Making the Right Calculator Choices on the SAT and ACT

Calculator buttons

At first blush, there are few things nerdier than a deep-dive into calculators but bear with me. Pocket protectors and taped spectacles aside, a calculator can actually have a profound impact, negative or positive, on how a student does on the SAT or ACT.

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Both the calculators test-takers choose to bring on test day as well as the ways they choose to use their calculators can have a huge impact on test scores. 

Choosing the Right Calculator

Neither the ACT nor the SAT provides test-takers with calculators to use during testing. This means that students will need to bring their own (this includes fresh batteries…and backups).

The ACT and SAT each have strict guidelines when it comes to the types and models of calculator that can be used on tests. All test-takers should read these guidelines carefully! Failing to comply with them will ultimately mean taking the test without a calculator. Before a student plunks down a bunch of cash for an expensive graphing calculator, remind them to double check that it will actually be allowed for use.

This is not to say that there aren’t a plethora of acceptable calculator options out there. Here are some essential questions to pose to test-takers as they consider which calculator option to choose:

  • Do you know how your calculator works? – This may seem basic, but with all the functionality (and buttons) baked into modern calculators, it is easy to get lost in a maze of menus and modes. Test day is not the time to figure these things out. Whatever calculators students choose, be sure they use their devices on all practice tests and studying efforts so that they become fully comfortable with their device. A simpler device that a student understands will always beat a complicated one that a student cannot operate reliably.
  • What calculator do most of your teachers use? – In high school, I opted for a TI-86 graphing calculator over the TI-83 model that all my teachers used in class. At the time, I figured the TI-86’s added functionality (and the ability to play Mario Bros.) was worth the extra ten bucks. In actuality, I missed out on a lot of helpful tutorials and practice that my teachers offered and, instead, was on my own to figure out how to do the trickier functions they demonstrated in class. Urge students to get the calculator that they will get the most help with in class, not the one with the most bells and whistles (…and games).
  • Will the calculator be acceptable for use on both the SAT and ACT? – You never know what the future may bring. Sure, your students may be taking the SAT this August, but maybe some of them will opt for the ACT in the spring. Save them from having to purchase (and learn) a new calculator for each test.



Using a Calculator Strategically

Both the SAT and ACT math sections can be completed entirely without the help of a calculator. In fact, the SAT has an entire math section where calculator use is prohibited (the ACT has no such section).

While this may be little comfort to those who struggle with mathematics, it is important to know that this design is no accident. Part of the strategy involved in conquering the SAT or ACT math sections is knowing when to reach for the calculator and when not to. In most cases, students should be able to disqualify incorrect answer choices and apply sound reasoning to simplify otherwise complex computational problems.

Don’t get me wrong, calculators are great, but using them for tasks beyond arithmetic could be a potentially risky pitfall. On a timed test, every second counts. Depending on a student’s skills and comfort level, fumbling to input a complex equation could take more time than grinding that same equation with a pencil and scratch paper.

During practice runs, have students pay attention to how long a problem takes by hand versus how long it takes with a calculator. Keep track of these results and use them to formulate a plan. Come test day, students should be able to see a math problem and know instantly whether to reach for your device or your pencil, saving precious time.

Last but not least, remember: calculators don’t make mistakes, but people do. Drill into students’ heads the timeless nag, “Go back and check your work!” Many times students will input a function into a calculator, take the readout at face value, and either forget to apply that information to answer the actual question. Test makers know this happens; it is a safe bet that the most common incomplete answers and most likely input errors will be available as answer choices. Checking work is essential, especially when a student is relying on technology to complete steps for them.

Calculators are amazing tools that, if used correctly, can help a student succeed on the SAT or ACT. But with great power comes great responsibility. Helping students use calculators effectively is an important component of effective test prep. 

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What tips and tricks do you have for students when it comes to calculators and the SAT and ACT? What calculators do you recommend? Share your advice with our readers in the comments below and on social media!

Matt McCorkle