Picking the Right Calculator for the ACT

The ACT® says that the entire math test can be completed without a calculator. While technically correct, in practice, few would be able to complete the test in 60 minutes. So, what makes a good testing calculator?

Use what you are comfortable with:

Any calculator is better than no calculator. However, if a student is opening a new calculator and tossing the packaging in the trash in their test room, they won’t have a great testing experience. Without familiarity with the calculator layout, finding commonly used buttons like the squared, square root, exponent, and  can be frustrating and time consuming. Worse yet, the student may try experimenting with calculator features that they recently saw online, which can take more time to recall than it would if they solve the question without the calculator.

To resolve this, students should complete a few months of math homework with the new calculator prior to the ACT®. This should help them master the layout and give them ample time to rehearse any special features. Additionally, if the students are taking a test prep program, they should have the calculator prior to any math assignment.  This is so they can learn the calculator tricks math teachers often avoid, rehearse those tricks over multiple practices, and understand when the calculator is the best or fastest method.

Does a graphing calculator make much of a difference?

Yes…if the student has time to master the layout, is taught when it is best to use, and rehearses the useful features. And boy are there a lot of useful features. Without even downloading questionable applications, graphing calculators come standard with applications that can help make quick work of normally time-consuming math problems, such as finding the roots of a polynomial, solving for a system of equations, and multiplying matrices. Other applications can provide formulas such as the formula of an ellipse and the standard form of a quadratic.

Math purists may claim that access to those features undermines that math concept and is basically cheating. First, the functions mentioned come standard on calculators that the ACT® has deemed acceptable. Second, the major challenge of the ACT® is understanding when and how to apply the math concepts.  Students are often required to solve complex word problems like this:

  • This month, Kami sold 70 figurines in 2 sizes. The large figurines sold for $12 each, and the small figurines sold for $8 each. The amount of money he received from the sales of the large figurines was equal to the amount of money he received form the sale of the small figurines. How many large figurines did Kami sell this month?

The key concept is the ability to set up a system of equations. If the student recognizes that is it a system of equations problem and understands how to construct it, they have demonstrated mastery of the concept. Calculator merely isolates the variables they set up. Plus, other questions test the skill of isolating a variable more directly, so they aren’t losing out on anything. They are merely optimizing their resources.

What Calculator Do You Recommend?

You are responsible for knowing what is ACT® approved, but  to make things easier, we will only discuss allowable calculators.

Budget Friendly Option: TI-36X Pro

Oddly, the budget option isn’t a graphing calculator at all.  You may have expected the Casio fx-9750GII to be here since it is roughly $40. However, its major downfall is the menu system. Opening a menu will only display 5 options and an arrow to show more options. This can make finding a function difficult and time consuming.

The TI-36X Pro contains most of the graphing calculator features like a polynomial solver and a system of equation solver, which makes it more like a graphic calculator than a scientific calculator. The difference is that these features are on their own button, rather than nested in a series of menu options. Plus, it comes in at around $20.  You can watch our video below detailing all the features that are normally exclusive to a graphing calculator but happen to be on the TI-36X Pro.

Best for the Test: TI-84 Plus CE

The TI-84 family of calculators has many variations, but the TI-84 Plus CE stands above the rest. It has more than just a colorful screen and a chargeable battery. This calculator makes the ACT® easier with a faster fraction maker using [alpha][x,t,,n], faster matrix entry using [alpha][zoom], and improvements to the display in the PlySmlt2 app. Because it is a common calculator, teachers will likely have familiarity, and there are myriad online tutorials. A great resource that walks through all the useful features of the TI-84 Plus CE as it relates to the ACT® is the book Demystifying the Calculator by Vinny Madera.

It may be surprising that I am not recommending the TI-Nspire CX. This calculator is a very close second. It has all the functions that make the TI-84 Plus CE great and more. However, the TI-Nspire also has a rather difficult menu system. Rather than being difficult to navigate like the Casio, the TI-Nspire has so many functions that it can be overwhelming. However, if a student can get beyond that learning curve, it can be just as effective on the test.


The calculator isn’t a silver bullet that will provide significant improvements on the ACT®. A good calculator is still only as good as the user. Start using one of the recommended calculators early, learn the special tricks that math teachers avoid, and then master the test by learning when the calculator is best and when it isn’t. Then and only then can the calculator make short work of a difficult test.

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