ACT Science – Not Really Science!

by | Nov 28, 2018

One of the main ways the ACT differs from the SAT is the inclusion of ‘Science’ section. Many students make a premature judgment about which test to take based solely on their experiences from their high school science classes. If they had good teachers and enjoyed the classes, they’d choose the ACT, if they didn’t, they’d choose the SAT.

Making a decision about which test to take based on your opinions about science is actually a big mistake because ACT Science contains hardly any science at all.

An Introduction to ACT Science

At first glance, students are often overwhelmed by ACT Science passages. They look really complicated, full of charts and figures, discussing a topic that might not be covered in the typical high school science curriculum. 

But at its core, ACT Science is about comprehension of graphics and analysis of trends. The majority of the problems boil down to “Can you read the graph” or “Do you know what happens to y when x changes?

Many of the problems are like #21 in the example above, “lookup” problems. These problems ask you to simply look up a piece of information in a table or chart and report back its value. Question #21 asks you to find the maximum value of Vs. We don’t really care what Vs represents – all we’re concerned with is looking at Figure 2, finding the Vs curve, and reading back that it has a maximum of about 250V.

Now you might wonder, if this is such a typical question, then why do students struggle so much with this section? The answer is that ACT lays traps EVERYWHERE for students to fall =into.

Let’s revisit #21 and go over where students can go wrong. First off, if you looked at Figure 3 instead of Figure 2, you might’ve picked the maximum value of Vr, Vl, or Vc by mistake. Even if you went to the right figure, there’s a good chance you accidentally chose the solid line representing I instead of the dashed line representing Vs. If you did that, you would get a maximum of 275V instead of the correct 250V (and the ACT is kind enough to offer both values as answer choices).  

Let’s say you avoided the first two pitfalls, you went to the correct figure, you found the correct curve, but there’s still another trap: picking the wrong axis. Almost every graph you’d see as a student in high school is a simple x-y graph, with only two axes. Figure 2 has two different y-axes: one that shows current, and the other that shows voltage. So a student needs to make sure they are lining up the maximum with the axis that represents that curve; if they chose the wrong one in this example they’d get 0.25 instead of 250, which, while it’s not an answer choice here, but definitely could have been. All of these potential traps on the very first-usually the easiest- question! Now you understand how a student, rushing for time with barely 50 seconds per question, faced with an onslaught of never-before-seen scientific ideas, would stumble and choose the wrong answer.

Solution-Practice practice practice

This is why we give our students as much practice as possible. The more familiar you are with the structure of the test the more likely you are to succeed. Think about the first time you drove from your home to a new job; you might’ve missed an exit, gotten stuck in unexpected traffic, or taken a long and circuitous route. But after a few weeks, you know which roads to avoid during rush hour, where the cop hides on the highway, and which stoplight has an unprotected left that you end up stuck at forevvvvvvveeerr.

Once you’ve taken a few tests you’ll notice that the questions are very similar, and in fact, you can ignore almost all the actual ‘science’ in the passage and focus on just what the question is asking. After all, you don’t need to understand the philosophy of Plato’s Republic if you are just being asked what is the third word on page 247. Many students get lost in trying to understand the scientific principles in a passage when it is largely irrelevant to answering the questions.  

Actual Science

There are a few questions that directly test scientific knowledge. However, these usually are pretty basic, asking about topics that you’ve covered in a standard high school or even middle school science class. Typical questions are things like “ Which organelle provides energy for the cell?” or “What is the correct description of photosynthesis?”. Correct answers are “The mitochondrion” and “Water + CO2 + Light => Glucose and Oxygen”, respectively. Other ‘science’ questions might involve the scientific method: understanding which variable was changed and which was held constant. If you’ve taken a science class in the past few years with any lab component you should do just fine on these types of questions.

All in all, the main issue students have with ACT Science is that it is not at all what they were expecting, and this unfamiliarity combined with the extreme time crunch leads students to make avoidable mistakes.