3 types of ACT Science Strugglers

In general, three different types of people struggle with the ACT Science section. Knowing which one you are (or your student is) can be critical if you want to improve your score. “Know Thyself” should be your mantra if you are seeking higher ACT scores. The following is an excerpt from my new book that will enable you to identify which type of test-taker you are and how to gain points on the Science section. Here are the three common types:

1)  This student can be an absolutely fantastic reader or a solid reader. But, this student is typically ambivalent or negative about science. Shockingly, there are more of these students than you’d imagine. If your reading score is more than 4 points higher than your science, then you are probably a student who falls into this category.

For this student, there are two ways of improving your science score (aside from taking a bunch of science classes in school). First, you need to realize that if you can read, you can probably do science. And on the ACT, if you can read, you can definitely handle the science. The ACT Science section is simply a weird reading section, so just apply the reading skills you have to it. I’ve seen students who were interested in theater –  and only theater – perform sensationally on the science section, just because they realized that it was a reading test, first and foremost.

Second, you will need to learn how to focus on the important information and learn to not read the unimportant information. Now let me be clear, I’m not advocating for an approach that involves skipping certain reading, per se. What I mean is that you have to learn to cut through the scientific jargon to see what’s actually going on.

Here’s an example of an ACT science question, one loaded with information that comes from a passage about Lake Erie (I’m leaving out the passage for the sake of space.):

Each autumn, the top layer [of water] cools, and the wind mixes it deeper and deeper into the bottom layer. Eventually the whole water column is the same temperature, and the wind can again mix it from top to bottom and the oxygen can be restored from the air. In the Central Basin, this phenomenon typically occurs in early to mid-September, when oxygen is restored from top to bottom. Given this information, if the Lake Erie region had an unseasonably warm later summer (August and September), what would likely be the result?

Let’s take this apart. Water cools and mixes. Great. Here’s what else we need to know: this typically happens in autumn/mid-September. Then, we find out that it has been unseasonably warm in August and September for a particular year.

Once you’ve got this information in place, you should be able to see what inference the test-makers are looking for. Normal situation: water cools with cooling weather. Question’s situation: weather is warmer than usual. Any thoughts as to what might happen to that water? (Hint: it’s not going to cool!)

Now here’s some jargon that we didn’t need to obsess over: oxygen restored from the air, Central Basin, phenomenon, Lake Erie region. We read all of those things, but we didn’t really read them, not in the sense that we retained any information that they gave us. Another way of looking at it is that we simply focused on the weather and water warming and cooling. That’s the information that we really read.

Final thought on the student who falls into type 1: your ACT Reading score shouldn’t be more than 4 points higher than your ACT Science score, unless you are typically scoring 35s and 36s on the reading section. Then you might have a 5 or 6 point difference, though 4 points should still be your goal.


2)  This student is a big fan of science classes, or at least most of those classes, and has great grades in them too. But this student’s ACT Science section score never reflects that interest or apparent ability.

The ACT Science section “measures the skills required in the natural sciences: interpretation, analysis, evaluation, reasoning, and problem solving” (or that’s the claim, anyway). For the student who likes real science but struggles with the ACT’s version of science, you will want to recall how scientific reasoning works. For a quick review of the basics, try this UC-Berkeley article (just scroll down to the pictures!). Of course, that’s a bit simplistic, but you might be surprised at how much that by itself can help.

Beyond that simple yet important refresher, make certain that you are able to negotiate scientific reading. Yes, that includes “just reading graphs” as ACT Science is often unhelpfully described, but it also means comprehending the scientific terms as they are used and defined in paragraphs. To strengthen that skill, you’ll have to strengthen your overall reading comprehension. But, that doesn’t mean you have to start reading War and Peace: start reading science articles in National Geographic or The New Yorker. And you can choose whichever ones interest you, though try a few that fall outside your normal interests too!

In a nutshell, if you’re a type 2 student, then you’ll need to strengthen how well you read the arguments made in the ACT Science section. That’s the ACT prep you want.


3) This is a student who struggles with both reading and science. Typically, these students are described as “poor test-takers,” but often they are just non-readers or students who only read if it’s assigned as homework. If you don’t read regularly, you will likely test poorly, though there is the occasional exception to this rule. When in doubt, assume you aren’t the exception.

Fortunately, most of the advice for types 1 and 2 will help you. But there are additional things you can do.

If you have a few months before your next ACT, try to increase your weekly reading load by 10-30 pages a week. You’ll be surprised at how much that can help. Obviously, more than that is better, but life can be busy in high school. Science reading should be your focus, but almost any genre will be of benefit.

If you have only a few weeks, practice reading tables, graphs and diagrams. The faster you can understand them, the easier the ACT Science section will be for you. And if you only have a few days, well, find a good resource that can point you to the specific types of questions the ACT asks.


If you can’t figure out which type of student you might be, your classroom teachers might be able to give you a clue. If you’re working with an ACT tutor or taking an ACT prep class, ask your tutor. A good tutor should be able to help you discern why you’re struggling with the ACT Science section. Plus, your teachers or tutors will have even more helpful suggestions than the brief ones provided above. Happy studying and good luck getting those higher scores!