No, I did not get to meet Barack Obama.
So, I am going to pick answer A since no, the pH is less at 0.2 ml of titrant added than at 1.8 ml of titrant added. If you skim the passage, you will find that yellow color signifies pH less than 6 and blue color signifies pH greater than 7, so my assumption was correct.
While not everyone may be able to make that second leap, you can definitely take the first step to eliminate B and E. Then, you only needed to skim to find out what yellow and blue mean in terms of pH in order to pick the correct answer.
For the questions you can't answer with visuals, circle them and return to them later.
After you have answered all the questions you could with visuals, as I mentioned above, skim the passage for keywords to answer the remaining question(s).
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Passage Type 3: Conflicting Viewpoints Passage
This passage is the most unique. The passage presents you with two short essays (and looks similar to a passage on the English portion of the exam). The essays represent conflicting scientific viewpoints or theories. Here is a sample passage:
It's very important that you first figure out the difference in opinion between the two writers. It's always nice when the opinions are totally opposite from one another, but sometimes the differences will be subtle.
There are two types of questions in the Conflicting Viewpoints Passage.
Question Type 7: Understanding of Viewpoints Questions
These questions check to make sure you understand each author's point of view. What would researcher X predict to happen?
Here is a sample question from the above passage:
Question Type 8: Comparing Viewpoints Questions
These questions ask you to point out the similarities and differences between the authors.
Here is a sample question with another conflicting viewpoints passage:
I recommend saving this passage for last because it takes the most time for most people since it requires you to read the whole passage to answer the questions.
How Can You Use What You’ve Learned? Our Top 3 Tips
We know there's a lot you need to know when it comes to mastering ACT Science section. That's why we've boiled down everything into our top three tips for tackling the ACT Science passages we just went over.
Tip #1: Figure Out Which Types of Passages You Excel At...and Which You Don't
The different types of passages need very different approaches, and you may have particular strengths and weaknesses. Math/Science-minded students often need practice on Conflicting Viewpoints. English/Reading minded students often need more practice on Data Representation and Research Summaries.
Furthermore, figure out what type of question weaknesses you have within each type of passage. If you don’t know how to read graphs, you will need to drill questions that ask you to reference graphs.
Tip #2: The Only Way to Improve Is Practice
When you find your weaknesses, find practice materials that let you train your weak spots until you improve. Find more examples of the passage types and question types that you're weak in. Practice, practice practice.
Tip #3: Understand Your Mistakes
You might have misread a graph accidentally, or you interpreted an experiment incorrectly. Drill down on this to have the best shot at improving.
If you like this approach, you would love our PrepScholar ACT prep 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.
For even more good study material, check out our recommended ACT prep books.
- Get more help cracking the ACT Science section. A good place to start is unlocking the big secret of ACT Science.
- Once you've done that, find out the science you have to know, and learn the best way to read ACT Science passages.
- Lastly, why not get tips from someone who's been there before? Learn the inside secrets to aceing the ACT Science section from someone who earned a perfect score.
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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.