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Can You Use A Calculator On The GRE?

Our expert test prep team covers whether students are allowed a calculator on the GRE.

One of the first questions students ask when preparing for the GRE is whether they get a calculator for the exam. The good news is YES, you can use a calculator while taking the GRE. You can take that sigh of relief now. However, there is a catch, which we’ll explain below. Our team also provides strategies for using the calculator on the exam as well.

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Can You Bring a Calculator to the GRE?

You are probably relieved to know that a calculator is available to assist you while taking the GRE, but don’t start celebrating and busting out your trusted TI-83 Plus, thinking you can use it to knock the math problems out of the park. The bad news is that you cannot bring a calculator to the GRE. The only calculator allowed on the GRE is the on-screen calculator made available for your use. In short, you have access to their calculator if you need it, but cannot bring one of your own.

What the GRE Calculator Looks Like

The GRE provides an on-screen calculator, which is incredibly basic and not so different from the standard calculator you can pull up in Windows right now. The exam administrators give you this calculator because the basic arithmetic solving allowed by a calculator is not the important concept the GRE is trying to test.

GRE Calculator
Source: ETS.org

The GRE is testing your ability to break down the problem and approach it with the correct thought processes and in the correct order. The arithmetic is not the challenge — it is generally just a byproduct at the end of the problem solving process.

Should I Use the Calculator on the GRE?

Now that you know you get a calculator on the GRE, it then begs the question — “Should I use the calculator?” The answer to this question is the classic “it depends.” In many instances, the calculator provided by the GRE may actually slow you down or even lead you to make an error.

The functionality of the provided calculator is limited; its interface is clunky, outdated and awkward; and its on-screen placement is cumbersome and slows your efficiency. The characteristics and risks that follow (possibility of mistakes and/or lost time) can cause you to question whether or not to use the tool. The flip side of this, however, is that it’s still a calculator, which can save you valuable time and mental energy if you need to use it.

When to Use the Calculator on the GRE

When to use the calculator will depend totally on the type of question presented. If you come to a math problem that requires you to solve some complex arithmetic, by all means whip out that calculator and use it because solving that type of problem will almost certainly take longer to figure out mentally or by longhand.

Problems involving odd decimals, ratios and square roots are great examples. For example, if you need to solve for the square root of 147, do you think you can solve that quicker in your head (or by longhand) than by using the calculator? I am guessing not. However, if you come to a point in a problem that requires you to solve for 30 x 4, use your mental calculator instead. Such a problem should be easily solved in a couple seconds with the old noggin (just use those memorized multiplication tables from grade school and add a zero!). Save the calculator for the more time consuming, complex problems.

Here are a few good practice questions to give you an idea of when you should use a calculator vs. when to solve mentally. See how long each of the below takes you to solve mentally or on paper:

  • 432 / 16
  • (8 x 3 x 5) / (7 x 8)
  • 52 x 9
  • 22% of 50

The best strategy I can suggest is that if it would take you longer than 5 seconds to solve mentally or with a quick scribble on your paper, use the calculator. But if you can solve a basic arithmetic problem quickly in your mind or with a quick longhand to visualize it, by all means proceed without the calculator. This will save you valuable time on a test where time is critical and will keep you mentally involved in the problem.

Messing around with the cumbersome on-screen calculator, even for a few seconds, can prove to be counterproductive. It can distract you momentarily from the task at hand. In turn, it may require a bit more time to refocus. It really comes down to having a good understanding of your own math skills and and what works best for you. You’ll almost know instinctively if a math problem will require the calculator, so trust your gut.

Most GRE test prep programs have a GRE calculator for your use during test prep. While they might look and feel a little differently from one another, they all have the same basic numerical and non-numerical functions as that which is provided for the GRE. Practice using them to become familiar with the functions of memory, square root, parentheses, and the like. Learning shortcuts and strategies of the GRE calculator by practicing with it in advance of the test.

The best way to get a feel for when it will be most advantageous to use the calculator on the GRE is to take a practice test or two and use the calculator. This will give you a good understanding of the types of math problems when a calculator should be used and how many times it will generally be needed during the exam.

It will also give you a feel for the types of questions where using the calculator is a time suck and you’re better off solving mentally or with a quick bit of longhand math. As with most tests, it’s all about repetitions, so get out there and practice, practice, practice. When the time comes for the real exam, knowing when and how to use the calculator will be second nature and you won’t get caught fumbling around with its clunky interface.

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