• Philip Martin

ACT Science Strategy: Know What You Don't Need to Know

Updated: Dec 3, 2020

6 science passages, 35 minutes, 5 minutes and 50 seconds per passage.

There were two fields of high school science in which I thrived: balancing equations in Chemistry and solving equations in Physics. What they have in common is that both types of questions are like small puzzles, each with some unknown to figure out based on clues. I’d say that, overall, science was a strength for me, with the exception of memorizing terms in a field like Biology.

Imagine if you could be the perfect science student in this sense: you have memorized every term from every high school science textbook to have crossed your desk, from mitochondria to phyla and everything in between. You can also rattle off the contributions of history’s most celebrated scientists, from Newton to Darwin to Einstein. Not only that, but you are a go-to expert in all scientific equations and processes: balancing equations, balancing forces in physics, conducting lab reports, etc.

You’d think that all of this knowledge would give you a huge advantage on ACT day, right?


Well, maybe a slight advantage. Familiarity with scientific concepts and frequent exposure to labs and scientific analysis is helpful in ACT science. But what the ACT science section tests is not scientific knowledge, or even scientific comprehension, but rather scientific reasoning. This means your ability to read data, interpret data, and most importantly reach logical conclusions about data are what are going to boost your score on test day.

Let’s look into a recent ACT to illustrate what I mean, talking strategy as we go:


I'm going to doubt that you've spent much time researching the eating habits of cockroaches. But what's important about this paragraph relative to the coming information is what changes and what does the changing.

What changes? The food. 200 mg put into a box and measured over time. What does the changing? The cockroaches, of course, which eat away at the foods. Write each of these out to the side in summary form, or circle them if you can.

You can guess that the Figure and Table that follow this paragraph measure this process, and you can expect that the questions will test your ability to read and compare this data. Don't expect a question like this: What is the scientific name of the cockroach? Won't be asked.


After reading the paragraph to identify what changes and what does the changing, you are hit with Figure 1. What's important on this initial read is to quickly get a grip on what's being measured and what changes along the x and y axis. We have four different foods. On the y axis, the amount of it (starting at 200 mg). On the x axis, the time that passes in hours. Clearly, as time goes, on, the amount of each food decreases. Knowing this basic bit before getting to the questions is all you need.


Moving on, we come to Table 1. Without attempting to memorize, what info is being given? Well, we have our 4 foods in the left column. Across the x axis at the top, we have 4 categories. The data measures what percentage of each category each particular food is made up of. Got it.


Some of the six questions that follow test your ability to read and analyze Figure 1, and some test your ability to compare Table 1 with Figure 1. Look at these two questions as examples:

All this goes to prove the following point: it's not about what you know, but about what you can do. Read the information thinking about what changes and what's doing the changing. Examine the figures and tables looking for the basics and patterns in the data. This kind of first read ought to leave you maximum time on what will determine your score: the questions.