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The Benefits of Passing Up On Your Calculator On the SAT

You're allowed a calculator on at least part of the SAT. While this may seem like an asset, a calculator may end up wasting time and causing mistakes. If you find yourself using it frequently, it's a good sign that you're using your time ineffectively.

Here's the raw truth: there are very few SAT questions where a calculator is truly necessary. When the numbers are unyielding, it can certainly help. But questions like that are rarer than you might think.

Here are a few ways dropping your calculator can upgrade your results.

Three ways to drop that calculator and turn on your brain

Learn to approximate

With its ugly list of six-digit numbers, one look at a bar graph, and many of us will start punching numbers or walls. Before we know it, five minutes have passed, and we're still juggling an endless stream of digits because we're trying to find the exact answer.

However, the College Board doesn't care about the exact answer. They just care that you understand the process, and the specific numbers have nothing to do with that. So approximate! If there's a 31,246 in there, round it to 30,000. If you need to divide that by 5124, round it to 5000, chop three zeros off both numbers, get six as your answer and call it a day.

It's easy to slip into default mode, going into lengthy calculations and forgetting the short-term purpose. Your purpose is NOT to find an exact answer. It's to get close enough so that you understand which it is, check it off, and move on.

Build a stronger connection with the formulas

Consistently using a calculator creates a block to familiarity with the formulas. When you calculate things by default, you don't look for patterns or repetitions. Here's an important point: SAT questions tend to repeat themselves. And the people who write them have favorites.

Take, for example, the most common Pythagorean triples on the SAT. Aside from the classic 3,4,5, the two most frequent are 7, 24, 25, and 5,12,13. If you're working on a right triangle with sides of 5 and 12, and you find yourself reaching for the calculator to calculate the third side, then one of two things must be true:

  • You haven't solved many practice questions yet, or

  • You've developed an unhealthy relationship with your calculator.

If you're always using your calculator for things that should be basic, you probably haven't even noticed how often the 5,12,13 triangle comes up on the SAT. You shouldn't need to waste time calculating the third side; it should be immediate.

The next time a triangle question comes up, study it carefully. Try to figure out whether any familiar patterns are embedded there. Really look at the question. It'll save you considerable time on the test itself.

Develop an intuition for numbers

Developing an intuition for numbers is perhaps the most significant reason to drop the calculator. If you understand the physical significance of what they are asking on the math section of the SAT, you're at a distinct advantage.

A straightforward example is percentages. This is a topic most of us have an instinctive feel for because we use it all the time in our daily life. If only 5% of applicants get into a school, we know the school is exclusive. If a $2000 computer is 50% off, and the salesperson charges $1900, we grasp that there's a mistake.

Changing your understanding on a conceptual level

The intuitive nature of understanding numbers leaves me often astonished by some of the answers my students give. If you think that 23% of 600 could be 400, it's certainly possible that you might want to do some review of working with percentages. But what is much more likely is that you haven't been paying attention to the question.

Here's the problem: reaching for the calculator like a zombie, instead of simply looking at the question for a moment, prevents us from developing a conceptual understanding. This is problematic for several reasons.

Firstly, intuition allows you to eliminate options, sometimes without any calculation whatsoever, and hone-in on numbers that make sense. Perhaps you don't immediately know whether 23% of 600 is 138 or 117. But you should certainly understand that 50, 200, and 400 are all nonsensical options.

Secondly, it allows us to check our results. One of the biggest problems with calculators is that an absentminded press can lead to absurd results – even if your entire process was correct. If you develop an instinctive feel for the range where your answer might lie, you can check if your results make sense.


If you practice entirely without a calculator, you'll be much better prepared for the sections of the SAT that don't allow one. However – from my considerable experience – you'll also be much better prepared for the areas that do.

By all means, bring a calculator to the test itself. It's a good thing to have, and on occasion, can get you out of a tight spot. But during your practice sessions, put it aside. I guarantee you'll see the effect in your results.

Happy learning!



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