Protons or neutrons? Mass or density? The very idea of a standardized exam that tests scientific vocabulary, facts, and formulas makes many students shudder in terror!

The ACT’s Science section is perhaps the most misunderstood (and dreaded) part of some student’s junior year, sending many running for the perceived comfort of the SAT. In truth, there’s nothing to fear. By arming yourself with a little knowledge and some savvy test-taking strategies, future physicists and chemistry-phobes alike can excel on this part of the test. 

Step One: Understand What ACT Science Is and Isn’t

Despite its name, ACT Science is not a test of scientific facts. There is no need to spend hours poring over textbooks memorizing formulas and vocabulary. Instead, the test evaluates students’ understanding of the scientific method, their ability to interpret data, and assess the merits of opposing perspectives. 

Think of it more as a test of life skills. For example, the informed citizen studies the merits of candidates’ policy proposals and votes accordingly. The savvy investor interprets price factors to decide if they can afford a house. And the successful student uses the scientific method to identify a problem, form a hypothesis based on observation and data, and then recommend a solution. 

There is one caveat here! Of the forty questions on the ACT Science section, there is often one or two that test “common sense” science. So yes, you should know basic science facts such as the boiling point of water (100 degrees Celsius) or that DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is the building block of life. 

Step Two: Make the Test Play to Your Strengths — Not the Other Way Around

Students should approach this section of the ACT in a way that matches their strengths and boosts confidence. 

Critical readers, those who love a good debate, and visual learners can also excel in this section, even if they don’t feel that their academic strength is in science. Critical readers and debaters may relish the back-and-forth of competing scientists’ assertions, picking apart the arguments’ merits. Visual learners can use charts or graphs to create a story that leads to the answers. Success depends on how you approach the questions.

Step Three: Mind the Clock

Few students do well on this segment without serious practice with pacing. 

The big trick about the ACT Science section is not the content but the time — complete 40 questions in 35 minutes. Seven separate passages, each with charts, graphs, research project explanations, or summaries of scientific arguments, means that without careful focus and solid time management, the sheer wealth of information can distract and intimidate. 

The good news is that this section of the ACT is predictable. There are only three types of passages: data representation, research summaries, and conflicting viewpoints. You can master each with a few smart test-taking strategies and time management hacks. 

Step Four: Make an Informed Choice on SAT versus ACT

Too many students let the word “science” drive them to the SAT. Don’t be intimidated! Instead, do your research to understand exactly how each test assesses students. Then, make an informed choice and select the test that best suits your learning style, interests, and showcases your readiness for college. 

Further Information:

Also download our free SAT versus ACT comparison guide.