SAT and ACT Calculator Tips and Shortcuts

Both the SAT and ACT allow a calculator on the mathematics section, so it’s important to know how to get the most out of one come test day. Note, however, that the calculator is not allowed on any other sections—including ACT science.

What Type of Calculator Is Allowed?

The SAT and ACT place relatively few restrictions on calculator use. The ACT is somewhat stricter than the SAT, prohibiting calculators with CAS (“computer algebra system”) functionality, whereas these are generally allowed on the SAT. Most popular high school calculators, like the Texas TI-83 and TI-84, are permitted. Always make sure to check, however, that your model is kosher before you sit for the exam. You can find a complete list of permitted calculators for the ACT here and a similar list for the SAT here. The following graphing calculators are generally allowed on the SAT:

Casio
FX-6000 series
FX-6200 series
FX-6300 series
FX-6500 series
FX-7000 series
FX-7300 series
FX-7400 series
FX-7500 series
FX-7700 series
FX-7800 series
FX-8000 series
FX-8500 series
FX-8700 series
FX-8800 series
FX-9700 series
FX-9750 series
FX-9860 series
CFX-9800 series
CFX-9850 series
CFX-9950 series
CFX-9970 series
FX 1.0 series
Algebra FX 2.0 series
FX-CG-10 (PRIZM)
FX-CG-20
Hewlett-Packard
HP-9G
HP-28 series
HP-38G
HP-39 series
HP-40 series
HP-48 series
HP-49 series
HP-50 series
HP Prime

Radio Shack
EC-4033
EC-4034
EC-4037

Sharp
EL-5200
EL-9200 series
EL-9300 series
EL-9600 series
EL-9900 series

Texas Instruments
TI-73
TI-80
TI-81
TI-82
TI-83/TI-83 Plus
TI-83 Plus Silver
TI-84 Plus
TI-84 Plus CE
TI-84 Plus Silver
TI-84 Plus C Silver
TI-85
TI-86
TI-89
TI-89 Titanium
TI-Nspire/TI-Nspire CX
TI-Nspire CAS/TI-Nspire CX CAS
TI-Nspire CM-C/TI-Nspire CM-C CAS
TI-Nspire CX-C CAS

Other
Datexx DS-883
Micronta
Smart

What’s The Best Calculator To Use?

While graphing calculators allow you to find solutions to some linear and quadratic problems, these problems are generally solved just as quickly (or more quickly) without a calculator. That said, popular graphing calculators like the TI-83 often contain handy shortcuts that standard or scientific calculators lack. For that reason I recommend using a graphing calculator, such as the TI-83 or TI-84, that features the types of added functionality described below.

No matter what type of calculator you’re using, make sure you’re familiar with it before test day. Know when to use parenthesis, for instance, and how your calculator processes the order of operations.

SAT and ACT Calculator Tips and Shortcuts

When Should I Use The Calculator?

Most, if not all, SAT and ACT math problems can be solved without the use of a calculator. That said, not using a calculator at all will take more time and can often lead to more careless mistakes. It’s important, then, to know when and when not to use the calculator.

In general, take a few moments to understand each question and plan your method of attack before picking up the calculator. Don’t rely on your calculator for the big picture problem-solving strategy—this part is up to you. You should be especially wary, for instance, of problems that look overtly complex. Many of these can be solved quickly with a simple shortcut, and thus should not be immediately plugged into the calculator.

Once you’ve figured out how you’re going to solve a problem, then you can use the calculator to quickly work through any arithmetic. Doing so is a good idea because it’s faster than solving on paper and less likely to lead to mistakes.

Beyond simple arithmetic, there are a couple of powerful shortcuts you should know about that can speed up your work on the SAT or ACT. Pretty much everything else, on the other hand, you can solve better without the calculator.

Calculator Shortcuts For The SAT and ACT

While these shortcuts are available on many graphing calculators, I’m going to explain how to access them on what are perhaps the most popular of all high school graphing calculators, the TI-83 and TI-84.

Decimal-Fraction Conversions: Did you solve a problem and end up with a decimal that you need to convert into a fraction, or vice-versa? Enter the value into your calculator and then hit “Math,” followed by “1:Frac” to turn a decimal into a fraction or “2:Dec” to turn a fraction into a decimal.

Least Common Multiple and Greatest Common Factor: Need to find one of these quickly? Don’t construct a time-consuming factor tree. Instead, hit “Math,” go to the “Num” menu, then go down to “8:lcm” for least common multiple or “9:gcd” for greatest common factor. Enter the two values, separated by a comma. If you’re trying to find the least common multiple or greatest common factor for more than two values, simply use this function to find the LCM or GCF of the first two values, then solve again for THAT result combined with the third term, then solve again for THAT result combined with the fourth term, and so on. Once you’ve worked through all your terms, you’ll end up with the LCM or GCF for the set as a whole.

Combinations: When finding out how many ways you can choose r number of selections from n number of things and the order they’re arranged in doesn’t matter, enter the total n number of objects, then hit “Math,” go to the “Prb” menu, then select “3:nCr,” then enter the number of r selections. Then press enter for your solution.

Calculator Shortcuts For The ACT Only

If you’re taking the ACT, you’ll also want to learn a few additional shortcuts.

Arc Functions: When given a sine, cosine or tangent value, you can solve for the initial angle by taking the arc function. Simply press “2nd,” then sin-1, cos-1 or tan-1, to find out the initial angle. The angle will either be in radians or degrees—you can choose which by using the “Mode” menu. Remember that arc functions result in only one of the possible angles that could produce the given sine/cosine/tangent value, so be careful here.

Radian-Degree Conversions: Need to convert radians to degrees or vice-versa? Hit “Mode” and then select radians or degrees to specify the type of value you’d like to end up with. Then enter the starting value and press “2nd,” then “angle,” then “1” if the angle is in degrees “3” if the angle is in radians. Press enter to see the converted value.

Logs: You can solve any log problem of the sort log base x of y by entering “log y” and then dividing that result by “log x.”

Recap

While calculators can’t do the big picture thinking the SAT and ACT require for you, they can help minimize errors and speed up your work. Look for an approved graphing calculator with the above functionality for the exam, become familiar with it, and then use it to your advantage on test day!

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Is The New (“Redesigned”) SAT Easier Or Harder Than The Current SAT?


The new, or “redesigned,” SAT, which will debut in March 2016, is a radical departure from the current version of the exam. While the new test shares some features with the current one, its overall emphasis has changed. The result is an exam that, at least for many test takers, will be both easier and more readily “learnable” than the current version. Without question, the overall difficulty level of the exam has dropped.

Why is the exam getting easier? To answer that question, consider why the SAT is changing—and only ten years after the exam underwent a major overhaul back in 2005. A major reason is competitive pressure from the SAT’s rival test, the ACT, which has been gaining tremendous ground on the SAT in recent years. Since all colleges began accepting the SAT and ACT equally some years ago, the number of ACT takers has risen dramatically. In fact, in 2012 the number of students taking the ACT actually surpassed the number of students taking the SAT. Since then, the ACT has only continued its ascent while the SAT has declined in popularity.

Is New SAT Easier Or Harder

One reason why the ACT has been so successful is that many students find it an easier alternative to the SAT. The ACT is shorter than the SAT, clocking in at only 2 hours 55 minutes without the optional essay or 3 hours and 25 minutes with the essay, compared to 3 hours 45 minutes for the current SAT. The ACT is broken up into four distinct sections, whereas the current SAT contains no fewer than 10 sections, with multiple sections for each subject (math, critical reading, writing). The current SAT requires all students to write the essay, whereas the ACT has made the essay optional. The ACT only presents four possible choices for each question instead of the SAT’s five, and it does not dock points for incorrect answers like the SAT does. Questions on the ACT also tend to be less difficult, requiring much less in the way of critical reasoning than do SAT questions, some of which can be very difficult. Lastly, the ACT does not test vocabulary, unlike the vocabulary-dense SAT.

While some students still find that they perform better on the current SAT than the ACT, it’s no surprise that, given these differences, a majority of students have been opting for the ACT of late.

What does the SAT overhaul have to do with the ACT, you ask? Well, the new SAT replicates nearly all those features of the ACT that make it a more appealing, and in many ways easier, exam than the SAT. In seeking to halt its declining popularity and regain market share, the SAT has made a more user-friendly exam.

Easier Questions

The questions on the new SAT are, like the questions on the ACT, simply easier. When it comes to math, the test makers have mostly abandoned the puzzle-like brainteasers that require creative critical thinking. The new questions are much more straightforward and focused on testing mastery of content rather than reasoning ability. The only downside is that you’ll now be required to know more math for the exam than you did previously. There are more topics on the test from Algebra II, for example, as well as some trigonometry. Once you learn that content, however, the math will be much easier to master, given the lack of puzzling brainteasers and hidden tricks.

The critical reading section has also become notably easier. There are practically no difficult or advanced vocabulary words anywhere on this section, let alone vocabulary questions proper. The SAT has claimed to be moving from “tier three,” or advanced vocabulary words, to commonly-used “tier two” words, but the vast majority of students will have no trouble with these new words. One of the most challenging features of the current SAT is its pervasive use of advanced vocabulary—on vocabulary questions, within reading passages, and in reading comprehension questions and answer choices themselves. Difficult vocabulary has now completely vanished from the test.

Questions on the new critical reading section, much like the new math questions, are also easier. Whereas current reading questions require serious critical thinking to identify subtle distinctions between two seemingly valid answer choices, answers on the new section are much more straight-forward and easily identifiable. Questions are still somewhat more difficult than ACT reading questions, but less difficult than the reading questions on the current SAT.

The “writing and language” section of the new SAT, which replaces the writing section of the current test, is also much easier. Rather than having to compare multiple, lengthy grammatical constructions, you now only have to look at four short alternatives to one small portion of a sentence. While the same rules are being tested as before, the way in which they are tested has become much easier. This section now looks nearly identical to the ACT’s English section.

An Optional, More Predictable Essay

The new essay has now been made optional, which will no doubt encourage more people to take the SAT. That said, because a number of colleges either recommend or require the essay, if you are taking the SAT then I would strongly encourage you take the essay in order to broaden your college options.

For those taking the essay, the College Board has create a much more predictable assignment than the current essay or the ACT essay. The new essay asks you to analyze a given passage, rather than construct an argument on a random topic on the spot. You’re also given more time to write (50 minutes) than you are on the current version (25 minutes) or on the ACT (40 minutes). No doubt many students will find this easier than the current essay. The College Board even boasts on their website that the new essay will be much easier than essays requiring you to construct an argument on a random topic within a short time period—a clear jab at the ACT.

New SAT Easier

Friendlier Structure

The structure of the exam as a whole has also become more user-friendly, once again following in the footsteps of the ACT. There are now only four sections, rather than the current 10. There is also much more time granted per question on the reading and math sections—an extra 13 seconds on each reading question and an extra 5 seconds on each math question. Writing questions now allow for less time, but this is only because the format has changed and the questions themselves require much less time. When you factor in the more limited number of answer choices per question on all sections (four instead of five), this also translates into more time per question, not to mention fewer distractions and traps.

Scoring

What will all this mean for scoring? It’s unfortunately difficult to say just yet. The scoring tables that College Board has released so far don’t indicate any major changes in the curve, so an easier test won’t necessarily equate to a harder curve. That said, College Board is still working out scoring details and won’t be ready to provide official scores until after two administrations of the exam next spring. If everyone who takes the exam in the spring does very well, you might see a tougher curve than you do on the current scoring tables.

What Does This Mean For Me?

If you’re in the class of 2017, there’s still not enough quality prep material out there to warrant studying for the new exam just yet. Focus on the current SAT or the ACT for now, but given these changes, consider the possibility of studying for and taking the new SAT once more material has been released and College Board has worked out all the kinks of the new exam, probably sometime late next spring or early summer.

If you’re in the class of 2018 or above, these changes should make the SAT an easier, friendlier, and more learnable test than the existing one!

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Every Official Practice Test For The New (“Redesigned”) SAT

As the new (aka “redesigned”) SAT nears, College Board has begun to release official practice tests for the exam. While it’s not yet clear how accurately these tests will reflect the new exam, how you would score them or what your scores would mean, they are still your most important asset if you are preparing for the new exam now.

Every Official New Redesigned SAT Practice Test

As I’ve written before, I don’t advise preparing for the new SAT until it’s been officially administered a few times in 2016. Nevertheless, if you’ve decided that you will be preparing for the new test now, here is where you can find every released practice test.

Remember to take each test timed and review missed questions carefully before moving on to a new test. Keep a record of the questions you’ve missed and how to solve them so that you can go back and review them over time.

The first four official tests are available, along with additional questions and advice, in the new Official SAT Study Guide 2016 Edition.

You can also find these four tests online for free, however. They’re available here with answer explanations, although these explanations are often less than optimal.

There is also a fifth exam—this one is technically a redesigned PSAT, but it’s nearly identical to the new SAT. The only difference is that it’s a little shorter. You can find it here.

The College Board has promised to release another four tests as 2015 moves along. Whether or not they actually release any more remains to be seen, but I will update this information and let you know right away if they do.

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Should I Take The New (“Redesigned”) SAT?


Only ten years after the SAT underwent a major overhaul, the test is once again in the process of being remade. Starting next spring, you’ll no longer have the option of taking the current SAT. Instead, you’ll face an SAT that looks much more like the ACT, the rival college entrance exam that has been taking market share away from the SAT in recent years.

If you’re in the class of 2017 you will have three testing options: take the current SAT while it’s still being offered, take the new SAT beginning in the spring of 2016, or skip the SAT entirely and take the ACT instead.

My advice is to steer clear of the new SAT, at least for now. Given how important these exams are in the college admissions process, it’s essential to be be adequately prepared for them. Unfortunately, however, there is no way at present to ensure that anyone will be adequately prepared for the new exam.

Should I Take The New Redesigned Sat

The main problem is that there is simply not enough practice material out there to provide us with a good sense of the test. The College Board has released four practice tests and says that they plan to release four more this year, although how many they’ll ultimately release remains to be seen. At the same time, the College Board is in an ongoing process of reevaluating and reshaping the new exam. Just how accurate a reflection of the redesigned exam these practice tests will be is unclear.

Even if we assume that the new practice materials will be a perfect reflection of the new exam, there is no way to adequately gauge where anyone is scoring on them. Scoring tables are currently being worked out, and tentative tables will not be available until later this summer. How well these tables will reflect official scoring practices is unclear, however. When the first students sit for the new test next March, they won’t be able to receive any scores until results from the March and May test dates have been analyzed.

Even if you were able to receive accurate scoring feedback from practice tests, it’s not yet clear what any particular score would mean. The College Board plans on releasing a concordance table that will compare new SAT scores to old ones, but this won’t happen until after the test has been officially administered more than once. Imagine how frustrating it would be to spend months preparing for a test without ever knowing how well you’re really doing!

Instead of preparing for the new SAT, should plan on taking either the ACT or the current version of the SAT while it’s still available. Fortunately, there are vast amounts of quality prep materials available for both of these exams. For the current version of the SAT, for example, there are over 20 official practice tests publicly available. Thanks to these accurate materials, we have a thorough and powerful understanding of these exams.

If you decide to take the current version of the SAT instead of the ACT, make sure to start prep early. Your last chance to take the current version will most likely be in January, so you’ll want to do as much prep as possible before then. Take advantage of the extra time you’ll have this summer to prepare.

Should you decide that you want to also try the new SAT in 2016, the prep you will have done for the current SAT or ACT will help you on the new test. The new SAT draws heavily on both the ACT and the current SAT, so much of your prep work will be directly applicable. But for now, at least until the exam has been administered a few times, steer clear!

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Should International Students Take the SAT or ACT?


If you’re an international student, you may have heard of the SAT, the entrance exam required by the vast majority of American colleges. If you’re thinking of attending college in the United States, however, you’re also eligible to submit the ACT exam instead.

Logistically speaking, registering for the SAT might be a bit easier than the ACT. The SAT boasts over 1,000 international testing centers, whereas the ACT has only around 400. If you live a minimum of 75 miles away from a testing center, however, you can usually work with the SAT or ACT directly to schedule a more convenient test administration.

Before registering for either exam, first make sure that you figure out which test is best for you. You can learn about the general differences and how to decide between the two tests here.

While you won’t know which test you prefer until you’ve taken an official, timed practice test for each, many international students prefer the ACT. This is especially true for students whose first language is not English. The reason for this is twofold.

SAT ACT International

First, the ACT does not test your grasp of the English language as rigorously as does the SAT. Most notably, the SAT tests vocabulary whereas the ACT does not. SAT vocabulary can be very advanced and shows up all throughout the exam, from passages to questions to answer choices.

Not only does the ACT not test vocabulary (although it has a few questions about word choice), but the overall difficulty level of English on the exam is lower than that on the SAT. Passages are often easier to understand, and the questions that ask about them tend to be more straightforward. For the SAT, on the other hand, you’ll need to have a more nuanced understanding of subtleties in the passages, which requires a more advanced grasp of the English language.

The second reason international students tend to prefer the ACT is that the exam is weighted more toward the quantitative than the verbal. International students tend to score better (and to improve more quickly) on quantitative testing than do American students, as the quality of math education overseas is often superior to that found in the United States. The ACT has two quantitative sections (Math and Science) and two verbal sections (English and Reading), whereas the SAT has only one quantitative section (Math) and two verbal sections (Reading and Writing). This also means that your command of English will be tested less on the ACT.

While you should take these considerations into account when choosing between the SAT and ACT, always make sure to take an official practice test for each to see which test is best for you.

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