Calculator vs. No Calculator: How to Prep for Math on the New SAT

With the recent rollout of the new SAT (March of 2016), many students and educators may be feeling a bit in the dark. High school brings with it a variety of tests, terms, and tribulations, so amended versions are understandably difficult to process.

Fortunately, most can be taken in stride. For now, we’ll explore preparing for the Math section of the new SAT, answering the age-old question—calculator or no calculator?

A Math section overview

One of the most significant changes to the SAT is that the Math section is now weighed more heavily than it once was. A strong math score can now contribute toward a much higher composite score. Otherwise, the new SAT Math section offers more multistep problems, a portion without a calculator, some trigonometry questions, and more emphasis on interpreting data and graphics, equation-solving, algebra, and realistic prompts for questions. Overall, there is less focus on geometry.

The Math section of the SAT includes two portions with a total of 58 questions. One portion allows the use of calculator, while the other does not. In the portion where you are required to work without a calculator, you will have approximately 1.25 minutes to spend on each question. There are 20 questions.

In the section where you may use a calculator, there are 38 questions over 55 minutes, allowing for about 1.45 minutes per question.

The topics in the Math section of the SAT are as follows:

  • Heart of Algebra

  • Problem Solving and Data Analysis

  • Passport to Advanced Math

  • Additional Topics in Math

Make sure you’re looking at dates

When you begin preparing for the new SAT, it is important that you check the dates on your study material, as you may be working with an older version of a test. While the subject material may still be relevant, it may also be outdated, so make sure you’re checking.

This is an easy mistake to make if you’re combing practice tests, so make sure they’re current—for now, March of 2016 represents the most recent date you’ll look for.

Establishing a study routine

Because much of the subject matter remains unchanged, many students will follow similar prep routines as those who came before them. You’ll want to identify areas where you’re struggling and those where you excel. An important step here will be to identify why you’re having a hard time in certain areas—is it the content or the actual doing of the problems?

You’ll want to practice these areas, keeping track of mistakes you’re making and attempting to identify patterns.

[RELATED: 4 Most Challenging Questions on the New SAT]

Calculator or not?

You’ll want to practice using a calculator sometimes, but because you’re required to complete one portion without it, you should practice without too. The process of solving problems without a calculator may help you identify where you’re just using it as a crutch, which can actually take more time than necessary. Practicing without will likely improve your performance on the calculator sections as well.

Overall, you should attempt to use the calculator as little as possible and take care to practice using it before the test. Become familiar with the machine itself, and make sure to double-check your entries. Stick with a kind of calculator you know well (and that is allowed in the testing center), but still learn to operate without it—your score will ultimately be better.