The ACT Science Test is often one of the major deciding factors when students are choosing between focusing on the SAT and ACT for long term test prep. While there are indeed a handful of science-related questions stealthily embedded in the SAT reading section, the ACT focuses solely on science in its own subtest and most students either love it or hate it. Which is why it’s important to know how to improve your ACT Science score.
The ACT Science test catches even the brightest students off-guard because of the mechanics of the test itself. There really isn’t another comparable standardized test that’s administered in schools. Because of how unusual the test is, it’s not uncommon for a student’s ACT Science score to be notably lower than any of that student’s other subtests.
That means that significantly improving one’s ACT science score is often an integral part of the decision to choose the ACT over the SAT. Some students find they so strongly prefer the reading and math tests on the ACT to those on the SAT overall that, even if their ACT Science score isn’t that strong, they choose to take the ACT and find themselves tasked with figuring out how to improve their ACT Science score–significantly.
Let’s look at some long-term and short-term steps you can take towards ACT Science score improvement.
This one is common sense, but the more you are generally comfortable with science, the more you are likely to become comfortable with the ACT Science test.
Because the ACT is a college admissions test, the test-makers design a test that intends to reward you for having taken a college-readiness science track in high school, which usually includes Earth Science, Biology, Chemistry, and Physics.
Just like reading more in general helps you develop an English fluency that eases the ACT English and Reading tests, fluency in a variety of scientific topics and terminology eases navigating the ACT science test.
For example, if you’re reading an ACT Science passage about plate tectonics and you’ve already studied that topic in school, you’ll have a pre-existing knowledge of how tectonics work. There usually aren’t direct questions about the subject matter in each passage (more on that below) but merely being familiar with the topic alleviates a level of attention you need to give to simply understanding what’s going on.
Likewise, the more reflexive the periodic table’s elements or simple electrical circuits are to you, the more straightforward the test will seem. In other words, you can free up active brain space to think about the ACT questions directly rather than being distracted by not having a working knowledge of what the experiment is about.
That being said, the ACT Science test is not “a science test,” and, counter-intuitively, studying science is not the best starting place to improve an ACT science score.
The ACT Science test is made up of six passages that are either…
Now, the scoring scale on each individual test shifts, just as it always has. There is no way to predict that X number of questions answered correctly will automatically yield a score of Y. That being said, the Science scoring scale has been changing a bit over the last few years–and it has changed significantly in the last ten years.
The changes can help us define some new strategies for improving an ACT Science test score. So, let’s take a look at the old, and new, ACT Science scoring scale.
It used to be that you couldn’t earn a 36, a perfect score, on the ACT Science test unless you answered all 40 questions correctly, and the scale was incredibly unforgiving. In fact, the scoring scale from the Official ACT Sample test from 2003 through 2007 shows…
Frankly, that kind of unforgiving scoring scale is devastating and leaves literally no room for error. That’s why we have a new scale.
On the April 2019 ACT, the ACT Science scoring scale changed dramatically:
The June 2019 test showed a generally similar, albeit slightly less forgiving, scale.
It used to be that a general knowledge question would show up on the ACT once in a blue moon and absolutely everything on the test was based on your ability to handle the test as it was presented.
Now, a handful of general knowledge questions, sometimes three or four, pop up on the test.
The beauty of this is that getting those general knowledge questions correct can buy you a little leeway while you build your score with correct answers. In other words, if you have a great deal of general science knowledge and find yourself stumbling on one of the passages because it’s been designed to be particularly perplexing, you can still earn a top score.
The newer tests build in the opportunity to earn a reward for actually knowing science rather than knowing how to appropriately interact with the ACT Science test itself.
The ACT Science section is a science reasoning test, not a test of your science knowledge.
On the ACT Science Test, you’re only given 35 minutes to get through 40 math problems. When I wrote Acing the ACT a few years ago, I pointed out that a science test that moves at this rate of speed can’t possibly be that difficult; it’s designed to be deceptive because otherwise, it would actually be too easy and straightforward.
The Science section is always the last section you take when you take the full ACT test, so by the time students get to Science, they’ve already been through a few hours of testing. It can be agonizing if you don’t have a plan in place.
In order to improve an ACT Science score, then, you have to go into the ACT Science test with a plan, and that plan is to know the game you’re playing and to use as little energy as you possibly can to find the right answer.
This one really threw me for a loop when it was pointed out to me decades ago, but the ACT Science section is easily the test that includes more redundant or irrelevant information than any other college admissions section. You can actually kill precious time and confuse yourself by trying to read too thoroughly before getting to the questions.
In other words, no one expects you to become an expert on the spring mating habits of migratory birds from looking at the graphs provided for you.
The number one thing you can do to get better at taking the ACT Science test is to use real ACT practice tests to learn for yourself just how little reading you can get away with. Here are a few steps:
Finally, as you work through the ACT Science, describe for yourself what you overlooked or were confused by in the given tables, charts, and descriptions.
The ACT Science section is still a standardized test, so you can count on the test makers to continually use the same sort of twists and tricks. Learn how they get you, and you’re sure to improve your ACT Science score.
For a more in-depth look at how the ACT makes the science section seem more difficult than it is, check out my book Acing the ACT.