When to use a calculator on the SAT Math section Welcome to my SAT prep blog! Be sure to join the free SAT email list for a free Urgent Report and other exclusive content and bonuses for subscribers.

If you want to improve your SAT math score, also make sure to order my perfect-scoring tutor’s textbooks: SAT Math Mastery Level 1 and SAT Math Mastery Level 2.

Using Calculators on the SAT:

When it comes to the SAT math section, a calculator (such as one of my personal favorites, the TI-83 Plus and the TI-84 Plus graphing calculators) can be a powerful tool, but if you’re overly dependent on it, it will only slow you down and needlessly increase your chances of making careless math errors.

So when do the rules (and a perfect-scoring pro tutor) say you should use your calculator on the SAT?  

Only use a calculator during the SAT Math sections:

First things first: you can only have your calculator out during the Math portion of the SAT. If you have it out during any other section, you will be in a varying amount of trouble depending on the strictness of the proctor. Make sure you know the SAT calculator rules before test day.

There is currently no restriction on the use of calculator programs during the calculator-allowed sections of the SAT unless they can be used to communicate wirelessly or otherwise; however, I have yet to see a program that can actually deal with SAT-style questions. Even if such a program were available, I probably would not recommend it – seems way too much like cheating to me, but most of all, it’s best to understand the material instead of relying on a crutch.

You mostly don’t need a calculator:

Also important: The SAT has been deliberately designed not to be “calculator math” for the vast majority of problems. If you have it in your head that the calculator is your secret weapon, because you’re really good with it in your math class, then clear that part of your head during the SAT.

Let me say that again – despite whatever you may have heard, the SAT is mostly not calculator math. That’s one reason why there are so many word problems, strange symbols, and trick questions in the SAT Math section. It rarely tests the everyday, “real-world” math that our powerful calculators were designed to deal with.

Furthermore, the SAT often leaves answer choices “in terms of” variables or pi, and likes to leave other such landmines in the answer choices themselves, so that even if you find a way to solve a problem with your calculator, you still have to do a ton of extra work just to match up the answer your calculator gave you with choice A, B, C, D, or E, all of which might look extra-confusing.  

Get Exclusive SAT Prep Tips!

I want to send you more tips to help your SAT score, but I need your email address to stay in touch. Enter your email below so I can send you my reports on the SAT and other subscriber-only bonuses.

Calculators can overcomplicate math questions:

Here’s another problem: simple calculations can become much more complex when entering them into a calculator. A calculator, even one as powerful and high-tech as the TI-84+, is smart but not wise; it’s like a genius math-baby. If you don’t tell it exactly what it needs to do for you, it can, and frequently will, misunderstand your request and give you something else. A classic careless error!

Take it from a pro SAT tutor with a perfect score and total confidence – a calculator is certainly no magic bullet for most SAT Math questions.  

What a calculator is good for:

Here are a few things a calculator is good for on the SAT Math section:

  • All quick one-step calculations that you don’t know off the top of your head (4 times 9, 13 squared, 19 minus 28, etc)
  • Quickly calculating all five answer choices if you are plugging numbers in for variables
  • Quadratic equation program – get one! Save yourself the trouble of factoring your polynomials.
  • Many other specific cases that we will explore as I expand the Math section of this site

Calculator practice makes perfect:

Where most students go wrong with their calculator on the SAT is by being overdependent or by being reluctant to use a calculator often enough. It is indeed a powerful time-saving device and should be used often, but it takes practice and experience to learn when it will help and when it won’t.

Go practice a timed Math section from your Official SAT Study Guide (pre-March 2016 edition or March 2016 and after edition) and try it out!

Further Reading:
SAT Calculator Rules
Top 20 Careless Errors in the SAT Math Section

Additional Resources:
SAT Math Mastery Level 1: Perfect-Score Fundamentals
SAT Math Mastery Level 2: Tougher Tricks and Skills
Best SAT Graphing Calculators: TI-83 Plus and TI-84 Plus
Power 800 SAT Math Video Course

Did you discover any interesting or useful tips in this article? If so, be sure to sign up for the free SAT email list before you leave today! Subscribers are instantly sent my Urgent Report on SAT Critical Reading and other exclusive content and SAT-related bonuses.