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Can You Use a Calculator on the GRE?

So, let’s get to the point. Can you use a calculator on the GRE? This is a very popular question, and the answer often elicits an audible sigh of relief. So, I’ll just get it out of the way: yes, you can use a calculator. The GRE calculator.

Can you use a calculator on the GRE?

gre calculator, can you use a calculator on the gre

gre calculator, can you use a calculator on the gre

But before you think you don’t need to brush up on your mental math, keep the following in mind: using a calculator whenever you can is not always the best idea.

The GRE Calculator

First off, many problems do not require a calculator. In fact, using a calculator may very well slow you down, because you can either do the arithmetic faster in your head or on a piece of paper. The GRE calculator is on-screen, which makes it awkward to use. And it doesn’t have very many functions.

Then, there is always the case of what to calculate. While a calculator won’t make a careless error (unless you enter in the wrong number), neither will it summon the approach to a very difficult problem. Basically, the GRE math is still testing your ability to logically deconstruct a problem. In many cases, the challenge is not the math, but the approach to a problem.

When is it Advantageous to Use a Calculator?

There are times when the sum is simply too difficult to multiply on paper, and the question is not asking for an approximation. Problems such as compound interest come to mind. Perhaps you have to find the hypotenuse of a right triangle with sides of 51 and 31. Figuring out the square root of a large number could be very difficult without a calculator.

Of course, if the problem asks what is the units digit of 3^1000, then you then have to come up with a clever way to approach the problem—a calculator does not hold that many digits.

Then there are those many questions that can be solved with relatively simple math. Should you go scrambling for your on-screen calculator? Or should you do the numbers in your head? For example, what if the answer requires you to multiply 150 x 8? If you’ve struggled with mental math in the past, the answer is easy: you use the calculator. But by using the awkward interface, you might make a mistake. And when the math doesn’t get you the answer but just a little bit closer to the answer, taking yourself out of the problem, by fumbling about with the calculator, might not be the best idea.

Wait, you argue. Trying to do 150 x 8 in my head is taking me out of the problem. That might be true. But that’s because you haven’t given yourself time to “exercise” your mental calculator, especially if you are always reaching for a calculator—GRE or otherwise. Learning mental math tricks and practicing mental math, the way many practice vocabulary on the GRE, will pay huge dividends come test day. For this question, you are multiplying by 15 (forget the zero at the end of 150 for a second). 10 x 8 = 80. 5 is half of 10, so that gives you 40. 40 + 80 = 120. Add that zero (in your head of course) and you get 1200. Though it took me a few sentences to write those steps out, in your head those steps should take a mere few seconds.

The key is knowing what you can handle and what you can’t handle mathematically. Perhaps, if a problem depends on multiplying 37 x 14 you might be better off scrambling for the calculator. Though, interestingly, the math on the GRE is usually more of the 37 x 4 variety, something that is manageable.

GRE Calculator Practice

See how well you can identify those questions that you can do via mental math vs. those that require a calculator.

1. 13 x 9
2. (21+ 24+27)/3
3. 40% of 20% of 25?
4. (10 x 9 x 8)/(3 x 2 x 1)
5. (1.05)^8

Calculator Practice Answers

1. In your head

I know, I know. Nobody likes dealing with the number 13 (unless you’re a calculator or triskaidekaphilic). But before you scramble for the GRE on-screen calculator, think of 13 as 10 and 3. 10 x 9 = 90 and 3 x 9 = 27. Add those together (in your head) and you get 117.

2. In your head

This might look like a perfect question for a calculator, though it is anything but. Think of all the time you are going to spend punching in those twenty-somethings. Remember: The GRE math is all about pattern recognition. Notice how the three numbers on top are all divisible by 3. So we can divide each of the twenty-somethings by 3 giving us: 7 + 8 + 9, which equals 24. A quick way to this last part is noticing that 7 is one less than 8 and 9 is one more than 8. So you basically have 8 x 3.

3. In your head

What?! Is it possible? Well, when you see scary percents change them into fractions: 20% is 1/5 and 40% is 2/5 (you should know common fraction to percent and vice versa conversions). Multiplying those two fractions is easy: 1/5 x 2/5 = 2/25. When we see the word ‘of’, it means multiply: (2/25)25 is easy because we can cancel the ‘25s’, leaving us with 2.

4. It depends

If you notice that 1 x 2 x 3 = 6 and that you can divide the 9 in the numerator by this 6, you are left with 10 x 1.5 x 8. Remember, from an earlier example, that 15 x 8 = 120. Therefore, 1.5 x 8 = 12 (the decimals shaves off that zero). 12 x 10 is 120.
If you don’t see that right away, then it totally fine to use a calculator. The more you practice doing mental math on actual practice problems, the more likely you’ll pick up on these patterns. It takes time, but I’ve seen many students learn to do it with practice.

5. Calculator

Besides a few quant wizards at Cal Tech, there are very few people who can do this in their heads. The reason is you have to multiply a number by itself 8 times. Even if that number was ‘2’ that would be relatively challenging. But we’re dealing with the relatively unwieldy decimal or 1.05. So reach for the calculator!

Hint

For shortcuts and tips on how to use the new GRE calculator to your best advantage, read our post on Calculator Strategies for the Revised GRE.

Getting a Feel for the Calculator

The best way to determine whether you will benefit from a calculator is to take a practice test using Magoosh GRE or the new GRE CD (for those with Macs please read here). By doing so, you should get a feel for the number and types of questions in which the calculator will help you save time, and those in which using it will only eat up time.

This frequently asked question and all others are answered in our new GRE Guide!

 

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in May of 2011 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.

 

By the way, students who use Magoosh GRE improve their scores by an average of 8 points on the new scale (150 points on the old scale.) Click here to learn more.

19 Responses to Can You Use a Calculator on the GRE?

  1. Akshay Bhalekar July 9, 2016 at 10:09 am #

    I have just passed out n preparing for gre but I have a question can I get admission I have many back n higher second class in ma academic n if I score nice in gre than is there any chance of getting admission in nice university….????

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert July 17, 2016 at 8:45 am #

      Hi Akshay,

      Happy day! 🙂

      We are test prep experts but not admissions experts. You really need to sit down with an admissions counselor or other academic advisor to talk about your options. There are so many universities, programs, and combinations of applicant profiles that we cannot give you satisfying advice in that regard. I know that might be disappointing, but definitely find someone you can meet in person! There is always a way in if you want to work hard and find the right program. 🙂

  2. Caroelisa June 21, 2016 at 8:01 am #

    What type of calculator can be used? Is it a basic one or a scientific one?

  3. Jenna June 7, 2016 at 11:53 am #

    Are points deducted for using the calculator?

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert June 11, 2016 at 6:26 pm #

      Hi Jenna!

      Great question 🙂 There is no penalty for using the calculator–there is no score deduction, it doesn’t affect your question difficulty, and you are free to access it as much as you like 🙂

      Hope that helps!

  4. Anonymous December 14, 2015 at 8:36 am #

    Hello, I am just a passerby and would like to publicly (yet anonymously) express my relief.

  5. Mariia November 15, 2015 at 12:29 am #

    Hi, I will have a computer-based GRE revised General Test. On test day, can I use a real pice of paper and a pen during Math section? I’ve always wondered this. As for me it’s the easiest way to understand the question through a scetch making.
    Thank you!

    • Dani Lichliter
      Dani Lichliter November 16, 2015 at 10:56 am #

      Hi Mariia,
      You will be able to use scratch paper during the computer-based GRE. You will turn this in at the end of your exam.
      Best of luck!
      Dani

  6. Nick May 13, 2015 at 8:43 pm #

    On test day, will the NUM keypad on the keyboard interface directly with the calculator? I’ve always wondered this. Or will I have to manually click numbers on the calculator with my mouse?

    Thanks!

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele May 14, 2015 at 4:53 pm #

      That is another good question! In this case, I can’t give you a definite answer since I’ve always manually clicked things in. One thing you can do: take a test using the GRE Power Prep software. Whatever works there, from a technical standpoint, should correspond to what works on the actual test.

      Hope that helps (somewhat)!

  7. MT May 13, 2015 at 4:51 pm #

    Silly question, but I just want to make sure. Do we take the test on our own computers, or do the test centers provide the computers?

    • Rita Neumann
      Rita Kreig May 14, 2015 at 2:42 pm #

      Hi MT!

      Not a silly question at all. 🙂 The test center will provide you with a computer. It’s part of their system to prevent students from cheating.

      Best of luck!
      Rita

  8. chaitanya January 5, 2014 at 8:09 pm #

    can we use the windows calculator which is present in the computer itself.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele January 6, 2014 at 1:05 pm #

      I guess so :). It won’t be the exact same as the GRE calculator. And yes, I’m assuming that you mean while you are at home practicing for the test (you can’t use a Windows calculator on the actual GRE). Just make sure the functions are almost the same. For the most part, you won’t be doing any complex calculations on the GRE, so it shouldn’t make a difference.

      Good luck!

  9. Deborah May 26, 2013 at 7:56 pm #

    Can I use my own calculator or do I need to use the one that appears at the top of the question screen?

    • Rachel Wisuri
      Rachel May 28, 2013 at 11:25 am #

      Hi Deborah,

      You will not be allowed to use your own calculator on the exam, so I’d recommend practicing with the on-screen calculator 🙂

      Best,
      Rachel

      • Rodrigo November 15, 2016 at 3:02 pm #

        I have taken the GRE yesterday and unfortunately I had an extremely frustrating experience at the test center.
        I wasn’t able to use the on-screen GRE calculator because it failed to reproduce decimal numbers. As a result my performance in the quantitative sections was negatively affected. I have taken note that more than 50% of the exercises of section 3 and around 30% of section 5 demanded to make calculations with fractions and decimals. Accordingly, the moderators gently asked me to move to another computer, but the problem persisted. By then, I was told by the moderators that there were other test takers that experienced the same problem and there wasn’t much they could do in this regard, at most to send a report describing this situation, which they were going to do at the end of the day.

        I have to say that it is frustrating not only for the time I dedicated for the preparation of this test nor for the cost of the exam nor for the waste of time sitting in the test center for 5 hours when knowing the result coming out of it was already worthless, but because of the deadlines I need to meet with the universities.
        I have sent this same complaint to ETS, and I just received an email saying that will take 7 work days to answer me, which I consider abusive, considering that I paid for something I didn’t receive. I am really worried about my deadlines, do you know where else I can make a formal complaint?

        • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
          Magoosh Test Prep Expert November 16, 2016 at 3:03 pm #

          Hi Rodrigo,

          I’m very sorry to hear about your situation. Unfortunately, the best way to complain or discuss solutions will be directly with ETS. I would also recommend seeing if you can call them directly. Please check out ETS’s contact information here.


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