Test Prep 101: Guide to the ACT Science Section

Thursday, September 21, 2017

ACT science section.jpgHere’s What Students Need to Know About the ACT Science Section

By IvyWise Master Tutor

If you’re preparing to take the ACT this fall, it’s important to understand the exam’s content, format, and test-taking strategies in order to maximize your performance on test day. The ACT Science section has long been a source of worry for many students who do not consider themselves strong in the sciences – including those who are deciding which test to take. The ACT’s distinct ‘Science’ section is, after all, the most obvious difference between the ACT and SAT exams. So what can students expect on this portion of the ACT?

Before we get into the details of the look and layout of the ACT science section, let’s talk about the section more generally in order to dispel some long held myths.


Here is how the test-makers of the ACT describe the science section: “The science test measures the interpretation, analysis, evaluation, reasoning, and problem-solving skills required in the natural sciences.”

What the test makers do not say is that the science section tests for knowledge in the natural sciences. In other words, the science section does not actually test science knowledge! Therein lies the most important and entrenched myth regarding the science section: it will test “interpretation, analysis, evaluation, reasoning, and problem-solving skills,” not whether a student recalls the formula for torque and momentum from physics class.

The upshot is that the science section is about reasoning, not science. A student who does not consider science his or her strong suit can do very well on the science section. The content of the science section includes biology, chemistry, physics, and the earth/space sciences, but it tests for the same skills as does the reading section. Instead of reading passages, the science section offers a mixture of text, charts, graphs, and data tables. This is a point of fact that the test-makers of the SAT took to heart, for the redesigned SAT actually blends their version of the ACT science section right into the reading section.


So what is the specific look and feel of the ACT science section? Passages are broken down into three categories: data representation (graphs, tables, and other visual data), research summaries (descriptions of experiments) and conflicting viewpoints (expressions of several related hypotheses or viewpoints that are inconsistent or at odds with one another). There are 7 (sometimes 6) passages in a science section with 35 minutes standard time for the section. The number of data representation and conflicting viewpoints passages can vary, but there is always only one conflicting viewpoints passage, and it is usually the most time-intensive passage.

Each of the three passages present information in different ways and it’s the test taker’s job to use his or her reasoning ability to process the information, recognize the basic features of an experiment, understand the relationships between different tables and charts, and draw conclusions.

Data representation passages test for a student’s ability to read graphs, scatterplots, and information presented in tables. Research summaries test for a student’s understanding of the aim, design, and results of a given experiment. The conflicting viewpoint passages is most like a reading passage in which the format presents the viewpoints of two or more different speakers and asks the test taker to understand, analyze, and compare the viewpoints or hypotheses.

Like the ACT reading section, the science section takes practice! The section’s difficulty often times lies in the fact that students are not often tasked with applying reading and reasoning skills to scientific presentations of information. However, this is also the reason why the science section is eminently doable and practicable – take those reading and reasoning skills you already have and bring them over to the science section.

So if you’re preparing for the ACT, don’t let the science section intimidate you. Practice, become familiar with the section’s content and timing, and reach out for help if you need it.

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