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The ACT Science Section: Busting 3 Big Myths


Myth 1: The ACT Science Section is a Test of Content Knowledge

The name of the section is a bit of a misnomer: The ACT Science section does not test a student’s science knowledge. So what is it, then? The Science section is really a reading comprehension test with lots of charts, graphs, tables, and data. 

The passages often look extremely science-y, replete with line graphs, experimental data, and dense, technical text. But here’s the trick: Close to 100% of the questions can be answered correctly without a quantum of prior scientific knowledge. It’s all right there in the passage!

Consider the following question: 

It may seem pretty technical, but the information is all in the line graph! It’s a matter of interpreting the question, finding the information in the graph, and identifying the answer choice that best matches (and occasionally doing a bit of back-of-the-napkin arithmetic, as in this case). No knowledge of physics, engineering, or metallurgy necessary!

So what makes a student successful on the ACT Science section? Part of it is using the same reading comprehension skills that apply to other parts of the test. Another part is having test-taking strategies for sorting through the barrage of data, identifying relevant information, and weeding out tempting-but-wrong answer choices. One more key piece is confidence: The Science section is designed to be intimidating, and practice—especially with expert guidance—can make the passages much more approachable.

So, students who are aces in their science classes will often do well on the ACT Science section, but that’s neither a prerequisite nor a guarantee, and preparation with an ACT expert will be beneficial in either case.

Myth 2: The Science Section’s Content is Unique to The ACT

This is somewhat true, as the SAT does not have a specific section for science. But it’s only part of the story. When the SAT was revamped a few years ago, the College Board borrowed a lot from the ACT across the board. While they didn’t borrow the ACT’s Science section in its entirety, the College Board has worked a lot of similar data-oriented questions into the SAT’s Math, Reading, and Writing sections.

From an SAT Reading Section
From an SAT Math Section

What does this mean for students? It means that the content of the ACT is largely applicable to the SAT and vise-versa, even on the Science section. Students who prepare for one test and then decide to try the other will have an easy time transitioning, especially with a bit of targeted one-on-one coaching

In fact, a lot of students plan to take both tests to give themselves an extra shot at bringing their best possible test-taking performance, and we’ve developed a highly effective and streamlined SAT/ACT hybrid prep program to help with that. By preparing for the two tests in series, we’re able to build a solid foundation of test-taking skills that will apply to both tests.

Myth 3: Aspiring Scientists Should Take The ACT

Not necessarily—applicants to science-oriented colleges should take whichever test is the best fit, just like any other student. These days, colleges almost universally accept both the SAT and ACT without preference either way. Both exams test the essentially same range of content and skills. 

The fact that the ACT has a science section does not give it an edge over the SAT for students applying for science-oriented programs. In fact, MIT explicitly mentions on its admissions page that it does not prefer one test over the other, to take one example.

So what should students applying to engineering and science programs consider when putting together a test-taking plan? One thing to think about is SAT Subject tests. (There’s no ACT equivalent, so students taking the ACT will do SAT Subject tests as well). 

Not all colleges require SAT Subject tests, but science-oriented schools often do, and may have guidelines as to which subjects are most relevant, or even specific requirements—Carnegie Mellon, for example, has different SAT Subject test requirements depending on which college within the university a student is applying to!

At AJ, our team of tutors works with students on the entire range of SAT Subject tests, and we’ve found that one-on-one tutoring can be extremely effective since it allows the student to focus with a subject expert on the areas where they have the greatest room for improvement.

We recommend that students research requirements on college websites and consult with their college counselor to determine which, if any, SAT Subject tests to complete, and then give us a call to set up a test-taking plan!

So… Learning Actual Science Isn’t Important???

Not at all! In fact, having a solid foundation in science is important for all students, not just those with engineering and lab aspirations. At AJ, we have an outstanding team of science tutors specializing in every area of science at the elementary through high school level and beyond—from biology and chemistry to physics and computer science—and we see amazing results

We’re passionate about science education and love helping students who are behind catch up and stay on track, and giving students who are poised to excel the enrichment, expertise, and encouragement they need to flourish. 

We’re always happy to discuss how we might help, so reach out anytime!

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