SAT Calculator Smarts
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 computer.
  • 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 following problem:
If x = 3, then what is the value of ?
(A) –3
(B) –1.45
(C) 0
(D) .182
(E) .364
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 in for x, 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.
Help | Feedback | Make a request | Report an error