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Are You Allowed a Calculator on the GRE?

William Cohen
Published by William Cohen
Last Updated On: July 2, 2021

Most GRE test-takers worry about the quant sections. To make matters worse, most don’t even know if they can use a calculator. This just makes the whole thing more nerve-wracking.

I’ll help lift some weight.

Here are all the facts you need about using a calculator on the GRE, based on my broad experience with prepping students.

Can You Use a Calculator On the GRE Exam?

Typing on a calculator

You can’t bring your own calculator, but you can use the official GRE calculator provided by the ETS.

The type of calculator you’ll get depends on whether you’re taking a paper-based or computer-based test.

If you’re taking a paper-based test, then you’ll get a standard calculator. These are handheld calculators that you probably used during high school.

If you’re taking a computer-based GRE, you’ll get an on-screen calculator with a lot of useful functions. I’ll give you step-by-step instructions on how to use these functions.

Since most students are taking a computer-based GRE test, I’ll mainly focus on how to use the on-screen GRE calculator.

GRE On-screen Calculator: The Basics

You’ll be provided with the GRE calculator for the quantitative reasoning section. You should only use it when you’re struggling to solve questions with mental math alone.

I’m not saying this only because it’s what the ETS advises. I’m also saying this because it can be quicker to solve easy GRE questions on your own.

Here’s how the GRE calculator looks [1]:

GRE On Screen calculator

You can use the calculator by pressing the buttons. But feel free to use your computer keyboard too. This may be quicker.

You can also use a keyboard shortcut for, say, equal sign.

Functions

Close up calculator on top of answer sheet

The GRE calculator contains the basic functions you’d find on standard calculators:

Function Symbol
numbers 0-9
decimal point .
addition and subtraction +/-
multiplication and division x/÷
square root button
equals sign =

I’ll focus more on the non-numerical functions that you might be less familiar with:

  • Clear Input (C): Clear all inputs and go back to “0”.
  • Clear Entry (CE): Clear single digits, starting with the last number you entered.
  • Transfer Display: This is a function you don’t need on basic calculators. The transfer display button is used to transfer the calculator display to the answer box. Use it for numeric entry questions and save yourself some valuable time you’d spend copying the number.

There’s also one memory location with three basic memory functions: 

  • Memory Sum (M+): Press this button to store an answer you want to use later. You can clear your entry and start new computations. As long as there’s an “M” on the left side of the display, your answer is stored. You’ll have to hit MC to delete it from the calculator’s memory.
  • Memory Recall (MR): Use this button to recall answers you stored previously.
  • Memory Clear (MC): Hit the MC if you want to clear the stored answer. The “M” will disappear from the calculator display.

How to Use It

Pressing the calculator

The ETS (Educational Testing Service) came up with the GRE calculator as something that can help test-takers solve time-consuming tasks faster.

It’s not meant to be a replacement for your “mental calculator”, nor for your lack of math knowledge.

What I’m trying to say: Use the calculator on the GRE only for the hardest GRE math questions. Equip yourself with knowledge and skills and don’t expect the calculator alone to earn you points.

Here’s a brief overview of you should (and shouldn’t) use the GRE calculator:

Do Don’t
✔️ use it for complex math tasks that require tedious calculations (e.g. square root, long divisions) ❌ use it for simple math problems
✔️ use it to check your answers and estimates ❌ use it when you need to give fractional answers

 

Also, you need to understand (and follow) the calculator’s order of operations if you want to get the correct answer. The calculator executes multiple operations in this exact order:

  1. Parentheses
  2. Exponentiation (square roots included)
  3. Multiplications and divisions
  4. Additions and subtractions

For example, if your task looks like this:

(5 + 7) x 3

The calculator would first add the numbers in the parentheses (5 + 7 = 13) and then multiply the result by 3 (13 x 3 = 39). This is just a mathematical convention that you actually follow every time you do math in your head.

Beware of the Restrictions

The calculator’s abilities are, unfortunately, finite. It’s best if you know its restrictions from the get-go.

That way, you’ll be able to adapt to what it can and can’t do more easily on the GRE test:

  1. Decimal Points. Eight is the maximum number of decimal places that the calculator displays. If you enter (or get) a number with more decimals, you’ll get an error message.
  2. Math Rules. You can’t use the GRE calculator for something that contradicts general math rules. For example, you can’t take a square root of a negative number. You’ll only get yet another error message.

Here’s What You’re Allowed to Bring To the GRE

Water bottles

You can bring these items on your test day: 

  • Valid ID
  • Confirmation email
  • Food and water

You can also bring electronic devices (your phone, for example) to the test center with you.

But you shouldn’t use them in the testing room, so it’s best you leave them in the locker.

Here’s What You’re Not Allowed to Bring

Notebook and pencil

You can’t bring these items on the GRE:

  • Calculator
  • Pencils, pens, or scratch paper

Again, you can bring these items with you but you can’t use them on the GRE.

If you do bring them, you must leave them in your locker before the test begins. Then why bother bringing these items at all?

Using the GRE Calculator In a Nutshell

Let’s recap the most important things you need to know about the GRE calculator:

  • The calculator is intended to be used on the quantitative reasoning sections of the GRE General Test.
  • A blue outline will appear around the calculator when you select it.
  • Use the calculator only for long computations that require a lot of time.

I highly advise you to use a similar calculator during your GRE prep and practice solving official GRE practice tests with it.

Wrapping Up: Can You Use a Calculator on the GRE?

You can use a calculator on the GRE quantitative sections. However, you can only use the one that comes with the test, so you shouldn’t bother bringing your own.

In some cases, it’s easier and quicker to solve a task using your own math skills rather than a calculator. I advise you to use it only to confirm your solution on simpler tasks.

The GRE calculator does take some getting used to, but you shouldn’t have any problems as long as you practice in advance.

References:

  1. https://www.ets.org/gre/revised_general/prepare/quantitative_reasoning/calculator/

About the author

William Cohen

William Cohen

William is an electrical engineer whose great passion is helping promising students achieve their goals and dreams. He enjoys sharing his knowledge and expertise with aspiring learners from all over the world.

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