Believe it or not, you don’t have to know a lot of science to do well on the ACT Science Reasoning test. Learn why not – and what you do need to know instead.

Science vs. Reasoning

You’d think that a Science Reasoning test would test you on how much science you know. It’s right there in the name! You’d never expect to pick up a test labeled ‘Science Reasoning’ and get questions on the Constitution, or Shakespeare, or latte art.

Well, don’t rush out and start practicing your barista skills in the name of test prep, and you can hold off on the Hamlet. It’s not quite that bad. But it is true that on the Science Reasoning test you won’t need to know a whole lot of science. This leaves the question open: if a Science Reasoning test doesn’t test science, what on earth does it test?

The answer is reasoning. The ACT Science Reasoning section is a test of how well you can understand and interpret information on scientific topics, not a test of how much science you know. It’s not about memorizing a bunch of high-level science concepts, or even the really basic stuff like the laws of motion. It’s about finding information and interpreting it: think 95% reasoning, 5% science.

To prove this, we’ll walk through an ACT practice problem – but with a very special twist.

Science Reasoning Example

Here’s a perfectly ordinary ACT Science question:

A scientist is studying the feed conversion efficiency of various animals. Feed conversion efficiency is how many pounds of food the animal needs to eat to gain one pound of body weight. This number depends on the species of animal, and may also depend on the age of the animal. The scientist tests four different animals, as shown in the table.

According to the table shown, which of the following animals will gain two pounds if provided with six pounds of food?

(A) A calf

(B) A mature cow

(C) A piglet

(D) A mature pig

Believe it or not, this question requires you to know absolutely nothing about feed efficiency, agricultural science, cows, or pigs. And just to illustrate that, let’s take this same question, and make it absolutely impossible to solve with any kind of outside knowledge. We’ll keep all the numbers exactly the same, but just change the situation of the problem so that instead of being about barnyard animals, it’s a little more;enchanting.

Magic Reasoning

An alchemist is studying the blood transformation efficiency of various animals. Blood transformation efficiency measures how many ounces of blood from a given animal are required to create a flame equivalent to one candle. This number depends on the type of animal, and may also depend on whether or not the animal is magical. The alchemist tests four different animals, as shown in the table.

According to the table shown, 6 ounces of blood from which of the following animals will provide two candles’ worth of energy?

(A) A horse

(B) A unicorn

(C) A snake

(D) A dragon

This is basically the same problem as the first one – even the units on the graph are the same. It’s just set in a magical situation instead of an ordinary one, so it’s very clear that no textbook in the world will help you solve it. If you ever did anything like this in school, you can stop watching this video because you don’t have to worry about the ACT at Hogwarts.

But you still can solve this problem just like an ordinary ACT problem. We’re looking for the species where six ounces of blood will give us two candles of energy, which means a conversion rate of three ounces per candle. On the chart, we can see that only the snake gives us three ounces per candle, so the answer must be (C).

This might sound a little silly, but it shows you how ACT Science questions aren’t really about science. They’re really about finding information in the graphs and charts. We could answer the first question about the farmyard animals with exactly the same method, because it’s exactly the same question with just a few of the names changed. The question itself gives you all the information you need to get the right answer; you’ll never need to rack your brains for any outside facts or information. Even when those outside facts don’t actually exist, you can still answer the question correctly!

Back to Science

To make sure you’ve got it down, we’ll go through one more example – with real science this time – showing how you can use your reasoning skills to figure out any ACT Science question without needing to bring in outside information.

To measure the strength of an earthquake, geologists use the Richter magnitude scale, which assigns each quake one number to represent how powerful it is. The scale starts at 0, and the most powerful recorded earthquake measured 9.5. The table shows how changes in the rating of an earthquake on the Richter scale represent changes in ground motion (shaking of the earth) and changes in energy released:

Earthquake A is rated as a 5.0 on the Richter scale. Earthquake B released three times as much energy as Earthquake A. How should Earthquake B be classified on the Richter scale?

(A) 3.2

(B) 5.3

(C) 5.5

(D) 8

(E) 15

Again, you don’t need to know a single thing about earthquakes to answer this question. The problem tells us that Earthquake B was three times greater in energy change, so we’ll look down the ‘energy change’ column of the table to see where we find an energy change of 3 times.

Spot it? Now we’ll look to the left, to see what change on the Richter scale indicates an energy change three times greater. That’s 0.3.

Now we know that to get the correct Richter scale rating for an earthquake with an energy change three times bigger, we’ll need to add 0.3 to the previous rating, to get 5.3 as the final answer. Again, no insider earthquake knowledge necessary; it’s all about reading the charts.

Lesson Summary

In this lesson, you got a demonstration of the way ACT Science Reasoning problems aren’t really about science. They’re about reasoning. You don’t need to know any special facts or outside information to answer these questions, so don’t go crazy cramming with your science textbooks. It’s more important to get comfortable reading charts, graphs, and tables, and finding information in them to answer the problems.

Learning Outcome

After reviewing this lesson, you should be able to explain why test takers do not need much science knowledge to do well on ACT Science Reasoning questions.