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ACT Science Basic Strategy Outline

Format and Timing:

40 questions in 35 minutes

Check the last passage to see if it is the 6 or 7 passage format.  The 6 passage format is more likely.

7 Passage Format

Stay on the good side of a 5 minute per passage pace.  For instance, make sure no more than 15 minutes have elapsed by the end of the third passage.  Try to build up a cushion of time ahead of this pace, since you will probably need 6-7 minutes for the Conflicting Viewpoints passage, which contains 7 questions and requires you to read.

6 Passage Format

Stay on the good side of a 6 minute per passage pace.  For instance, make sure no more than 18 minutes have elapsed by the end of the third passage.  Be aware that if you are precisely on a 6 minute per passage pace, you will only have 5 minutes for the last passage.


Data Representation/Research Summary Passages

Do not spend any time reading the passage.  Go directly to the questions.  Attack the questions using a three step process.  A breakdown in any of the three steps will result in a missed question.


Step 1) Read and understand the question.

  • When reading the question, ask yourself two questions – What are they giving me and what do they want me to find? Concentrate on the concrete or numerical pieces of information in the questions.
  • Make sure you fully understand what they are asking for in each question before going back. If you don’t understand what they want you to find after the first reading, read it again.
  • Look out for the common structure where they make an association between two things and then ask you about one of them. They are really asking about the other.

Step 2) Figure out where to find the answer.

  • Try to avoid the text whenever possible. Questions with numeric answers and any questions that ask what, how many, or when can most likely be answered just by looking at the data (charts, tables, graphs, etc.), as can questions asking about a trend, hypothesis, conclusion, or relationship.
  • Use the text when asked questions that could not be answered by the data, such as why and how questions and questions regarding the experimental procedure in Research Summary passages (unless there is a diagram of the procedure).
  • Also use text when you need a definition. Most any term you don’t know will be defined.  Be careful, though; just because you don’t know what something means doesn’t necessarily mean you need to.  Evaluate whether a knowledge of what you are dealing with is truly necessary to getting the question right.
  • Use the text immediately preceding a table, chart, or graph if you need something about the table, chart, or graph clarified.
  • Look for limiting language: If it says “Based on Table 1,” “According to Experiment 2,” etc., it is pointing you specifically to that place. The answer will be found there.
  • Look for nonlimiting language: If it says “One would expect that the bacteria from Table 3 would…,” “If the hypothesis from Experiment 1 is correct…,” etc., it is simply mentioning a certain table, chart, or experiment, not specifically pointing you there. The portion of the passage mentioned is often a good place to start, but realize that with this type of wording, the answer may be found elsewhere.
  • If it says “According to the information in the passage,” note that “the passage” refers to the entire thing, not just the text.
  • Use your own knowledge to avoid having to consult the passage. With the exception of Conflicting Viewpoints passages, science passages don’t have incorrect information.

Step 3) Interpret the data correctly.

  • Make sure you read the fine print on the graphs and tables: units, keys, labels, etc.
  • Avoid making assumptions about how to read the data, since the data frequently is not presented in the most intuitive manner.
  • Look out for reversible questions, questions that you could understand perfectly but then get backwards in your answer.


When in Doubt

  • If you are confused by or running out of time on a numeric question, concentrate on the concrete and line stuff up. Let the units of any numbers in the question and units of the answer choices guide you.
  • If you are confused by or running out of time on a conceptual question, choose the answer that seems to make sense or at least echoes the language of the question.


Conflicting Viewpoints Passage

  • Read and attempt to understand the passage. The text at the beginning of the passage is information that all parties agree upon or is background on the issue.  Read this, and then proceed to each theory.  When reading each argument, try to zero in on the main point, which is often stated in a topic sentence.  As long as you understand the basics of each argument, don’t worry if you aren’t getting every detail; you can come back for these.
  • Sometimes you will notice that one person is obviously right and the other obviously wrong. The right person will likely have good predictions/explanations about other things and the wrong person will likely have bad predictions/explanations.  If it isn’t obvious that one person is wrong, don’t try to figure out who is right and who isn’t.  This will only get you in trouble, since you must evaluate all arguments on the basis of the evidence presented.