Yes, you can use your calculator on the SAT. Did you think that the College Board gods were so cruel? You can even use a graphing calculator, which you may be able to use for a graph question (although it’s really not necessary) or a question about a quadratic equation.
Calculators can only be used on the math sections, though. On every other section, they’ll have to be turned off and put under your desk, so you don’t try something shady like using a dictionary app on the verbal sections.
Good Calculators and Bad Calculators
Remember that you can’t use your phone as a calculator on the SAT. You can’t even take the phone into the building, in some cases. Most schools will allow you to keep your phone on you (there are simply too many students to check everybody) but if they see it at all, they will take it away from you, cancel your scores, and send your phone off to be inspected (that includes during breaks). It may feel weird to walk around without a phone, but you’ll have to leave it turned off in your bag or even at home on the Saturday of the test. That’s also true of any other electronic devices, including iPads, laptops, mp3 players, and cameras.
So if your calculator seems like it has a little bit of computer blood in its veins (if it has a touchscreen or internet access, for example), then it’s probably not acceptable for the SAT. Check the list of acceptable SAT calculators if you’re not sure.
Meanwhile, you shouldn’t bring a refrigerator magnet calculator, or any other four-function calculator. They’re allowed, of course, but they’re not practical for SAT math. If it can’t find the square root of 289, it’s no good.
Let’s make it nice and clear. Here’s what you need from your SAT calculator:
- The main four operations: addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division (Duh.)
- Exponents and roots (It helps if you can find 4√256, for example.)
- Ability to backspace (Some cheap calculators only have a “clear” button, which slows you down.)
Here’s what might be nice to have, but isn’t necessary:
- Solving an equation for a variable
- nCr and nPr operations for combinations and permutations. Most scientific and all graphic calculators have these somewhere, even if you haven’t noticed them.
Here’s what you can’t have:
- Touch screen
- QWERTY keyboard
- Anything that doesn’t look like a normal calculator, really
Going straight to your calculator after reading each question is a bad habit. Yes, on the SAT, calculators will cut down the time it takes to do some calculations. And yes, they can keep you from making some simple mistakes. But if you start punching numbers before you’ve seen the bigger picture, you’re most likely just going to waste time. The calculator doesn’t help you unless you already know why you’re using it. If you don’t understand how to get to the answer, then do a few things:
- Check if you can plug in numbers
- Check if you can eliminate answer choices
- Draw word problems
- Fill in measurements on geometry problems
Those strategies might give you a clearer picture. Your calculator, meanwhile, won’t. Altogether, you should only really have it in hand for about a fifth of the time or less. When I take SATs, I only use a calculator for one or two questions on the test. And even for those questions, the calculator is just for checking whether 61 is prime, for example (doing a bunch of quick, basic division) or for making sure I add right when I sum up 4 + 17 + 32 + 9, or anything similar. The SAT is not a calculator-based test. Calculators are only important for a pretty small handful of problems on the SAT.
Don’t upgrade to a nicer calculator
Basically, the calculator is so inessential for beating the SAT that the only reason you would buy one is if you don’t own a calculator at all. If you do have a calculator that is allowed for the test, then you’re going to use that one. It’s more important that you’re comfortable with the calculator you have than it is to have a fancy, powerful machine. That power won’t really help. The SAT is a test of your knowledge and puzzle-solving skills, not a test of your familiarity with advanced calculator techniques.