How is the ACT Science Section Structured?

A great way to prepare for the ACT Science section is to learn the format of the section and complete practice questions. The section is broken up into six passages with accompanying questions. There are 40 questions total, and you have 35 minutes in which to complete them.

Strategies for the ACT Science Section

What types of passages are on the ACT Science section?

Of the six passages, you will likely see three Research Summary passages, two Data Representation passages, and a Conflicting Viewpoints passage.

The Research Summary Passages usually contain a short paragraph or two followed by some visuals which might be tables, graphs, or the experimental set-up or apparatus. The focus of the passage is usually on one or two experiments, and the questions focus on the design, results, or interpretations of the experiment. You need to really understand scientific investigation and experimental design for these questions. After reading the passage and before going to the questions ask yourself, “What is the purpose of this experiment?

The two Data Representation passages you’ll encounter are similar to something you might read in a textbook or science journal. Again, you will have a paragraph or two with some visual representations of the data. The graphs may label figures from Study 1, Study 2, etc… and the questions may require you to do actual calculations or you may need to interpret trends.  While you will want to read the paragraphs quickly, pay close attention to the labels on the graphs and figures, and look for relationships. Ask yourself, “What is the main idea or trend of this chart (or table or graph)?

Finally, the Conflicting Viewpoints passage is just that – a passage that contains conflicting viewpoints. You will be given a topic which is usually presented in the first couple of paragraphs of the passage, and then you will be given two or more alternate ideas which may agree on some aspects and disagree on others. You will need to analyze each viewpoint on its own and also compare them for similarities and differences. The big thing here is to pretend that these viewpoints represent two or more people having a debate. On what parts of the topic would they agree? On what parts would they disagree?

What types of questions are on the ACT Science section?

The ACT uses three reporting categories for questions: Interpretation of Data, Scientific Investigation, and Evaluation of Models, Inferences, and Experimental Results. All three types of questions will likely be seen in all three passage types.

Interpretation of Data accounts for around 50% of the question types. You will need to look at relationships between variables (direct or inverse), find or calculate values from given graphs, and analyze trends in data. Pay close attention to the x– and y-labels, and the increments on both axes. Notice the units of measurement.

Scientific Investigation questions account for roughly 25% of the question types. This is where you will need to demonstrate your understanding of scientific method and experimental design.  Notice the procedures and tools used, pay close attention to variables (independent, dependent). You may have to compare experiments or predict results if a variable were modified.

Finally, roughly 25% of the questions are about Evaluation of Models, Inferences, and Experimental Results.  Here you might be asked to judge the validity of the science. Think about what was controlled for and what might be a confounding variable. You may also have to predict what would happen if certain parts of the experiment were altered.  

So there you have it: three types of passages, three question categories. Because you have to move with speed, you do not have to fully understand the technical words or get bogged down in trying to fully comprehend every part of the passage. Read quickly; get the main ideas. The big takeaway here is to be sure you know your scientific investigation and that you know how to read data. Think like a scientist. We recommend completing practice ACT science sections so you can become familiar with the layout of the section and the time it takes you to complete it. If you’re looking for study materials, The Olive Book offers ACT science practice passages and questions as part of our ACT prep course.

And one last thing – there are a few things the ACT expects you to already know when you take the test. We recommend going over this guide to science literacy when you study to ensure you have the prior knowledge needed to be successful on the test.  

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