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The ACT Science Test: Cruising to Confidence


From its humble Midwest origins in 1959 to its 2007 acceptance at all US colleges alongside the SAT, the ACT offers students a choice in the process of admissions testing.  While many students eagerly complete both tests to determine which one produces more favorable results, other students avoid the ACT because of its science section.  Their aversion is usually rooted in misconceptions: “I’m not good at science, so it will hurt my composite score.” “Only STEM-oriented students can score well on the science section, and I’m going to major in journalism, so I don’t need it.” “It’s last on the test and I’ll be too tired by then to handle it.”

These wary students would benefit from knowing the facts about the ACT Science Test:

  • Science is one of the two shortest ACT test sections . . . only 35 minutes long and always last (section 4).
  • The ACT does not actually test heady science knowledge . . . it is mostly another reading comprehension section that contains assorted science topics and focuses on data interpretation. Many of the same passage-decoding skills used for the literary Reading section that precedes it can be applied to the science passages.  Students won’t be asked to name numbered elements on the Periodic Table or explain the Doppler Effect.  Most necessary material is in the passage sets, and most unfamiliar terms and concepts are defined or explained in italics.
  • The questions rarely require outside science knowledge. If they do, it is usually something basic such as the fact that water expands when it freezes.
  • The ACT science section features 3 types of passage sets. These test a student’s ability to read clinical prose and interpret data displayed on tables, charts, graphs and illustrations.  There are typically 2-3 data representation sets (usually the shortest and easiest type) and 3-4 research summary sets (more challenging and time consuming).  The third type is a conflicting viewpoints set (usually just one of these), which is similar to the Reading section’s paired passage set that compares and contrasts the commentary of two authors.  The conflicting viewpoints passage compares theories and opinions of 2 or more scientists/researchers.  The same literary active reading approach applies here.
  • Some questions require a bit of math—simple calculations such as addition/subtraction, doubling/halving that can be performed mentally or on the test booklet pages, especially for interpolation/extrapolation questions. So students shouldn’t be concerned that calculators aren’t allowed for the science section.

Confidence grows once students understand the purpose and structure of the ACT Science section, and they become willing to prepare and practice for it.  The best approach to the ACT Science test is to “work smarter, not harder” to conserve brain energy and maximize correct answers.  Here are a few strategies for the data representation and research summary passage sets:

  • Before jumping to the questions, students should quickly scan the passage text/graphics and markup some key information: italicized terms and definitions in the introduction, along with units of measure and relationships among variables, if any. It is important to pay close attention to what each axis actually represents on a graph.  Many a student has been “visually misled” because test-makers sometimes use the horizontal x axis to display data normally considered vertical such as altitude, depth or rising temperatures.
  • Passages display far more information than the questions cover. Thus, the trick to answering many of the science questions is knowing where to look. Guided by the questions, students can isolate the relevant passage data with their pencils.  They should also underline key phrases within each question to ensure accurate interpretation of what is asked.

Once students know these facts and strategies about the ACT Science Test they can lay aside their fears and give it a try . . . and they may be pleasantly surprised by their results.

As always, helpful Summit staffers are just a phone call away to answer questions and provide further information.

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