Welcome to the ACT Science Section
Looking for ACT Science tips from a pro tutor?
The ACT Science section is one of the strangest sections on either the SAT or the ACT test. It’s a curious mix of reading, science, math, and critical reasoning - all wrapped up in one weird-looking 35-minute test section.
The ACT time limits are incredibly short, and the Science is always the last multiple-choice section of the ACT - most students are very tired and fatigued by the time they get to this section.
Also, the “intimidation factor” of the Science test is powerful. This section can feel very unfamiliar and challenging to anyone without proper exposure and practice.
I’ve had a lot of personal experience with the ACT Science - teaching it, struggling with it, hating it… and eventually loving it. I’m sure the ACT Science tips contained in this article will help any high school student or parent who is trying to get a better score on the ACT test and get into a great college.
My Experience With the ACT Science Section
I started off my teaching career as a pure SAT prep tutor. So, when I switched to the ACT test, I really hated the Science section at first. I was confused by the Science readings and frustrated by the style of the questions and answers.
I even stopped teaching the ACT test completely, because I hated the Science section so much!
Then, after a couple of years, I came back when I started teaching ACT prep again. This time, I discovered what strategies worked for the ACT Science section, and I started enjoying it a lot more.
Now Science is one of my favorite sections to teach in ACT tutoring and small-group classes. Students seem to be having an easier time as well - showing more confidence and getting higher scores.
What Does The ACT Science Section Test?
At first I thought the ACT Science section tested us on Science knowledge and skills. That’s why I got so frustrated - I was trying to think “scientifically” and do “science class”-type stuff.
Then I realized it’s really a reading test. Just like the ACT Reading section, the Science section is all about figuring out what the question is asking for, then skimming for key details that answer that question.
The ACT Science tests our ability to:
- Quickly skim paragraphs and charts for key details.
- Find relevant information amidst distracting background information.
- Make sense of confusing questions and answer choices.
- Recall simple lessons from Physics, Biology, and Chemistry class.
The most important skill for ACT Science isn’t actually “science” - it’s reading. Once you understand this profound insight, the whole testing process gets a lot easier.
Tips for Reading the ACT Science Experiments
One of my first tips for every ACT tutoring student is: don’t read the ACT Science experiments! At least, not right away.
Instead, go straight to question number one without doing any reading. Use the key words from the first question to figure out where to look and what you’re looking for, then backtrack through the passage and science data.
In the ACT Science section, starting with the questions is better than starting with the reading passage.
Time is extremely limited on the Science section, so you don’t want to get bogged down reading the technical details and charts from the experiment. We don’t get any points just for “reading” - only from answering questions.
So instead of carefully reading the passage first, I figure out each Science passage as I answer the questions - and it works better.
Tips for ACT Science Charts and Graphs
When it comes to the charts and graphs in the ACT Science section, you need to understand that most of the data is put there simply to distract you and waste your time.
Sifting through the data can be one of the most time-consuming parts of the ACT Science, so “get good at skimming” is one of the best ACT Science tips.
The trick is to know where to start looking and what to start looking for. Use the question to identify key details that you’re supposed to look for (units of measurement, for example).
Here are some clues that the ACT Science questions give us about where to look and what to look for.
- What study, chart, or graph to begin with.
- Units of measurement.
- “Ballpark” figures from the answer choices.
Don’t get stuck reading each chart and every detail. Instead, use the question to predict what you’re looking for, and where you’re most likely to find it.
Tips for Answering ACT Science Questions
One of my best ACT Science tips is “Do the questions like a tutor, not like a student.”
Most students make the mistake of going straight to the answer choices and trying to find one they like. They pick a choice that seems obvious to them… which makes it very easy for them to fall into traps.
For a professional ACT tutor, the process of solving an ACT Science question is completely different.
First, once I understand the question, I create a personal theory about what the answer might look like. Then I glance at the answer choices - what sort of options do I have? Finally, I revise my personal theory to be more similar to my answer choices, and write down my “pre-answer” next to the question.
Now, with a personal response prepared, I move on to elimination of answer choices. It should be easy to get rid of two out of four answers. I usually expect to have to do a little extra work to finalize my answer between the last two choices.
You never want to rush just because you’re down to two choices. There’s often a final stage required to successfully answer many ACT Science questions: carefully comparing the two best answers.
My way of answering ACT Science questions doesn’t rely on “gut” instincts, and it prevents that feeling of “I have no idea where to start.”
The hardest part is usually figuring out where to look for the answer, and what to look for. But, with this dependable process, I’m able to break down even the hardest ACT Science questions and answers and score a perfect 36.
Tips for Tricky Questions in ACT Science Sections
Most questions on the ACT Science section are fairly direct, but some questions are more complex: for example, questions with double-negatives, two-part questions, and questions of the “IF the following statements were true…”
The biggest danger with a confusing question is that you’ll go off the rails and completely misunderstand what they’re asking. First, rewrite the question in your own words. Take as much time as you need until you understand the question.
Next, identify what to look for and where you’ll probably find it. You’ll always need to go back to the Science passage, so predict where you’ll need to look.
Also, plan to take notes on the question as you work through it. Just like in the Math section, it’s valuable to show your work and write down any stepping-stones that help you get a foothold on the bigger question.
To learn more about difference types of ACT Science questions, read this article as well.
Tips for Tricky Answer Choices on ACT Science Questions
The answer choices in the ACT Science section can be “easy” or “hard” and anywhere in between.
“Easy” answer choices are when the answers are short, simple, and far-apart from each other. For example, if your choices were A) 5 inches, B) 12 inches, C) 29 inches, and D) 80 inches, those are “easy” answer choices.
“Hard” answer choices are when the answers are lengthy, complex, and very similar to each other. For example, if your choices were A) Temperature will increase while volume will decrease, B) Temperature will increase while volume will increase, C) Temperature will decrease while volume will increase… you get the idea.
When the answer choices are “easy” it should be relatively simple to narrow down to the right answer. Even if you’re “close” but not perfect, you should be “close enough.”
However, when the answer choices are “hard” it’s much harder to guess or estimate your way to the right answer.
Instead, when confronted with “hard” answer choices, slow down and create your own answer in small steps. For example, you could first figure out that “volume will definitely increase” and cross off answer choices A and D. Then you can turn your attention to whether temperature will increase and decrease, and finish off the question.
Recognize when answer choices on the ACT Science are “hard” or “easy.” Use the easy answer choices to save time by making reasonable approximations. Treat the hard answer choices with respect: slow down and create your own response in small stages, then narrow down the possibilities.
Tips for the Hardest ACT Science Questions
When dealing with the hardest ACT Science questions, we should first ask: “Why are these questions so hard? What makes them difficult?”
We can break a difficult question down into sub-problems. The sources of a difficult ACT Science question are usually a combination of the following factors:
- Difficult and confusing reading passage - makes us feel uncertainty.
- Confusing question - what are they asking for?
- Multi-stage questions - more than one step is required.
- Difficult answer choices - lengthy, complex, and all similar to each other.
When three or more of these factors are present, you have a “difficult” ACT science question.
I recommend mostly ignoring issue #1 - difficult and confusing reading passage. The truth is, most of the ACT Science passages seem difficult and confusing.
Instead, focus on issues #2 through #4. Break the question down, and identify any sub-steps you’ll need to answer. Make sure you’re practicing close-reading of the question and relevant sections of the passage. Take notes on your thoughts - keep a written record of anything you figure out, and try re-writing the question in your own words (once you understand what it’s asking for).
Then, use the complex answer choices against each other. The more complex the answer choices, the more clues that they reveal. Eliminate your way down to the two best answers - and don’t be afraid to start the question over from scratch (once you’ve narrowed down to two choices).
ACT Questions Involving External Science Knowledge
Most questions (about 90%) on the ACT Science section do not require us to know any “outside” scientific facts. Almost everything we need is in the reading passage and charts.
However, we will occasionally be required to know some science fact from school in order to answer a question.
For example, I’ve seen questions that required students to know if Jupiter was more massive than Earth, or whether a strong acid has a low pH level or a high pH level.
One of the biggest problems with these questions is that you may not realize you have to know something from outside the reading. Then, you may spend a lot of wasted time searching through the reading for whatever info you lack… but the info may not actually be in the passage.
The good news is, these questions are very uncommon. You shouldn’t expect more than 3 questions per test to require external scientific knowledge… and even when such knowledge is required, it should be simple, general info that most of us already know.
Try to recognize when external science knowledge may be required for a question. If you simply don’t know the required info, it’s best to make an educated guess and move on to the next question.
Tips for ACT Science Two-Passage Reading
Like the ACT Reading section, one passage per Science section will be a “competing scientists” or “multiple passage” assignment. These passages are usually more difficult than most other science passages.
One reason these passages are harder is that they usually don’t include any visuals or graphs - just multiple dense paragraphs of text.
That makes it even more important to have strong skimming skills. Use keywords in the questions and answer choices to prioritize where to look and what to look for.
Even with “competing scientist” passages, I don’t bother to start with a complete read-through of the text. I go straight to the questions and figure out the passage as I go through the questions.
Make sure to set aside some extra practice time devoted just to “competing scientist” passages, because they can be intimidating without proper practice and experience.
Tips for ACT Science Practice
As with all things on the ACT and SAT tests, practice makes perfect. Very few people are born “naturals” at taking the ACT Science test, and all of my ACT Science tips have come from hours of personal practice.
A complete ACT Science section takes 35 minutes at full speed. I suggest you do NOT worry about the time limit at first. Instead, focus on accuracy and understanding. Move slowly and carefully through the questions, and focus on mastering one passage at a time. Since each complete Science section contains 5-7 passages, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding hours worth of practice in the Official ACT Book.
At a minimum, set aside 2-3 hours of ACT Science practice before your official test. Spend 2/3 of your time working without a timer, trying to understand and developing your accuracy. Then spend your final 1/3 of practice time working on timed sections. Develop a plan for your personal “pacing” throughout the Science test.
Never forget that the Science section is one of the last sections of the ACT test. You’ll be fatigued and tired by the time you get to the Science section on test day. So, it can be good to practice when you’re tired - after school, at the end of the day - to simulate your fatigue on official test day.
Tips for ACT Science Timing and Speed
Now you’ve got a deeper understanding of the ACT Science section (and you’ve practiced without a timer)… and it’s time to develop your speed on the ACT Science section.
Speed on the ACT Science mostly comes from experience and practice, skimming skills, and overall reading speed.
Keep in mind that speed is much less important than accuracy. Otherwise you’re just “getting wrong answers faster” - and that doesn’t help your score.
With enough experience, you’ll realize that the only way to finish the entire ACT Science section on time is to be amazing at skimming the text and quickly finding the details you need.
Slow readers will constantly struggle to finish the ACT Science. If you’re a slow reader, be sure you’re taking action to improve your reading speed and comprehension with all material, not just the Science. (Check out our recommended reading lists for some good books to start with).
Don’t forget, you may qualify for extended time on the ACT or SAT. Investigate the possibilities of getting extra time. The extra minutes really take the “edge” off the ACT Science test.
Review of the Top ACT Science Tips
In this article, I’ve provided a brief overview of the ACT Science section and my best ACT Science tips as an ACT tutor.
We’ve learned what the ACT Science section really tests us on, and covered how to read the passages, charts, and questions.
You’ve learned about common challenges like tricky wordings of answer choices, and questions that require external scientific knowledge.
We’ve also covered tips for the hardest ACT Science questions and “competing scientist” reading passages.
Then I gave you some tips on how to practice for accuracy and speed so that you get a great score in the ACT Science section.
At this point you should feel more confident about the ACT Science section! The next step is to start practicing and put this new knowledge to work for you.
Don’t Forget the Other Sections of the ACT!
With all your studying for the Science section, don’t forget the other sections of the ACT Test!
There are four other major sections on the ACT Test:
- ACT English
- ACT Math
- ACT Reading
- ACT Essay
Each of the five sections of the ACT presents its own major challenges. Be sure to study each section in-depth before the day of your official test.
You Don’t Have to Study Alone
You don’t have to study for the ACT test alone. We offer 1-on-1 ACT Tutoring, Small-Group ACT Classes, and other ACT Prep in Austin, TX. If you don’t live in Austin, we also provide 1-on-1 Online ACT Tutoring.
You can contact us personally any time you have a question or want advice on ACT or SAT testing.