The SAT and ACT have never been more alike than they are today, in that both exams challenge reading, writing, and problem solving skills in the same sort of standardized, mostly multiple-choice fashion. However, the two exams differ in both subtle and blatant ways, the most obvious of which is the ACT Science section.
Like so many facets of these tests, ACT Science delivers very different challenges than expected. Sure, this section features passages drawn from topics in biology, chemistry, physics, and Earth and space science. However, the questions hardly test content knowledge at all. In fact, test takers don’t face any real disadvantage for not having taken these subjects. So if ACT Science doesn’t test science per se, what skills and strategies does this section really demand?
On our (awesome) Tests and the Rest podcast, Amy Seeley and I enjoyed a very insightful conversation with Michael Cerro on What is ACT Science All About? Michael, the author of For the Love of ACT Science: An innovative approach to mastering the science section of the ACT standardized exam, shared a ton of expert insights into the tests. None resonated as strongly as his comparison of the ACT Science section to the classic children’s character search, Where’s Waldo?:
“If you ever been through a Where’s Waldo? book, you turn the page and you see just a bunch of chaos on the page; There’s a circus, there’s colors, there’s people, there’s animals, and who knows what else there is, but objective is to find Waldo. And so you are searching through just a forest of random things to try to find the one object that is familiar to you. On the ACT Science section, when you turn the page to an experiment, it looks like a forest of things. It looks very foreign. It looks weird. It gives the student consistency to know that I just need to start by finding this one thing… if I start by finding this one thing, I could potentially go down the correct path, and once I get the first step it’ll leave me to an easier second step and he’s either third step and then eventually I can land on the right answer…”
Basically, the ACT Science section is a reading test. Finding Waldo in this instance means looking for the specific fact or idea required to answer a question. To succeed, avoid getting lost in a chaotic flurry of data and jargon. Instead, practice reading shallow and wide to pull exactly what you need from a passage.
College entrance exams seem to have given up on the thankless quest of promoting knowledge of higher level vocabulary. Perhaps a firm grasp of classic SAT words still helps in the halls of academia, but today’s teachers focus more on the ability to read and understand graphs, tables, charts, and figures. ACT actually blazed the trail to testing graphical literacy through the ACT Science section. Anyone who wants to excel on this section should master this critical skill.
UNDERSTANDING OF THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD
This section of the ACT was originally called Science Reasoning, which was a more accurate description of what it challenges. Questions focus far less on discrete science knowledge than on an understanding of the scientific method itself. Test takers should approach this section with a high degree of comfort with experimental design and the assumptions implicit in manipulating independent, dependent, and controlled variables to prove hypotheses. You don’t need to be a scientist to ace these questions, but you should certainly think like one!
In summary, superior ACT Science scores don’t depend on encyclopedic mastery of science terminology, but instead come from strong reading, reasoning, and data assessment abilities. Focus on those valuable skills for success in ACT Science and beyond.