Students applying to college will need to take either the SAT or the ACT. Some students might choose to take both and use their higher scores to submit with their college applications. Others might take each of the tests more than once to improve their score as much as possible. Whatever the case may be, you can choose which test you want to take based on the test format and the one on which you think you'd do better.

The ACT, though it has less math than the SAT, still has an entire section that tests your knowledge on mathematics. While the SAT has a math section on which you can use a calculator and a math section that must be done without the calculator, the math section on the ACT allows you to use your calculator throughout the entire section. However, there are rules regarding the calculators that you can bring to the test.

About the Math Section of the ACT

The ACT has four sections on the test: English, math, reading, science and an optional writing section. The math section has 60 questions, and you will have 60 minutes to complete this section. This means you will have roughly one minute to solve each question in this section.

Unlike the SAT, the ACT has only one math section, which might be intriguing to students who don't feel that math is their strongest area of academics. Because the SAT has two math sections (one with a calculator and one without a calculator), the math counts toward half of your score, whereas on the ACT, the math only counts toward a quarter of your entire score. Keep this in mind when choosing the test that's right for you.

Topics Covered on the Math Section of the ACT

The math section of the ACT covers six main content areas, including pre-algebra, elementary algebra, intermediate algebra, coordinate geometry, plane geometry and trigonometry. Before taking the ACT, it's important to have an idea about the questions you're likely to find on the test:

  • Pre-Algebra: Basic operations, place value, square roots and exponents, factors and linear equations, to name a few

  • Elementary Algebra: Solving algebraic expressions through problem solving, solving quadratic equations by factoring and understanding basic algebraic expressions, to name a few

  • Intermediate Algebra: The quadratic formula, modeling functions, complex numbers and roots of polynomials, to name a few

  • Coordinate Geometry: Graphing equations, graphing inequalities, properties of lines and distance and midpoints, to name a few

  • Plane Geometry: Properties and relations of plane figures, transformations and properties of shapes, to name a few

  • Trigonometry: Right triangles, trigonometric functions and solving trigonometric equations, to name a few

If some of these math topics are causing you some anxiety, that's completely normal. While math is a strong point for many students, for others, it's a struggle. Luckily, you are allowed to bring a calculator to the ACT to help you solve any of these math questions. However, you'll first need to make sure that your calculator is on the list of approved ACT calculators.

Why Do I Need a Calculator for the ACT?

You do not technically need a calculator to do the math section of the ACT. The questions are designed so that they can be done without a calculator, as there are no formulas you'll need to solve that only a calculator can do. These questions were designed in this way so students who cannot afford a calculator can have the same advantage when taking the test. This goes for the SAT and all corresponding tests as well.

That being said, a calculator will certainly make the test a lot easier for you. Though all of the equations can be done by hand or mentally, a calculator has specific functions that can help you do the work in a millisecond. This is especially important, considering you only have 60 minutes to complete this section of the test. Of course, this means that those who cannot afford a calculator are still at a disadvantage.

Which Calculators Aren't Allowed on the ACT?

Even though you are allowed to bring a calculator, there are rules as to what types of calculators you can use for the ACT math section. Also, keep in mind that you can only use this calculator for the math section of the ACT and not for any other section. For example, the science section of the ACT may require you to do some light calculations, but you will not be able to use the calculator for those.

For the ACT math section, you're allowed to use any calculator that does not have a computer algebra system, or CAS. They also can't have the capabilities to download a CAS. That's because these calculators can automatically do algebraic questions for you, which defeats the purpose of what the ACT is supposed to be testing. This means that you cannot use the TI-89, the calculator that is most popular for use on the SAT.

Unless they qualify as an exception, you also cannot use:

  • Calculators built into a laptop
  • Calculators with paper readouts
  • Calculators that have to be plugged in
  • Calculators on a phone, tablet or any other device that can communicate with another device
  • Calculators that make a sound
  • Calculators with an infrared data port

The ACT calculator policy website has a list of calculators that are prohibited and ones that are permitted. There are several calculators by Texas Instruments, Hewlett-Packard and Casio that are not allowed, so you can check the list before buying a calculator.

What Are Approved ACT Calculators?

Knowing which calculators are not allowed on the ACT won't necessarily help you determine which calculators are allowed on the ACT. The ACT calculator policy states that you can use any four-function, scientific or graphing calculator that's not on the list of prohibited calculators as long as it doesn't go against any of the rules listed above.

Unfortunately, there isn't too much information regarding which calculators for the ACT are allowed, as it would be quite a long list. An example of a reliable calculator you can use is the TI-30X, which you can get for about $18. Otherwise, you can visit any office store or electronics store to search for a calculator. Just make sure none of them are prohibited. Usually, those who work at the store can point you in the right direction.

Tips About Calculators for the ACT

The whole idea of getting a calculator for the ACT – which has to be different than the calculator that you're going to use for the SAT if you plan on taking both tests – can be a little overwhelming. However, there are many resources out there to help you make sure you have the right calculator.

There are also some other tips that can help you be as successful as possible with the math section of the ACT.

  • Ask several others if the calculator you're planning on using is OK for the ACT.

  • If you come across a question and you think it can only be solved by using a calculator, then you're doing something wrong since the questions can be solved without a calculator.

  • Always check your answers by using the calculator to reverse solve.
  • Try to do the work by hand before relying on your calculator.

  • Practice using your calculator before taking the ACT so you are familiar with how to use it.

  • Do not bring any calculator to the test that is prohibited, even if you have no intention to use it.

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