Prepping for ACT Science

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The last portion of the ACT test is a 35 minute, 40 question segment referred to as the “Science” section. It is supposedly the hardest part of the test, and can theoretically cover any material a student has encountered in any science class through the eleventh grade. To begin preparing, you will need a copy of the Peterson’s “The Real ACT Prep Guide”, 3rd Edition. Because it is authentic it is the only one that is any good, but once you have made your way through that, any additional tests you take should also be actual ACT tests. These are around, because students can get copies of their tests after they have taken them; we discuss this below.

General info: The ACT has 4 sections,

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

You score from 1-36 on each section, and those sections are averaged. A score of 28 is really good and a score of 30 is “great”. As you might expect, Ivy League schools and so forth will want a 30-36 score. Science is often not based on previous knowledge, and sometimes contains passages on things you would never see in high school. However, the passages are considerably easier if you do know the science! Topics include geology, physics, chemistry and biology. Last year it changed slightly; there had been 7 passages – 3 “Data”, 3 “Experimental”, and 1 “Conflict” in which there are 2 or 3 different interpretations of data and you are asked questions about the different viewpoints. This year, the number and distribution of passages has changed: according to the ACT people themselves, the Science section has either 6 or 7 passages, but the number of questions is still 40. Some kids have said they took tests with two conflict passages.

Number and categories of each passage:
Let’s identify the easy passages: “Data” passages are always the easiest. They have tables and charts, but the experimental questions also have tables and charts! Decide which section is which, and do the easy ones first. Here’s how to decide:
•All data passages have 5 questions. There are 2-3 of them. These have charts, graphs and tables, but do not mention specific experiments.
•All experimental passages have 6 questions. There are 2-3 of these; they have charts, graphs and tables, but do not mention specific experiments.
•All conflict passages have 7 questions. You will find 1-2 of them. Again: This distribution of passages has recently changed from test to test, though the total number of questions still totals 40.
The conflict section has fewer or no charts and is mostly text. This is the “hardest” of the three sections, and because it has no tables or graphs you will need to read most of the text. On others you are mostly just reading graphs.
The passages are at most 2 pages, and are facing sheets: pages always face each other so they out in front of you when you open the test booklet.

Now for some strategies!
So, once you reach the ACT Science section, you want to spend 45 seconds and say “This is a 5, this is a 6, this is a 7”, and write that onto the page. Get that done first.
The question order on each passage goes from easy to medium to difficult. On all of them, do the easy passages, and easy questions, first. Also, DO NOT circle the difficult questions and return to them later. You will have to reread whole thing again, not a productive use of time. You want to take ~ 5 minutes for each passage.
Every question is worth the same, and since there is no guessing penalty, don’t leave any blank! Fill in all of the bubbles. All questions are worth the same – this bears repeating. 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, where do you want those blanks? Save them for the more difficult questions, which you are more likely to get wrong – ie, on the conflict passages. 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.
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 that follows each passage.
Think Process of Elimination. This is true on any multiple choice test. The correct answer is in front of you, so cross out the wrong ones.

On Data passages (5 questions) and Experimental passages (6 questions), the only thing to read is what is in italics. Don’t read the passage. Then, look at the charts and graph: what is on the Y axis, what is on the X axis and go from there. Is there anything italicized? DON’T read anything else. After a while you gain confidence that you don’t have to read the text, and that you can just look at figures. Read info in passage ONLY if you have to after looking at the question.

Conflict passage: This is last one (or two) you answer. Remember, on some recent tests there have been two conflict passages, not just one as is the case in all of the Peterson’s guide tests. It can be first actual passage on the test, but the last you will answer. The first 3 questions will be easy, so try and get them. On the last 4, you may have to just guess, which of course gives you a 25% chance of answering correctly. Note if you are going for a very high score ie >33, you are going to try and actually answer these last 4, ie not just guess. High scorers will need to work a bit faster in other sections so that they can finish the conflict passage questions.

Note that it is perfectly OK to write on the test.

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, the answer is in front of you. See if the intermediate value works, and go from there.

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 “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.

Note you cannot use a calculator on the Science section; it is allowed on Math, but not the Science section.

Careless Errors: Remember that “careless mistakes” are still mistakes for the computer scanning your test. Math and science are exacting disciplines and require careful, precise work, yet we often hear a child say “Oh I just made a careless mistake”. Well, don’t be careless! Precision is a habit that can be formed. This can’t be stressed enough, and as a student goes through practice tests, great care must be paid to the accuracy and precision of the work.

ACT FAQ’s can be found here: http://www.act.org/content/act/en/products-and-services/the-act/help.html

How to get a copy of your graded test:

  • This option is available for the December, April and June tests only.
  • Go to http://ACT.org and navigate through site as follows:
  • click “register” in grey on upper left
  • on middle of that page you will see “The ACT Tests for Students”, click that.
  • on that page you will see an orange bar that says “For students”; click “your scores”
  • scroll way down page and you will see “Request a Copy of Your Test Questions and Answers” to the right of a girl’s photo. Click “Learn More”
  • On the top of that page, it will say “Request a Copy of Your Test Questions and Answers”. Scroll all the way to bottom, and in red it will say “Test information release form”. Click that…

You must do this by 3 months after you take your test. it takes about 5 weeks for them to get you the test.

Good luck! Be sure to give us a shout if you have any questions.

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