Mastering the ACT Science Test

One of the advantages of the ACT over the SAT is its “one-and-done” style. As you progress through the test, you can check off each subject and never have to go back to it again: one forty-five minute English test – check; one sixty-minute math test – check; one thirty-five minute reading test – check. And just when you feel like your score is within reach and maybe this was a pretty good test day after all, you get to the thirty-five minute science test  – “gulp.”

Students generally have one of two views on the science test:

1) They may have heard from someone somewhere that the science test is really about reading charts and graphs, kind of like [fill-in-the-blank] state standardized test.

2) They believe that they have to bring all of their past science knowledge to the science test, and if the passage is on a topic that they never covered, they stand no chance of getting the questions right.

While both of these perspectives might help you answer some questions on the science test, neither are going help you maximize your score. First, some of the science test questions may be about reading the axes of a graph, but many of the questions are about interpreting a graph, a chart, or a data table. Other questions ask you to assess experiment(s). Second, having background knowledge might help you read the passage faster, but there is no way that anyone has covered all of the possible topics that could be addressed on the ACT. Science topics can be anything from density of liquids, to habitats of spiders, to composition of stellar bodies, to anger management issues in hamsters. No student is expected to have background knowledge in all of these areas.

So, if it is not just about reading a graph, and it is not really about content, then how should you approach the science test?

The science test is about your ability to understand what is going on in an experiment, without having to understand the science behind the experiment. Think of the science test like a science fair, at which you are the judge.

Every year I judge a sixth grade science fair at a local school. Every year I walk into a room full of dozens of science fair projects, and am asked to evaluate experiments over topics ranging from nail polish to ballistics. There is no way that I am familiar with all of these topics, but I can certainly read over the setup, look at the data, and determine what is going on in the experiment. My job is NOT about understanding the theory behind every experiment. My job is to see what the students measured (hypothesis), how they measured it (experiment), how they reported it (data, charts, graphs), and how they interpreted it (results). It doesn’t matter if they were testing for bacteria on computer keyboards, or finding the best shape for a parachute, I’m looking for the same basic elements in each experiment.

The same is true for the ACT science test. It doesn’t matter if the experiment is about finding the best humidity and temperature for a greenhouse or the freezing point of a salt water solution. Your job it to figure out what was tested, how it was tested, how the data were reported, and what the results were.

Let’s look at an example:

Scientists analyzed the soil and plant concentrations of six metals in the area around four different manganese mines.  They measured the concentration of manganese (Mn), lead (Pb), zinc (Zn), copper (Cu), chromium (Cr) and cadmium (Cd).  The control was soil at a location outside of the mining regions.  The data are reported in the Table below.

Table 1 – Metal Concentrations in Soil

Metal (mg/kg)


Mine 1

Mine 2

Mine 3

Mine 4





































What was tested? Metal concentrations in soil (See the title of the graph.)

How was it tested? The scientists measured the concentration of metal in plants and soil (See the description.)

How were the data reported? The measurements from Mines 1, 2, 3 and 4 and the control were arranged in a table. (See the table headings.)

What are the results? Mines 1, 2, 3, and 4 have a higher concentration of metals compared to the control. “Mn” has the highest concentration in all of the mines. “Cr” has the second highest concentration in all of the mines. “Cd” has the lowest concentration in all of the mines. “Mine 2” has the highest concentration of everything. (See the data on the table.)

  • Did I need to know what “mg/kg” meant? Not really. I just needed to know that the higher the number is, the higher the concentration will be.
  • Did I need to know any chemistry to answer this question? No. The description told you everything you needed to know.
  • Did I need to know the instruments they used to measure concentration? Not for this experiment. You just needed to know that they measured concentration.

Hopefully this helps take the teeth and claws out of the ACT science test. Remember, you’re the science fair judge!

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