The Format of the ACT Science Test
The ACT Science Test is the last of the 4 main sections that make up the ACT exam. You will have 35 minutes to complete the test, which has 40 questions and 6-7 individual passages. There is some bad news. The ACT Science section comes right after the ACT Reading Test, which is normally a little exhausting. There’s no break in between theses sections, and you will need to work very quickly to answer every question in less than 1 minute.
There is also some good news. In this blog post, we introduce you to the format of the ACT Science section and the types of passages you’ll encounter so you scan, comprehend, and analyze data quickly enough to raise your ACT Science score.
Spoiler: the Science Test doesn’t really require you to know much science.
The section's official name, the ACT Science Test, is somewhat misleading. Each passage does cover topics the sciences, but you are tested more on interpretation than knowledge. In other words, you don’t normally need to know much of what you learned in high school. It can be helpful to know things like the parts of a cell, but you will normally be provided with this information in the form of passages, graphs, or diagrams. The test mostly asks you to analyze experimental and research data and evaluate theories and hypotheses. They give you the information you need (mostly), followed by a set of questions. Your job is to utilize the information from the text, graphs, data tables, and diagrams of experimental equipment in order to answer the questions.
So, your high school science classes are still useful (pay attention!), but you don't necessarily need to remember your freshman year biology curriculum in order to earn a good score.
The 3 Passage Types of the ACT Science Test
There are 3 different passage types on the ACT Science test: Data Representation, Research Summary and Conflicting Viewpoints.
1. Data Representation
Data Representation passages usually show tables and graphs — data collected from an experiment that is not explicitly discussed — and ask the student to interpret the results in different ways. There will be 2-4 Data Representation passages on your test.
Take a look at this figure and the question that follows it from a Data Representation passage:
Based on the figure 1, when 5g of LiCl was added to 50g of H2O, the temperature:
- A. decreased, because heat was removed from the solution.
- B. decreased, because heat was added to the solution.
- C. increased, because heat was removed from the solution.
- D. increased, because heat was added to the solution.
As you can see, the question asks the student to directly interpret the graph in Figure 1. These types of questions, on which the test-taker is required to identify a pattern or trend in the data, are very common on the test.
2. Research Summary
There are usually between 2-4 Research Summary passages, which detail the setup, procedure, and results of an experiment. Questions may ask the student to analyze the data, explain various aspects of the scientific method, and interpret hypotheses. It is all pretty common for Research Summary passages to ask you to synthesize information provided in different parts of the passage, which normally contains a combination of graphs, diagrams and tables.
Take a look at this example question from a Research Summary passage:
In Experiment 1, the molecules of which of the following polymers spent the longest amount of time in the column?
- F. P1
- G. P2
- H. P4
- J. P5
All you need to do is interpret the following graph ...
but the only way to understand Figure 2 is to read the passage before it:
Smaller molecules easily diffuse into the pores. Larger molecules do not as easily diffuse into the pores, or are larger than the pores. Therefore, smaller molecules spend more time in the column than do larger molecules, causing the components of the mixture to separate. As solvent containing a component of the mixture exits the column through the detector, a peak is plotted versus time (starting from injection). The portion of solvent corresponding to a peak is called a fraction. The time corresponding to the top of a peak is the fraction’s retention time (RT).
As you can see, the question is easy if you know what to expect.
Questions that require a test-taker to identify a particular point on a graph or a trial from a data table are fairly common.
3. Conflicting Viewpoints
There will be 1 Conflicting Viewpoints passage on your test, and it will be markedly different from the other types of passages. This type of passage will introduce a general topic, followed by 2-4 different viewpoints, usually alternate hypotheses or theories, on the subject.
Take a look at this example of a question from a Conflicting Viewpoints passage:
According to Scientist 2's viewpoint, compared to the altitude at which a stony asteroid would have exploded in Earth's atmosphere, a comet of similar size would most likely have exploded at:
- A. the same altitude
- B. a higher altitude
- C. a slightly lower altitude
- D. a much lower altitude
Conflicting Viewpoints questions require students to refer not only to the introductory data presented at the outset of the passage, but also to interpret the different experts' views and to understand how exactly they differ from one another. Since there are few graphs or tables in these types of passages, using your reading comprehension skills is of utmost importance.
What makes the ACT Science Test difficult?
Unlike the ACT Math test, the ACT Science test does not get more difficult as the questions progress, so you might actually find that the last passage is easier for you to answer than the first.
Oftentimes, students tend to find questions difficult if they are not familiar with the passage types (ex: a type of graph that you've never seen before) or if they lack understanding of the general science topics themselves (Biology, Chemistry, and Physics questions are most common). It can be difficult to interpret data from a table or figure if you're not sure what you should be looking at! That's why for this section, familiarizing yourself with the types of content that will appear on the test is more important than memorizing specific scientific facts.
As with the other sections of the ACT, proper time management is also really important: students need to pace themselves properly. If you find yourself stuck on a specific passage, be conscious of the time you're spending and don't dwell too long on it. Repeated practice (especially taking full-length ACT practice exams) is the best way to sharpen your test-taking skills.
Read our Ultimate Guide to ACT Test Prep — it summarizes everything you’ll need to know, whether you are preparing to take the ACT next month or in a few years.
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