How To Use A Calculator on the ACT: Calculator Tips & Tricks

Of all the things that separate ACT students, calculator usage may be the one that creates the widest spectrum. Some students solve everything by hand because that’s how they work in math class; others don’t trust themselves with simple arithmetic and so do operations like 3 x 5 in the calculator “just to be sure”. And then you have the students who do everything in their heads and inevitably make a bunch of silly mistakes. So what are the best ways to use your calculator on the ACT? How can you find that perfect middle ground and ensure that you use your calculator efficiently and effectively? Here are some of the most helpful ACT calculator tips and tricks.

ACT Tip #1: Graph, graph, graph 

One of the best ways to use your calculator on the ACT is by taking advantage of its graphing functionality. From solving systems of linear equations word problems to finding the domain & range of functions to determining the amplitude of trig functions, the ACT expects you to be proficient with a number of tricky math concepts. Fortunately, all three of those examples can be solved quickly and easily by graphing equations using the ‘y=’ button on your calculator!

On the average ACT Math section, you’ll see a number of questions where graphing an equation or equations is a great strategy because it can save you time and ensure accuracy; being on the lookout for those questions is an important part of maximizing your Math score.

ACT Tip #2: Do your calculations in your calculator, do your work in your test book


Remember those extreme archetypes of students that I mentioned at the beginning of the post? You don’t want to be any of them. The best, most fundamental rule for calculator usage on the ACT is this: focus on using your calculator for any time-consuming operations, such as multi-digit division, and be comfortable doing basic arithmetic in your head or on paper. Know your times tables!

When you do turn to your calculator for a longer operation, be sure to keep a record on your paper of what math you’re doing. That way, if you mistype a number or accidentally clear your work, you’ll be able to pick right back up where you left off rather than starting over. This also makes it easier to spot your mistake if you take a wrong turn during the problem-solving process and get an answer that isn’t one of the five answer choices.

ACT Tip #3: Know your calculator shortcuts


One of my favorite ACT calculator ‘tricks’ is simply the ANS (short for ‘answer’) function. When you do an operation in your calculator, such as 3 x 5, and then press ENTER, the calculator will give you the solution (15) and automatically move to the next line. If you then want to do another operation using that 15, you don’t need to retype the 15 first: as soon as you press the button for another operation, the calculator will auto-fill the 15 before it and you can keep on rolling.

This may sound trivial, but it can have a surprisingly big impact on your pacing. Minimizing the number of keystrokes you use saves time, and every button you don’t have to press is one less opportunity for you to make a small mistake.

ACT Tip #4: Practice good calculator hygiene


What’s the best way to use your calculator on the ACT? Accurately. One of the things that I always try to convey to my students is that the calculator isn’t magic. Instead, think of it like a robotic butler: it’s going to do exactly what you ask it to do every single time. No more, no less. That means that it’s essential for you to be sure that you’re asking it to do what you actually want it to do.

For instance, if you want it to square the number -3, don’t get lazy and just enter -32; your calculator will spit out -9, because you just asked it for the negative form of 32. If you want the square of -3, you need to enter (-3)2. Remember that your calculator worships at the altar of PEMDAS, so put parentheses around your negative numbers and any addition or subtraction in your fractions.

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So there you have it; pretty basic, but very important. If you’d like more specific advice on how best to use your calculator on the ACT or tips regarding any other aspect of ACT prep, head over to Inspirica Pros’ ACT headquarters, where our squad of online ACT tutors would love to help you crush the ACT.

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