Strategies for the ACT Science Test

Phew, you made it!  Science is the last multiple choice test on the ACT.  Take a big breath and finish strong! This test is 35 minutes with 6-7 passages and 40 questions.  The passages cover topics such as biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, geology, and meteorology. No deep knowledge of science is required.  However, what is required will be the ability to read charts, graphs, and diagrams.   Calculators are not allowed.

Types of Passages

There are three distinct types of passages in the science test.  You should be able to recognize each type and understand which types are easier for you. 

1)  Charts and graphs – These passages test your ability to read the graphs.  Do you understand what is on the x and y axis?  Read the labels carefully and note any patterns and trends. There are usually 2 of these passages and most students find these passages to be the easiest. If “charts and graphs” are the easiest for you, then do them first! 

2)  Findings from experiments - These passages are easy to recognize because they generally have a diagram of the experiment and the experiment findings presented in tables.  There will be 3 of these passages on the test.  Questions will ask details about the results and the procedures used in the experiment. Most students find these questions to be more difficult than the "charts and graphs", but less difficult than the “dueling scientists”.  If that it is the case for you, then do these passages next. 

3)  Dueling scientists – can you picture it?  Scientists fighting to the death to find the right answers!  This passage is easy to spot because there are no graphs, charts, or diagrams.  Instead, it is all text with an introductory passage, then 3-5 short paragraphs outlining the hypotheses of different scientists (or sometimes students).  This passage often takes the most time and can be the most difficult.  If that is true for you, then save it for last! 

The Original Dueling Scientist  Photo by  Henry Hustava  on  Unsplash

The Original Dueling Scientist

Photo by Henry Hustava on Unsplash

Strategy for “charts and graphs” and “findings from experiments”

The most important strategy for these passages is to go straight to the questions.  Do not waste your time reading the passage or thinking about the science.  This is so hard for me – I love science and want to understand what is going on.  But there is not enough time.  Find the easiest questions and do those first.  Generally, the shorter questions will be easier. 

Are you skeptical that you can find the answer without reading?  Try this problem from the current ACT Practice test:


Don’t read the intro! You don’t need it. Go directly to question 25.  The question tells you which graph to look at (Figure 2) and asks as mass increases what happens to speed?  

Before you answer, quickly get familiar with the graph:

  • the y-axis is speed (m/sec)

  • the x-axis is time (sec)

  • the mass is shown by each of the 3 lines (kg)

What patterns do you see? 

  • three straight lines that do not cross

  • the lines all have a positive slope –as time increases, speed increases

  • the lightest mass is the top line, the heaviest is the bottom

Now, answer the question: pick a time, say 3 seconds. The speed for the 3 kg block is 15 vs. 30 for the 2 kg block.  So as mass increased, block speed decreased.  B is the correct answer. 


Strategy for “dueling scientists”

The approach for this passage is different:  you will have to read the passage!  Start by reading only the introductory paragraphs, and then stop before reading what each scientist thinks.  Ask yourself, what are they fighting about?  This will help you focus on the differences between the hypotheses.  Once you know what the fight is about … go straight to the questions.

  • Do any of the questions NOT ask about a particular scientist? Do those questions first, the information will be in the introduction that you just finished reading.

  • Find the questions where you only need to understand one scientist’s point of view. Read the question, read that scientist’s point of view, and answer the question. Underline, circle or write down that point of view (1-3 words) next to each scientist’s paragraph.

  • Finally, do the questions that ask about all of the scientists.

Top 5 Science Strategies

Now that you understand the types of passages and approach for each type, here are the top 5 Breakaway strategies for the ACT Science:

Peromyscus polionotus   Photo by  Gene Bakner  on  Unsplash

Peromyscus polionotus

Photo by Gene Bakner on Unsplash

1.       Do the easy passages and easy questions first.  Do enough practice tests so that you have a good sense of which passages and questions will be easier for you.  Everyone is different!

2.       Skip the reading.  There just isn’t enough time! The information you need can be found in the charts, graphs, and diagrams.  The only passage you will need to read is the “dueling scientists”.  

3.       Write all over the test!   Writing on the test is a great way to prevent careless mistakes.  When a question asks you what the value of y is at a certain x, pencil in a vertical line at x. When a question asks you about a value that is not on a graph or chart, use your pencil to show where it would go. 

4.       Stay calm. Make it simple and don’t freak out about the big words.   There will be many long, technical words used in this section.  As you read the questions, come up with abbreviations that you can use in your head.  For example, when you see “Peromyscus polionotus” in a question, just think “mouse”.  You didn’t know that “Peromyscys poliolnotus” was a mouse?  Just make up a shorter abbreviation (such as “pp”.)  I promise you: you don’t need to know what all the words mean, and it will be faster to read and answer questions if you use abbreviations. 

5.       Practice!  These passages are unlike anything you see in school.  The more you practice, the more comfortable you will become with the crazy graphs and charts.  Do the science section from the ACT’s  free practice test.  Additionally, 3 full practice tests are published in the Official ACT Guide which can be purchased on Amazon or checked out at your local library.

Need More Help?

If you still have questions or are looking for more practice, Breakaway Prep Park City can help in a couple of different ways:

Free Practice Tests:  Breakaway Prep Park City offers free practice tests every Sunday and by appointment.  Sign up to reserve your spot today! Space is limited to 6 students.

One-on-One Tutoring:  One-on-one we can work at the student's pace, customizing the approach and materials to match the student's strengths and challenges.  No need to commit to a certain number of sessions or schedule.  Most students find they get the best results by starting test prep 10-12 weeks before the test working a combined 3 hours a week (tutoring and homework.)

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