What Kinds of Calculators Are Allowed and Prohibited on the ACT?

By Mark Zegarelli

When choosing a calculator for the ACT, remember that while some are allowed others are not. Your safest choices include basic, scientific, and graphing calculators; conversely, you need to avoid laptops or PDAs that happen to have a calculator, calculators that make too much noise, and those that need an electrical plug-in to work.

Calculators you can use on the ACT

  • Basic calculator: You can buy this type of calculator for less than $10 in almost any store that sells stationery. Basic calculators are perfect for balancing your checkbook or keeping a tally of your groceries, but they’re simply not adequate for the ACT. If you’re currently using this kind of a calculator, you should definitely consider upgrading to a scientific or graphing calculator.

  • Scientific calculator: This type of calculator typically costs more than $10, but you get a lot of functionality not found on a basic calculator. Depending on the model, a scientific calculator usually includes exponents, square roots, logarithms, trig functions, a reciprocal function, and lots of other stuff that may come in handy on the ACT.

  • Graphing calculator: A graphing calculator has all the bells and whistles of a scientific calculator, plus a larger screen for visual display of graphs and tables. If you’re thinking of upgrading to a graphing calculator from either of the other two types, consider this: The main advantage you gain is directly related to your proficiency with these visual elements. So plan to spend at least four or five hours practicing with your new toy, creating input-output tables for functions, graphing lines and parabolas, and exploring other related visual options. If you’re not convinced you’re really going to practice, you may as well save your money. Stick with a scientific calculator, which should serve you well enough.

Calculators you cannot use on the ACT

The elders of the ACT weren’t born yesterday, which is how they got to be elders! So don’t try to pull a fast one on them. Even though you’re allowed to use a calculator on the test, you may not use a calculator that includes any of the following features:

  • Texting and Internet access. Sure, your iPhone (or iPad or laptop) may have a calculator function, but this function doesn’t make it a calculator. It also has lots of other fancy capabilities that aren’t allowed on the ACT. Obviously the elders don’t want you texting your genius Uncle Roy at MIT or looking up answers in Wikipedia if you get stuck on a question.

  • Talking or other weird noises. If your calculator makes noise and disturbs people, the monitors may separate you from it for the duration of the test. Of course, that separation wouldn’t be good for your test score.

  • Electrical access. There is no guarantee that your testing site will have a place to plug in a calculator that requires power. Even though you may get lucky, your best bet is to bring a battery-powered calculator (along with a fresh set of batteries).

The point here is that the ACT elders are traditionalists. So if you stray much beyond the old-fashioned scientific and graphing calculators, you may run into problems.