An Overview of What’s Tested on the ACT Science Section

If you thought it was weird that the ACT contains a Reading section that doesn’t give you enough time to read, you’re going to love the Science section that doesn’t actually test science knowledge! ACT Science is very similar to Reading in that its defining characteristic and primary challenge is its aggressive pace, and doing well in this section means working at speed. First things first, though: the preparation process for the ACT Science section should start with a review of the structure and content, so we’re back at it with a summary of what’s on the ACT Science section.

Structure of the ACT Science Section

Just like the Reading section, ACT Science gives students 35 minutes to complete 40 questions, which are divided up among six passages. Passages in this section fall into one of three categories:

  • Data Representation (2-3)
  • Research Summaries (2-3)
  • Conflicting Viewpoints (1)

You can pretty much forget all of those names immediately, though, because there’s only one distinction that really matters for most students: the ones with pictures and the one without pictures.

The Ones With Pictures

All of the passages in the first two categories (Data Representation and Research Summaries) look more or less the same: a couple of graphs, a chart or two, and maybe a diagram, all interspersed with text giving you additional information about the experiment or study that’s being described.

There are some slight differences between the two passage-types: RS passages will often contain multiple different experiments and questions that focus on comparing them, whereas DR passages tend to ask students to make slightly deeper inferences and draw conclusions from one study. Really, though, you shouldn’t worry about those distinctions—they won’t come into play until you’ve already mastered the fundamentals in this section, and for most students they never truly end up mattering at all.

In fact, as we’ll explore in more depth in our ACT Science strategy overview, the ideal default approach for both DR and RS passages is pretty much exactly the same, which is why we group them into one big happy family. The only passage-type that actually breaks the mold is…

The One Without Pictures

Also called the Conflicting Viewpoints passage, this portion of the section is generally easy to identify: it’s the passage that doesn’t have charts, graphs, tables, etc. Instead, it’s filled with words, words, and more words.

Thankfully, all that text will at least be organized in a consistent way. The first paragraph or two will introduce a scientific concept and give some underlying facts and information about it. Then, the remainder of the passage will comprise two or more perspectives, which will propose explanations for some aspect of the scientific phenomenon at hand. The questions will ask you to respond from the perspective of one of the viewpoints or to compare multiple viewpoints.

Because the CV passage is so noticeably and substantively different from the others, it requires a different strategy; that’s also why it gets its own category. Not to worry, though—we’ll go into more detail about how to approach this passage-type in our overview of ACT Science section strategy.

Content of the ACT Science Section

I’ve got good news and bad news. The bad news is that what’s on the ACT Science section in terms of content is very diverse and wide-ranging. Biology, chemistry, physics, genetics, astronomy… pretty much everything that you might have encountered since 8th grade or so is fair game.

The good news is that only 4-5 questions in a given Science section will require you to actually know any of that stuff. For the most part, the questions in this section test fundamental chart- and graph-reading skills; data analysis; and, above all, time management. I’ve tutored this test for almost 10 years now, and there are multiple Science passages (which I’ve gone over with students probably hundreds of times in total) where I still don’t know what an acronym stands for or what a particular term means. Why? Because it just doesn’t matter.

You can get a really strong score in the ACT Science section while being comfortable with relatively little of the content, so long as you approach it the right way. And in my next post, I’ll take you through the basics of how to do just that.

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That’s a wrap for our overview of the structure and content of ACT Science. To summarize, the most challenging aspect of the ACT Science section isn’t what’s on it, because the content doesn’t matter all that much. Instead, the primary obstacle for most students is handling the aggressive pace and the inconsistent structure. To accomplish that, you have to learn the best strategies & techniques and practice them consistently, and we know some people who can help. Head over to Inspirica Pros’ ACT headquarters to explore our prep options. Our squad of test gurus would love to help you crush the ACT.