Building Speed on ACT Science (and Similar Questions on the SAT)

The ACT Science section is completely unlike most science tests you’ve taken in school.  Rather than testing your science knowledge per se, it tests your ability to understand information and make inferences based on it.  You might want to think of it as an “information processing” section.

The SAT doesn’t have this kind of section per se, but it does have the same kinds of questions spread throughout its other sections.

If you’re having trouble moving quickly enough on these questions, there are four main problems you might be facing:

  1. Not understanding questions/answer choices quickly enough
  2. Not recognizing important info quickly enough
  3. Having a hard time filtering out irrelevant or distracting info
  4. Second-guessing yourself too much

You might have noticed these problems can easily come up in other areas as well – not just on the ACT or SAT, but on other tests, in other academic settings, and in life beyond.  That means solving these challenges can change the game for you far beyond the test – something Rocket Prep is all about.

All of these can all be addressed through mindful practice with good coaching.  When you practice, focus closely on each question and write or speak it out in your own words.  Your tutor or coach can help you by reading or listening to your paraphrases and offering suggestions.  Then do the same with each answer choice and the information you think you need from the passage.

When done right, this is a slow, painstaking process – very much unlike the fast judgment calls you’ll have to make on the real thing.  But don’t be fooled: through this process, you are slowly and steadily rewiring your brain to understand and interpret the passages and questions efficiently.  Instead of focusing directly on speed, you are training your brain to capture the information you need and ignore the rest.  As you hone those skills, you’ll naturally build speed.

Learning differences or different styles of information processing can also affect this process.  It will be important to figure out what kinds of information you process most easily (words? Diagrams? Graphs?) and approach the rest accordingly.  For kinds of information that are particularly challenging for you, translating them into other forms – e.g. drawing pictures based on the text, taking notes on diagrams and graphs, etc. – can help tremendously.

You can get a further boost on point 3 by using your hands – literally.  Once you see information in the passage you think you need, use your hand(s) to cover parts of the passage around it so that it’s easier to focus on what you need.  When you’re looking at answer choices, physically cover all but one or two at a time.  When you see that an answer choice is clearly incorrect, cross out the whole thing instead of just the letter.

Why does physically covering things help?  Because anything in your field of view can distract you, muddle your thinking, and make you less sure of yourself – even if you’re not aware that that’s happening.  Your brain is always processing everything your eyes see, even if you’re not consciously focusing on it.  Anything you can do to simplify your visual field will help.  Try it and you’ll see: it’s much easier to focus and think when there’s less in front of you.