Tips for Increasing Speed on the ACT Science Section

increase act science speed

Speed and accuracy: the two things ACT Science section test-takers crave but are so very hard to achieve. You have already completed three sections of the ACT, your brain is getting worn out, and then, bam, you are smacked with the Science test – 6 passages and 40 questions in only 35 minutes. But increasing your speed on the Science section while maintaining accuracy is doable – it just requires a few strategies. 

1. Know the Types of Passages

Here are the types of passages on the Science section:

  • 2 or 3 Data Representation passages, recognizable by their tables and/or graphs
  • 2 or 3 Research Summary passages. They usually will tell you about an experimental set-up, which might include a figure or diagram that shows an apparatus used in collecting data. They also could have tables that show the collection of experimental data.
  • 1 Conflicting Viewpoint passage.  It might have headings such as Scientist 1, Scientist 2, or Student 1, 2, 3, and this passage will have more words and typically no figures, graphs, or tables.  

Why do you need to know the types of passages?  Because you need to attack them differently. Some advice out there is to skip the passages and go straight to the questions. We do not think this is a good idea. If you have no idea what the passage is about, you are likely to feel panicked and return to the passage “willy-nilly” jumping all over the place searching for answers.  

The 3 Types of ACT Science Passages

2. Have a Plan for Each Passage Type

Each passage requires its own strategy. The goal of the strategies to help you gather information from the passages as quickly, but thoroughly, as is possible. These strategies will help you increase your speed on each passage type.

Your plan for Data Representation passages should be to very quickly skim the introduction and look at the figures, graphs, or tables (including the labels) and then ask yourself, “What is the main idea (or trend) of this passage and data?” before you go to the questions. But don’t get bogged down in the details. You just need a general idea of what is being shown.

Your Research Summary plan should be very similar to that for Data Representation passages, but instead ask yourself, “What is the purpose of this experiment?” You may also note the methods (manipulated variables) and results (dependent variables). Again, don’t linger on the details; it may not matter if there are parts you don’t understand. There is frequently extraneous information that they won’t even ask you about anyway.

Approach the Conflicting Viewpoint passage differently. First, you may want to save this passage for last because you are kind of “on-a-roll” with the skim and look for the main idea/purpose strategy you used for the other passages, and secondly, some students find the Conflicting Viewpoints passage to be the most challenging. First, you do need to READ this passage a little more carefully. Questions will focus on who (Scientist 1 or 2, etc…) would agree with certain ideas, who would disagree, and where might they agree with one another. As you read, underline any key perspectives of each viewpoint so you can quickly find that information.

3. Understand the Types of Questions

Each passage will ask you different kinds of questions. Some are more fact-based, while others require a deeper understanding of the passage. If you know the kinds of questions you’re facing, you’ll be able to move through them more quickly.

Questions from the Data Representation passages will be more fact-based. Note that frequently the question will say something like, “According to Figure 2.” If Figure 2 is some complicated-looking graph, don’t get anxious. Just look at the labels on the axes. It doesn’t matter if you don’t really understand the information, or if it has some strange units. The answer has to be in there; answer the question that is asked. 

Questions from the Research Summary questions tend to be a mix of fact-based and interpretation. Again, if it points you to Experiment 1, you should be able to quickly find the information for the answer. You may be asked to interpret the results of an experiment, or even predict how changing a viable could affect results. These types of questions could be trickier, but don’t spend too much time on any one question. Make a logical choice, circle that question, and try to build in time to return to it later. 

Questions based on the Conflicting Viewpoints passage require more understanding. This is why you read the passage more carefully and budgeted more time for this passage. You may choose to first read just the first person’s perspective, answer the questions based on that perspective, and then read the second perspective in order to answer those related questions.  This might save time and also keep you from getting confused on the viewpoints.  

4. Keep Track of Time

When you get to the Science section, first see how many passages are on your test. In the past, there were frequently 7 passages, but recent tests have contained only 6 passages. If there are 6 passages, aim to spend 5 minutes per passage on Data Representation and Research Summary passages. Remember, you are doing these types of passages first.  

This means you will have used 25 minutes, and can use 8 minutes for the Conflicting Viewpoints passage. You will have budgeted 2 minutes to return to any questions you were unsure of and circled for review.  

5. PRACTICE: Familiarity Breeds Confidence!

Have you ever read something about which you know absolutely nothing? When you have zero background knowledge, comprehension is very difficult. You cannot build a structure without a foundation. Some background science information, while not imperative, sure can make some of the science passages you may encounter make more sense. We recommend reviewing common science topics as part of your study routine. We’ve put together a list of topics you’ll see on the test, in a PDF format, here

You also want to practice Science passages. Olive Book’s ACT course contains all three types of Science passages with numerous questions for each type so that you are able to become familiar with all the types of questions you are likely to see. You can enroll right here

Lastly, take a few timed practice tests before test day. This will help you practice the order in which you approach the passages and your timing each one. You can find practice tests on the ACT’s website (or elsewhere online). They’ve released many tests that are free and available for download.

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