How to Use Your Calculator to Boost Your SAT Score

SAT Tip of the Week - FullA calculator is one of the most underutilized tools on the SAT. It’s the one device that the College Board permits, which actually makes problems easier. Yet, I see students consistently fail to take advantage of the technological marvel that is the calculator. It’s true that you can solve every problem without a calculator. However, it becomes more difficult and more time consuming – two things we try to mitigate on the SAT.

Whether it is a TI 84 or a TI 89, mastering your calculator can have incredible effects for your performance on the SAT. Shaving off time is one of the best ways to rock the math section. If you are able to work with large and difficult numbers, you will have a greater chance of solving these problems using your calculator. With that in mind, here are three different ways to best use your calculator in the test.

Plug in numbers for variables:

Math problems are tedious and take precious time as the clock ticks on. A remedy for this is to immediately plug the equations into your calculator and solve variables (letters: x, y, z) by using real values. Be sure to avoid zero and one. Imagine how much easier it is when you are confronted with three digit constants to accompany your variables. Remember, don’t just plug in with variables. Plug in and go straight to the calculator.

Anything with Pi:

Pi messes with our minds and leads to easy mistakes when done by hand. The beauty of the calculator is that it has a Pi button built in. This allows you to avoid simple mistakes made when working with problems related to circles. Pi will generally be relevant for any problem associated with circles; often the problem will ask you solve for the diameter, radius, segments, or arcs. Generally the answer choices will include Pi in them (for example A. 10(Pi) B. 15(Pi) C. 20(Pi) and so on). A key here is to simply divide by Pi at the end of your work on the calculator. If the work is correct, the number will correspond with the correct answer. Remember that it will have a Pi accompanying it, and you will be good to go!

Proportions and Ratios:

Proportions and ratios on the SAT are usually quite easy to work with. Once you set them up, you can isolate for the missing variable and solve. This is all done by hand. Since this is set up on the paper, we are lulled into a false sense of confidence about quickly calculating the variables’ value. Anytime this is done mentally or by multiplying on paper, it wastes unnecessary time. Getting in the habit of immediately plugging in to solve for proportions on the calculator can save you a minute or even two. While this may not seem like a lot, it translates to anywhere from four to ten percent extra time for your to work on other problems.

Remember, you don’t get extra points for solving in your head. The calculator is powerful tool you can use to attack the math section. Whenever you can, find shortcuts to success on the SAT. These strategies could be what separates a good score from a great score.

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Jake Davidson is a Mork Family Scholar at USC and enjoys writing for the school paper as well as participating in various clubs. He has been tutoring privately since the age of 15 and is incredibly excited to help students succeed on the SAT. 

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