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ACT Science Section (Part One)

The Science section is unique to the ACT; the SAT exam has no equivalent section. Many of the standardized test strategies we’ve covered so far can apply equally-well to both exams. If you’re planning to take both the ACT and SAT, you can effectively study for the reading, writing, and mathematics content of each exam simultaneously. This is not the case with the ACT Science section. The basics of time management, knowing the test format, and knowing the test content do still apply. However, the ACT Science section requires you to flex some mental muscles that the SAT does not even attempt to engage.

Because the ACT Science section is most likely a different type of exam than you have encountered before, we’ll be looking at it in two parts. This part will give an overview of the test format and what science-related skills the test attempts to measure. In part two we’ll dive into the formats used for ACT Science passages and discuss strategies for tackling each.

ACT Science Overview

On the ACT Science section, you’ll have 35 minutes to answer 40 questions spread over seven passages. Each passage will present you with a short explanation of the material being discussed, followed by a series of graphs, charts, and tables. You’ll then be asked several questions that measure data interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and problems-solving skills associated with the information presented in the passage.

The passages themselves fall into three categories. We’ll talk about these categories in-depth next time, but here they are in brief:

Data Representation – You’ll need to understand and interpret information presented in and across charts, graphs, tables, etc. The passages focus on the data itself, not how the data was obtained.

Research Summaries – You’ll need to evaluate the design, execution, and results of one or more experiments. This includes being able to compare and contrast conclusions between and among experiments. These passages can be thought of as a “middle ground” between Data Representation and the final type of passage.

Conflicting Viewpoints – You must evaluate several conflicting theories, hypothesis, or viewpoints on a specific observable phenomenon. A typical passage of this type would present a classroom experiment and the conclusions different groups of students drew from the experiment.

Test Content – What “science” is on the ACT Science Section?

The Science section’s content parallels that of content taught in middle and high school science classes. The test is ostensibly designed to gauge how ready you are to engage with entry-level college science courses. In reality, the Science section skews heavily towards the sort of material you’ve had to deal with in lab courses. (The skills you’d use in a typical science lecture are better represented in the Natural Science passages found in the ACT Reading section.) You’ll primarily be sorting through charts, graphs, and other data. How well you do on the exam will depend on how quickly and correctly you can synthesize the information you’re presented with. Any extra time you can spend in the lab during a high school science class will directly benefit you on the ACT.

The four content areas on the ACT Science section are: Biology, Chemistry, Earth/Space Sciences, and Physics. Note that you won’t need advanced knowledge in any of these areas to score well on the Science section. The test assumes that you are currently taking one or more of the subjects that it encompasses, and that you have at least dipped your toes into all of them. As such, you’ll need a solid grounding in the basic scientific concepts and terms of each field. Being able to apply the fundamentals of each discipline is more important than having a comprehensive knowledge of any one scientific field.

Finally, the Science section does require some very basic arithmetic. This is only worth mentioning because the Science exam doesn’t let you use a calculator. Fortunately, you won’t need to make any precise calculations. The answers themselves will be presented in relative and/or approximate terms. (You’ll only need to choose the correct order for a series of items or the closest estimate from those provided.)