Stop Running Out of Time on the ACT Science Section

stop running out of time

In this article, I will help you learn how to stop running out of time on the ACT Science section.

Most high school students struggle with timing of ACT Science. And no wonder, you have to complete the ACT Science section as the last section of the exam; it comes when you are already tired, and it has 40 questions that have to be answered in 35 minutes. With less than 1 minute per question, there is no time to waste. In addition, the name ACT Science causes a lot of stress in students who don’t believe that this is not a “science” section, but another reading section about science.

In this article, I will discuss the timing of the test and offer tips and strategies to manage time and maximize your score on the ACT Science section.

Tip #1. Do Not Read the Instructions During the Test

I know this goes against what you have been taught before, but you should not read instructions on the day of the test. To learn how to stop running out of time on the ACT Science section, do not read the instructions. If you have taken ACT practice tests before, you know that the instructions don’t change and re-reading them during the test is a complete waste of time. Reading the instructions will only take up valuable time and slow you down.

Just for the sake of reference, here are the instructions. Read them now and don’t read them again.

“DIRECTIONS: There are several passages in this test. Each passage is followed by several questions. After reading a passage, choose the best answer to each question and fill in the corresponding oval on your answer document. You may refer to the passage as often as necessary. You are NOT permitted to use a calculator on this test.”

Was this helpful? Not really. The instructions NEVER change, so don’t waste your time reading them during the test.

Tip #2. Which Passage Should You Answer First?

Every correct answer is worth the same number of points, so maximize your score by spending time on the questions that take the least amount of time first.

Start with the 3 Data Representation and 3 Research Summaries Passages

To stop running out of time on the ACT Science section, learn to identify the types of passages. You can recognize these types of passages because they have tables, charts, and graphs included ether within or at the end of the passage.

Start by trying to answer the questions only with information presented in the charts, graphs, or tables. Most of the questions will give you a hint as to where you should be looking. The questions will contain words such as “Based on Figure 2 …”, or “The data in Table 1 shows …”. If you can answer all of the passage questions using visual aids alone, great! If not, RIYN = Read If You Need. Skim the Introduction to get the general gist of what is presented in the visual aids. For more tips on strategy, read the article about the types of ACT passages.

Save the Conflicting Viewpoints Passage to the End

You can recognize this passage because it has no visual aids. The entire passage is text and it presents 2 or 3 (or sometimes 4) different viewpoints and you have to read the entire passage to answer the questions.

The reason you want to leave this type of passage to the end is that it takes the longest. It is almost never the last passage in the ACT Science section and if you attempt to do it in order, you will likely spend too much time on it and sabotage your ability to answer questions that you could have gotten through quicker. The conflicting viewpoints passage requires a completely different way of thinking and strategy than the passages with visual aids. If you do it in order, it will break your focused mindset of reading charts and graphs. So, save it for the end.

Try to have at least five minutes left to attempt it. If you have three minutes or less when you get to it, go straight to the questions and do your best to try to skim the passage for the answers. Of course, it’s better to read the whole passage first, but with under 3 minutes or less, you won’t have time.

Tip #3. When Should You Skip Questions?

Keep vigilant track of time. To help yourself stop running out of time on the ACT Science section, You should not spend more than 1.5 minutes on a question. Ideally, you should spend less than one minute, but you will be able to answer some of the questions a lot faster than that, leaving the extra time for the more difficult and time-consuming questions.

Use process of elimination. Try to get rid of the questions you know are wrong. Then pick the best answer out of the remaining choices. This is especially true for the wordy answers that are seemingly very similar to each other.

For example (adapted from ACT, Inc. test 16MC3):

Science question example

Notice how 2 of the answers say higher and 2 say lower. If you look at Experiment 2 (referenced in the question), you can first of all determine if the answer should be higher or lower. Just from that observation alone, you can eliminate 2 of the 4 answers. Once you are down to two remaining choices, go back to Experiment 2 and see if the data is higher or lower than 115. Voila – you have the answer.

If you find yourself spending more than 1.5 minutes on any one question (or more than 7 minutes on a passage), make an educated guess and move on. Come back to the question at the end of the section if you have time.

Tip #4. Experiment During Practice to Find Out Where You Are Getting Stuck

This is student specific, but I will outline the most common types of reasons people get stuck.

If you are a Math thinker,

you can sometimes get lost in the numbers and lose track of the main point. The point of the ACT Science section is that you are able to think critically and extract answers given limited information. Do not recalculate all the data. Trust that it’s there for a reason. Even if you think you can find an error, you cannot argue the point back with the ACT. Take the data at face value. Focus on the main points of the data presented. Many of the questions test your understanding of trends, and if you start obsessing over numbers and then find out that you didn’t need them to answer the question, you’re stuck. Try to refocus your attention. Look at the questions first, determine what type of information you need, and only then go to the passage to look for that information.

If you are an English thinker,

you can sometimes get intimidated by all of the charts, graphs, and tables, as well as big science terms. Don’t panic about the numbers. Summarize what you are looking for in the margins. Do more visual practice to determine trends.

If you are a Science thinker,

you can sometimes get stuck dissecting the experiment and science terms, thereby overthinking the meaning of the passage. If you believe that any information presented in the passage is incorrect, keep it to yourself. You have to answer the questions based on the information presented, not on outside knowledge about any specific topic. If you catch yourself spending time trying to fully understand the experiment, (you shouldn’t need to), you’re getting stuck. Focus on the questions asked and data presented. Do not read the whole passage unless absolutely necessary. (Hint: reading the entire passage should not be necessary for the Data Representation passages).

If you are a perfectionist / overachiever,

you might get stuck checking and rechecking to make sure that every question you put down is 100% correct. You do not have the luxury to do that on the ACT Science section. If you’ve done enough practice prior to the exam, you should be prepared for the types of questions asked on test day. Don’t waste time. Move on.

Tip #5. Do Not Leave any Questions Blank

The ACT does not have a guessing penalty, so if you leave any questions un-bubbled, you are leaving points on the table because with only 4 multiple choice options per question, you have a 25% chance of getting it right. So, if you run out of time, leave 30 seconds at the end to bubble in your favorite letter of the day.

DO NOT leave any blanks.

Tip #6. Stay Energized

The ACT Science section is ALWAYS the last section of the exam. By the time the Science section comes around, you are tired, you’ve been sitting in a hard chair for a long time, your hand hurts form all the writing (bubbling, solving problems, identifying important reading points), your body hurts from sitting in an uncomfortable chair, and you’re wondering if you answered that Math question right.

You must erase all of this from your mind and power through the time crunchiest section of all – the ACT Science section.

Pack energy boosting snacks to eat at break. To build up endurance for the actual test, practice by sitting for at least 3 full-length practice tests (including writing – if you are planning to take it) before you take the actual exam. Don’t just sit for one practice section at a time.


To learn how to stop running out of time:

  • Do Not read instructions on the day of the test. Read them before you practice, and don’t read them again. They do not change and reading them will waste precious time.
  • There is no reason to answer questions in the order presented. Always start with Data Representation and Research Summaries Passages. These will always have visual aids and most of the questions will be readily answered using only visuals.
  • Leave the Conflicting Viewpoint passage for the end. This is the only passage that does not have any visuals. Must be read in its entirety and presents 2-4 conflicting viewpoints on the same subject. This passage takes the most time.
  • Use practice sessions to determine where and why you are getting stuck.
  • Leave enough time in the end to bubble in answers to questions you didn’t have a chance to get to. Don’t leave anything blank.
  • Keep your energy up, your mind focused, and get YOUR best score.

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