ACT Science Tips: Retrieving Information from Short Passages, Graphs and Charts

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ACT Science Tips: Retrieving Information from Short Passages, Graphs and Charts

The ACT Science section will measure your scientific reasoning skills by presenting you with passages, graphs, and charts. it՚s easy to become overwhelmed by what you don՚t know when faced with new information or data, but remember, you՚re being tested on your reasoning skills, not your level of scientific knowledge! By skimming, reviewing, and scanning, you can find the information you need to answer the questions in the ACT science section.

  • Skim the passage, graph or chart to grasp the main ideas being presented.
  • Review questions to guide closer reading. Check out the questions to see what information you need in order to answer them. This will allow you to disregard distracting details in the passage you don՚t need.
  • Scan the passage again to find important information, keywords, and details that you need to answer the questions.

Save the Conflicting Viewpoints Passage for Last

Every question in the ACT Science section is worth the same point value, so you want to get the most points in the limited amount of time given (35 minutes total or 52.5 seconds per question) . To get the most points, you should save the most time-consuming passage for last, which conflicting viewpoints is. If you do not know the 3 Types of ACT Science Passages, read this article first. As a brief summary, there are 3 types of passages, 7 passages used on the test:

  • 3 Data Representation Passages
  • 3 Research Summaries Passages
  • 1 Conflicting Viewpoints Passage

The Conflicting Viewpoints Passage has no graphs or tables. Instead, there are two or more scientists/students/theories presented in short paragraphs. The questions ask you about each viewpoint and the differences and similarities between the viewpoints. You need to read and understand the entire passage to answer the questions. Therefore, this passage will take the longest, so save it for last, so it doesn՚t kill your pace.

Mark the Passage

As you are reading, do not hesitate to underline, circle, and make small notes in your test booklet. This type of note-taking is an efficient way to help you stay focused and on target with your pacing. Noting similarities and differences between multiple experiments will help you when it comes time to deal with the questions.

Use Only Visuals to Answer Questions in Data Representation and Research Summary Passages

Again, since every question is worth the same point value and you only have 52.5 seconds per question, you want to answer as many questions as you can in the shortest amount of time. Saving Conflicting Viewpoints until the end will save you some time, but not reading the Data Representation and Research Summary passages will save you even more time.

Most of the questions in these 2 types of passages can be answered by using the visuals and not reading the passage, so you will actually save time and answer more questions correctly by not reading these passages! Counterintuitive, I know. Since the majority of the questions ask you about data which is presented in the visuals, you just need to look at these visuals to find the correct answer. Learn more about this in our other article on time management and section strategy. Again, skip reading these passages, jump right to the questions and answer as many as you can with visuals alone. If you can՚t get to a final answer, at least use the visuals for process of elimination.

Practice Your Timing

don՚t wait until two weeks before your test to get started. You will only have about 5 minutes per passage, so you may want to start by only doing 5 passages, allotting 7 min per passage.

Once you can confidently do 5 passages with reasonable accuracy, work your way up to 6 and then 7. If you have a limited time to study and your accuracy significantly drops after 5 passages, just stick to 5 on Test Day. Better to do 5 really well and use your “Letter of the Day” on the last one than to do all of them haphazardly. Set a timer the next time your work on an ACT Science practice test, and see if you can stick to these checkpoints. This is the ideal timing for the actual exam:

  • : 00 … Set the clock and begin!
  • : 06 … . Finish gridding in the answers for Passage 1
  • : 12 … . Finish gridding in the answers for Passage 2
  • : 18 … . Finish gridding in the answers for Passage 3
  • : 24 … . Finish gridding in the answers for Passage 4
  • : 30 … . Finish gridding in the answers for Passage 5
  • : 35 … . Finish gridding in the answers for Passage 6

If there are 7 passages in the section, you՚ll want to spend about a minute less on the shorter passages with fewer questions to bank time for the extra passage.

Use Process of Elimination

Again, you have very little time on the ACT Science section (5 minutes per passage or 52.5 seconds per question) . You need to find ways to make the best use of your limited time. So, as you start to notice what cannot be the correct answer, cross it out. This process of elimination will help you make the best use of your time and will lead you to the correct answer.

If you don՚t use process of elimination, you may jump to pick an answer before making sure it is the best answer choice. With process of elimination, you know your final answer is the only one that CAN be correct.

Refer to Passage

You won՚t be able to memorize the information presented in the passages; it՚s too overwhelming. Read the passages to understand the gist and the data that is presented, but also move back to the passage to locate the information you need to answer the questions. Memory alone will not suffice. You may find it helpful to jot down a few short notes on each passage. Drawing arrows and circling important info is also a great idea.

Make Sure You Read the Right Figure and Pay Attention to Labels

In my experience teaching students, the most common careless mistake I see is reading the wrong figure and mixing up the labels. If you look at Figure 2 when you՚re supposed to be looking at Figure 3, you՚ll make huge mistakes. And you can bet the ACT has trap answers that bait you into these mistakes.

Similarly, graphs often have labeled x and y-axes, and you need to make sure you՚re looking at the correct axis to find the correct data value.

Check out my guide on reading graphs to make sure you don՚t make these mistakes.

Don՚t Get Stuck on Big Science Terms

ACT Science is really a misnomer; the test should be called the “reading with very confusing big words and tricky visuals” section. The reason ACT Science does not force you to memorize AP level Bio or complete IB Physics HL problems is that not everyone takes all of that math in high school. For ACT Science to be a fair standardized test for all high school students, the test asks you about basic science concepts in tricky or confusing ways. The ACT Science does not expect you to be familiar with the big science terms it throws at you.

Don՚t Study Science Terms

If you need to know a science term to answer a question, the term will be defined for you in the passage. For most of the large science terms that are not defined, you will not need to understand them to get to the answer. Think of it as a matching game. If a question asks about average change in AGTB and you do not know what that is, simply find the term “average change in AGTB” in a visual (such as a graph) and then see if you can find the data you need to answer the question.

There are only 4 outside knowledge questions on ACT Science that require you to know concepts outside of the passage. We detail every concept you need to know in this guide.

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