ACT Science: Passage Types

There are three distinct passage types on the ACT Science test: Data Representation, Research Summaries, and Conflicting Viewpoints. Here’s how the numbers break down on most tests.

Passage TypeNumber on a typical ACT Test
Data Representation2
Research Summaries3
Conflicting Viewpoints1

In the past, there always used to be 3 Data Representation passages, 3 Research Summaries passages, and 1 Conflicting Viewpoints passage on each test (7 passages total). However, on recent tests, there have been 2 Data Representation passages, 3 Research Summaries passages, and 1 Conflicting Viewpoint passage (6 passages total). This means that there have been more questions per passage on these more recent tests since the total number of questions on an ACT Science test is always 40.

Here’s what you are going to face on each passage type:

Data Representation Passages

ACT Science Data Representation passages are typically the most straightforward of the three ACT Science passage types. Unlike the Research Summaries passages, which recreate various experiments, and Conflicting Viewpoints passages, which present alternative hypotheses on a scientific phenomenon, Data Representation passages present students with a few figures, graphs, or charts to analyze without accompanying experiment descriptions. This doesn’t mean that they are always easy, but generally speaking, most students find them to be the easiest out of the three because they rarely ask students to do the kind of higher-level scientific reasoning that the other passage types require. As a result, students who are uncomfortable with the Science section often like to concentrate on these passages first.

You can recognize them because they won’t have headers such as “Experiment 1,” Study 2” or “Scientist 1,” and they often have a lot less text.

Research Summaries

Research Summaries provide descriptions of one or more related experiments or studies conducted by hypothetical scientists or science students. These passages generally have more text than Data Representation passages because they detail the design and procedures of a particular study in addition to presenting the results on tables or graphs. The questions on these passages ask students to understand, evaluate, and interpret the design and procedures of the experiments and analyze the results.

You can recognize them because they will typically include one or more experiments or studies with headers such as “Experiment 1,” “Trial 2,” or “Study 3.”

Conflicting Viewpoints

There is generally only one Conflicting Viewpoints passage on each ACT Science test. This passage typically presents two (although sometimes three) alternative viewpoints, hypotheses or theories on a specific scientific phenomenon. Some students refer to these passages as “Fighting Scientists” passages because these different viewpoints always fundamentally disagree with one another, even though they may agree on some points. Your job is to notice all the similarities and differences between the viewpoints and answer the questions that follow. These questions might ask you to determine which scientists or theories would agree with a certain point, determine how a certain point might strengthen or weaken the different hypotheses, or how new information might affect the viewpoints.

You can recognize Conflicting Viewpoints passages because they typically have no figures or diagrams, or only one or two simple diagrams, and a lot of text. Because you have to read these passages in full and because the questions often involve a lot more critical thinking, many students like to save this passage for last.

Remember that you can do the passages in any order that you want! As you practice, notice whether or not you struggle with one passage type over another and start with the ones you find to be easier to get your feet wet (and in case you run out of time). If any passage seems to complicated or intimidating, remember you can skip it and come back to it at the end!


  • Kristin Fracchia

    Dr. Kristin Fracchia has over fifteen years of expertise in college and graduate school admissions and with a variety of standardized tests, including the ACT, SAT, GRE, GMAT, and LSAT, with several 99% scores. She had a PhD from the University of California, Irvine, an MA degree from The Catholic University, and BA degrees in Secondary Education and English Literature from the University of Maryland, College Park. She was the recipient of the 2013 Excellence in Teaching Award and the Chancellor’s Club Fellowship from the University of California, Irvine. She’s worked as a high school teacher and university professor, as an independent college and graduate school admissions counselor, and as an expert tutor for standardized tests, helping hundreds of students gain acceptance into premier national and international institutions. She now develops accessible and effective edtech products for Magoosh. Her free online content and YouTube videos providing test prep and college admissions advice have received over 6 million views in over 125 countries. Kristin is an advocate for improving access to education: you can check out her TEDx talk on the topic. Follow Kristin on LinkedIn!

By the way, Magoosh can help you study for both the SAT and ACT exams. Click here to learn more!

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