SAT Calculator Smarts
By all means, use a calculator on the test. Bring the
biggest, baddest calculator you’ve got, as long as it fits these
specifications from the SAT:
- It isn’t a hand-held minicomputer or laptop
- It has no electronic writing pad or pen-input device.
- It isn’t a pocket organizer (PDA).
- It doesn’t have a QWERTY keyboard.
- It doesn’t use paper tape.
- It doesn’t make unusual noises (translation: any noises).
- It doesn’t reqire an electrical outlet.
Any four-function, scientific, or graphing calculator
is accepted as long as it doesn’t break any of the above rules.
But just because you’ve got an awesome shiny hammer doesn’t
mean you should try to use it to pound in thumbtacks. Your calculator
will help you on the SAT, but only if you use it intelligently.
Every question on the SAT can be solved without using
a calculator, so you never need to start pushing
buttons. In fact, on algebra questions involving variables, calculators
are absolutely useless. So instead of reaching instinctively for
your calculator every time, you should come up with a problem-solving
plan for each question. Make sure you understand what the question
requires and then decide whether to stick to your no. 2 pencil or
to wield your formidable digital axe.
To see an example of what we mean, take a look at the
||If x =
3, then what is the value of ?
A trigger-happy calculator-user might immediately plug 3 in
for x and start furiously working
the keys. But the student who takes a moment to think about the
problem will probably see that the calculation would be much simpler
if the function were first simplified. To start, factor the 11 out
of the denominator:
Then, factor the numerator to its simplest form:
Cancel out, and you get
Now it’s obvious that if you plug the 3
, you get
, which equals .364
Practical Calculator Rules
There are a few general rules of calculator use on the
SAT that it pays to follow:
- Use a calculator for brute-force tasks,
such as dealing with decimals.
- If you have to deal with a long string of numbers, do
not jump to use your calculator. Instead, look for a way to cancel
out some of the terms and simplify. A way will usually exist.
- Avoid using your calculator on fraction problems and on
algebra questions with variables.
- Know your calculator before the test. Be comfortable and
familiar with it so you don’t waste time fiddling with buttons during
the test. This is particularly true of graphing calculators, which
have more buttons than 50 Cent has tattoos.
- Make sure your batteries are in good shape. Yes, we sound
like your parents. But if your batteries run out during the test,
you’ll probably have to retake the test and tell your sad story
to your entire extended family. That would be ugly.
Above all else, remember: Your calculator is a tool. You
wouldn’t wildly swing a hammer around, but some students seem to
think they can just whip out their calculator and it will magically
solve their problems. Those students seldom do all that well on
the SAT Math section.