How to best use a calculator in your accountancy exams

Woman working at desk with calculator


Expert tutor, Jen Woodhams, shares her tips on the best ways you can put your calculator to good use in your exams.

In some exams, you will rely on your calculator. And in some, you may barely use it. But either way, it is very important to make sure of the following:

Calculator guidance

All accountancy exams are now computer-based, and typically have an on-screen computer-based scientific calculator that’s available to use. However, I would recommend that you use your own physical calculator where possible, as it’s usually quicker and easier during your exam.

The most popular calculator brands are Casio, Sharp, Texas Instruments, and Hewlett Packard. Some institutes also provide a comprehensive list of approved calculator models (of which there are many), whilst others provide more generic guidance.

In general, it is not usually acceptable to use a calculator with a graphical/alphanumeric display, one with advanced programming options, or use the calculator on your mobile phone. However, the rules vary per qualification, and therefore it’s important to check with the relevant institute as to whether your calculator will be allowed in the exam.

Where possible, I recommend using a scientific calculator over a basic calculator, even if you do not need to use the advanced functions. Although the buttons tend to be smaller, there are many useful functions that can make it more efficient to use, and you are more likely to get the correct answer since it knows the mathematical order of operations.

Setting up your calculator

There are a number of adjustments I would recommend making so that your calculator is set up to provide you with answers in the most useful way. These include changing the settings so numbers are shown:

  • As decimals and not fractions, eg. 0.5 instead of ½
  • As normal rather than scientifically, eg. 0.001 instead of 1 x 10^-3
  • In full rather than as a recurring decimal, eg. 0.888888 rather than 0.8

Watching our video “How to Set Up Your Casio Calculator” to learn how to adjust these within a Casio calculator.

For other calculators, please read your instruction manual. You may also wish to add a digital separator (which you can find from the setup menu in the newer Casio models), so it’s easier to see longer numbers as they’ll show as 1 000 000 instead of 1000000.

How best to use your calculator

This is also covered in the above video. You can make the best use of the functions in your calculator by:

  • Using the fractions button to type in more complex fraction calculations
  • Using the percentage button (although converting to a decimal in your head is also effective)
  • Using sto and recall buttons (or equivalent) to save answers to bring them back up again.

Also, many scientific calculators will have an ANS, or equivalent, to bring up the last answer, so that you don’t have to spend precious exam time typing it in again, and you can retain the full level of accuracy.

Often, a scientific calculator screen will show the full calculation as well as the answer so you can sense-check it. If you realise you have made a mistake, you can use the up arrow button to access the working, then the back arrow button and Del button to find the mistake and delete it, rather than starting from scratch.

When not to use your calculator

Some accountancy exams have longer-style questions where you’re provided with a spreadsheet space in order to present your workings. For these, you are expected to use formulas in the cells, rather than your calculator.

This is more efficient as you can copy and paste formulas that you’re using more than once, and the spreadsheet works out the answers immediately.

Final thoughts

In summary, many accountancy exams are time pressured and difficult. Therefore, if you can use your calculator efficiently and accurately, then this will help improve your chances of passing.

Start your studies

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