Nearly one and a half million students from the Class of 2022 took the ACT as part of their college entrance journey. Most of them were surprised when they arrived at the last section of that test, the science section, and found themselves thrust into an unexpected experience that didn’t feel like a science test at all (spoiler alert: It’s not a test of science knowledge!)
Students take four subtests within an ACT, always in the same order. First comes English, then math, then reading, and finally the enigmatic ACT science test. By the time the science section arrives, students are often mentally fatigued, bored, hungry, and probably distracted looking forward to the end of the test. This may pose a particular challenge for neurodiverse students who struggle to maintain sustained focus. Because of these circumstances and the nature of the ACT science test section, students’ scores on this section are frequently among the lowest of the four sections. They need science help.
Learning three big secrets that the ACT science section hides is the first step to an improved score. Students can use these secrets and leverage specific strategies to prepare for their ACT day.
Secret #1: The ACT science test is NOT a test of science knowledge.
In fact, I can’t think of a worse instrument to determine how well a student might perform in the future with the meticulous, research-based, iterative process of any branch of science. Students must answer 40 multiple-choice questions in 35 minutes. They decipher some of the most confusing charts and graphs available. The strategies required to excel on such a test are the opposite of good science skills. We will discuss a few of those strategies in more depth below.
Excellent science students with wonderful grades often struggle with this section in part because they treat the ACT science section like a traditional science test. So, what does the ACT science section measure?
The ACT science section primarily measures a student’s ability to quickly find pertinent information on a graph or chart, and then decipher relevant information from those points of interest. Secondly, the ACT science section measures a student’s familiarity with scientific experimental design. Finally, the ACT science section is a speed test. Students have 35 minutes to answer 40 questions. That’s less than a minute per question.
What strategies will help with this problem? This brings us to the rest of the ACT science test secrets.
Secret #2: Don’t read anything unless you absolutely have to.
Skip the introductory paragraphs. Glance briefly at the charts, graphs, and graphics, and then go straight to the questions. Once there, focus only on where the question is directing you to look. Phrases such as “Study 1” or “Figure 2” tell you precisely where to spend your precious time to find the answer. This strategy is especially beneficial for students who may feel overwhelmed with an overabundance of information in a question. Knowing the importance of these directive phrases helps narrow the navigation process for test takers who might not otherwise know where to begin.
Most questions in the ACT science test section can be answered correctly without the student knowing anything about the underlying science content. Instead, the correct answer often has to do with the intersection of two lines on a graph, the slope of a line, or whether numbers in a chart are getting larger or smaller.
A few questions in each of the six science passages may ask broader questions about the passage topic. In that case, students should skim the introductory paragraphs quickly to find information for that question.
Secret #3: Prepare to decipher strange graphs.
The writers of the ACT science test scour published scientific studies, find the most convoluted graphs, and write questions about them for high school students to answer.
Many of the graphs have an x-axis or y-axis where the numbers look opposite from what students are used to. The y-axis might measure negative depths below sea level, or the x-axis may count time backward into the past leading up to the present. The ACT writers also seem to love graphs that pack as much graphical information in as possible: Several lines may appear overlayed on top of each other or the two sides of one graph may indicate two different measurements at once for the same data line.
The best strategy to deal with this challenge is practice! Do plenty of science passages before your test day. If you walk in cold, you will spend too much time trying to wrap your mind around these strange graphs. With practice, you will become accustomed to the different twists the ACT science test writers might throw at you. You can anticipate how the various answers are hidden and find them quickly.
Armed with these three secrets, all students can feel more prepared and thus more confident when confronting the wild world of the ACT science test!