ACT Science: Tips and Strategies to Improve Your Science Score

Chase Yano
December 28, 2023
Stardardized Testing

With tips for the ACT English, Math, and Reading under our belts, we’ve reached the, for many (including myself), portion of the test that is the most challenging to master: the ACT Science section. 

While the other three sections assess students on topics that somewhat resemble things with which a typical high school student has familiarity (grammar, vocabulary, geometry), the ACT Science is a test of how well you understand the ACT Science. 

What I mean by this obvious phrase is that the skills required for this test—quickly reading dense charts and tables, extrapolating incomplete data, and identifying inconsistencies— aren’t things you are necessarily familiar with, even if you are an excellent science student.

Therefore, understand that mastering this test requires immense practice to optimize your speed as you discover your particular recipe to success on this section. To get you started, though, here are some ACT Science tips that I find myself giving every student I’ve tutored for the ACT over the past few years!

These tips are ones that I give in sessions to my students as a tutor here at Dewey Smart. Want to work with me? Set up an appointment here.

  1. Understand That This Isn’t a Science Test

As I mentioned, the ACT Science section  is misnamed. A more accurate, yet extremely awkward-sounding, name would be the ACT Data Speedreading section. By that I mean that your knowledge of Newton’s laws and the ideal gas law won’t help you get a 36. 

Instead, the ACT Science requires you quickly to understand and analyze data while requiring next to no knowledge of actual science. Like the ACT Reading, the only real way to improve on this test, apart from following tips and strategies like those in this blog, is to practice the test itself; Khan Academy can’t help you here. 

While the ACT Science won’t ask you to balance a chemical equation (although Dewey Smart’s academic tutoring service can help you with that too), there are some questions that will indirectly require you to have some prior scientific knowledge.

Here are a few of the biggest science facts to keep in mind.

Besides this, there are sometimes wildcards that you really can’t and shouldn’t prepare for, like random questions that require knowledge of mRNA or natural selection.

  1. Do the Hypothesis Section Last

OK, so how do we get faster at this testing equivalent of a 100 meter dash? The first blanket tip I can give you is, just like the paired passage on the Reading, to skip the conflicting hypotheses section and do it last.

This section, which can be identified by it having headers labeled “Hypothesis 1,” “Scientist 3,” etc., is going to take you the longest of the ACT Science passages, so it’s in your best interest to get the other ones out of the way so that, if you’re forced to rush a bit at the end, you haven’t just missed out on any easy questions. 

  1. Don’t Read the Passages

Before I tell you how to do the hypothesis section, let’s first talk about how you should approach the other five or six passages on the ACT Science section. Contrary to the read-skim dilemma of the Reading test, the answer here is clear: skim. 

Specifically, I recommend reading two things before moving on to the questions. The first is the “context” before the “Experiment 1,” or whatever subheading which is used on that section. The second is the labels of the tables and graphs; quickly take mental note of what is being measured, and use your pencil to underline and circle as you wish. 

  1. Break Down the Questions Every Time

Instead of following the intuitive route of reading the passages and then answering the questions from memory, you want to skim before approaching each question with a goal of identifying two things: what and where

Let’s find the what and where of an example question.

If another trial had been performed in Experiment 2 and 450 mL of liquid had been measured in the cylinder, the temperature of the diet cola in this trial would most likely have been:

In this case, we want to note explicitly that we are looking for temperature (what) in “Experiment 2” (where). Of course, you must also consider some additional stipulations, but know you can mentally isolate yourself to the “Experiment 2” section while tackling this question, and you know exactly what measurement you’re looking for.

In other cases, our what or where may not be as explicit.

One millimole (mmol) of CO2 has a mass of 0.044 g. How many trials resulted in the production of at least 1 mmol of CO2 ?

What: a count of how many trials contain 1mmol of CO2

Where: All of the trials (how can we count if we don’t analyze each one?)

Don’t overthink this tip. Basically, you want to approach this test as a scavenger hunt, beginning at the questions and using them as a map to guide you backwards.

 Therefore, you just need to stay on track and make sure that you approach each question with a plan for where and what you’re going to look for in the passage.

Feeling overwhelmed?  Set up an appointment here, and I can help you on your path to mastering the ACT Science section!

  1. Do the Hypotheses Section Last, and ANNOTATE It!

As in video games, you must take a new approach to conquer the final boss of the ACT Science. Before you move on to the questions, you want to read and annotate (ugh, I know) the differing hypotheses that are presented to you. 

Don’t read the hypotheses from top to bottom, however. Instead, read each passage in parallel, sentence by sentence. In other words, reach sentence one of hypothesis one, then read sentence one of hypothesis two, until you read each of the first sentences.

Before moving onto the batch of second sentences, make small notes and markings for each hypothesis of the similarities and differences between each sentence. While this sounds like a vague instruction, it makes sense when you view the parallel structure of the hypotheses. 

Let’s look at a brief example of some of these types of sentences and underline the similarities and write the differences that we should note in some way as we read and annotate.

Scientist 1:

In the spring, snowmelt from surrounding mountains runs downhill and collects in the playa. At night, cold temperatures cause this water to freeze around the rocks.

Differences: water freezes at night

Scientist 2:

Snowmelt from surrounding mountains does collect in the playa during the spring. However, the temperature in the playa does not get cold enough for ice to form.

Differences: water doesn’t freeze

Scientist 3:

Water does collect in the playa, producing mud and ice. However, neither mud nor ice is responsible for the rocks’ movements.

Differences: mud and ice not move rock

As you can see, hypotheses can be almost fully parallel or just be adjacent, but reading and noting the similarities and differences in this way will allow you to approach the comparison-focused questions of this passage with an established understanding and already-prepared notes.

With this last science tip, we have covered my essential tips and strategies for each test! Just as I sat with my eyes glazed over after each three-hour ACT section, I similarly sit now having written four blogs enumerating my ACT tips, section by section.

This isn’t the end of our ACT blogging journey, however, as we will wrap things up with a collection of my tips for the ACT as a whole, with an emphasis on how to study.

For one-on-one help with the ACT, college admissions, and beyond, book an appointment with Dewey Smart today!

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