The Quantitative Reasoning section of the GRE is unique in that it provides a tool that sections on similar standardized exams lack: an on-screen calculator. Though this distinction may relieve those who feel intimidated by math or by standardized exams in general, it also challenges those trying to determine the best strategy for employing its use. One can imagine two extremes while taking the exam: one where time is wasted by using the device too often and the other where time is wasted by abstaining from using it all together. Both cases highlight test-taking habits that are not easily broken. However, to help, here are a few quick rules for when to use a calculator on the GRE exam.
1) Try to avoid using the calculator when multiple choice answers contain fractions, exponents, or variables.
Since a calculator can perform operations quickly and accurately, one may grow to rely on it for almost any computational situation on an exam. However, there are some instances when it may not lead directly to the answers. For example, decimal values may not easily translate into fractions. Coming up with .3125 as the solution may not bring one any closer to the answer if the correct answer choice appears as 55/104. Furthermore, the GRE may include variable-in-choice (VIC) questions where one would have to undertake the time-consuming process of plugging in numbers for each answer choice to find the correct one. As an alternative, it may be better to rely more on algebraic or estimation techniques to solve such problems.
2) Try using the calculator only once per problem.
Since timing is a major concern for many test-takers, it is best to avoid using the calculator multiple times when working through a single question. Granted, solving math problems on standardized exams can be a messy affair, but constantly switching focus between scratch paper and the calculator can create unnecessary anxiety. As a goal, try to write all the given values into one large algebraic expression and then plug it into the calculator all at once. This will definitely save time as one progresses through the 20 questions in each section.
3) Take advantage of the calculator when dealing with large decimal values.
Data interpretation questions are notorious for the numerical gymnastics needed to solve each problem. Often, one is faced with organizing and computing data that may include a wide range of values across different orders of magnitude. Since the numbers will most likely appear in an abbreviated decimal form (e.g. 1.35 billion instead of 1,350,000,000) and since the answer choices may be hard to estimate, it is actually advisable to use a calculator here. They work well with simple decimal and percentage calculations. Other question types, with decimal values in the answer choices, may also be easily solved using a calculator. Feel free to look for one or two questions in each quantitative section that may fit this pattern.
Overall, the GRE is designed to test one’s quantitative reasoning skills within a specific amount of time. In preparing for the exam, one can develop the skill for deciding when to put aside mental math ability in favor of using a calculator. This may be the most important step in markedly increasing one’s quantitative score.