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Tips and Traps for Calculator Use on the SAT and ACT


As you prepare for the SAT or ACT, learn how and when to use your calculator. While you cannot rely on your calculator to carry you through the math portions of these tests, it is still a very useful tool. If you understand your calculator’s many functions, you’ll be able to save time and work through some of the toughest questions on the SAT and ACT.

Benefits of Calculators

  • Work more quickly and accurately.

While most math questions on both tests can be solved with basic arithmetic skills, some problems involve complex calculations you don’t want to do in your head. Let your calculator handle things like complicated divisions, unfamiliar square roots, and intimidatingly large numbers. You’ll save time and avoid mistakes on complex calculations.

  • Solve problems involving advanced concepts.

Even if you don’t know how to solve advanced algebra and trigonometry problems, your calculator might be able to. If you have a thorough understanding of your graphing calculator’s functionality, you can use it to solve the following types of advanced math questions:

  • complex numbers
  • permutations
  • matrices
  • logarithms
  • quadratic equations
  • unit circle
  • trigonometric functions

Graphing calculators are surprisingly useful for many types of questions, but it requires education and practice to fully utilize calculators’ many features. Learn how to use your calculator to solve these advanced question types, and practice using these calculator features so they do not slow you down on the test.

  • Check your work!

If you have time to spare, check your basic calculations to make sure you haven’t made any careless mistakes. The SAT’s calculator-allowed section provides almost 1½ minutes per question, which is usually enough time to solve each problem and check your work. If you did any mental math or arithmetic, use a calculator to check the accuracy of your work. You are less likely to have this spare time on the ACT, because that test provides less time per question.

Pitfalls of Calculators

  • Calculators can slow you down.

You might think of calculators as providing instant answers, but that’s not true. Consider the time it takes to enter terms, as well as navigate menus and generate graphs. Also, you may need to enter several calculations to solve one problem. In many cases, SAT and ACT math questions can be solved in a few seconds, without needing a calculator, if you understand the concepts involved and spot shortcuts.

  • Understanding and problem-solving are more important than calculating!

On the SAT and ACT, you need critical thinking skills and a deep knowledge of math concepts to solve most questions. Don’t rely on your calculator to guide you through the tests. Many math problems on both tests can only be solved with an understanding of math concepts and some clever thinking. You shouldn’t turn to your calculator first to solve every question. Know when to put your calculator away and rely on your problem-solving skills.

On the SAT, it is especially important to practice solving problems without your calculator. Remember, the SAT has one math section that does not allow calculators. To prepare for this section, make sure you know how to solve math problems on your own! Even when a calculator is allowed, it is usually not needed. The same applies to the ACT, which allows you to use a calculator throughout its math section. On both tests, a calculator is only needed or advisable on about 20-25% of questions (not including the many SAT questions that do not allow you to use a calculator).

  • Enter terms carefully and use parentheses!

Your calculator strictly follows order of operations. Check your work and keep PEMDAS in mind. Use parentheses to make sure that you are performing your intended calculations. Consider the following: to a calculator, -12 = -1, and (-1)2 = 1.

  • Get fresh batteries!

You don’t want your calculator to die halfway through the test! A few days before test day, put in some new batteries.

  • Make sure your calculator is permitted by the College Board.

Most graphing calculators are allowed for taking the SAT, but you should check the official list of acceptable calculators, just to be safe. See the College Board’s calculator policies here. The following are not allowed: tablets, mobile phones, or calculators that have wireless, Bluetooth, or any other smartphone-type feature.

Contact Us to Learn More

Knowing how and when to use your calculator will help you reach your highest potential SAT or ACT score, but calculator usage on these tests is surprisingly complicated. At Summit, our tutors are expert resource on all facets of the SAT and ACT. We coach students in the calculator skills, math concepts, and strategies needed for every math problem on the tests. We can help you get familiar with your calculator and understand how it fits into your set of test-taking tools.

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