I think that there are 3 aspects to doing well on the ACT Science test. You have to approach the test right, you have to do it fast, and you have to know a certain amount. Yes, knowledge is one of the three, but probably not in exactly the way you think*. If you want to know how to approach the test, look here. If you want my best ACT Science timing tips, keep reading!
The 4 best strategies
- Practice with no timer! Wait, “why is this one of your ACT Science timing tips?” I hear you ask … So many students practice the Science (and reading too) by endlessly setting timers for 35 minutes and failing to finish on time. When you do this, you’re not learning anything. You’re just repeating your mistakes. In order to get better at the test, you need to understand the questions and the topics. Think about it – in which other situation do you learn something by doing it as fast as you can? Never – it’s a terrible way to learn something new. Instead, you break the process down, try it slowly and build up confidence. Now, although you’ve studied science before, you likely haven’t done a test like the ACT Scientific Reasoning, so before you start trying to do it as fast as you can, build up slowly. Start off by not worrying about the time at all. Just figure out the questions and answers. Then try to reduce your time by 2 minutes every time you take the test, until you can get it down to 34 minutes (to give you one minute spare). This way, you’re actually learning how to answer the questions, which means you’ll get better, and therefore faster at it. Doing the test straight off in 35 minutes is like learning to pole vault by just picking up the pole and running. Scary.
- Spend 15-30 seconds reading the passage first. People have pretty different opinions about this! I think it’s worth your time. You won’t get a full understanding of the topic of the whole passage, but you will be able to navigate it later on. Figure out the main topic of the passage, what kinds of information you’re given, and how many experiments there are. It’s a bonus if you understand what each experiment is testing and what changes between the experiments.
- If you’re still struggling to complete the test on time, figure out which are the most time consuming types of questions for you. Some questions are very easy; they really just ask you to get some information from a graph. Others are much harder, and therefore take a lot more time. Two of the most challenging types are the questions with answer options that read “yes because” and “no because”. These are usually very wordy and it’s easy to get confused. Another is the kind of question that asks you “suppose that [additional information], would this agree or disagree with …”. This is often found in the conflicting viewpoints, but also elsewhere. If you didn’t understand the passage at all, I wouldn’t recommend attempting this kind of question – just guess and move on.
- Use a halfway timing marker. This is the best of my ACT Science timing tips: I think everyone should use it. The proctor for the test is supposed to give you a 5 minute warning (although they sometimes forget), but there’s not much you can do if you’ve got 2 passages left and only 5 minutes. So what you should do instead is look at the clock when the test starts, add 17 minutes to that time (since the test is 35 minutes) and write that time somewhere in the 4th passage (the halfway point of the test). If you are doing a test that has only 6 science passages, write it at the beginning of the 4th passage. When you get to the 4th passage, check the time against what you wrote down to see whether you’re ahead or behind, and adjust your pace accordingly. This works well because it’s not too much to think about, so you can concentrate on the actual questions, but it does mean that you are keeping an eye on the time. As a side note, I would also recommend this for reading.
- Here’s a bonus ACT Science timing tip! I only promised you four! My fifth tip is to get a comprehensive overview of what the test is all about. If you like my advice so far, you could really raise your score by reading Understanding the ACT Scientific Reasoning, my guide to the ACT Science section. Here’s the main features of it so you can see what you’re buying:
- Advice about how to approach the section – understanding how the passages are structured and what to look for. My method is based on how science is actually done, so it helps you navigate all the passages you could ever see.
- Discussion of the good and bad timing strategies and which suit different students or score targets.
- 30 page review of outside knowledge you need*, including how to answer equation/math based questions.
- Answer explanations to the ACT’s 5 free online practice tests so you can apply your skills on the real tests (which are always better than book tests).
- Explanation of different types of graphs and what kind of data they could be displaying to you.
How should I apply these strategies?
Grab a cue card or small piece of paper. Write these 4 strategies down in note form, and keep this in front of you when you practice. Read through the card before every practice test and you’ll start to be able to apply them effectively.
*Why do I think knowledge is important?
Above, I mentioned that you need to know some science stuff for the ACT Science test. This is true in two ways. Firstly, about 1 question per test will have an answer that’s not contained within the passage. Usually this will be a basic piece of knowledge (like the pH scale), and it may be asked directly, or you may be asked to use this idea in the passage. I deal with almost all the outside knowledge that’s been required on past tests in Understanding the ACT Scientific Reasoning.
The other way in which knowledge is required is a bit more subtle. It’s not specific facts, like the first type, but it’s a general idea about how science works. You have to realise what kind of thinking you’re required to do to answer the questions. You have to know enough about science to understand that you need to interpolate (read between the given data), or to know when to connect one idea from the passage to another one. This isn’t specific fact knowledge, but it’s a certain kind of knowledge. In theory, students who study science will have an advantage here over ones who don’t … but that might not actually be the case. I also deal with this in Understanding the ACT Scientific Reasoning – in fact, I think it’s one of the biggest ways in which the book can help you. It will help you understand how the test works, which means you’ll be much better at it!