The ACT Scientific Reasoning (S.R. for short) is a strange beast. You have 40 questions, and 35 minutes. There are 6 or 7 passages, which fall into 3 broad categories. The ACT calls these data representation, research summaries and conflicting viewpoints. Here I outline the best ACT Science Tips – tried and tested on real students.
Unfortunately it seems that many people – students, tutors and test prep companies – don’t seem to understand how to tackle the S.R. section. There is a lot of bad advice out there! If you find that you’re not improving on this section, you’re probably following the bad advice. My number one tip for improving your science score is to follow the best advice! I have written a book to help you tackle the ACT Scientific Reasoning section. If you like my advice here, you’ll find what I have to say in the book really helpful. Click on the image to buy it on Amazon.
If you’re not convinced, the advice in this article is a kind of preview of the contents of the book. If you think you’d like to see the ideas in practice, with more detail, a thorough knowledge review and answer explanations for 5 published ACT Tests, I urge you to buy it.
But for now, here’s how to look at the S.R. section like a trained scientist and use the ACT Science Tips.
The BEST ACT Science Tips:
You’ve probably never seen anything like this section before. So why is it on the test? It’s supposed to test your data based reasoning scores – can you quickly interpret data, pick out the important points and draw your own conclusions from them. Scores on this section tend to be similar to Reading section scores, as part of the skill tested here is reading comprehension. However, if you struggle with reading comprehension, you don’t necessarily have cause to worry. The harder questions on reading comprehension ask you about ideas that are subtly conveyed in the text (particularly for Prose Fiction, where you often have to read between the lines). The S.R. section is the exact opposite, in that you should be able to find the information you need easily, you just need to know how to navigate it.
Your goal when reading the passage is to get an overview of what is happening. By the time you are done looking at the passage, you should have a good summary sentence in your head. For example ‘two researchers discuss causes of soil erosion in clifftop bird nesting sites’ (for the conflicting viewpoints) or ‘3 experiments are conducted testing the viscosity of glucose solutions at different concentrations and temperatures’ (for an experiment based passage). Notice how much information there is in those summary sentences? Both have identified what the topic is (obviously!) but also how many different components there are within the experiment. The second example also identified what was being tested – that’s really important.
The strategy you should adopt is like reading the contents page of a book. You’re not going to know anything after you’ve read it, but you will know where everything is.
Key ACT Science Tips to note within the passage:
- Read the introductory paragraph. Identify the topic of the passage. Circle any definitions that you might need later (don’t worry about understanding them for now).
- If it’s an experiment, what was being tested? What stayed the same? Are there identifiable trends in the data?
- What are the headings on the graphs and tables? Are some of the graphs measuring the same things?
- If there’s a diagram, look at it. Are there any moving parts? How do they move? Is anything about the set up changed during the experiment?
Once you’ve identified these things, move straight to the questions. Don’t worry if you don’t understand the experiment. This should take about 60-90 seconds total. Those key points will help you focus on the questions. You probably won’t remember much from the passage, but now you know where everything is! You’ll find that most of the questions will be asking about something you identified above. Some questions are simple and only ask you to read a single piece of data. Others are harder and ask you to put two pieces of different data together. Some ask you to extrapolate, or whether a certain thing would happen based on the results of the experiment. The way to get good at this section is to practice, but it helps if you know what you’re looking for.
There are one or two knowledge questions on the S.R. section, where you need to directly know a concept. Don’t worry too much about these, they’re mostly quite basic. They also cover a very wide area (for example they recently asked about what an igneous rock is), so it would be hard to study for them specifically. If you buy “Understanding the ACT Scientific Reasoning” you’ll get a brief concise overview of all these topics.
What are the best ACT Science tips for timing?
Firstly, don’t try a new strategy on test day! You need to have practiced any strategy about 3 times at least. Otherwise, you’ll find it takes you time to think about what you’re supposed to be doing, which is obviously not what you want!
Three ACT Science tips for timing that everyone should use:
- Use a timing marker! (This works for reading too by the way.) You have 35 minutes, and 6 or 7 passages, so at the top of the 4th passage, write your start time plus 15 minutes (e.g. if you start at 11.07, write 11.22 at the top of the 4th passage). This way, you’ll know at approximately the halfway point whether you need to speed up or slow down. Don’t wait for the 5 minute warning – it’s too late to do anything by then!
- If one question is taking you ages, skip it.
- Fill in the bubble sheet after every passage. The most efficient way to fill in the bubble sheet is to do it after every passage. This way, you don’t have to think about it when you’re actually answering the questions, but you’re not leaving it until the end of the test either.
ACT Science timing tips that you might use:
- If you’ve invested the time in reading the passage, answer the questions. Don’t jump from passage to passage.
- Do some untimed practice just to see how long it takes you. This can be a guide as to how drastic your strategies need to be. Unfortunately, most ‘strategies’ are really compromises or ways of picking the most effective questions to guess, so if you can just do the whole test in 35 minutes, that’s the best way to go. If your untimed practice takes you upwards of 45 minutes (and you’re applying the ‘contents page’ approach above), then it’s time to think about skipping bits of the test.
- If you need to guess questions, pick a passage, and guess the entire thing. Some people don’t like the conflicting viewpoints passage, so they automatically skip that one. Do be aware that it has 7 questions, so in terms of a passage to question ratio, that’s actually the worst one to skip! If you’re good at some areas of science, but not others, then you might find it easiest to skip the passage that you know the least about. Try it out and see what works for you.
How to practice using ACT Science Tips: