The ACT Science Section: Everything You Need to Know

Bonus Material: PrepMaven’s ACT Guidebook

The ACT Science section can feel like the wild card of the ACT. 

Most students are familiar with the other three sections of the test — English, Math, and Reading.

But Science? What’s that all about? 

The ACT Science section is the fourth section of the ACT. It comes right before the optional ACT essay and, yes, it does involve a lot of science.

But here’s the secret — the ACT Science section really boils down to data analysis and figure interpretation. With the right tools and prep, you can feel confident in your capacity to do well on this section.

That’s what this post is all about! We’ll dive into the format, passage types, and scoring of ACT Science. We’ll also explain just what science you need to know for this section, as well as tips for improving your ACT Science score.

We’re also giving our readers access to our free ACT guidebook for 2021, which includes all kinds of helpful information about preparing for this test and earning a competitive score. 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 in this post:

  1. The ACT Science Section in a Nutshell
    1. Format
    2. Passage Types
    3. Question Types
    4. Scoring
  2. What Science Do I Need to Know?
  3. How to Improve Your ACT Science Score
  4. Bonus: PrepMaven’s FREE ACT Guidebook

1) The ACT Science Section in a Nutshell

ACT Science Test_Graphic

Here’s what ACT, the organization that actually writes this test, says about the Science section:

The ACT science test measures the interpretation, analysis, evaluation, reasoning, and problem-solving skills required in the natural sciences. The questions require you to recognize and understand the basic features of, and concepts related to, the provided information; to examine critically the relationship between the information provided and the conclusions drawn or hypotheses developed; and to generalize from given information to gain new information, draw conclusions, or make predictions.

What does this actually mean?

In simpler language, 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.

Let’s take a look at the format and make-up of this test so you can get a better understanding of what we mean by all of this!

ACT Science – Format

The ACT Science section is the fourth section of the ACT. It comes right after ACT Reading and right before the optional ACT Essay.

There are 40 questions on ACT Science, to be completed in 35 minutes. This is also how ACT Reading is structured — there’s a reason why the two sections are back-to-back!

Those 40 questions come attached to 6 “passages.” Each “passage” will contain some text and/or graphics in the form of charts, figures, tables, and/or graphs. Some passages will contain more text and/or graphics than others.

The subjects of these passages will always be related to science in some capacity: chemistry, biology, physics, earth science, space science, you name it!

You may or may not be familiar with the 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.

Whether you’re completing a passage on bark beetles or pendulum physics, however, there are some predictable components of this section: the format, passage and question types, and scoring.

Passage Types

There are three passage types on ACT Science:

  • Research Summaries (3)
  • Data Representation (2)
  • Conflicting Viewpoints (1)

Research Summaries require students to analyze and/or compare scientific experiments or studies. These passages often include small headings that specify Study 1 and Study 2, for example, or Experiment 1 and Experiment 2. They also typically have 7 questions.

ACT Science Section_Experiments Passage

Data Representation passages typically involve one scientific concept and a few figures. They generally do not involve a series of studies or experiments and typically have 6 questions.

ACT Science Section_Charts and Graphs Passage

Lastly, students will have to compare and analyze the perspectives or theories of several scientists or theorists. You can recognize these passages because they will specify Theory 1 and Theory 2, for example, or Student 1 and Student 2.

ACT Science Section_Conflicting Students Passage

It’s important to note that these passage types can appear in any order, although Data Representation passages have appeared first in the lineup in several official practice tests.

Question Types

There’s a lot of science on this section, but ACT Science questions are largely concerned with the following:

  • Data analysis (what ACT calls “Interpretation of Data”)
  • Analysis of experiments (what ACT calls “Scientific Investigation” and “Evaluation of Models, Inferences, and Experiential Results”)
  • Scientific knowledge*

*There are about 2-4 questions per ACT Science section that require outside knowledge. However, this knowledge is most likely foundational knowledge students will have learned in high school science classes. We discuss this more in the next section of this post (jump there now).

Take a look at this sample question from a Data Representation passage. Yes, it’s full of what we call scientific jargon — fancy, big science-y words that seem intimidating. But the secret to answering this question correctly lies in pulling simple data from a table.

ACT Science_Sample Question

The same goes for this question from a Research Summaries passage:

Sample ACT Science Question_Experiments

More advanced questions might require students to do the following:

  • Examine information from more than one table or figure
  • Identify differences between experiments
  • Work with details located in the text
  • Complete basic math
  • Apply data trends to a hypothetical situation or additional study

This question, for example, requires that students apply data trends to a hypothetical additional study:

Sample ACT Science Question_High Difficulty

Scoring

How is ACT Science scored? Every section on the ACT is scored on a scale of 1-36. So, 1 is the lowest score you can earn on this section and 36 is the highest score. 

The test graders calculate this based on section-specific algorithms that boil down to converting your raw score (the number of questions you get right) to a number between 1 and 36.

All ACT section scores are averaged to generate a composite score on a scale of 1-36. You can find out more about how this works in our ACT scoring guide.

There is no wrong answer penalty on the ACT. This means that you don’t lose points for getting a question wrong on ACT Science — you simply do not get any points. Students can use this to their advantage by never leaving a question blank on this section!

How many questions do you have to get right in order to achieve a high score on ACT Science? The answer: it depends.

Even though the ACT is a standardized test, no two science sections are the same in terms of difficulty and content. A 30 on one ACT Science section likely doesn’t equate to a 30 on another. 

Take these two official ACT practice tests, for example. On the first one, getting 30 questions correct on Science equates to a 26 sectional score. On the second, however, 30 correct questions translates to a 25 sectional score.

The key to improving your ACT Science score thus lies in maximizing your raw score — the more questions you ace on this section, the higher your odds are of earning a competitive score.

We’ll talk more about how to improve your Science score later on in this post. If you want more insight into what counts as a “good” ACT score overall, check out our other post on the subject.


2) What Science Do I Need to Know for ACT Science?

Do you actually need to know science facts to do well on ACT Science? Not necessarily!

All of the “passages” on ACT Science, as we’ve already discussed, will concern scientific concepts, studies, or themes. But students will only encounter 2-4 questions on ACT Science that directly test your knowledge of scientific content. ACT confirms this:

“Some of the questions require that the students have discipline-specific content knowledge (e.g., knowledge specific to an introductory high school biology course)… Knowledge acquired in general, introductory science courses is needed to answer some of the questions.”

Don’t worry, though — the scientific content that surfaces in these questions is largely foundational content students will have already learned in basic science classes. Many also can be answered through common sense and/or logic.

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.

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)

Because these questions are so broad, it’s virtually impossible to prepare for them. That’s why we advise that students don’t sweat them in the long run. 

If you do come across a question and have no idea how to approach it, work your process of elimination as best you can and, if need be, guess. Remember — there’s no wrong answer penalty on the ACT, so it’s to your advantage to leave no questions unanswered on every ACT section.

Enjoying this post? We’ve included all of this information — and so much more — in our free ACT guidebook for 2012, which you can download below.


3) How to Improve Your ACT Science Score

The ACT Science test often gives students a fair amount of grief. Many are intimidated by the test’s reliance on data analysis and figure interpretation. What’s more, the test is the fourth section, meaning that students are often battling fatigue on top of complex passages!

Timing is also a common struggle for ACT test-takers. It can feel virtually impossible to tackle 40 ACT Science questions in 35 minutes!

There are many ways to improve your ACT Science score, which we explore more fully in another post. For now, however, the secret to doing well on ACT Science lies in strategy.

It’s extremely important to establish a strategic approach for all sections of the ACT, precisely because it is a standardized (and thus predictable) test. 

Here are four of our best strategies for succeeding on this difficult section, no matter where your strengths lie.

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

At first glance, ACT Science appears to be all about data and technical experiments. To some extent, this is true. But 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!

Here’s a hint: 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.

When annotating, 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

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.

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. In fact, we encourage students to ignore this text unless they encounter a question that directly concerns it. Keep this in mind on all passages.

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.

We’ve given you only four of our expert strategies for ACT Science — to grab more, head on over to our post on How to Improve Your ACT Science Score.


4) Download PrepMaven’s ACT Guidebook

We’ve covered everything you need to know to jumpstart your ACT Science prep in this post. But you’ll find even more helpful information about navigating the ins and outs of ACT test-taking in our ACT Guidebook.

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!

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.