Jonathan Darrall

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Test Prep | ACT Science | August 2012

What "MythBusters" Can Teach You about the ACT Science

By Jonathan Darrall | For

Worried about the ACT science section? Can't tell vectors from velocity? No need to worry, because if you've watched the popular Discovery Channel show Mythbusters, you're actually familiar with a lot of the tricks and tactics needed to rack up a high score on the ACT science section.

Haven't seen the show? Basically, a team of five special effects artists and scientists explore popular urban legends (myths) by doing experiments to see if they can duplicate the circumstances and the results outlined in the story. Although grand in scale and often unorthodox, the experiments are a textbook illustration of the scientific method and employ many of the same skills you'd need on the ACT science section, which are also skills you would use in college and many careers. The ACT science section measures these skills in very practical and predictable ways. Read the information below and watch the clips to learn these five lessons, and then use them on test day to "blow up" your science score!


From about 7:45 to about 9:00, Grant, Kari and Tory start off by gathering around the drawing board, explaining the myth, identifying what they are looking for, and describing the process of finding their desired result. Sound familiar? These are the purpose and method of the experiment.

Just like on the show, the purpose is the first thing that's given in an ACT passage. Further, the stars usually ask questions (like Tory did) or explain the purpose with a "to statement" ("We want to see if...", "Is it possible to..."), just like in an ACT passage ("Scientists want to find out...", "In order to determine...").

When you find the purpose, underline it and proceed. Just like on the show, the method is the second thing stated in a Science passage. Look for references to the tools, equipment, and actual procedures (like Kari and Grant explained), then bracket it.


This is the mantra of your music teacher, athletic coach, and the Mythbusters. You hate hearing it and doing it, but it serves a very important purpose. In a Mythbusters experiment, do you notice that the stars repeat the same experiment several times, making small changes along the way?

No? Then check out this clip, in which Adam attempts to accomplish a stunt from an action TV show. He starts at 35 MPH, and then increases his speed to 55 MPH to see if anything different happens. ACT passages do the same thing. Why? Simple. An experiment comes with a number of unknowns. The scientist's job is to make the unknown known.

The Mythbusters tackle one unknown at a time until they find what they need. They make changes to explore the effect of that change, whether it's in speed, distance, temperature, or weight. If a change occurs in the results, they'll know what caused it because they isolated that one variable.

Think about it: if they changed more than one variable and saw the change, they would not know what caused it. As you run through an ACT passage, pay attention to the only thing that changed and how it changed the results. 


Television is a visual medium. Notice in this clip how Adam first explained the idea of nucleation in the "Mentos and Cola" myth. If all Adam did was describe the myth, this would not make good television. More importantly, you wouldn't have a meaningful context in which to place that information.

But, once the show gave you a diagram, you understood this rapid process much more easily, right? Mythbusters experiments use a lot of diagrams, whether they are made by the stars on the spot, or during post-production. They illustrate patterns, parameters, and results to make the experiments more meaningful. More importantly, these diagrams are manipulated throughout the show.

How does this help you? Almost every ACT passage comes with some sort of diagram (usually a graph or chart, which you should ALWAYS mark with a star) that seems meaningless on first glance. Savvy students take the time to make diagrams meaningful. When you come across a diagram, you should be able to mentally summarize it in 10 seconds or less. Explain what it illustrates, what it measures, and any patterns. Further, mark it up! Even something as simple as an up arrow to indicate an increase or a down arrow to indicate a decrease can save lots of time and save you from missed answers. With practice, this will become second nature.


This lesson is an extension of the previous one. In the clip (from 12:30 to 16:00), Jamie explains that by doubling the thickness of the bubble wrap layers, he hopes the g-force of the impact is cut in half. This will help him determine how much bubble wrap is enough to survive a fall. Indeed, when Adam explained the results, he noticed that the g-forces turned out as expected!

The Mythbusters love it when patterns come up in their results, since it proves that they arere one step closer to confirming the myth! While a Mythbusters experiment may be less predictable, an ACT science experiment is quite predictable in terms of results.

Since about one-third of your questions will require you to recognize a pattern, see if you can determine the direction and extent of the pattern. For example, in an experiment, the temperature may decrease 10 degrees for every 1,000 foot increase in elevation. Simple pattern questions will ask what happens to one part of the experiment when another part displays a certain behavior. More complex ones will ask you to determine where a new measurement or parameter will fall in the results. Just like in the last lesson, mark it up! Most ACT charts and graphs are designed for you to write in numbers, do simple math, or extend lines. The Mythbusters do this to find out what to expect, and you should do it all to find out the information you need on test day.


This little disclaimer comes up during the show when the stars actually explain the scientific principles in question. Just like in this clip, this information usually has little bearing on the experiment itself (after all, they're testing an airplane, not a car, and as Adam said, the two vehicles work differently). The ACT science test is remarkably similar. You don't need any science content to succeed on the science test! The test often includes some background information, but more often than not, the answers to the questions come from purpose, method and results.

This doesn't mean that you should ignore the science completely; instead, it means you should make a mental note of it in case the purpose, method and results do not give the information you need. On the other hand, don't read too in-depth, either. Don't lose time and effort on something that isn't going to make a big difference. Focus more on the "why and the how." Moral of the story: if you think to yourself "Huh? What is this talking about?", instead think "Warning! Science content! I can safely skim through this and not worry about it!"


These are five of the most essential things you need to know about ACT science test. I hope this busted a few myths of your own and gave you the info you need to succeed on the ACT science test. Now, make like a Mythbuster, experiment with these skills on passages of your own, and watch your score explode like this!

Jonathan Darrall is a Pre-College Instructor and Community Relations Developer for South Carolina at Kaplan Test Prep. He has taught and tutored for nearly six years and been a Community Relations Developer for two years.

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