8 ACT Science Strategies From the Experts

Bonus Material: PrepMaven’s ACT Guidebook

The ACT Science section often gives students a lot of grief, and for good reason! 

On ACT Science, test-takers have to complete 40 questions in only 35 minutes, which makes timing a huge challenge.

They have to perform data analysis and wade through complex scientific content. Plus, they have to do this after completing 3 other tough ACT sections: English, Math, and Reading.   

The good news is that there are ways to do well on ACT Science! The secret to earning a high score on ACT Science lies in strategy. 

We’ve put together our best strategies for succeeding on this difficult section, no matter where your strengths lie. 

Plus, we give readers access to our ACT Guidebook, which compiles our best advice for all aspects of the ACT test-taking process, from prep to Test Day. Grab it below!

Bonus Material: PrepMaven’s ACT Guidebook

  • Details about ACT scoring, content, testing options, and more
  • An introduction to PrepMaven’s ACT strategies
  • Information about ACT prep resources
  • Application essentials for the top U.S. colleges

Click here to download a copy of our digital guide!

Here’s what we cover:

  1. The ACT Science Section in a Nutshell
  2. 8 ACT Science Strategies from the Experts
  3. Bonus: PrepMaven’s ACT Guidebook

1) ACT Science in a Nutshell

ACT Science Strategies from the Experts

What’s on ACT Science? In a nutshell, the ACT science section tests your understanding of the process of science.

The process of science involves making hypotheses, conducting experiments, analyzing data, drawing conclusions, and making predictions.

While it’s tough to test all of those skills in a 35-minute paper-based test, ACT Science does its best to measure those skills through six very science-y “passages” and various question types.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • The ACT Science section is the fourth section of the ACT
  • It’s scored on a scale of 1-36, like every other ACT section
  • There are 40 questions on ACT Science, to be completed in 35 minutes, and 6 “passages”
  • Each “passage” will contain some text and/or graphics in the form of charts, figures, tables, and/or graphs
  • The subjects of these passages will always be related to science in some capacity: chemistry, biology, physics, earth science, space science, etc.
  • There are three kinds of passages: Data Representation, Research Summaries, and Conflicting Viewpoints
  • The questions will always boil down to data analysis, figure interpretation, and scientific knowledge

You may or may not be familiar with the scientific concepts in the passages themselves (but that won’t keep you from doing well on this section, we promise). These concepts will vary from test to test.

Does this section directly test scientific knowledge? Yes! But only on 2-4 questions, and the concepts in these questions are those you’ve most likely already learned through a typical high school science curriculum.

That’s why strategy is your best friend on ACT Science! Remember: the ACT as a whole is a standardized test, which means it’s predictable. It also means that students who approach the test strategically will be at an advantage!

Let’s look at the strategies you can use on ACT Science to succeed.

For an even deeper dive into ACT Science, check out our post Everything You Need to Know About ACT Science.

2) 8 ACT Science Strategies for Success

Strategy #1: Think of this as another Reading section.

ACT Science comes right after ACT Reading, which also has 40 questions and a 35-minute time limit.

At first glance, ACT Science appears to be all about data and technical experiments. To some extent, this is true. But it’s actually more similar to ACT Reading than meets the eye.

In fact, students can and should approach this test as they approach ACT Reading: strategically.

This means:

  • Taking passages and questions out of order, prioritizing those that are easiest for you personally.
  • When approaching questions, think in terms of main ideas of the experiments or scientific concepts presented in the passage.

When starting your ACT Science prep, familiarize yourself with the test’s question and passage types — and, most importantly, which are easier and harder for you! A great way to do this is to take an official ACT practice test.

Many students find Data Representation passages on ACT Science to be easier, because they often involve a single scientific concept and fewer charts or figures.

On the other hand, the passage that contains conflicting viewpoints tends to be more challenging because it often doesn’t include charts or figures.

Similarly, shorter, single figure based questions tend to be easier for students than those that involve several figures and lots of verbiage.

Strategy #2: Annotate the charts and figures before answering questions.

Much as we encourage students to annotate the passages on ACT Reading before diving into the questions, we also recommend annotating the charts and figures in an ACT Science passage first.

This means taking at least 30 seconds to identify and notate the following:

  • Trends and patterns in the data (i.e., what’s increasing, decreasing, and/or staying the same)
  • X-axis and Y-axis designations
  • Units
  • Chart titles
  • Main ideas or experiment purposes
  • Equations
  • Differences between experiments

Why is this important? Many ACT Science questions will directly ask about trends in the data or differences between experiments. What’s more, because most questions concern data analysis, getting comfy with that data ahead of time can dramatically improve time management.

Here’s what a sample annotation might look like for a Data Representation passage. Notice how the student identified maximums and minimums for each figure (“highest intensity” / “lowest intensity”), similarities between the two figures, and the axes and scales.

Strategy #3: Don’t get lost in the jargon.

It can be really easy to get overwhelmed by the technical details of the ACT Science passages. Yet do your best to look past this jargon and focus only on main ideas, what the questions are asking, and data trends.

Why? That’s what the questions will be all about! And, at the end of the day, answering questions correctly is vital for improving your ACT Science score.

You don’t have to understand everything about the scientific concepts discussed! You only have to demonstrate your ability to approach charts and figures strategically.

In some cases, you won’t even need to read any of the text associated with the passage. Take this blurb, for example. All of this information may seem important, but the only critical part is likely that last sentence that describes the purpose of the experiments: To study whether the introduction of Strain W or Strain R would be more likely to protect the larval food supply.

In fact, we encourage students to ignore this text unless they encounter a question that directly concerns it! You’ll be able to identify these questions as ones that can’t be directly answered from data in the charts, graphs, or figures.

We’ve included these ACT Science strategies — and so much more — in our free ACT guidebook, a fantastic resource for test-takers navigating the ACT for the first time. You can download it below!

Strategy #4: Think like a scientist.

This may sound pretty obvious, but thinking like a scientist can be helpful on ACT Science. What does it mean to think like a scientist, though?

It means approaching questions in the context of scientific investigation. In many ways, this boils down to the Scientific Method:

  • Make an observation
  • Ask a question
  • Form a hypothesis
  • Make a prediction based on that hypothesis
  • Test the prediction
  • Use your experiment results to make a conclusion, other predictions, or new hypotheses

Many ACT Science questions use words like “hypothesis,” “observation,” “prediction,” or “results.” There’s a reason for that! When analyzing the data for a given passage, analyze it in the context of the Scientific Method. This will allow you to dive into those questions with greater confidence.

Strategy #5: Brush up on your science facts.

We mentioned that you’ll only encounter 2-4 questions on ACT Science that directly test your knowledge of basic science facts.

Here’s an example of a standard Scientific Knowledge question on ACT Science, from an official practice test. Students must know the difference between an acid and a base, and how these relate to pH.

While it’s tough to prepare for these questions, it can’t hurt to brush up on some foundational scientific knowledge. Test-takers who are well-versed in the process of science and all that that entails are more likely to feel confident on this section.

What facts will be helpful on this section? In general, those that you’ve covered in introductory high school science courses, including biology, earth science, and chemistry.

The scientific knowledge questions we’ve seen on official ACT practice tests have concerned the following topics:

  • pH (acids and bases)
  • Chemical equations
  • Speed, force, and drag
  • Energy
  • Phase changes (liquid, solid, gas)
  • Endothermic vs. exothermic
  • Osmosis
  • Genotypes (i.e., recessive vs. dominant alleles)
  • Boiling and freezing points
  • Scientific notation
  • Basic chemical formulas (i.e., H20 or C02)

Strategy #6: Embrace accuracy over quantity.

Here’s a secret: you don’t have to answer every question on ACT Science to do well on this section! In fact, racing through to attempt every question on this section can actually hurt your score, resulting in careless errors.

Aim to maximize your accuracy on questions as opposed to the number of questions you attempt. (Hint: this can also help a lot with timing!)

What does this look like?

It might mean, for example, setting a goal to attempt only 4 out of the 6 passages on ACT Science and earn 80-100% accuracy on those passages. Once you’re able to earn high accuracy on those 4 passages, see if you can add another passage to the mix (and attempt 5), etc.

Sometimes the key to improving your ACT Science score lies in backing up a little bit and doing fewer questions!

Strategy #7: Annotate the questions.

ACT Science questions are notoriously wordy and confusing. Take a look at this question, or example:

What even is this question asking?!

To approach difficult ACT Science questions, try annotating them–underline key pieces of information, take notes, and identify any referenced charts or figures. Take a look at the answers too, and the way they’re formatted, as this can help you figure out what you’ll have to identify. Annotating has the added advantage of forcing you to slow down so you don’t miss key details.

After annotating this question, we notice a few key things:

  • We’re looking at Gas Z at a specific temperature (400 K)
  • The researcher is decreasing V (container volume) and keeping P constant
  • The answers all have to do with manipulating T and n

Yes, that’s a lot of information, but it does simplify things in the midst of all that science-y language! Now we know that we have to analyze Experiments 1-3 to understand the relationship between V, P, T, and n.

Sounds like a typical ACT Science question that is interested in how variables in an experiment impact each other!

Strategy #8: Look for the answer in the passage.

With the exception of Scientific Knowledge questions, the answer to every ACT Science question is in the passage itself.

Yes, you might have to do a bit of data analysis and critical thinking to find those answers! But they are, nonetheless, in the passage. That’s why we urge students to complete their data analysis before jumping to the questions.

When approaching questions, see if you can pinpoint exactly where the answer is likely hiding. Is it in Table 1, for example? Or is it a value you’ll need to derive from two separate figures or charts? Will you have to read the text or look at that equation?

Once you know where to look, most of the battle (if not all of it) is over.

We’ve included these strategies and so much more ACT guidance in our free ACT guidebook, which you can download below!

Bonus Material: PrepMaven’s ACT Guidebook

  • Details about ACT scoring, content, testing options, and more
  • An introduction to PrepMaven’s ACT strategies
  • Information about ACT prep resources
  • Application essentials for the top U.S. colleges

Click here to download a copy of our digital guide!

3) Want More ACT Science Strategies? Work With an Expert!

These are only a sampling of the awesome ACT Science strategies out there. What’s more, every ACT test-taker is different — it’s important to customize your strategies based off of your strengths.

Working with a PrepMaven ACT expert can help you do just this! With one-on-one ACT tutoring, you’ll be well on your way to strategically approaching ACT Science and improving your score.

Learn more about PrepMaven tutoring options now.

Greg & Kevin

Greg and Kevin, Princeton graduates (and brothers) with over 20 years of education experience, are co-founders of PrepMaven and Princeton Tutoring. They apply research-backed problem-solving skills to the test prep and college preparation process. They also place a heavy emphasis on personal development, character, and service for successful college preparation.