How to Choose the Right Calculator for High School

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.)

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