# How to Choose the Right Calculator

*By Patrick Fitz*

For many students, the math section of any standardized test is stressful. A supporting concern, less technical than logistical, is simple: what calculator to use?

There are many on the market, and College Board and ACT Inc. (which administer the SAT and ACT exams, respectively) each have their own list of acceptable machines. Combined with the high price tag for a quality scientific graphic calculator and increasing functionality that may or may not be useful, the choice of calculator is a difficult one.

Before purchasing, it’s worth considering how the calculator will be used on the SAT or ACT exam and what programs are really necessary in order to empower student success in standardized testing.

**Usage on the exam**

Here the exams differ.

The ACT is more straightforward: one math section, sixty questions. Not every question requires a calculator, but students have access to the calculator for each of the sixty. Some questions, including those that feature trigonometric identities, will absolutely require the use of a calculator to determine the correct answer. Students should be prepared to use the calculator frequently to conduct both routine and highly-specialized calculations for various problems.

The short time window per question—exactly one minute on average—further necessitates that students be fully versed with their calculators. The test itself is no time to learn new programs or explore functionality, nor is it a chance to figure out which exact questions actually require the calculator—the right time for these things is long before exam day, when students have weeks and often months to sit ACT classes, take test prep courses, and learn about the format of the Math section on the ACT.

The SAT is more complicated. The first math section, the Math No Calculator section, is just that: completed without the use of a calculator. This doesn’t mean the section is free of calculation, merely that questions will require arithmetic that College Board has determined can be completed by hand in a reasonable amount of time.

On the Math Calculator section, the second of the two and the longer, the calculator is both available and necessary, though possibly less necessary than for the ACT Math section. As the SAT math sections are generally more conceptual and reliant upon logic, not every difficult question need be solved with a calculator.

Students are often bewildered when they encounter problems on this section that don’t actually need a calculator, either because they are free of calculation or because the calculation itself is simple. Here College Board is testing students: do they know when to refrain from usage? It’s a valuable skill that is indirectly measured here. The temptation, especially among students who know they are weaker, may be to use the calculator as much as possible, even for problems that don’t ostensibly need it—in this case it becomes a crutch, and the SAT is written in such a way that students who do this (however well-intentioned they may be) will be penalized.

**Which calculator is right for me?**

The best calculator is the one that aides a student most efficiently.

Many parents—and some students as well—may view the most expensive calculator as the top choice; it is, after all, the most valuable, at least in dollar terms. That said, many calculators on the market have functionality that far exceeds that which is necessary on the actual SAT or ACT exams.

If a student has an existing calculator, be it for a maths or science course in school, and it is accepted by College Board or ACT Inc. for the SAT or the ACT, respectively, and it covers all of the topics tested on either exam, then such a calculator is already sufficient. Purchasing a new calculator just for this one exam may not be necessary—and almost certainly isn’t if the student is already using a calculator for advanced math and sciences classes.

It does require some work, but cross-referencing approved calculators with their functionalities will allow students and parents to select just exactly a powerful-enough calculator that gets the job done while not being weighed down with excess computing power. If such a calculator is to be used in the future in school, then by all means purchase a higher model. But if the calculator is solely for the SAT or ACT exam, the “right” calculator is almost certainly not the most expensive—or the one with the longest list of features.

**Tips and strategies**

As stated above, not every question on either the SAT or the ACT exam requires the use of a calculator and, in some cases, the calculator may even slow a student down. Particularly on the SAT, many questions (even in the so-called “Math Calculator” section) can be quickly solved through Process of Elimination of answer choices, appropriate simplifying and reduction of equations, and a little bit of logic and strategic thinking.

Even on the ACT, which features more classically-oriented problems, including those requiring extensive calculations, can be made easy through the above strategy.

Furthermore, not every feature of a calculator will be useful. For example, College Board allows graphing calculators. Increasingly, the SAT features questions that center graphs and visualized data, but not every question with a graph or a graphable equations needs to be input into the calculator. Especially if the viewing window needs to be adjusted (to account for extreme values) or if the equation is complicated to input but actually, through shortcuts and identities, can be easily reduced, such time inputting the equation into the calculator and making the necessary viewing adjustments is a tremendous waste of time. Such a strategy should be a last resort.

Remember, the SAT and ACT exams are not testing you on how well you know the functionality of your calculator: each is testing students on their preparedness for college- and university-level math coursework. Likewise, questions requiring too much calculation are rare, because arithmetic is an important but not all-important skill on standardized tests.

Lastly, get to know your calculator before test day. Complete practice sections and exams with the same calculator that you’ll use on test day. Opening a brand-new calculator the day before or the day of the SAT or the ACT is a recipe for failure. The calculator is a tool, not a cure or a miracle-worker. As such, the most prepared students walk in on test day knowing just what they can expect to get from their calculator and what sort of questions await that may require its usage.

**Conclusion**

Depending on what students choose to study afterwards, the calculator purchased in secondary school for math courses and either the SAT or the ACT may be the only one students buy. While these machines are not prohibitively expensive, spending a little additional time beforehand doing research on the exam and the models on the market will save resources in the long run.

Selecting a calculator is not the most important part of test prep or studying for either the SAT or the ACT, but it is an often-overlooked component of preparing for the math sections. The right calculator not only makes solving SAT and ACT problems easier but also puts students in a positive and confident mindset, ready to conquer these exams in pursuit of college dreams.

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