Can You Use a Calculator on the GRE?

Many students wonder whether they are allowed to bring a calculator for the GRE – well, the answer is yes and no.

By Riley Stoltenburg, Masters Degree in Public Health

One of the first questions students ask when preparing for the GRE is whether they are allowed to use a calculator on the GRE.  Well, I’ve got some good news and some bad news for you. The good news is YES, you can use a calculator while taking the GRE. You can let out that sigh of relief.  But before you go celebrating, thinking you can bust out your trusted TI-83 Plus and knock these math problems out of the park, the bad news is that you cannot bring a calculator to the GRE. 


The GRE provides an on screen calculator, which is incredibly basic and not so different from the standard on screen 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. 


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 function at the end of the problem solving process. 


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.  


Its functionality is limited; its interface is clunky, outdated and awkward; and its on screen placement is cumbersome and slows your efficiency. These characteristics and risks that follow them (mistakes and lost time) can make you question whether to use the tool. However, the flip side of this is that it’s still a calculator, which can save you valuable time and mental energy.  


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 for some complex arithmetic, by all means whip out that calculator and use it because solving a problem like that 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!). 

Mental Practice Problems


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


  1.  432 / 16

  2.  (8 x 3 x 5) / (7 x 8)

  3.  52 x 9

  4.  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 distract you momentarily from the task at hand. It really comes down to common sense and having a good understanding of your own math skills. You’ll almost know instinctively if a math problem will require the calculator, so trust your gut. 


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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