What's the difference between ACT and SAT? Part 3: Science

The ACT has a science section.  Should bring our gloves and lab coats to the testing center?  Do students need to have mastered Biology, Chemistry, and Physics before taking the ACT?  No, not at all.

So, why do students who take the ACT for the first time tend to do so poorly on the science?

One main reason: they get intimidated and they give up.  

A quick glance at the ACT science section shows graphs, charts, diagrams, and figures and models of scientific experiments.  The science ranges from biology (e.g., genetics, botony, zoology, ecology), to earth science (e.g., geography, oceanography, astromony), to chemistry (e.g., states of matter, chemical reactions, organic chemistry), to physics (e.g., mechanics, thermodynamics, electricity).  However, although students with a basic understanding of the scientific process and a level of comfort with science terminology will have an easier time with the science section than those who are clueless about science, STUDENTS DO NOT NEED ANY ACTUAL SCIENCE KNOWLEDGE TO DO WELL ON THIS SECTION OF THE ACT.

The science section is, essentially, another reading section, except it includes charts and graphs and pictures.  For some students, the charts and graphs and pictures make the section easier: a student who struggles with reading can rely on the graphical data representations (and most of the questions draw on the graphs and tables anyway) rather than making perfect sense of the words.

So, again, why do students so often struggle with this section?  Let's take a look at a random figure taken from one of the "experiment" passages (each ACT Science section has one Data Representation passage, which relies heavily on charts and tables, one Research Summary section, which asks students to understand the results of a study, often an experiment, and one Conflicting Viewpoints section, which combines different data or different experiments and asks students to draw conclusions).  

I just told you that the science section isn't very hard.  But, how scary is that picture? And, I chose that one at random. There are definitely images that look even scarier.

But, the point is, the passages will explain exactly what is going on in the figure and the data tables will show the results of the experiment being depicted in the figure.  All a student has to be able to do is follow the logic of the passages and understand the steps of the experiment.  A student who can do that WILL be able to answer the questions (even if that student failed chemistry).

The problem is, that student who failed chemistry tends to shut down the moment he or she even SEES a chemistry equation.  And, when students give up, they score terribly.  In the end, the best advice I can give for this section is"don't give up.  The answers are all in there; you just have to find them.

Who should prep for this section? Every student who is taking the ACT should prep for this section. If a student does three or four of these sections, he or she should be able to fly through the actual test.  The types of questions ACTs are pretty consistent from test to test and a confident student will do well on the science section.

Who is this section a struggle for?

    • Students who are easily intimidated.  The section definitely wants to scare students into guessing or giving up.
    • Students who struggle with reading.  For students who are not strong readers this section could be easier than the reading section because, as mentioned above, lots of the important information is contained in data tables and charts.  BUT, this section is full of difficult and unfamiliar terminology, which is often precisely what trips up tentative readers.  Those readers need to perservere and really focus on the tables and charts.  Even so, this section is going to feel very hard for students who have a hard time when they come across new/difficult/hard to pronounce words.

How do you succeed in this section?

  1. Read all the text.  You don't have to understand it completely, but read it all.  You will need the context to understand the data.
  2. Look at every chart and table and figure and, using what you just read, stop for a moment to try to figure out what's going on.   Each table, chart, and figure is preceded by a little bit of text.  Figure out how the figure and the text go together.
  • Look at the axes of the charts.  What's going up?  What's moving to the right?  How do those points relate?  How does the trendline change over time (go up? go down? go up and down in cycles?)?
  • Look at the labels on the tables.  There should be labels across the top and down the left side.  What kind of data is in the table?  How does it change (over time? with increased weight? with decreased force?)?
  • Look at the figures.  Try to figure out what the inputs are and where the results or reactions appear (in the figure above, it looks like heat is being added and the amount of water (H2O) being produced is what is being measured).  You don't have to understand the precise mechanisms of the figures, but you should know why was the figure included.  What can you learn from it?
  • Go back and look at the data to find your answers.  So many of the science questions are detail/fact questions.  All you have to do is go to the data and find the answer.  So, take the time to do so.
  • Practice!  Not only will practice make you faster and more comfortable, but it will teach you if you have a hard time with any particular type of science passage.  If you do, save that for last and get your points on the other sections.
  • Overall, how does ACT compare to SAT in terms of science?  Simple: ACT has science and SAT doesn't. For students willing to dig in and try the science, this could be a score that raises their overall ACT score (without significantly improving their math or reading skills).  So, students who are on the fence about ACT v. SAT, should try a science section and see how it feels. If they like it, or feel like they could learn it, ACT might be a good option.