The SATs (Scholastic Aptitude Tests) are among the more nerve-wracking of high-school experiences, as many colleges use the SATs as a primary factor when determining student admission. Scholarships and more can rest in the balance of an SAT score, leading to crippling test anxiety among even the most dedicated students.
Compounding matters is the fact that the test is timed, which can further increase a student’s anxiety. Even if a student is very well-prepared, knowing that a proctor is sitting with a running stopwatch can place an additional strain on a student’s psyche.
But this article isn’t meant to further stress out an already-anxious student. The goal of this article is to educate students on the various hacks and quick keystrokes available for SAT-level calculators. Once a student is comfortable with a calculator, many of the math problems on the SAT become routine. Read on to learn the very best SAT Calculator Hacks that we could find.
The Most Important SAT Calculator “Hack”
One of the biggest misconceptions regarding the SAT is the idea that the test can be taken without a calculator. While this is technically true, most students are doing themselves a great disservice by not obtaining a calculator and familiarizing themselves with the quick functions on it.
The Balance Small Business compiled a list of the 7 Best Graphing Calculators to Buy. Here is a rundown of some of the calculators from their list, along with corresponding links and price range for each:
- Best Overall: Texas Instruments TI-84 Plus CE Graphing Calculator ($120-$160)
- Best Overall, Runner Up: Texas Instruments TI-84 Plus ($90-$120)
- Best Value: Casio fx-9750GII Graphing Calculator ($30-$50)
- Best for Small Budgets: Casio FX-CG10 PRIZM Color Graphing Calculator ($100-$140)
- Best for Calculus: Casio FX-9860GII Graphing Calculator ($60-$85)
As you can see, the price ranges for graphing calculators vary quite a bit. But all of these calculators are quite sophisticated, and more than capable of doing the job.
Parents and students should investigate the available options at the student’s school. Many schools have graphing calculators that they issue to students taking higher-level math courses, and some schools have a reserve of calculators from which they can lend. Students should take advantage of everything their respective schools have to offer, particularly as it concerns preparing for the SAT.
Once a student has decided on a calculator, becoming comfortable with the calculator is crucial. Even if a student does not purchase the newest or most-expensive calculator on the market, most of the current offerings are light-years ahead of what was available just five to ten years ago. Comfort, not the willingness to spend, is key when making a decision on an SAT Calculator.
Once a student has decided on a Calculator, the next step is learning the most effective hacks and shortcuts the machine has to offer. Read on to learn some of the best SAT Calculator Hacks.
SAT Calculator Hacks for TI-84 series and Comparable TI Calculators
Because the TI-84 and similar TI series calculators tend to be the most popular, they will be covered at length in this article.
The first series of calculator hacks apply to Texas Instruments TI-84 graphing calculators and will work on similar calculators within the TI series.
As noted above, these are considered the best calculators on the market by many people, and rightly so. TI graphing calculators can be found in high schools across the country, and TI models such as the TI-84 continue to rate very highly among professionals.
Before you dig into the TI-84 hacks, understand that there are two Math sections under the current SAT format. Under the current setup, students are allowed to use calculators (and the programs available on the calculator) for one of the two sections. It is highly recommended that students double-check all testing rules before the day of the test, as these rules are constantly influx and changing.
Here are some of the most helpful hacks for the Ti-84 Series:
TI-84 Calculator Hack #1: The FRAC Key
This function converts decimals into fractions, if it’s mathematically-possible to do so. The FRAC Key can shave precious seconds by saving students the hassle of a long-form conversion. It also removes human error from the equation, assuming the student puts in the proper numbers.
Here is how to use the FRAC Key Function:
- Go to the MATH key on the TI-84 graphing calculator.
- After hitting the key, the first option will be the FRAC option. Click on this button.
- Hit the ENTER key, and the calculator will a decimal into a fraction.
Conversely, if the student needs to convert a fraction into a decimal, just hit the DEC key from the same menu.
This easy trick is potentially a major time-saver, allowing students to focus on the equations themselves and not stress over tedious conversions.
TI-84 Calculator Hack #2: Programs
Programming your TI-84 calculator is the ultimate series of SAT Calculator Hacks. Below are some of the more frequently-used programs that you might want to consider programming into your calculator:
The Quadratic Equation
The quadratic equation is often used in trigonometry, and a student will absolutely be tested on their ability to implement the formula on the SAT. It’s very important for students to memorize the quadratic formula, as certain questions on the SAT’s No Calculator Math section will require its use.
The quadratic formula is “Negative B plus or minus the square root of B squared minus 4AC all over 2A.”
The formula is used to reveal the x-intercepts of a quadratic equation, also called the “roots” or “zeros” of the function (because the x-intercepts occur when y = 0).
So, when a student is seeking to find the x-intercepts of a quadratic on the Calculator Math section of the SAT, a quadratic formula program on your calculator could be invaluable.
Students can use programs to perform difficult operations, such as FOILing, factoring quadratics, solving quadratic equations using the quadratic formula, and solving systems of equations with two variables.
Solving Systems of Equations with Multiple Variables is a program that most students using a graphing calculator should pick up. This topic is very common on both the SAT and ACT.
In short, some systems have one solution, some have multiple solutions, and some have no solution. Students can use algebra to deduce these solutions, or they can utilize a program on their TI model calculator.
On the TI website, a search for “systems of equations” will generate numerous programs that complete the algebra automatically. This is another arrow in the quiver for a student taking the SAT.
A complete guide to the quadratic equation is available at the TI website referenced above, in addition to many more formulas and programs that students could find useful.
Another way to eliminate busy work is to program Factoring functions into your TI model calculator.
Factor form is a different way to represent an equation, and it can tell you the zeros of the function. Problems like this are peppered throughout the SAT.
It’s important for students to know how to Factor without using a calculator, as Factoring problems will appear on the No Calculator Math section of the current format SAT. However, programming Factoring functions into your calculator can again save some needless busy work, and help a student continue to cruise through the Math section.
Once programmed into a calculator, all a student needs to do is enter the A, B, and C values of a quadratic. The calculator does the rest, again saving precious time.
Here is how to use this program on your TI-84 or similar model calculator:
- Configure your equation into the form ax2+bx+c=0
- Enter these coefficients into A, B, and C values in your calculator
- Hit ENTER to get the solutions
Something to keep in mind is that Factor form is a bit different from solutions. If your solutions are 4 and -9, Factor form would be (x-4) (x+9).
Finding Zeros of a Quadratic
To find a quadratic equation within word problems – and then to apply within the context of the question – you can use your calculator to quickly find the zeroes while you’re figuring out a part of the quadratic.
Additionally, if you see an x2 term in a word problem, use of a quadratic formula can help the student find and determine the zeros if not in a Factor or vertex form.
Two equations and two unknowns need to be solved for X and Y so that both of these equations are true.
Students will usually see them in some variation of this form:
AX + BY = C
DX + EY = F
ALGDOS is a multi-function program that includes a two-variable equation solver. Students can use this program to quickly find multiple variables when calculating a quadratic.
To use the program, the student will need to input the values of the coefficients. These values will be A, B, C, D, E, and F. After inputting the values, the calculator will then solve for X and Y.
This program is particularly useful for the word problems that are on the easier part of the test. These problems admittedly are not impossible to solve down, but having your calculator do it for you helps avoid careless errors.
Another very useful program is Slope Intercept, which will help students find the slope of a curve on their TI-84 calculator. Here is an overview of the concept.
The Slope Intercept program can take in two points and give you the slope and the intercept of a line.
This process can help a student with problems asking for the slope of the line, or problems asking which graph contains the points given by the test question.
To use the program, the student just needs to enter the points into the program and hit ENTER. The TI-84 will give the student the equation of the line, including the slope.
TI-84 Calculator Hack #3: Graphing
Graphing can be a bit time-consuming, but it can also be a life-saver if a student is stuck on a particular problem. On the SAT, an approximate graph can be close enough to the correct answer that the student does not need to solve the complete problem.
Students can use graphing to solve systems of equations, quadratics, or graphing problems. If the test presents a given equation and asks which of the graphs represents the equation, the student can then use the calculator to graph it.
Students can graph absolute values, inequalities, absolute value inequalities, parabolas, or ellipses. Graphing can find interception points that cannot be found with the linear equation solver, because some problems won’t be linear.
TI-84 Calculator Hack #4: Trigonometric Values
Many students may not realize that graphing calculators store each and every trigonometric value, including all cosines and tangent. This can be incredibly helpful when figuring out complicated trig problems on the SAT.
Common Trigonometric Values include angles of 0, 15, 30, 45, 60, and 90 degrees. Each of these can be stored in a TI series graphing calculator for quick reference while taking the test.
Students will also want to refer to this handy TI-84 Cheat Sheet, which condenses the latest TI-84 codes and functions into a single, easy-to-read document. This cheat sheet is specifically meant to be used with the TI-84 Plus, but many of the codes will work on other TI-84 series calculators.
Lastly, students may want to review this video on calculating Trigonometric Values. A better understanding of the principles at play will make for more effortless work when using a calculator during the actual SAT.
Casio Calculators for the SAT
This article has covered the TI-84 and TI series calculators at length. While the TI calculators are deservedly popular, they aren’t the only calculators that students will potentially use on the SAT.
While some of the Casio models do not have the same graphing functions as most of the TI models, Casio remains a viable alternative for students.
Ultimately, the decision on which calculator to use will come down to availability and a student’s comfort with a particular model, but it should be noted that many experts prefer Casio models due to their simplicity. In the case of a timed-test like the SAT, simplicity is elegance, as it potentially allows to complete problems more quickly and efficiently.
Students who are debating between Casio and TI model calculators can check out these links to help decide between the two:
Additional SAT Math Hacks
Despite claims to the contrary, the SAT does not measure intelligence or accurately predict the type of grades a student will get in college. Rather, the SAT makes itself “harder” by quizzing students on obscure concepts within mathematics.
After all, complex mathematical formulas often take hours, days, or weeks to complete. The SAT is not measuring a student’s ability to complete these elite-level mathematical formulas, but instead testing students on things that most of their contemporaries probably don’t know.
In addition to the SAT Calculator Hacks presented above, it is recommended to SAT test-takers to brush up on the following Math formulas and topics:
Again, it can be extremely frustrating for a student who has prepared for months to come across a math question that they have no idea how to answer. It is important for parents and teachers to educate students on some of the realities of the SAT, which is that the test will ask a lot of obscure questions largely unrelated to practical situations, as well as present questions that students likely have not seen before.
Parents and teachers should want all students to do as well as possible on the SAT – after all, there’s room for everyone to succeed. Part of being successful on the SAT is understanding that the test will present some off-the-wall questions. Students can better prepare themselves by reading up on a few of these topics, and gain a working-if-not-perfect understanding of them.
Final Words on SAT Calculator Hacks
The SAT is in many ways a sprint, as students hustle through questions in the interest of completing the test. A shot-in-the-dark guess is better than an unanswered question, so the testing format encourages students to not devote excessive time to any single question.
While students may not use their calculator on the bulk of the Math section, they can enter the test more confidently knowing that they can use a handful of stored programs to help complete it.