One of the most common questions people ask has nothing to do with some sort of master strategy to answer GMAT questions. While it might surprise you, what people want to know is whether they can use a calculator for the Quant section or not!
This might seem like it’s too straightforward a question to deserve its own blog article, but you’d be wrong. Not only is there more to this question than a simple yes-no answer. It’s also important to publicize it. We can’t tell you how many students have come to us after spending dozens of hours studying for the GMAT, only to show up on test day and find out they’re not allowed to use the calculator they’ve been using to practice.
Here, we tell you everything you need to know about using calculators on the GMAT.
SO CAN YOU USE THAT GRAPHING CALCULATOR OR NO?
The answer to this question is a definite no. No outside calculators are allowed on the GMAT.
SO THERE ARE NO CALCULATORS INVOLVED?
Well, not exactly. You’re allowed to use a calculator for the Integrated Reasoning (IR) section of the exam. For this section, an on-screen calculator is available to you. Note that this calculator has only basic arithmetic functions on it — same as you might encounter on a calculator in elementary school
The section where you’d really want a calculator is the Quantitative section — and for this, there are no calculators of any kind.
SO DOES THAT MEAN I’M SCREWED?
Many people who aren’t especially comfortable with math have spent a lifetime relying on calculators to do addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. So, it might seem like a math test without a calculator will be extremely hard. However, don’t forget to consider the perspective of the people who are actually writing the test.
For one thing, the GMAT is not designed to simply tell how good at arithmetic you are. The math concepts used aren’t especially complicated and usually not particularly technical, either. Instead, the Quantitative section uses numbers to test other kinds of abilities, such as your critical thinking, logical reasoning, and problem-solving skills. A high school math education that included basic geometry will have covered all the math concepts on the Quant section.
Also, remember that the people who write the GMAT know that there’s no calculator allowed, and the quant questions are written with that in mind. So the fact that you can’t use a calculator, in some ways, keeps the arithmetic from being too difficult.
All of this is just to say that not having a calculator is OK – the test was designed with this in mind.
BUT WHAT CAN I DO IF I’M BAD AT MATH?
Everybody goes into the GMAT with their own sets of strengths and weaknesses. If you don’t have especially strong math skills, well, you’re far from alone. But there are some things you can do to help you get ready for a calculator-less exam.
For one thing, you should absolutely practice your basic arithmetic skills. Because of the availability of calculators in daily life, most people who are not great with arithmetic don’t ever actually practice it. But you can do something about this. There’s no shortage of resources that can help you out with this, from online resources to flashcards, to apps. This work is far from exciting, but knowing your times tables by heart can make all the difference between having enough time to solving a question and not having enough time.
Also, you should absolutely NEVER use a calculator when practicing Quant questions. This would be like practicing for a 5-mile run by walking 10 minutes a day — you end up having wasted a lot of time without becoming prepared. In particular, students often make many ‘silly mistakes’ on exam day, such as multiplying incorrectly, dropping a minus, and so on. The best way to avoid making such mistakes… is practice! The more comfortable you are doing basic arithmetic, the less of these mistakes you’ll make, and the less time you’ll waste trying to fix them.
Don’t underestimate the power of estimating. You may encounter some kinds of arithmetic that are too complicated for you to do by hand in any efficient manner. However, being smart about how to use estimation (and teaching this skill is an important part of our course) can be a very powerful weapon to have in your GMAT arsenal. For example, you might not be able to figure out the exact answer to a division question like, say, 121.3/11.8. However, if you recognize that the figures can be rounded to 120/12, you might be able to estimate that the answer should be somewhere near 10. If the answer choices are, for example, 6, 7.34, 10.28, and 13.52, you can choose 10.28 and get the right answer without having to actually do the math perfectly.
For most people, finding out that they need to do a whole Quant section without a calculator is a frightening prospect. But this shouldn’t be the case! Hopefully, we’ve helped you to see that there are some ways to cope with this and even some positives—after all, a standardized test that allowed calculators would likely involve much more difficult math.