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How to Choose the Right Calculator for High School

Just last week, I had multiple clients ask me which calculators they should purchase for the school year. We were working on preparing for the ACT and SAT in these situations and I know how having the right calculator can affect math scores. But students need a quality calculator for math and science classes at school as well.

The Short Answer

  1. While it is essential to have a working calculator for the SAT or ACT, it is not necessary to buy an expensive graphing model for these exams.
  2. Working knowledge of the calculator is far more important than the device’s capabilities. (Doesn’t matter what the calculator can do if you don’t know how to use it.)
  3. Because so many calculator models are appropriate for the SAT or ACT, it is more important to purchase a calculator you can use daily at school.

Let’s examine the factors you should consider when choosing the right calculator for high school and the SAT / ACT.

SAT / ACT Requirements

If finding a calculator for your standardized college admissions exams is your top priority, you will want to understand the policies of College Board (SAT) and ACT.Here are the calculator policies for the ACT and the SAT.

ACT has more restrictive policies. Two common models are prohibited:

  • TI-89
  • TI-Nspire CAS (some Nspire models are allowed)

The SAT policies are less restrictive and permit most common calculator models.

Working Knowledge

The key to success with any model is a student’s familiarity with the calculator’s functions.

Last year I purchased a used TI-Nspire from my empty-nester neighbor. One of her girls had used it in high school and it had been collecting dust ever since. It was a bargain at $10!!! And quite an upgrade from my current TI-36X which does not graph and has only a few features more than the calculator on my phone.

The problem with this new-to-me Nspire is I don’t know how to use it. I can barely turn it on and off and I have no idea how to graph or enter complex equations. It’s going to take me hours of YouTube tutorials to learn to effectively learn how to use this thing. (And, like most of my students, I have not taken any of my free time to learn about my new calculator.)

For this reason, I usually suggest students invest in whatever calculator model is commonly used/taught at school.My daughter has no problem with her TI-Nspire because from the time she entered Algebra, teachers had a class set of identical calculators and she learned how to use the features.

Ask your school’s math and science department what calculators they use and recommend. If a particular model is recommended, it is likely to be the one students will be most proficient using.

Other Considerations

Some students will have additional calculator needs or limitations.

Students taking Advanced Placement (AP) math or science courses will want to know the requirements for each exam.Check here. You might think that AP students would need a calculator with additional features, but in many cases, the advanced graphing models are not required. For example students taking any of the AP Physics tests can complete the work with a basic four function calculator.

Students taking International Baccalaureate (IB) exams will have to check with their math and science teachers to make sure their calculator meets IB standards.IB information is available here(but can only be fully accessed by approved IB programs.)

Another consideration comes from the parent in me— which calculator is best suited to your kid’s level of interest and responsibility?Graphing calculators typically cost $100 – $150. I’ve had friends who have purchased the top of the line model for their child only to have it lost within the month. Some students are better off starting with a $10 – $20 scientific calculator which you can purchase at Target or your local drugstore.

Many Good Options

A student’s ability to learn math or excel on the SAT or ACT is NOT dependent on his or her calculator.If your child isn’t ready for the responsibility of an expensive calculator or it isn’t in the budget right now, don’t worry.

The right calculator will be one a student can comfortably use.


If you’d like extra details to inform your decision, check out episode #215 of The College Prep Podcastwhere I discuss how to find the right calculator for high school. (Also available on iTunes and other popular podcast platforms.)

Final Exam Study Strategies

We are reaching the end of the school year and many students need to take final exams. Unfortunately, too many students have never learned effective study strategies to prepare. Even worse, many of us as parents and educators are giving bad advice when we say things like “re-read your notes” or “look over the study guide.”

Effective studying is more than putting information into the brain. Students have to practice getting that information back on demand. Simply looking over and re-reading frustrates students and usually doesn’t result in better exam grades.

Fortunately there is a solution that will make studying more effective (and hopefully less boring.)

You may know I co-host a weekly education podcast with Gretchen Wegner, an expert in learning theory and effective study skills. I’m sharing a few of our top episodes on preparing for final exams. Hopefully you and your student will find a handful of tips to make this year’s finals less stressful and result in better overall grades.

189: How to Make an Anti-Cram Plan for Final Exams


We all know it’s bad to cram for finals.  It is bad for your brain and usually creates more stress and panic than results. But what should you do instead? Plan, of course! (And start thinking about studying differently– make it an ongoing system rather an end of the semester, term, or unit cram.)

During this episode of the podcast, Gretchen, my co-host who is a study skills expert, walks us through the steps to get ready to rock your finals, including:

  • Mistakes teachers & students make when preparing for exams
  • Why the Study Cycle is so important, and how to teach it to students
  • What the Study Senses are, and how to incorporate them into your study plan
  • A simple formula for how to learn, so students can identify and fix their weakest link, and
  • How to create a final exam study plan that (hopefully) kicks cramming to the curb

134: Easy Tips for Prepping for Finals Over the Holidays


We recorded this episode before winter break last school year, so the title refers to fall semester finals, but the information is relevant to spring exams as well.

Listen to find out:

  • How to put in more effort to studying without feeling like you’re working too hard
  • The importance of testing yourself using “spaced retrieval”, and a few simple ways to do this over the holidays
  • How to get yourself organized so you don’t waste time later finding important study tools
  • A crucial tip for how to use your notes so that you’re actually learning (rather than just faking it)
  • and more!

084: Everything You Need to Know to Rock Your Finals


It’s time to study for final exams! Are you ready?

In this episode, Gretchen outlines 7 tips for how to plan and study for your finals, while saving time to have some fun too. Here’s the short version of Gretchen’s tips; tune into the podcast for more details about how to put them into action.

  1. Map out your entire approach to final exams on one page, so you can see it all at once.
  2. Plan in breaks so you don’t forget to have fun
  3. Practice breaking down each final exam into actionable parts, so that you’re clear exactly what you need to do each day to study.
  4. Organize all your papers and supplies so that you locate notes, worksheets, and old tests that can serve as quizzable study tools.
  5. Study in the manner of the test, and plan backwards.
  6. Build in incentives so you follow through with your plan.
  7. Create clear study routines that are attached to a) things you already do or b) things you like doing.

014: How to Study So Well You are 100% Ready for Every Test


Tests are boring to study for and stressful to take.

But they are the key to good grades…and to effective learning (according to some studies). In this episode, Gretchen lays out four key techniques that help students get great tests grades much more often with less stress.

1. Think Like a Teacher. Too often we assume that teachers are the ones who do the teaching, and kids are simply passive recipients. However, studying is a time when students are actually in charge of their own learning, and so it can help for students to think of study time as teaching time. It is very helpful to learn how to think actively about how learning works, the way teachers do, and the next three techniques are examples of how to do this.

2. Study in the Manner of the Test. This may seem like a “no duh” point, but studies prove that students perform better on tests when the way they study looks exactly like the format of the test. Gretchen explains in detail how students can apply this technique to their study processes. She also refers to Quizlet as an effective tool for creating your own multiple choice tests.

3. Make a Quizzable Study Tool. Too often students fail to think about how they can prove to themselves that they have mastered the information and skills on which they will be tested. An answer to this is to create a study tool that is formatted in such a way that they can easily test themselves. Gretchen describes several different types of study tools, and how students can use them to prove that they are ready for the test.

4. Plan Backwards. Too often students simply start studying, flipping through text book pages and notes as a way to study. A more effective process is to work backwards, understanding what content and skills will be on the test, planning your quizzable study tool, and calendaring the specific actions you are going to take to study. Gretchen explains in more detail how to create a Backwards Plan for yourself before every test.

Take a little time to make sure you are studying effectively for your remaining exams!

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Necessary college planning for current sophomores and juniors

Two weeks ago I was speaking with my daughter, a high school junior, and we were talking about college visits. She’s narrowing down her choices somewhat, but there are still a number of potential schools we have not visited.

I said, “We can see them over the summer.” Then I looked at the family calendar.

Between speech & debate tournaments, a mission trip, family vacation, a week at a psychology immersion camp, and a family reunion, we only had three weeks available. That’s three weeks to cover 6 schools across the state of Texas and 4 other colleges in Maryland, Tennessee, and North Carolina.

And that’s when I felt like the client instead of the professional.

I’ve seen so many families with good intentions (and plans) fall behind because they didn’t realize how little time they actually had for college visits, attempts at the SAT or ACT, or applications. Today’s article will outline some of the optional and necessary college planning for current sophomores and juniors. If you have a freshman, take notes because you will need to start planning soon.



College Planning

We’ve all seen plenty of college planning timelines. I’ve written articles on the subject. But it only becomes real when it is written on the family calendar.

It is easy to think, “We can do that over the summer.” Or, “She / he will have time for that next year; college is so far off.” But once we are in our routines for the school year or summer, it is easy for time to slip away.

Here are the college planning activities I would encourage you to pencil in for your family:


For Current Juniors:

Maybe you are one of the lucky ones who has already finished with testing. Congratulations! But many students are still preparing and working towards a score goal. Here are the remaining test dates:


  • April 14, 2018
  • June 9, 2018
  • July 14, 2018
  • September 8, 2018
  • October 27, 2018 (but this is pushing it!)


  • May 5, 2018
  • June 2, 2018
  • August 25, 2018
  • October 6, 2018
  • November 3, 2018 (but this is pushing it!)

Plan which test(s) you can take. Remember to watch for conflicts with AP Exam weeks (May 7-18), prom, final exams, vacation, and fall activities.

The sooner you finish testing, the sooner you can devote your full attention to the next step: applications.

For Current Sophomores:

You have the luxury of planning ahead right now. Next year when will you have the most time and interest to prepare? Try to avoid competition season for sports and activities. Consider the time demands of future Advanced Placement (AP) classes. (AP exams are always the first two weeks of May.)

Students who complete Algebra II as sophomores will have enough content knowledge to take the ACT or SAT in the fall. Students who are currently taking geometry and will take Algebra II in the fall may want to consider

  • Taking the ACT which does not include higher level Algebra II concepts and / or
  • Waiting until the spring to take these exams

Other than math, most students will not learn anything in school that will help on the ACT or SAT. So you don’t need to wait for spring in order to test. Many of my clients are done with testing. Some finished back in September and October when they earned top scores on these exams as juniors. The key is finding the time that is right for you.

Here are the test dates for next school year, so you can start planning. Keep in mind many students will take their choice of exam 2-3 times.


  • September 8, 2018
  • October 27, 2018
  • December 8, 2018
  • February 9, 2019
  • April 13, 2019
  • June 8, 2019
  • July 13, 2019


  • August 25, 2018
  • October 6, 2018
  • November 3, 2018
  • December 1, 2018
  • March 9, 2019
  • May 4, 2019
  • June 1, 2019


College Visits

It is not a requirement to visit every school on your list before you apply. But it is a good idea to visit a minimum of 3-5 colleges so you have a better idea of what different schools offer and how your interests may be met differently at specific schools.

There are so many variables when it comes to finding schools that are a good fit. I always say a college visit is like test driving a new car or trying on a new pair of shoes. You can read websites, compare rankings, talk to neighbors, and get the advice of experts. But when it comes to making a final decision, the only opinion or ranking that matters is yours.

I understand time and money are limiting factors in making college visits, but I also know the more informed you are, the better you can decide. Part of the evaluation process is where to apply, but the other part is where to attend. Notes made on trips during your junior year might save you a last-minute rushed visit in the spring of your senior year as you try to make your final selection.

Here has been our college visit approach:

  1. Summer before junior year—visit a variety of schools (big, small, urban, college town, etc.), take good notes, make a list of likes, don’t likes, and must haves.
  2. Junior year—continue adding possible colleges and removing some for not meeting criteria. (For example, my daughter likes liberal arts colleges, but has decided schools with fewer than 1500 students are just too small.)
  3. Junior year—visit more campuses. Take advantage of school holidays and breaks. Look for colleges you might be near as you take family trips.
  4. Summer before senior year—narrow your college list. I’m nervous when students have fewer than 5 schools on their lists and I know most students don’t have the time, energy (or money) to apply to more than 15. (They Dorsey list currently has 10 schools. That might increase or decrease by a couple between now and August.)
  5. Summer before senior year—make sure you have done official tours with a minimum of three of the colleges on your list. Visiting friends and relatives doesn’t count. You need the tour and information session from the admissions office to count it as a college visit.

As I found, it was easy to imaging we would have time to make all these college visits—until I started to pencil them in on my calendar. Most admissions offices let you schedule campus visit online, so you can do this at anytime.

Note: Many campuses are in a transition period right now, so don’t worry if you can’t schedule summer visits just yet. The national date to inform students of college admission in April 1. Seniors have until May 1 to inform the colleges of their decisions. Many schools are still focusing on this year’s seniors and will get summer visit schedules online soon.


Ideally students should be involved in meaningful activities throughout the year. But sometimes projects, community service, and hobbies get delayed during the school year. Summer is the ideal time to catch up.

This summer my daughter needs to finish her Girl Scout Gold Award and she has a goal of earning more service hours. She will also attend a week-long psychology institute at Wake Forest University. And we can’t forget all those hours working on speech & debate!

What are your summer plans? What else can you accomplish?

When students tell me they are just going to hang out for the summer, I remind them they will still have time for fun AND activities. And if you need a little convincing, take a look at some college applications and see how well you can fill in the “activities” section.


I will cover the topic of applications in greater depth in another article. What you need to plan for is some time, maybe a couple weeks, to draft a resume and start working on college essays. Summer is a great time to get started, but keep in mind, most colleges don’t open their online applications until August 1.


For those of us with juniors, that senior year will be here before we know it. It seems like high school just started and now the reality of college applications is here.

Take a little time to actually put testing, college visits, activities, and application work on your calendar, so you don’t accidently fall behind.


Is NSHSS (National Society of High School Scholars) a Scam or a Real Award?

We received a letter from the high school that our daughter is eligible for a membership in NSHSS (National Society of High School Scholars). Is this worth the money? Should we do it?



No, it is not really that prestigious or exclusive—everyone you know got the same invitation letter. No, it isn’t really a honor—invitations were sent out to most students regardless of actual achievements. And no, you shouldn’t pay money for it because everyone in the field of higher education know this is really a scam.

Why do these “honor programs” exist?

So why is the National Society of High School Scholars or the Who’s Who of American High School Students letter an annual source of frustration for me and others who help teens and their families with college admission? These companies (and others like them) do an excellent job of marketing to the hopes and fears of parents.

“Acceptance” letters often come on fancy letterhead with gold seals and extra inserts proclaiming the prestige and opportunity of their offer. Who doesn’t want their child to be recognized? And too often parents and students want to jump at any opportunity to stand out when it comes to college admission.

Unfortunately these “awards” are no more than a purchased database of high school names and addresses looking to sell their accolades.

Can I list this as an award / honor on my college applications?

You shouldn’t. Colleges are not impressed with “awards” you have bought yourself.

Colleges want to see what you have DONE. If you have earned recognition for doing something, it is worth noting on your applications. But Who’s Who or NSHSS don’t ask you to DO anything other than pay for the privilege.

But what about the benefits they mention?

If you are looking for scholarships, conferences, discounts from business partners, or any of the other benefits, you can get them elsewhere. Search for scholarships online that don’t require a $75 membership fee to apply. (In fact, one sure sign of a scholarship scam is asking for money in order to apply.) There are dozens of youth conferences to help motivate, inspire, and challenge students in a variety of fields. And your local health club or Costco will have business partners willing to offer you discounts.

How to spot scams targeting teens and their families.

Next time you get an email or letter in the mail announcing an “opportunity,” here are a few ways to spot the scam:

  • If it is an honor or award, has my child done something specific to earn this honor? (writing a winning essay, competing in a national event, completing the requirements for an organizational award, etc.)
  • Have other neighbors or friends received the same communication? It can’t be exclusive or prestigious if a majority of students receive it.
  • Is payment required? You should NEVER have to pay to apply for or receive a scholarship. Membership in some national organizations may involve a registration fee, but most have a local chapter representative who you can ask (i.e. the debate coach who represents your chapter of the National Speech & Debate Association or the NHS sponsor who represents your chapter of the National Honor Society.)
  • Is this a recognized organization? It can be hard to keep up, so when in doubt, check the National Association of Secondary Principals’ list of activities and contests that offer actual academic value. These programs have to demonstrate some benefit to participating students.
  • Are you considering it solely to “look good to colleges”? There is no silver bullet for admission—no single activity, club, or award that will help you get in. Students should pursue interests and talents. This may be the most genuine way to avoid scams.


So you can throw the NSHSS letter in the trash. You aren’t missing a thing.

Colleges are not impressed. In fact, listing one of these “buy your own award” items on a college application or resume may backfire. Instead of looking accomplished, you look like the fool who got scammed into thinking this marketing ploy was a real achievement.