When You Should Repeat the GRE

By Ron Woldoff, Joseph Kraynak

Upon completing the GRE exam, you have the option of accepting and seeing your scores immediately or canceling the results if you’re convinced you did poorly. If you cancel the results, you have two choices: Retake the test or choose another career path. Most people choose to retake.

Most test-takers who repeat the exam tend to do much better the second time. It’s as if there’s no better way to prepare for the GRE than taking the GRE. Of course, you want to avoid having to take the test a second time, but if the first round doesn’t go so well, don’t lose hope. Also, be sure to schedule your GRE a month before your school needs the scores. That way, if you do have to retake it, you’ll still meet the application deadline. Also, just knowing you have a second chance helps ease your nerves in the first round.

If you think you underperformed on the GRE, consider the following when deciding whether to retake it and when preparing to retake the exam:

  • Are you repeating the test to get a certain minimum qualifying score? If you have your heart set on a particular graduate school that requires a minimum GRE score, you may not need to take the test again and again until you get that score. Talk to the admissions folks at the school you want to attend. They weigh the GRE score along with your GPA, résumé, and personal interests and have some flexibility when making their decision; if your score is close to the target, they may just let you in.

  • Are you willing to study twice as hard, or are you already burned out? If you put your heart and soul into studying for the exam the first time, you may be too burned out (or enervated) to take on another round of study and practice. After all, scores don’t magically go up by themselves; improvement requires effort.

  • What types of mistakes did you make on the first test? If you made mistakes because of a lack of familiarity with either the test format (you didn’t understand what to do when faced with a Quantitative Comparison question) or substance (you didn’t know the vocabulary words or were baffled by the geometry problems), you’re a good candidate for repeating the test. If you know what you did wrong, you can mend your ways and improve your score. This is one purpose of taking and reviewing the practice tests.

  • Did you run out of steam? Stamina is a key factor of success on the four-hour GRE. If you don’t practice writing the essays when taking the practice tests, you won’t be prepared for the extra hour of work before the Math and Verbal sections. Also, because you’re amped on test day, you’re likely to crash faster than usual. Knowing what to expect and preparing for it could boost your score on a retest.

  • Are you eligible to retake the GRE? You can take the GRE only once per 21-day period and no more than five times per rolling 12 months. If you try to take the test more often than that, you won’t be stopped from registering for or taking the test, but your scores won’t be reported.

Can repeating the exam hurt you? Typically, no. Most schools consider only your highest score. Find out from the individual schools you’re interested in whether that’s their policy; it isn’t the same for every school. If you’re on the borderline, or if several students are vying for one spot, sometimes having taken the exam repeatedly can hurt you (especially if your most recent score took a nosedive). On the other hand, an admissions counselor who sees several exams with ascending scores may be impressed that you stuck to it and kept trying, even if your score rose only slightly. In general, if you’re willing to invest the study time and effort and take the repeat exam seriously, go for it.