5 Tips for the ACT Science Section

ACT Science is probably the most dreaded section on any standardized test. It is unlike any other section or exam that you have taken before. But with good study practices and employing a few special tactics, it can easily become the easiest for you.

By: Soleil Kelly, Mathematics & Economics at Vanderbilt University, 2023


ACT Science Tip #1: Don't Waste Time Understanding Useless Details

ACT Science passages are full of scientific details that don’t actually matter to answering the questions. What trips most people up is getting lost in the details and minutia of the passage because they are trying too hard to understand it in its entirety. 

A better strategy is to skim the passage at a very high level in order to answer these two questions:

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

By doing this, you will gather enough information to accurately answer most, if not all of the questions while also familiarizing yourself with the overall passage. Remember, if you need more detail, you are always able to look back at the passage.

ACT Science Tip #2: Understand What ACT Science Actually Tests

ACT Science is the most structured and predictable section on the ACT. There are 3 passage types, and each passage type has specific question types associated with it.

The key to doing well on the ACT is predicting the questions and passages that you're going to see on test day.

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

  • 3 Data Representation Passages - describes a study, heavy on graphs and charts
    • Read-the-Graph Questions
    • Interpreting Trends
    • Calculating Values
  • 3 Research Summaries Passages - describes an experiment with multiple parts
    • Experimental Design
    • Hypothetical Experimental Changes
    • Interpreting Experiments
  • 1 Conflicting Viewpoints Passage - 2 or more scientists disagree 
    • Understanding Viewpoints
    • Comparing Viewpoints

To improve your score, you must understand these skills, figure out where your weaknesses are, and drill those skills until you have mastered them.

ACT Science Tip #3: Learn How to Read Graphs

Being able to read graphs and charts is the single most important skill to do well on the ACT. Almost half of the questions in the section are related to interpreting a graph. Most of the time, the style of graph or the subject will be unfamiliar to you. But this is the same for nearly every student taking the exam.

Don’t be overwhelmed by what you don’t know about a topic or graph. The way that the test is written gives you everything that you will need to fully understand and complete the questions asked correctly.

Here are a few steps to make sure that you are getting the most out of reading the graph:

  1. Skim the intro text. Often the passage will tell you literally "Figure 2 is about X" and this is a big head start.
  2. Read the axes. What does the x-axis represent, and what changes as you move from left to right? What does the y-axis represent, and what changes as you move from bottom to top? This tells you what is actually being shown.
  3. Understand the general shape of the graph. Where is it going up or down? If there are multiple lines shown, how do they differ? I mean GENERAL - don't memorize every detail, just get a sense of what's going on.

ACT Science Tip #4: Understand Your Weaknesses, and Keep Drilling Them

To get the biggest score improvement in the least amount of time, you must identify your weaknesses. Then you need to keep drilling them with practice until they are no longer a weakness.

Here's a step by step guide on how to find your weaknesses:

  1. Categorize every practice question you take by skill, especially for practice tests.
  2. Keep track of how many questions you got right and wrong in each skill. You can use a notebook or a spreadsheet program like Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets.
  3. Identify the skills you're missing the most number of questions in. While studying, it is much more important to focus on the percent incorrect than the percent correct.
  4. Find the best resources to train your weakness. You need a way to 1) learn the underlying skills, 2) find practice questions to keep drilling that skill.

ACT Science Tip #5: Track Your Time Per Passage and Question

  • Spend no more than 1.5 minutes reading each passage. This takes 10.5 minutes away from 35 minutes. Remember, you don’t need to deeply read the entire passage to be able to accurately answer all of the questions.
  • Spend no more than 30 seconds trying to answer each question. This takes away another 20 minutes. If you get stuck on a question and have no idea how to solve it, MOVE ON. You do NOT want to spend 90 seconds on one question - that's time better spent getting more questions right.

In the end, this gives you a few spare minutes to go back to some tough questions and try to get them right.

Don’t be afraid to skip tough questions and come back to them after you’ve answered everything that you are sure about. And remember, it is always best to guess than to leave an answer blank.

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