Prepping for ACT® Science, Old & New Format, Part 1 of 2

Materials: You will need a copy of Peterson’s “The Real ACT Prep Guide”, 3rd Edition, as well as “The Official ACT Prep Guide. 2016-2017”, from Wiley.

We have a bunch of additional tests we can provide you with as well. Our tests are all actual tests that the ACT people provide to students, 3 times yearly, after administrations in December, April and June. Do not purchase any other books. Also, use these books for the practice tests only; do not read any of the text.

Recent format changes: As we now know, the format for the ACT science section recently changed. Students began coming back from tests in the last year and saying the passage distribution differed from the “5/6/7 question” format, which the ACT had used for literally decades without modification. The ACT will not confirm the details of the new format (and, don’t bother with the phone call yourself) or what the likelihood is of seeing one test format over the other, going forward. However, it’s fair to expect that on future exams, you might see: 2 six question data passages, 3 seven question experimental passages, and 1 seven question “conflicting viewpoint” passage. So students will either see the long used 7 passage “5/6/7” format (3 five question data passages, 3 six question experimental passages, 1 seven question conflict passage), or the recently introduced 6 passage “6/7” format, although either way the total number of questions is 40. The reason this has caused issues is that central to many strategies is the idea of identifying and answering the easier five question passages first, and progressing through the six question passages and saving the more difficult seven question conflicting viewpoints passage for last. You can’t do that, of course, if you have a test with the new format.

There are also other possible scenarios where the question total can add up to 40. For example, the test can have 5 seven question passages, and 1 five question passage. But for now we will not address those, for two reasons: One, all of the students who have returned with reports of a different format have confirmed the six passage 6/7 question format. And second, the three new tests published by the ACT in the 2016/2017 Wiley guide all have the 6/7 format. So for now, at least, we will assume that the test either sticks to the traditional 7 passage format, or you will see 6 passages, 2 with six questions and 4 with seven questions.

Our strategies will shift subtly, though not tremendously, to address this change.


The ACT has 4 sections:

•English, which is grammar
•Math, which has 60 questions in one hour, and proceeds in approximate order of difficulty
•Reading Comprehension
•Science, which is the “hardest” and has 40 questions in 35 minutes

You score between 1-36 on each section, and these sections are then averaged. A score of 28 is considered really good and a score of 30 is “great”. The Science passage is usually based on previous knowledge, but sometimes contains passages on concepts you would never encounter in high school science class. However, all the passages are considerably easier if you do know the science! This is where we differentiate from a lot of the other tutoring firms. Learning test taking techniques help a ton on the ACT, but you will have a much easier time answering a question on meiosis if you know what it is, rather than relying on test techniques. Topics you will see include geology, physics, chemistry and biology, and we will suggest topics to review in some detail later.

Regardless of which format the student sees, the passages break down into three categories:

1) Data passages, which are strictly charts, graphs and tables and require only the ability to read the data presented. They do not mention specific experiments.

2) Experimental passages, which also have charts, graphs and tables, but do mention specific experiments.

3) The conflict passage, which has fewer or no charts and tables and is mostly text. This passage discusses different interpretations of data between two or more scientists.

Number, categories, and relative level of difficulty of each passage, 5/6/7 question “old” format – in this, the original format, there are:

Three 5 question Data passages, with charts, tables, graphs only

Three 6 question Experimental passages -they also have charts, tables and graphs but do mention specific experiments. In fact, the way you determine the difference between experimental and data passages (on the old format tests) is by the number of questions that each has.

One 7 question Conflict, or “battling scientist” passage

The conflict passage has fewer or no charts and is mostly text. This is the “hardest” of the three sections, and usually you will need to read most or all of the text. On others you are mostly just reading graphs.

Number, categories, and relative level of difficulty of each passage, 6/7 question “new” format:

Two 6 question Data passages: there are 2 of them, otherwise, they are the same as the old format: they have charts, graphs and tables, but do not mention specific experiments. The way you differentiate the Data passages is that they have six questions, while the other two (Experimental and Conflict) each have seven.

Three 7 question Experimental passages: as with the old format tests they also have charts, graphs and tables, but these do mention specific experiments.

One 7 question Conflict passage: Again, this is mostly text. This is the “hardest” of the three sections, and usually you will need to read most or all of the text. On others you are mostly just reading graphs

Regardless of the number of passages, the strategies we give you, after you identify the passages, are the same.

All passages are at most 2 pages and are facing sheets; pages always face each other so they lay out in front of you when you open the test booklet.

General Strategies: Remember that the ACT is a 4-hour slog, and the 35 minute Science section is at the very end. As such, at least some of your practice should include taking the science section by itself, and some should include taking the entire test – all four hours of it! Certainly, you should focus in the beginning on just the science section, to learn techniques that are specific for that section. But practicing these without the benefit of the previous material will give you a false sense of security. In at least the week before you are scheduled to take the ACT, you should practice with full length tests.

Once again, before discussing strategies, you really need to understand the science if you are going for a high score. You are tested on material at the basic level and you will not need to know anything specifically from an AP or advanced IB level course. But high scores on the science portion do tend to favor those familiar with the basic science.

As we alluded to earlier, you are going to do the passages in ascending order of difficulty, and this is true regardless of which test format you encounter.

So, once you reach the ACT Science section: The first thing you want to do is see if you have a six passage or a seven-passage test. Once you do so, analyze what kind of passages you have, and where those passages are in the passage order.

Thus, if you have a seven-question passage you take 40 seconds and say “This is a 5”, “this is a 6”, “this is a 7”, and write those numbers onto the page. Alternatively, for a test with 6 passages, you identify the two 6 question passages, the four remaining 7 question passages, and of those four identify which is the “conflict” passage. Get that done, to start, as soon as you reach the Science section. This should be the first thing you do.

Why are we telling you this? Because for just about everybody, things tend to go better if you approach the easiest passages, and the easiest questions within those passages, first. And in order of difficulty from easiest to most difficult, these go data, experimental, and conflict. So you will figure out which format you have and write the number of questions at the top of the page. And then, you will want to do the passages in the following order:

On the seven passage format test

•Do the three 5 question data passages first. These are the easiest.

•Do the three 6 question experimental passages second. These are a bit tougher.

•Do the 7 question conflicting viewpoints question last. And these are, in fact, tough!

On the six passage format test

•Do the two 6 question passages first. Again, you are just reading tables, charts and graphs. These are the easiest.

•Do the three 7 question experimental passages second. These are bit tougher, because now you have a couple of experiments to consider.

•Do the 7 question conflicting viewpoints question last. Experimental passages also have 7 questions, so you identify the conflict question by looking for the text saying “viewpoint 1/viewpoint 2”, “Scientist 1’s opinion/Scientist 2’s opinion”, etc

The question order within each passage goes, “usually”, from easy to medium to difficult. There are always a couple of questions that are significantly more difficult than the other questions, but they almost always are at the end of the passage. These tougher questions tend to make you interpret multiple data, as opposed to the less difficult questions that basically ask you to interpret a single point on a graph. This should not intimidate you, however.

A note about units: You should also not feel intimidated by any question if it has units with which you are not familiar! The units on the graph or chart might be brand new, but you usually just have to trace them to a particular place on the graph. Don’t let the presence of unfamiliar units throw you.

Again, let’s harp on the order in which you want to do the passages. The passages do not increase in order of difficulty as the test progresses. The only increase in order of difficulty is in the question sequence within each passage.

Interestingly, the preponderance of questions in the Data and Experimental sections are not based on the text. You will find, in fact, that for Data and Experimental passages, you can usually just look at the questions and refer back to the charts, tables, or graphs. In fact, this is what we recommend, and is a huge basis for your fundamental approach: As strange as this sounds, you will save a huge amount of time, and answer far more questions correctly, if you simply refer to the figures after reading the questions, without having read the text. This is true regardless of whether you have a six passage or seven passage test. We will discuss this more below.

We should note here that there is one thing you should NOT do. DO NOT circle the difficult questions and return to them later. You will have to reread the whole passage again, not a productive use of time.

Also, let’s dispense with a common misconception: You will often hear that your first instinct on a multiple choice is the correct one, and as such your first instinct should be your answer. This is a myth! See our blog “Test taking myths we’ve all somehow come to believe are true”. Why should thinking about an answer, before answering it, have any detrimental effect at all? File this one with the idea of sleeping with the book under your pillow, because thinking about an answer is never a wrong move. Unless you just don’t like to think, in which case good luck!

Guessing Penalties: Unlike with the SAT, there are no guessing penalties on the ACT. So you don’t want to leave any answers blank. Fill in all of the bubbles! All questions are worth the same – this bears repeating: every question on the ACT has the same value. Question 1 is worth the same as question 31, and a question from the Data section is worth the same as a question from the Conflict section. So if you are going to leave questions blank, ie guess randomly, where do you want those random guesses in the sequence of questions? You want to save them for the more difficult questions, which you are more likely to get wrong – ie, on the Conflict passage. And, where within the Conflict passage should you guess? Keeping in mind the generally progressive order of difficulty, you should save your guesses for the last 3-4 questions of the Conflict passage, as these are the questions you are most likely to get wrong. So just guess on these last questions, randomly. As we mentioned above, don’t come back to the hard questions you couldn’t do before; just guess and move on, or else you have to go review everything again.

Some other general strategies:

1) As with ALL multiple choice tests, Think Process of Elimination. The correct answer is in front of you, so cross out the answers you believe are wrong. Always look for what the answer is NOT, unless you are completely, positively sure of the material and the correct answer.

2) A very important strategy, useful in the case where you have only numerical answers, is “backsolving”. Look at the answers, take a middle value, and plug this into the equation. Do not try and solve the equation, because the answer is in front of you. See if the intermediate value works. Work from there. Also DO NOT get bogged down trying to do algebra and calculations. If you find yourself doing this, you are approaching the problem incorrectly. This is a habit that is again counterintuitive, especially for kids who like math.

3) Except/Least/Not type questions – For some reason it is easier to cross out the ones that are not the least, or are the affirmative when they are asking for the negative. In other words, if they say “All of the following are TRUE except”, you should cover up the EXCEPT and cross out the ones you know are true. Then, guess from the remaining choices if you can eliminate one answer.

In Part II of out blog, we will review specific strategies for each type of passage, basic science you will need to know, some things to look for when reviewing your practice tests, and how to get a copy of the test that you took (yes you can do this, three times a year).

That’s all for now! Good luck! Be sure to give us a shout if you have any questions.

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