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ACT Science Strategies

ACT Science Strategies and Tactics: Collecting and Analyzing the Evidence Grissom-Style

How does Grissom always know which pieces of evidence to gather at the scene of the crime? How does he know exactly which bit of the sample to stick in the GC/MS (gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer) or under the super high-tech microscope? As a newbie investigator, all you can think about is how your powdered latex gloves are stinking up your hands and that these Q-tips belong in your bathroom and weren’t meant for swabbing clothes. The last time you saw a UV light was at your local tanning bed; now you are supposed to use it to find blood spatter? Relax, we have your bases covered, and we have several tips to help make your first crime scene collection a success.

1. Don’t get caught up in fancy scientific jargon. Put the questions and answers in your own words.

"I wasn't kidding. I do have a test today. It's on European Socialism. What's the big deal? I'm not European. I don't plan on becoming European. So why should I care if they're socialists? They could be fascist, anarchist pigs. It still wouldn't change the fact that I don't have a car." – Ferris Bueller in Ferris Bueller's Day Off

After reading the ACT science passages, you might feel like Ferris: Why should I care about Trichophyton? I don’t speak Scientific Classifications!

If you did, you would know that it’s not some race of mutant plants from the Horsehead Nebula; it’s the fungus responsible for athlete’s foot. Not so otherworldly after all, and certainly more approachable than something extraterrestrial. Putting the question and the answers in layman’s terms makes things seem a little easier, and helps you get past the fancy-pants science-y terms. Even the most complex science jargon seems easy if you know the context when it is discussed.

2. Be comfortable reading scientific passages.

We'll give you lots of practice here, but don't limit yourself to ACT practice tests. Read, read, and READ! Science is everywhere: magazines, newspapers, the web...

Speaking of CSI, science is also all over TV: in the news, in tons of shows, on CSPAN, and so on. The more you expose yourself to science, the more comfortable you will be reading science passages on the test.


What are the forces applied to two cars crashing into each other at 50 mph?

The MythBusters' answer.


3. Conquer what you know first, and skip or guess if necessary. Hint: Questions are often in order of increasing difficulty.

If you're stuck on the last two questions of a passage and still haven’t gotten to the final passage, it's time to put those two questions aside and move on to the next section. It's up to you: you can either mark these questions if you think you will have time to come back to them, or you can guess and put them out of your mind. You definitely don’t want to run out of time, leaving some easy questions unanswered in later passages. Pace yourself. You should be spending about five minutes on each passage.

4. Perform rough calculations. If you have to bust out your math skills, just do a quick estimate calculation. You have four choices in front of you. No exact number needed!

There are no calculators allowed on ACT Science, so any math that you may need to do will be pretty simple. Don’t be afraid to estimate if it will cut down on the time it takes you to solve the problem. You won’t need to calculate the exact mathematical answer; a rough idea of the number should be enough for you to answer the question correctly.

5. Mark up your test. Banksy is back!

The section is yours for 35 minutes, so don’t be afraid to write all over it. Come up with your own method of circling important facts and information. This will make it much easier when you get to the questions because you won’t have to read over the whole passage again to get the correct answer. Some specific tips:

  • Circle the words you don’t know the meaning of
  • Draw lines on graphs to mark important data points or trends
  • Circle numbers in tables and plotted points that are out of whack with the rest of the data
  • Underline statements that you don’t totally understand
  • Write the trends you spot right on the plots and tables

6. Stay calm and focused.

This is a good strategy for the overall ACT test, but it is particularly important for Science Reasoning. You will be thrown a lot of stuff—data, plots, tables, arguments, drawings, experimental setups—and it's easy to get overwhelmed. Take your time, pay attention to the passage type (we’ll get to this), and this test should be a cinch.

With that said, guess! When it comes to problem solving and guessing, it is sometimes helpful to trust your gut. In most cases, your first instinct is correct. If you have time to go back over your answers, don’t go crazy changing them (the exception is of course if you missed something really obvious, like the NOT in the question), and always answer every question.

Free excerpts from Shmoop's online ACT subject material:



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