What Kind of Calculator Do I Need for the GRE

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When preparing for the Quantitative Reasoning section of the GRE, one of the first questions people ask is “Can I use a calculator and, if so, what type of calculator do I need for the GRE?” Even for me, someone who studied math in college, the thought of completing a math test without the use of a calculator feels daunting.  

You are permitted to use a calculator on the GRE General Test during the Quantitative Reasoning measures. You will not be allowed to bring your own calculator. One will be provided to you. In this article, we will discuss the calculator that you will be able to use for both the computer-delivered and paper-delivered GRE General Test along with the biggest mistakes test-takers make when it comes to using the provided calculator. 

Computer-Delivered Test

The GRE calculator for the computer-delivered test is on the computer screen. You can choose to display the calculator or minimize it. It can be a bit distracting for test-takers to have the calculator displayed on the screen for the entire math section, so odds are you will be minimizing it. There is not a designated location on the screen for the calculator, which is why having it show can take up valuable computer space. 

Paper-Delivered Test

If you take the paper-delivered GRE, a simple hand-held calculator will be provided to you on test day. It is a standard four-function calculator with buttons for memory. You will not be allowed to bring in your own calculator to the exam room. 

Calculator Functions

Transfer Display: At the bottom of the calculator is the “Transfer Display” function. This button can be used to transfer the calculator display into the answer box for Numeric Entry questions. Although this can save you some time from not having to type in your answer, make sure that the transferred number is in the correct form. For example, if a question requires you to round your answer or provide it in a percent, you will need to make the appropriate adjustments. 

Order of Operations: It is likely you have used a calculator that does not take into account PEMDAS–the convention in mathematics that outlines which operations are performed before others in a mathematical expression. PEMDAS is an acronym that represents the order of operations: parentheses, exponentiation (including square roots), multiplication and division (from left to right), addition and subtraction (from left to right).

The GRE calculator that will be provided to you does account for order of operations. For example, if you were to type in 9 + 2 x 3 on the GRE calculator, it will first compute 2 x 3 = 6 and then 6 + 9 = 15. Other calculators, that do not respect order of operation, would first computer 9 + 2 = 11, then 11 x 3 = 33. 

Operates in the Real: The calculator will not account for imaginary numbers or dividing by zero. Therefore, if you try to take the square root of a negative number, or press 3÷0, the calculator will display ERROR. You will need to press the Clear button in order to clear the display. 

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Limited Digits: The GRE calculator will only display up to eight digits. Hence, if the computation results in a number greater than 99,999,999 then the ERROR message will be displayed. You will need to press the clear button to clear the display. It is not uncommon for Data Analysis question to deal with large numbers, even in the billions. For example, you might have to find 28% of 3 billion. It is important to practice this type of computation without relying on typing in 3,000,000,000 in the calculator. 

Furthermore, if a computation results in a positive number less than 0.0000001, then 0 will be displayed.

Memory: There are three memory buttons on the GRE calculator: memory recall, memory clear and memory sum.

M R
M C
M plus

The “memory recall” will use the number in the calculator’s memory as if you had keyed in the number yourself. The “memory clear” button will set the calculators memory to 0. The “memory sum” button will take the number on the display and add it to the number in the memory. The new sum will then be the result in the memory. 

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C (Clear Input) vs. CE (Clear Entry): Personally, I was very confused about the difference between the and buttons for quite some time. The C (Clear Input) will clear all input you have entered into the calculator and set the screen back to 0. However, it will not clear the memory if you have stored it using Memory Sum. The CE (Clear Entry) button will clear the last number you put in but will not clear the entire equation. 

For example, if you meant to type in 3,215 ÷ 5 but accidentally typed in 3,215 ÷ 4, the CE button will get rid of the 4 and allow you to type in 5 without re-entering the entire equation.

Also, please note that if you have used the Transfer Display button to transfer the calculator display into the Numeric Entry box, and then realize your answer is wrong, the C and CE button will clear the calculator but not the answer that was transferred. You must manually delete the transferred number in the Numeric Entry answer box. 

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± (Positive/Negative): The button will allow you to go back and forth between the positive or negative of a number. For example, if the calculator displays 5 and then you press the button, the calculator will then display -5. 

Biggest Calculator Mistakes

Not Practicing: This is a lesson I learned the hard way. I never practiced with the GRE calculator, and during my POWERPREPS I chose to use my own calculator opposed to the one on the screen. Needless to say, I regretted my decision come test day. I ended up being very thrown off by navigating an onscreen calculator and I am pretty positive I had the C and CE buttons confused. 

Please, do not follow in my footsteps. There are apps that can be downloaded on your mobile device that mimic the GRE calculator perfectly. I recommend downloading the app and allowing this to be the only calculator you use when preparing for the math section. When you take the POWERPREPS, use the calculator display feature on the exam, not the one you have downloaded on your phone. 

Relying on the Calculator: Another benefit to practicing with the GRE calculator, especially when taking POWERPREPS, is you will begin to notice how time consuming it is to display the calculator on your screen and to use the mouse to type in your calculations. 

ETS and every test prep instructor out there, including myself, will tell you that for the majority of math questions on the GRE the calculator is not worth the trouble. It has limited functionality and is time-consuming. It will be faster to compute the math using the scratch paper and pencil provided to you. In my opinion, ETS is comfortable providing test takers with a calculator when the GMAT does not because they know it really isn’t all that helpful anyway. 

Converting Fractions to Decimals: A common habit I notice my students doing is converting fractions to decimals in order to avoid dealing with adding, subtracting, multiplying or dividing by fractions. This is totally fine if the answer choices are in decimal form. If they are not, you will be left with a decimal that you will need to try and convert back to a fraction. 

Yes, technically you can turn all of the answer choices into decimals to see which one matches up. However, time is of the essence. It would be better to keep your math in fraction form from the beginning. 

How to Get Comfortable Computing Without a Calculator 

It is going to be of the utmost importance that you are comfortable with doing the majority of math that will appear on the GRE without the use of a calculator. The best way to do this is to simply not allow yourself to use one when completing practice problems. 

The majority of the time you spend on a given GRE math problem will probably be reading the question, decoding what it is asking, and trying to figure out what math has to be done in order to answer the question. Once it comes time to doing the math, you cannot hesitate. If you have to spend time trying to remember how to divide by fractions, you will not be in the best position to finish the section.

There are plenty of free worksheets online that you can use as drills in order to hone your arithmetic skills. For example, you can type into Google “free fraction worksheets” and several will come up. Repetition is the best way to increase your ability to compute quickly on paper. 

In addition, it is not uncommon for ETS to see how well you are able to estimate. Some questions can be answered if you simply estimate and look at the answer choices to see which one is the most logical based off your estimation. Always keep this strategy in mind when going through practice sets. 

When to Use the Calculator 

There are really only three situations you should use the calculator for: 

  1. Long division 
  2. Square roots
  3. Adding, subtracting, or multiplying for numbers that have several digits

Square roots can really appear anywhere on the exam. I have noticed that Data Analysis questions tend to be where ETS introduces large numbers. Obviously, this is not always a given but it is common. When you get to the Data Analysis questions, be prepared to use the on-screen calculator. 

What Type of Calculator Do I Need for the GRE: Summary 

If you take the computer-delivered GRE, there will be an onscreen calculator you can use during the Quantitative Reasoning sections. If you are signed up for the paper-delivered GRE, a handheld calculator will be provided to you. Under no conditions can you use your own calculator for the GRE.

Both calculators are your standard four-function calculators with memory. They are very basic and can take some getting used to, so it is imperative you practice with the proper calculator prior to test day. I recommend downloading a GRE Calculator app on your mobile device. 

Furthermore, due to the fact that the onscreen calculator is time-consuming, you will want to only use it when dealing with large numbers. As you prepare for the GRE, force yourself to answer the majority of math questions by hand in order to master arithmetic by test day.