SAT Prep Tip: Calculators

TI-84 Graphing Calc ($100 - $125)

As many of you might know, the SAT allows the use of calculators. However, you may wonder which calculator you should use for the SAT. This post will help you decide which calculator to get and how to use it most effectively on the SAT!

While the calculator is a helpful tool for the SAT, it is by no means necessary. In fact, here is what the College Board says about calculators:

Every mathematics question on the SAT can be solved without a calculator. However, using a calculator may be helpful for some questions.

Let’s check out what that means and what calculator we may want to bring to the test.

3 Great SAT Calculators ($15 - $50)

Which calculator should I buy?

The optimal calculator for the SAT is not the fancy $100+ TI-84 with 900 features and a 200 page user guide, but instead a simple scientific calculator (click on the image to see 3 of our favorite models). While many of you may already have used the TI-83 through TI-93 in school, they are hardly necessary on the SAT, and far from the best choice on the test, unless you are very comfortable with them. The best calculators for the SAT will be those that do 3 functions: fractions without conversion to decimals first, exponents greater than 2, and roots greater than 2. If your calculator has these functions, it has all the processing power you need to for the SAT.

What functions do you need to master?

Even more important than which calculator you get is learning how to use it. Each calculator has its own particular key stroke order and preferences, and unless you are familiar with both of these quirks, you can easily make a mistake. Check out the example below:

Which of the following could be a if a2 = a + 6 ?

(A) 3

(B) 0

(C) 1

(D) 3

(E) 9

Key Functions

How might my calculator betray me?

This question should be pretty straightforward, and for many students it’s a great opportunity to use Plugging In to avoid algebra. However, in order to test out the numbers in the choices you have to be able to make your calculator accurately give you a value for a2, which may not be as easy as it sounds. Many calculators (most notably the TI84+ models) will give you -9 as an answer if you punch in – 3 ^2. However, we should know that the real answer is 9. The key with the TI-84 through TI-93 is to use parenthesis all the time for everything. For this problem you’d want to punch in (-3)^2 in order to get the right answer.

What calculators shouldn’t I bring?

So while most calculators will work great for the SAT there are a few that might be more harmful than helpful. These are the ones to avoid:

  1. Mom’s grocery calculator
  2. Any calculator attached to a ruler
  3. Any calculator given out for free at a college fair

A few types of calculators are actually interdicted by College Board:

  • Calculators with QWERTY (typewriter-like) keypads
  • Calculators that contain electronic dictionaries
  • Calculators with paper tape or printers
  • Calculators that “talk” or make noise
  • Calculators that require an electrical outlet
  • Cell-phone calculators
  • Pocket organizers or personal digital assistants
  • Handheld minicomputers, PowerBooks, or laptop computers
  • Electronic writing pads or pen-input and stylus-driven devices (the Sharp 9600-EL can be used without the stylus)

The key for your calculator is to make sure you know it intimately before the day of the test; in this way, you’ll ensure that you know exactly how it functions and how to use it effectively.

If you have any other great calculator tips, let us know!

  • Claire Griffith

    Great information! Shared at

  • BellCurves

    Thanks Claire!

  • Chris Borland

    Actually, the Ti-83/84 family of calculators is MUCH better than a simple scientific calculator for most students taking the SAT. Here’s why:

    The Table and Graph functions (together with the STO, intersect, and Y-Vars [for composite function problems) enable one to do “plugging in” on steroids, avoid input errors in complex calculations (precluding the need for the use of “safety parentheses”), and solve equations. This makes working with functions questions (which tend to be difficult questions) on the SAT much, much easier for average students who are (unfortunately) often stumped as to what to do mathematically. The ASK/AUTO table feature is especially useful whenever multiple “plugging in” is called for (trying their answers, guess and check approaches, etc.).

    So, only a handful of simple calculator functions need to be well known for the average student to get another 2-3 right answers (to the functions questions) on the typical SAT. It takes a very small time to master this small set of graphing calculator skills, and a bit of practice to become clear as to where/when to use them. For a very small investment of time, the average student’s math score improves 20-30 points. Not bad for an hour or so with a competent SAT math tutor!

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