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Susanna Langholm

ACT Science Reasoning: Part 1

I remember being baffled in tenth grade by the inclusion of a science portion on a state standardized exam, not understanding how a test for which we supposedly could not study would ask us about content we had possibly never seen before. Thinking I had been set up for a big loss, I soon came to realize that my only failure lay in my lack of realization that the skills measured by the test were ones I already had- they just required a different application.

If this anecdote sounds familiar, you are probably also familiar with the Science Reasoning portion of the ACT, which, as its name implies, assesses the abilities of you savvy test-takers to analyze, interpret, and explain scientific information. Before considering this the Reading Section part 2, however, be aware of some important distinctions (and related question-approaching tips) that will enable you to know exactly what to expect – leaving you, I hope, more clued in than my 15-year-old self had been on exam day.


Tip #1: Get Rid of Information You Don’t Need- And Synthesize the Rest

The situation: The ACT Science questions inherently include a LOT of information- at least some of which is not necessary for solving the problem. Before you condemn those sneaky ACT writers for pitching you yet another curveball, remember that you have the upper hand: Once you can successfully eliminate the information you don’t need and make sense of the newly-isolated material that you do need, your job becomes a whole lot easier. Being able to do this properly is a skill that will help you to score well not just on the test at hand, but on all future standardized tests.

The solution: The Science section is reliably full of tables, charts and graphs full of scientific jargon. To keep your sense of bombardment at bay, start by reading the question carefully. Pay attention to references, and immediately note their associated information displays as a priority over the others that may be present. Underline units, time variables and key/terms, then promptly match these with the charts, tables and graphs that reflect this information before tackling the question.

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Don’t know what constitutes “relevant” information? Put in writing a brief summary of what you understand to be the question and work from that. That way, the information you need is identified in simple terms, rendering repeated passage information treasure hunts unnecessary.


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Tip #2: Don’t Be Conflicted by the Conflicting Viewpoints Passage

The situation: This section of the test identifies subjects- often named Scientist 1 and Scientist 2, or Student 1 and Student 2- with opposing theories on a scientific topic. Your task is to navigate the passages associated with each of their views, deducing both what their claims are and how they contrast with each other. (You can learn how to recognize and when to address this type of passage- often only appearing once in the test- here). Once again faced with a lot of information, this may seem like a crippling task, but by understanding the nature of these questions and how to approach them, you can quickly turn these questions into points in your favor.

The solution: SKIM each of these passages first, rather than reading them carefully. The similarities and differences that appear at first glance are important. Again, make explicit notes about these, and where you see confliction, label each passage accordingly:


Then, identify whether the questions call upon you to extrapolate or infer the opposition between the viewpoints. Are you looking for explicit or implicit language? Knowing what to look for will enable you to find clearer discrepancies between the presented theories.

Succeeding on- no, acing- the ACT Science Reasoning test doesn’t need to be a daunting or even a necessarily difficult task. Know what you’re dealing with, pay attention to detail, balance your care to read with your awareness of time, and practice- a lot. Stay tuned for part 2!


About Susanna Langholm

Susanna holds a BA in Education & Liberal Studies from Smith College and has spent the better part of her college and post-graduate years helping students achieve success both in and outside of the classroom. Most recently, Susanna served as the Assistant Director for a tutoring franchise catering to college-bound exam prep students, learning a thing or two about the ACT in the process. When she’s not navigating the test-taking waters for the sake of her students, Susanna can be found reading, writing on her education blog, skiing, or planning a future filled with international travel - her favorite (but most expensive) hobby.

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