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Lucas Fink

SAT Calculators

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:

  • Graphing
  • 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:

  • Internet
  • Touch screen
  • QWERTY keyboard
  • Anything that doesn’t look like a normal calculator, really

Non-calculator tricks

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:

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.


About Lucas Fink

Lucas is the teacher behind Magoosh TOEFL. He’s been teaching TOEFL preparation and more general English since 2009, and the SAT since 2008. Between his time at Bard College and teaching abroad, he has studied Japanese, Czech, and Korean. None of them come in handy, nowadays.

2 Responses to “SAT Calculators”

  1. Gail says:

    As an experienced tutor, I have to disagree with this page.
    Calculators with alphabetic keyboards ARE allowed on the SAT. Calculators with
    QWERTY keyboards are NOT allowed.
    A prime example of an allowed calculator with an alphabetic keyboard is the TI-Nspire CX CAS. The algebraic functions of the calculator, together with the alphabetic keyboard, can be very helpful to students who are not that strong in algebra, but who know how to use their CAS calculators.
    The idea that a calculator does not make a difference on the SAT is out-of-date. I wonder whether the author of this blog, like the writers of the SAT, has a clear idea of how many questions can be answered more easily with a CAS calculator.

    • Lucas Fink Lucas says:

      Hi Gail,

      Thank you for pointing that out! That was our mistake—alphabetic keyboards are allowed, as with the TI calculator you mentioned, but QWERTY keyboards aren’t allowed. I’ll fix that mistake now. I also appreciate your feedback about how useful calculators can be. I do understand that a calculator can be used for a number of questions on the test, but in most cases you cannot rely on the calculator alone (even if it is a very nice calculator), and the tasks that the calculator can help with are fairly straight-forward. The more challenging questions on the SAT are difficult in ways that calculators rarely help with, in my experience, because they focus more on seeing patterns or understanding how to manipulate information, rather than on simply solving for a variable. I can tell you that I took an SAT just a few months ago, and I only used my calculator two or three times during the test, and it was only to double check my math. There were a few other questions that I could have used it, but it would only have slowed me down. You’d be absolutely right to point out that I’m a teacher with years of experience with SAT math, so that’s not a typical case (I absolutely recommend that students have a calculator and know how to use it to it’s max potential), but that’s where some of what I say in this post comes from. 🙂 Thanks again!

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