Today’s post comes from Jerusha, a professional ACT and SAT tutor, as well as a high school teacher. Jerusha writes test prep advice on her blog prepACTSAT.com.
There are several strategies which will help you to finish the ACT science section in 35 minutes. You might have already heard of some of these – I’ve trawled through the internet, books and even come up with some of these ACT Science strategies myself. More importantly, I’ve tested these out with real students to see which ones work for them.
I think there are 3 categories of ACT Science strategies – those that help you keep track of time, those that help you save time, and unfortunately, some really bad strategies that are based on misconceptions about the test. I’ll take you through all of these, and explain which ones you should use.
The most important thing about timing strategies is that they need to be practiced! The ACT scientific reasoning is very taxing on working memory, (information that you hold in the front of your mind to work with), which means that if you’re trying to remember how to use your timing strategy as well, you may just end up with too much to think about! Make sure you practice working with your timing strategies enough that they become second nature.
A good thing to note is that some tests actually have 6 passages, rather than the usual 7 (but always 40 questions). When you get your test booklet, turn to the last passage, and check. This might mean you alter how you apply the ACT Science strategies – for example, if you were planning on guessing an entire passage, you might decide not to do this on a 6 passage test since each passage has more questions.
ACT Science Strategies to manage your time
This category is one that everyone should use. Even if you find you can always finish the scientific reasoning on time, these two strategies are still effective to make sure you don’t make any timing slips.
Use a timing marker.
The test takes 35 minutes, so when you begin, look at your start time, and add 17 minutes. Write this time at the top of passage 4. If you have a 6 passage test, this is exactly the halfway point. If you have 7 passages, your halfway point is about when you’ve read passage 4 and are just beginning the questions. When you get to passage 4, check the time on the clock against what you have written down. Now you know whether you need to speed up or slow down by just checking the clock when you get to your timing marker. If you’ve been too slow in the first half of the test, you still have half the test left to make up for what you did, so you really only need to go a little faster over the rest of the test. This is much more useful than the 5 minutes warning that you get at the end (also some proctors forget to give you that anyway!). There’s not much you can do with 5 minutes, but there’s a lot you can do with do with 17 minutes!!
Skip questions you don’t understand.
This could include very wordy questions, ones that ask you to look at several pieces of information together or just generally difficult questions. If you need above a 28 (scaled), you can’t reasonably skip more than about 1 question per passage (allowing for you to make some genuine mistakes as well). If you need 21-28 (scaled), you can skip 2-3 questions. Always put a star by these questions and come back to them so that you can use any spare time you have effectively.
ACT Science strategies for compromise
These strategies involve you sacrificing one part of the test in order to do better on another part. They’re very effective if you’ve done a lot of practice and still can’t finish the test in time. It’s almost impossible to get above a 30 if you apply any of these ACT Science strategies, but if you need to push from a 20 to a 25, then they can be really helpful. They are all about skipping certain questions or passages, so you have two options – you can skip the problem parts entirely, or you can have quick look at them and answer anything you think looks easy. Depending on how much of a timing or score improvement you need to make, you can adjust these.
Skip conflicting viewpoints passages.
Some people hate these! They are different to the other passages, so if you always do worse on these than other passages, consider skipping them all together. You might want to consider this if your score on the Reading section is one of your lower ones, as it’s most similar to the Reading section. The downside here is that they usually have 7 questions, so you’re already limiting yourself to scoring a maximum of 33/40. Yes, you could get some right by guessing, but statistically you can only expect to get 1-2 out of 7.
Look only for questions that refer to a specific part of the passage.
For example, ‘According to table 3 … ‘. If you do this for the whole test, you will struggle to get more than half the questions right (about half of the questions have a specific line references). If that’s what you’re aiming for, then go ahead. But if you need a higher score, this is a strategy that you should employ only if you’re running out of time. This strategy can be deceptive for two reasons – although you’re being pointed to a certain part of the passage, you might also need other information, and further, just because the question contains a line reference doesn’t mean it’s one of the easier ones.
Choose one passage to skip based on topic.
For example, if you haven’t studied physics recently or to a high level, but have studied biology, you should find biological passages slightly easier to understand. When you see a physics passage, think about skipping it. Look ahead in the test to see what else is there, and see if that looks like the hardest passage. Spend a maximum of one minute doing this, because otherwise you could use that time to answer questions, and therefore score better! If you study biology, you might be more familiar with some of the words used, and the ways experiments are conducted. But then again, you may not be, so you should try this one out for yourself, because as you know, the test isn’t about content, it’s about reasoning.
Bad ACT Science strategies
These strategies are based on misconceptions about the test, in my opinion. They assume things about which questions are easier and harder, and I just haven’t seen that pattern.
Read the questions and not the passage.
This can be a big timesaver, but you can also spend more time answering the questions because you don’t know anything about what’s going on at all! I find it helpful to at least skim the passage and try to work out what’s going on. If you can spend 30 seconds doing that, it will be helpful. This strategy is perhaps something to do when you’re on the last passage and perhaps running out of time (although hopefully some of the other strategies here can help you avoid that!).
The 5-6-7 or the 7-6-5.
Some people advocate doing the 5 question passages first, followed by the 6, then the 7. Or the other way around. To be honest, I’m not sure of the sense in the 5-6-7. The theory behind this strategy is that time spend reading the passage doesn’t get you any marks – only time spent answering the questions. So you should do the passages that have the highest number of questions first. Make sure you practice this one, as if you don’t do the passages in order, your bubble sheet could get messy! Some people also think the 5 question passages are easier. I haven’t seen that trend personally, so I think this ACT Science strategy involves too much page flipping and jumping around during the test, which wastes time that could be spent answering the questions!
The first 3 questions only.
Sometimes the first 3 questions on a given passage are the easiest, and the next few are hard. If this is the case, then it makes sense to do only the first 3 easy questions. Personally, I’m not sure how much truth there is in this. It could easily be the other way around, or easy questions interspersed with hard ones, and you put a lot of time investment into reading a passage if you’re only going to attempt 3 questions. I think it would be better to pick the easier questions yourself, which basically turns this strategy into skipping questions you don’t understand, which is usually a good idea!
Should I consider the SAT?
The SAT has no scientific reasoning section. There are one or two graphs in the reading section, but nothing like the ACT. If you are really finding that the Scientific Reasoning score is dragging your composite down (more than 3 points lower than your next lowest section), you’ve tried everything you can think of and you can’t improve, then perhaps consider the SAT. This would be an especially good choice if math is a strength for you, since there is more of it on the SAT.
What else can you do to improve?
Every time you do a practice test, and mark it, make sure that you go over each question that you got wrong and figure out what the right answer is, and why. This can be tedious, but you’ll learn a huge amount from it. In my opinion, one test that you’ve analyzed afterward is worth about 5 that you haven’t.
Lastly, make sure you practice enough! You should always have done at least 4 practice tests, and if you’re still looking to improve, up to 15.