How to use the calculator on the new SAT math?

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As you already know, College Board has divided the Math Test into a shorter section in which calculator use is not permitted and a longer section in which it is permitted. This affects the way you do the questions in each of these sections. The No Calculator section will lean more toward "fluency" and "understanding" of mathematical concepts, but that doesn't mean you won't have to calculate anything. On the Calculator section, using the calculator is not always helpful. In this book, if you see a calculator symbol next to a question, it means you may use your calculator as needed to arrive at the answer. If there is no calculator symbol by a question, leave that calculator alone!

Many students already own a graphing calculator. If you have one, great; if you don't, don't sweat it. Graphing calculators are not necessary on the SAT. However, if you have one, it may simplify certain graphing problems on the SAT.

If you do decide to use a graphing calculator, keep in mind that it cannot have a QWERTY-style keyboard on it (like the TI-95). Most of the graphing calculators have typing capabilities, but because they don't have typewriter-style keyboards, they are perfectly legal.

Also, you cannot use the calculator on your phone. In fact, on test day, you will have to turn your phone off and put it underneath your seat.

The only danger in using a calculator on the SAT is that you may be tempted to use it in situations in which it won't help you. The average student thinks using his or her calculator will solve many difficulties he or she has with math. It won't. This type of thinking may even occasionally cause students to miss a problem they might have otherwise answered correctly on their own. Remember: Your calculator is only as smart as you are. But if you practice and use a little caution, you will find that your calculator will help you a great deal.

What a Calculator Is Good at Doing

Here is a complete list of what a calculator is good at on the SAT.

- arithmetic

- decimals

- fractions

- square roots

- percentages

- graphs (if it is a graphing calculator)

Calculator Arithmetic

Adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing integers and decimals is easy on a calculator. But, you need to be careful when you key in the numbers. A calculator will only give you an incorrect answer to an arithmetic calculation if you press the wrong keys.

The main thing to remember about a calculator is that it can't help you find the answer to a question you don't understand. If you wouldn't know how to solve a particular problem using pencil and paper, you won't know how to solve it using a calculator either. Your calculator will help you, but it won't take the place of a solid understanding of basic SAT mathematics.

Use Your Paper First

Whether or not calculator use is permitted, the first step should be to set up the problem or equation on paper; this will keep you from getting lost or confused. This is especially important when solving the problem involves a number of separate steps. The basic idea is to use the extra space in your test booklet to make a plan, and then use your calculator to execute it.

Working on scratch paper first will also give you a record of what you have done if you change your mind, run into trouble, or lose your place. If you suddenly find that you need to try a different approach to a problem, you may not have to go all the way back to the beginning. This will also make it easier for you to check your work, if you have time to do so.

Don't use the memory function on your calculator (if it has one). Because you can use your test booklet as scratch paper, you don't need to juggle numbers within the calculator itself. Instead of storing the result of a calculation in the calculator, write it on your scratch paper, clear your calculator, and move to the next step of the problem. A calculator's memory is fleeting; scratch paper is forever.

Order of Operations

In the next part, we will discuss the proper order of operations when solving equations that require several operations to be performed. Be sure you understand this information, because it applies to calculators as much as it does to pencil-and-paper computations. You may remember PEMDAS from school. PEMDAS is the order of operations. You'll learn more about it and see how questions on the SAT require you to know the order of operations. You must always perform calculations in the proper order.


Most scientific calculators have buttons that will automatically simplify fractions or convert fractions from decimals. (For instance, on the TI-81, TI-83, and TI-84, hitting "Math" and then selecting the first option, "Answer → Fraction," will give you the last answer calculated as a fraction in the lowest terms.) Find out if your calculator has this function! If it does, you can use it to simplify messy fractions on the Calculator section. This function is also very useful when you get an answer as a decimal, but the answer choices given are all fractions. For the No Calculator section, you will have to be able to do these things by hand, so practice these skills. (For Grid-In questions, it is not necessary to reduce a fraction to its simplest form if it fits in the grid, and the decimal equivalent will also be accepted as a correct answer.)


Change the batteries on your calculator a week before the SAT so that you know your calculator won't run out of power halfway through the test. You can also bring extra batteries with you, just in case. Although it isn't very likely that the batteries will run out on your calculator on the day of the test, it could happen—so you want to be prepared.

Remember that the test writers are trying to test your ability to use your calculator wisely. They know you have one. They also know that they have created many questions in which the calculator is worthless (there are questions that are so wordy and deceptive that reading carefully is a much more important skill than properly using a calculator). So be sure to Read the Full Question—they will have some serious surprises in there. Finally, use your calculator wisely, and remember that on one section, you won't be able to use it at all. Practice your math skills, so you can solve questions with or without your calculator.

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