An exponent is a shorthand way of saying, “Multiply
this number by itself this number of times.” In ab, a is
multiplied by itself b times. Here’s a numerical example:
25 = 2 × 2 × 2 × 2 × 2. An exponent can also be referred
to as a power: 25 is “two
to the fifth power.” Before jumping into the exponent nitty-gritty,
learn these five terms:
- Base. The base refers to the
3 in 35. In other words, the base is
the number multiplied by itself however many times specified by
- Exponent. The exponent is the 5 in 35.
The exponent tells how many times the base is to be multiplied by
- Squared. Saying that a number is squared is
a common code word to indicate that it has an exponent of 2. In
the expression 62, 6 has been squared.
- Cubed. Saying that a number is cubed means
it has an exponent of 3. In the expression 43,
4 has been cubed.
- Power. The term power is
another way to talk about a number being raised to an exponent.
A number raised to the third power has an exponent of 3.
So 6 raised to the fourth power is 64.
One last word of exponent advice before we get started.
We’ll explain how to deal with exponents without using your calculator,
but most good graphing calculators have a variety of exponent functions.
Knowing how to use them could save you time, especially when exponent
values get larger and involve fractions or negative numbers.
It can be very helpful and a real time-saver on the SAT
if you can easily translate back and forth between a number and
its exponential form. For instance, if you can easily see that 36
= 62, it can really come in handy
if you’re dealing with binomials, quadratic equations, or any number
of other areas in algebra.
Here are some lists of common exponents. We’ll start with
the squares of the first ten integers:
Here are the first five cubes:
Finally, the first few powers of two are useful to know
for various applications:
Adding and Subtracting Powers
Actually, you can’t add or subtract numbers with
exponents. Instead, work out each exponent to find its value, then
add the two numbers. To add 33 + 42,
work out the exponents to get (3 × 3 × 3) + (4 × 4), and then, finally, 27 + 16 =
But if you’re dealing with algebraic expressions that
have the same bases and exponents, such as 3x4 and
then you can add or subtract them. For example, 3x4 +
5x4 = 8x4.
Algebraic expressions that have different bases or exponents cannot
be added or subtracted.
Multiply and Dividing Powers
Multiplying or dividing exponential numbers or terms that
have the same base is so quick and easy it’s like a little math
oasis. When multiplying, just add the exponents together.
This is known as the Product Rule:
To divide two same-base exponential numbers or terms, subtract the
exponents. This is known as the Quotient Rule:
Quick and easy. Right?
You want the bad news or the bad news? The same isn’t
true if you need to multiply or divide two exponential numbers that don’t have
the same base, such as, say, 33 × 42. When two exponents have different
bases, you just have to do your work the old-fashioned way: Multiply
the numbers out and multiply or divide the result accordingly: 33 ×
42 = 27 + 16 = 43.
Raising a Power to a Power
To raise one exponent to another exponent, multiply the
exponents. This is known as the Power Rule:
Again, easy. Just remember that you multiply exponents
when raising one exponent to another, and you add exponents
when multiplying two identical bases with exponents. The SAT expects
lots of students to mix these operations up.
Fractions Raised to a Power
To raise a fraction to an exponent, raise both the numerator
and denominator to that exponent:
Negative Numbers Raised to a Power
Here’s a fact you should already know: When you multiply
a negative number by another negative number, you get a positive
number, and when you multiply a negative number by a positive number,
you get a negative number. Since exponents result in multiplication,
a negative number raised to an exponent follows these rules:
- A negative number raised to an even
exponent will be positive. For example (–2)4 = 16.
Why? Because (–2)4 means –2 × –2 × –2 × –2. When you multiply the first
two –2s together, you get positive 4 because
you’re multiplying two negative numbers. When you multiply the +4 by
the next –2, you get –8, since you’re
multiplying a positive number by a negative number. Finally, you multiply
the –8 by the last –2 and get +16,
since you’re once again multiplying two negative numbers. The negatives
cancel themselves out and vanish.
- A negative number raised to an odd exponent will
be negative. To see why, just look at the example above,
but stop the process at –23, which equals –8.
You need to know a few special types of exponents for
Any base raised to the power of zero is equal to 1. If
you see any exponent of the form x0,
you should know that its value is 1. Strange, but true.
Any base raised to the power of one is equal to itself: 21 =
2, –671 = –67 and x1 = x. This
fact is important to know when you have to multiply or divide exponential terms
with the same base:
Any number or term raised to a negative power
is equal to the reciprocal of that base raised to the opposite power.
Uh. Got that? Didn’t think so. An example will make it clearer:
Here’s a more complicated example:
Here’s a translation: If you see a base raised to a negative
exponent, put the base as the denominator under a numerator of 1
and then drop the negative from the exponent. From there, just simplify.
Exponents can be fractions too. When a number or term
is raised to a fractional power, it is called taking the root of
that number or term. This expression can be converted into a more
symbol is also
known as the radical, and anything under the radical is called the radicand.
We’ve got a whole section devoted to roots and radicals coming right