The ACT science section is the difference-maker for many high school students when they choose between the ACT and the SAT, since the latter has no dedicated science section. Unlike the SAT, the ACT prompts students to answer 40 science questions in 35 minutes.
But there is good news for test-takers who feel nervous about it: You do not need to be a strong science student to do well on this section of the ACT. In fact, the science portion primarily asks test-takers to inventory and use the information given in its passages.
To best prepare for this portion of the exam, students should first understand its composition. Here are four key facts to know that can help you master the science section of the ACT.
ACT Science Involves Multiple Science Subjects
The ACT science section includes content in biology, chemistry, Earth/space sciences such as astronomy, and physics. Students should have some familiarity with each of these areas before taking the ACT.
However, only a basic understanding is necessary for success. This portion of the exam is most concerned with your ability to understand science practices and skills, not with whether you have advanced knowledge of each of the science subjects.
ACT Science Requires Strong Reading Skills
The term “ACT science” is somewhat misleading. Although this section of the ACT has a scientific focus, it is more so a test of students’ reading skills than it is of their science class retention. Consider, for instance, conflicting viewpoints passages. Few of their related questions require outside knowledge of science.
Even more important to note? The required science knowledge is straightforward enough that it may already be second nature to you. For instance, past ACT exams have asked about the relative size of planets in our solar system.
So to excel on ACT science, students must first be critical readers. A portion of each science passage will not be helpful to answering the questions, so students must learn to pick out relevant ideas from a deliberately overwhelming sea of words. To prepare for that, practice skimming and underlining key phrases in the weeks and months before the test.
ACT Science Requires You to Interpret Visual Representations of Data
If there is one thing you can count on with ACT science, it is that this section will contain multiple visuals. The most common visual types are charts and graphs, but you may also encounter figures and tables.
As with ACT science passages, not all data in ACT science visuals will be helpful when answering the questions. Therefore, practice going directly to the questions and only analyze visuals if you are prompted to do so by the questions. For example, imagine you have two visuals, one of which references insects and one of which references mammals. If the question involves insects, focus on that visual.
Data representation passages, which are always accompanied by diagrams, graphs and tables, account for 30-40% of the content in the ACT science section. But don’t worry, the most important data interpretation skill is identifying trends. In other words, you will need to look at visuals and determine what the numbers are telling you — for instance, whether there is a direct or indirect relationship between variables.
To succeed on data interpretation questions, train yourself to draw your own conclusions based on the visuals provided, and then look for answer choices that mirror your predictions.
ACT Science Requires You to Know the Scientific Method
Before sitting for the ACT, you should have a firm grasp of the scientific method. This will enable you to interpret and assess an experiment’s outcome and its usefulness, especially on research summary passages, which are 45-55% of test content.
Aim to familiarize yourself with both the order of the scientific method’s steps and what each one involves. A simple model includes five steps: observation, where the researcher observes a phenomenon or situation; hypothesis, in which the researcher creates a testable explanation about the phenomenon or situation; prediction, in which the researcher makes a prediction about whether the hypothesis is correct; experiment, where the researcher tests the hypothesis and records data; and conclusion, in which the researcher decides whether the hypothesis is correct based on gathered data.
To learn the steps of the scientific method in the correct order, create a mnemonic device that will resonate with you. Absurd or comical mnemonics can work especially well in jogging your memory. For instance, you could use “old horses prance and eat carrots” for OHPEC, which corresponds with the steps.
In addition to practicing with your mnemonic, you should understand exactly what each step entails. This extends beyond merely memorizing prewritten descriptions of the steps. To truly absorb the meaning of the steps of the scientific method, try analyzing previously completed experiments. The idea is to be able to identify the steps even when the author does not explicitly label them.
Finally, don’t forget to review the key vocabulary for scientific experiments, including variable — any factor that changes or can be changed, such as temperature — and control, the subject that is not tested and acts as a point of comparison.
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