Test Prep

3 Ways to Master Your Calculator on the SAT

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You probably already know the SAT throws two Math sections your way: Calculator and No Calculator. However, each of these can be unnecessarily complicated just based on the expectations they’re setting up with those names. Just because you’re allowed to use your calculator doesn’t mean you’ll need it for every Calculator problem, nor does it mean that it’ll be the fastest route to an answer. On the flip side, it’s rare that you’ll find a problem on the No Calculator section that doesn’t require you to calculate at least something.

The most common danger of having a calculator for the SAT is the temptation to use it when it just won’t help. A calculator does only what you tell it to do — it doesn’t tell you how to solve a problem. It might, in fact, even cause you to miss a problem if relied on too heavily. But if you practice and use a little caution, you’ll find your device can help you a great deal.


To start, here’s a list of what a calculator is good at on the SAT:

- Arithmetic

- Decimals

- Fractions

- Square roots

- Percentages

- Graphs (if it’s a graphing calculator, of course)

If a problem doesn’t fall into any of these categories, don’t waste time trying to use your calculator to solve it! (Chances are good you won’t get the correct answer anyway.) For instance, a question asking for the mode of a group of numbers can be answered with many calculators, but you’re better off just looking for the value that has the most occurrences in your data. Below are a few more tips to help you master the use of your calculator come test day.

Use Your Paper First

Whether you’re on the No Calculator portion or not, you should always start a problem by setting it up on paper first. This will help you keep track of any numbers or separate operations you’ll need to complete. Essentially, this will be your road map to help you complete the problem without getting lost!

Students sometimes rely on the memory function of their calculator, but I warn you that this might not be the wisest choice. There’s no need to juggle numbers within the calculator itself when there’s empty space in your test booklet just for that purpose! Instead of storing the result of a calculation, write it on your test booklet, clear your calculator and move to the next step of the problem. A calculator’s memory is fleeting, but paper is forever. (Or at least until the end of the test!)

Be Cautious With Calculator Arithmetic

Adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing integers and decimals is easy on a calculator. But key those numbers carefully! A calculator provides the right answer for whatever you ask it, but the right answer to the wrong question is wrong. Make sure, then, that you press the right keys — even one misplaced number or operation can lead you astray!

Additionally, don’t just plug in numbers at random. Doing so won’t solve a problem for you! A tip I tell students is that if you don’t know how to solve something using pencil and paper, you surely won’t know how to solve it using a calculator either, so consider saving those questions for the end. Your calculator is only as smart as you are: It won’t take the place of a solid understanding of basic SAT math.

Familiarize Yourself Before the Big Day

There’s plenty you can do to prepare for the test ahead of time, and one thing that never fails to slip students’ minds is to double check their calculators before they show up to take the SAT. Your SAT prep will give you plenty of opportunities to take practice tests before test day, so you should be more than familiar with the functions of your chosen device by now. But if for some reason you aren’t, it’s a good idea to do some basic calculations on it in the days before the test. (For example, if typing in 3 + 4 x 6 does not yield a result of 27, you might want to find a different calculator to bring along.)

Another function to test is simplifying fractions or converting a decimal to a fraction. Most calculators have options for this, which can be extremely useful if you end up with a decimal answer but the choices the test gives are all fractions. It can also help you simplify messy fractions to save time along the way! (Of course, you might still be faced with the same task on the No Calculator section, but knowing how to use the calculator when you have the chance can save you some time — after all, the goal of the Calculator section is to assess your appropriate use of tools, and that’s never more true than in situations such as this.)

A few other things to note:

- A graphing calculator is not necessary for the SAT, though it may help simplify the odd graphing problem.

- Always check your batteries at least the night before the test, replacing them or charging your calculator if you think it’s running low.

- Some types of math will benefit from the use of your calculator and some are better solved by hand. Identify these in advance!

For more information on all of these tips and strategies, or for additional practice problems and tests to which you can show your calculator skills, check out our book Cracking the SAT.

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