Ultimate Guide to the ACT: Science Section

tl;dr:ย In this ACT Science Guide, we'll break down the question types and give you some strategies to make sure you get that 36 on the exam! We'll cover the two types of ACT Science questions: data-based passages and conflicting viewpoints passages. With practice, you'll be able to conquer the science section in no time! Good luck with your exams!

Welcome to the ACT Science Guide! We'll break down the question types and give you some strategies to make sure you get that 36 on the exam! ๐ŸŽ‰

โ“ What are the ACT Sections?

When you sit down to take the ACT exam, you will have 4-5 sections on the test, depending on whether you choose to take the essay section! ๐Ÿ“ƒ The ACT sections are:

  1. English (aka the grammar section) ๐Ÿ“‘
  2. Math ๐Ÿ“Š
  3. Reading ๐Ÿ“š
  4. Science ๐Ÿงช
  5. Writing/Essay๐Ÿ“ (OPTIONAL โš ๏ธ)

Check out a more detailed overview of the ACT!

After the reading section of the test, you'll dive right in to the science section of the ACT! ๐Ÿคฉ

โฒ๏ธ Logistics and Types of Questions

The science section is the 4th (and possibly last, if you're not taking the essay!) of the ACT standardized test. You will answer 40 questions in 35 minutes. This works out to be around 53 seconds per question, so this section is fast-paced! โŒš

โ“Breakdown of the Questions

The ACT science section is actually a lot like the reading section! You will be presented with passages that are often accompanied by tables, charts, data points, etc. ๐Ÿ“‰ and will be asked to answer a variety of interpretation questions.

  • ๐Ÿ“‰ 5 data-based passages (with 6-7 questions each): These data-based passages will give you a textual description of a study or experiment that has been conducted. ๐Ÿ“ƒ Along with the passage, visual representations of the data will be presented. ๐Ÿ“ˆ
  • ๐Ÿ’ฌ 1 conflicting viewpoints passage (with 7 questions): The conflicting viewpoints passage is a solely text-based passage. ๐Ÿ“ƒ Often, visual representations of data are not present. Instead, details about a scientific phenomenon or study will be presented. Your job will be to analyze different viewpoints or perspectives on this topic! ๐Ÿ—ƒ

About 3-5 of the questions you'll see on the ACT science exam may require some outside knowledge from your science classes. ๐Ÿซ However, the rest of the questions will ALL be able to be answered using just what's in the passage! ๐Ÿ”

Quick interpretation of data is very important, and as you practice more and more, you'll get better!

โ“Science Standards Tested

With AP exams, you often have a "course/exam description" that gives you all of the standards that'll be tested on the AP exam. ACT has a somewhat similar document that outlines the science standards tested on this section of the exam. The three standards are listed below:

  • ๐Ÿ“ˆ Interpretation of Data (IOD)
  • ๐Ÿ”Ž Scientific Investigation (SIN)
  • ๐Ÿ“Š Evaluation of Models, Inferences, and Experimental Results (EMI)

Learn more about each of these standards. These standards are meant to align with college readiness standards, so they may be more helpful after you have received your score. These standards do provide a very rough outline of what you will be tested on, however!

๐Ÿ”ฌScientific Method

Before we go any further, we need to address the scientific method! The scientific method is tested on every single question on the ACT science section, either directly or indirectly. Let's go through the steps in the scientific method!

  1. ๐Ÿ‘€ Observation: The scientific method begins with an observation being made about some sort of natural event or process. This observation leads to inquiry and further exploration.
  2. โ‰ Inquiry or Questioning: Scientists ask questions based on the observation they made. What factors influenced their observation? What other forces were in play? These questions help guide further research.
  3. โœ Hypothesis: The hypothesis is the scientist's explanation for what they saw. It's a prediction of what they think might have happened, and it can be tested. A lot of times, you'll see that hypotheses are written in an 'if-then' statement.
  4. ๐Ÿงช Experiment: In order to test the hypothesis, an experiment is conducted. The design of the experiment might have some words you should be familiar with.
  5. ๐Ÿ“ˆ Interpreting Data: Once an experiment is conducted, data is analyzed and represented through tables, charts, and graphs. Most of the ACT science section tests this part of the scientific method!
  6. ๐Ÿ“ Conclusion: Once data is analyzed, scientists often either prove or disprove their hypothesis. A few of the questions may also test whether you can analyze the conclusions composed by different scientists.

ACT Strategies for Data-Based Questions

Look and Find

Because you are limited in the amount of time you have to answer each question, it's important that you maximize the time that you do have! This means that reading the entire passage first is likely not wise. ๐Ÿค”

The "look and find" strategy will allow you to effectively answer the questions on the ACT science test. ๐Ÿ˜

First, you want to LOOK ๐Ÿ‘€ for keywords in the question that will help you FIND ๐Ÿ”Ž information in the passage quickly.

Here are some location keywords ๐Ÿ—บ to look for. They'll help you find WHERE in the text you can find more information:

  • According to Figure X - tells you that the place where you can find more information about this question is in one of the data tables/graphs (X) ๐Ÿ’น
  • According to the information provided - tells you that the place where you can find more information about this question is in the text of the study ๐Ÿ“
  • Based on the results - tells you that the place where you can find more information about this question is in one of the data tables/graphs ๐Ÿ“Š
  • Based on trials 1 and 2 - tells you that the place where you can find more information about this question is in a specific trial in the results. ๐Ÿ”ข

Here are some task keywords to look for. They'll help you find WHAT TO DO once you get to the location in the text.

  • ๐Ÿงช Chemical symbols
  • ๐Ÿ”ญ Terminology (pH, mass, weight, frequency, etc)
  • ๐Ÿ“ˆ Axis Labels
  • โœ Units

Let's look at a few example questions:

Courtesy of ACT Released Test 2019-2020

Before we even look at the passage, let's see if we can identify where the answer to this question might be. LOOKing ๐Ÿ‘€ for location keywords, you'll probably notice that the question starts with "According to Figure 1." This tells you that you will be able to FIND ๐Ÿ”Ž more information in Figure 1 of the results.

Courtesy of ACT Released Test 2019-2020

That was pretty easy, right? Now, let's see if we can figure out a task keywordโœ . You'll notice that "mass of cheese remaining at 4hr" is pretty important! That will guide us when we get to Figure 1.

Courtesy of ACT Released Test 2019-2020

Now that we've LOOKED ๐Ÿ‘€ for keywords, it's time to carry out the task and FIND ๐Ÿ”Ž the information needed for the question. Skimming ๐Ÿ“– is necessary on the ACT science section, especially since you may not have time to read the entire passage.

If a question refers ONLY to Figure 1, then it's likely your answer is ONLY in Figure 1! ๐Ÿ™ƒ Don't waste time looking at Figures 2, 3, 4, etc. if there is a specific location keyword in the question!

Now, you need to be able to interpret and analyze graphs and tables correctly! That's what we'll cover next!

Interpreting Tables (Level 1 Questions)

When interpreting tables, you should carry out 3 steps to make sure you're answering the question correctly. ๐Ÿค”

  1. Identify your location and task keywords in the question and in the answer choices. ๐Ÿ’ญ
  2. Make sure you identify the row and column that you should be looking at in the table. Trick answers will be on the test, and if you read the wrong row, you'll get the answer wrong! โ˜น๏ธ
  3. Once you're sure you are looking at the correct row/column, pick the answer choice that goes with what the question is asking. Make sure you verify units! ๐Ÿ“ˆ

Tables - Practice Level 1 Question โ‰


Make sure you recognize that the table represents percentages and not whole numbers!


LOCATION keywords: Table 1

TASK keywords: MORE than 100 mg โ€”> for which foods?

You know that 200 mg was put in for each food, and you're finding how many foods had MORE than 100 mg water. 100 mg is 50% of 200 mg, and since the table displays percents, you're looking for values MORE than 50%. That would yield cat food (66.2) and ham (57.1). Your answer is G!

Interpreting Graphs (Level 1 Questions) ๐Ÿ“‰

Now, let's look at graphs! Graphs all have several similar components that you should pay attention to.

  • They all have axes. All the graphs you'll see on the ACT science section will have 2 axes: the x-axis (horizontal) and y-axis (vertical). ๐Ÿ“ˆ
  • Most of the ACT science graphs will have a key or legend next to it. This will also serve as an important tool to match information from the question to the graph. ๐Ÿ”Ž
Courtesy of ACT Practice Test 2019-2020

Based on the above graph, the AXES are time (x) and mass of food remaining (y). The UNITS are hours for time and milligrams for mass of food remaining. The LEGEND/KEY can be found on top of the graph! ๐Ÿ“š

Here are some tips specific to the type of graph you're looking at:

Line Graph ๐Ÿ“ˆ

The line graph is one of the more common graphs on the ACT. There are several questions that you may be asked about the line graph that we'll go over below.

Example of a line graph from ACT Science 2015-2016 Test
  • How frequently were data points collected? โŒš
  • Was data collected at _____ time? ๐Ÿ•–
  • Finding the average value โž•

Scatterplots ๐Ÿ“ท

A scatterplot is the other type of difficult graph you may encounter. A scatterplot is DIFFERENT from a line graph because there are no lines - just data points! Scatterplots demonstrate correlational relationships.

  • Line of best fit: line that goes through the middle of the points in the scatterplot
Courtesy of Pew Research, https://www.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/sciencequiz_answer9.png?w=406

On the graph above, the line of best fit is drawn in red. If this graph was attached to a question, you might have to predict the average number of decayed teeth for a person if the average sugar consumption was 60 g. ๐Ÿฌ

You would then draw a line UP from 60 on the x-axis until you meet the line of best fit. Then, draw a line horizontally until you get to the y-axis. The value on the y-axis would be your answer! ๐Ÿ“

Courtesy of Pew Research with Snipping Tool added, https://www.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/sciencequiz_answer9.png?w=406

Direct and Inverse Variation in Graphs ๐Ÿ“ˆ

Let's go through a couple of important definitions you should know that relate to this topic:

  • Direct relationship: as one variable increases, another variable increases โž•โž•
  • Inverse relationship: as one variable increases, another variable decreases โž•โž–

Questions that have to do with this will be asked in this format:

All images taken from ACT 2020-2021 Practice Exam

The Process: For this question, let's look at the two variables that we're analyzing. ๐Ÿ”Ž

1. "4 foods in order of the % by mass of proteins"

  • This information can be found in the table ๐Ÿ’ญ
  • The question specifies lowest to highest, so we're looking from the top of the table to the bottom in the "proteins" column. ๐Ÿ‘‡

2. "mass of food remaining at 28 hr"

  • This information can be found in the graph. ๐Ÿ“Š
  • We're going to look at the last set of bars - the 28 hr group. ๐Ÿ’ญ

3. Put it together!

  • Let's figure out the order of the foods from lowest to highest in terms of % by mass of protein.
  • Now, let's look at this same order in the graph, and see if the mass of food remaining increases or decreases. ๐Ÿ“Š

Therefore, the correct answer is B!Interpolation and Extrapolation Questions ๐Ÿ“‰๐Ÿ“ˆ

This is another type of question that you'll see with tables. These are best explained through examples! Let's look at one together.


With this question, you can see that we're trying to determine the time required for the voltage across the capacitor to reach 7.6 V. ๐Ÿ”Œ Based on the table in question, you can see that a value of 7.6 V is nowhere to be found on the table. You have 0 V at 0 secs, and 8.4 V at 12 secs. โšก

However, you DO know that 7.6 V is between 0 and 8.4 V. Since 7.6 V is between 0 and 8.4 V, it would also make sense that the time would be between 0 and 12 secs based on the table. โŒš

Therefore, your answer would be F!

Now, let's try the following question:

In Experiment 1, the time constant of the circuit was the time required for the voltage across the capacitor to reach approximately 11.4 V. The time constant of the circuit used in Experiment 1 was...

If we use the same table and answer choices from the previous example, you'll notice that 11.4 is between 10.9 V (at 24 seconds) and 11.7 V (at 36 seconds). Therefore, the correct answer would be H - between 24 and 36 seconds. ๐Ÿ’ก

Those are the basic skills you need to conquer the ACT data-based questions. Keep in mind that a lot of these skills need to practice to develop. For example, you might be asked to apply the interpolation and extrapolation strategy we discussed for tables to a graph. ๐Ÿ“ˆ๐Ÿ“‰

Keep practicing, and you'll do awesome!

Conflicting Viewpoints ๐Ÿ’ฌ๐Ÿ—จ

The conflicting viewpoints passage of the ACT Science section is often viewed as the hardest of the ACT science. However, you can master it if you just remember a few tips! ๐Ÿ’ก

The conflicting viewpoints passage generally has people offering opposing views on the same topic - whether that's different scientists, students, or researchers. ๐Ÿ‘จโ€๐Ÿ”ฌ๐Ÿ‘ฉโ€๐Ÿ”ฌ This passage normally does not have visual stimuli that accompany the text. ๐Ÿ“ƒ

This portion of the test often takes the longest amount of time, so keep that in mind!

These passages will all be structured in the following way:

  • Introduction: background information about the topic explored by scientists or students ๐Ÿ”Ž
  • Perspectives: each of the students', scientists' or researchers' perspectives will be presented, likely with no visuals ๐Ÿ’ฌ
  • Questions: you'll be asked to analyze the perspectives in 7 multiple choice questions โ“

ACT Science Strategies

1. Make sure you read the introduction! The introduction will often serve as an important source of information as you go through the questions. ๐Ÿ“–

2. ANNOTATE as you read each of the perspectives. It's super important that you're interacting with the text as you read the different viewpoints - this part of the test is a lot like the reading section! โœ

3. Consider having different markings for similarities and differences. ๐Ÿ“

  • For example, each time you see something that is common with another perspective - circle it. โญ•
  • Each time you see something different, lightly strike through it. Make notes in the margins as you read! ๐Ÿ““

4. Read the viewpoints first. On most of the science section, you can get away with not reading the entire passage! However, it's super important that you read the viewpoints first on this section. ๐Ÿ”Ž

  • As mentioned before, interact with the text so that you don't have to keep rereading the same pieces of information. ๐Ÿ’ฌ

This is what a conflicting viewpoints passage might look like:

Image from ACT Practice Test 2018-2019 - sample conflicting viewpoints passage

You can see that in this passage, the "viewpoints" are those of students. Each student has a different opinion on the relationship between an object and its mass, volume, and density, and those perspectives are presented in the passage!

That's a Wrap!

That's it for our ACT science guide! ๐Ÿงช Remember that we have guides available to help you with ALL sections of the ACT so you can get an amazing score๐Ÿ˜. Check out our other ACT Section study guides!

Looking for even more ACT prep? Check out out compilation of some of our best resources!

Good luck with your exams! ๐ŸŽ‰

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