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How to Study for a GMAT Retake

With a slight sigh, you acquiesce. You know that you need a higher score on the GMAT and that you need to retake the test. But you don’t want the same result, so you know that something has to change, that you have to make changes to your studies. But what are these changes?

This is the exact question I plan to address in this article. Each section is structured the same. I begin by talking about what might have gone wrong, and I end with tips and suggestions for what to do different this time you study.

If you are are unsure if you should retake the GMAT, then I recommend starting with “Should I Retake the GMAT”.


Nerves, Stress, Anxiety—Oh My!

Stress and anxiety have a powerful effect on our ability to concentrate and focus. Just the right amount of stress can make us more focused, more in tune with our task, and less prone to error. But there is a threshold where stress is no longer beneficial and starts to hurt our performance.

If you scored dramatically lower on the actual test than on the GMAT Prep mock exam, then stress may have played a part in not reaching your target score (Only use GMAT Prep as your point of comparison. You can learn why in Why GMAT Practice Test Scores Vary). Unless you had a drop, like 650 to 580, a 50 plus decrease in score, I would hesitate to blame stress for the score change.

How to Make it Right?

To avoid the deleterious effects of anxiety, we need to practice with stress and anxiety while also learning to diffuse it. First, when you are practicing for your retake, and especially when you are taking mock tests, make the environment as stressful as possible. Turn on the radio and TV while you take a practice test. Go to a loud, crowded cafe to do a set of practice problems. Now you have distractions and stresses in every direction. Your senses will become overloaded, and you will have to practice with distractions and stress.

But what to do when you are distracted and stressed? Monitor your breathing. Notice your breath and you will notice your anxiety. When people become anxious or stressed, they start to take shallow short breaths, their chest tenses, and their whole body becomes rigid. As you notice this happen, take deliberate, long breaths through your nose. Pay attention to the exact point where air in the outside world crosses the plane of your nostril and enters your body. This is a simple technique that can greatly help in diffusing stressful situations.

For more on managing test stress and breathing, I highly recommend the following articles, Beating GMAT Stress and Overcome GMAT Exam Anxiety: Breathe!.


Take Enough Practice Tests?

Taking complete practice tests is time consuming and exhausting. Many students eschew practice tests for practice problems, not realizing that they are severely hurting their chances for success on test day. We all need to practice sitting for a long period of time, dealing with focus and motivation over a long period, and testing and refining pacing strategies. Before you took the real test, you should’ve taken at least 4 – 6 practice tests. If you didn’t then you know exactly what to do this time.

Some of you might have taken this many tests, but the tests that you took were not very good. Not all practice tests are created equally. We only recommend GMAT Prep tests, Magoosh tests, and Manhattan tests. All other tests are of questionable quality.

How to Make it Right?

This time around, make sure you are taking high-quality, complete practice tests once a week. Since you are taking the test for a second or third time, you won’t need to spend time learning the question types or working on fundamentals. So use your time to take these practice tests. With the time between tests, comb through your performance. Identify problem spots. Locate weaknesses. Track your progress on each question type and each skill.  Ultimately, the goal is awareness. With a catalogue of your mistakes and weaknesses, you can be on guard during your next practice test, and in the end, on the actual test. (I’ll talk more about this shortly.)


Foiled by Inadequate Prep Materials

GMAT preparation materials span quite a range. Some are better than others. Some you should completely avoid. If you weren’t using the highest-quality materials then you were at a disadvantage on test day. If you were using poor materials, you didn’t have a chance. Read about the best GMAT books and resources so that you know what to use this time around.

How to Make it Right?

Now that you know that all resources are not created equally, get rid of the ones that are poor and surround yourself with the best of the best—Manhattan, GMAT Official Guide, Magoosh. Also, don’t just settle on one resource; the more variety, the better prepared you will be.

If you already have these resources then you will be going through them a second or third time. Seeing the same material more than once is still valuable and you can still make improvement this way. Actually, attempting questions that you have already seen is a great metric for how much you have learned or improved. Hopefully, you didn’t write in the books. :)


Did You Know Thyself (and Thyself’s weaknesses)?

Success is only achieved with an honest assessment of a one’s abilities. When you took the GMAT, did you have a strong sense of your weaknesses? Did you know if you struggle with geometry more than algebra? Further, did you know that you struggle more with compound interest questions than simple interest questions? Were you keeping track of your repeated errors and mistakes? Did you know what grammar concepts you continually missed in Sentence Correction questions? What slowed you down the most when reading a passage? Did you tend to make “silly” mistakes when you were almost done with a problem?

How to Make it Right?

This time when you study, your goal should be to know the answer to the questions I just asked. And you can only do this by keeping track of your mistakes and spending more time analyzing questions and reading answer explanations. What you need is an error log.

Some of you may be able to keep a mental error log, but memory is a tricky thing. It’s harder to notice patterns this way, so I recommend using a notebook for your error log. Write down the question number, the source, question type, and concept tested. Then write down answers to the following questions:

  • Why you missed the question?
  • Why your answer is wrong?
  • Why the correct answer is correct?
  • What will you do to avoid this next time around?

Return to your error log often. Review your mistakes and errors before you take a practice test. You want your common mistakes and errors present in your mind when you sit to take a test so that you can consciously avoid them. If you do this enough, by the time you sit for the actual test, you will be aware of your common errors and “silly” mistakes and you will work to avoid them or notice them when they happen.



As you look up at the hill of GMAT studying ahead, a hill that you have already trailblazed once, stay confident and positive. You have experience on your side and know what lies at the top of the hill.

With experience comes confidence, and with confidence comes domination. Learning to manage your stress and anxiety will be easier this time since you have the experience. Make practice tests a main part of your studying. Use quality materials and don’t be afraid to tackle the same book again. Finally, keep a log of your errors, slip-ups, and mistakes.

If the journey is arduous and requires hard work, by the time you reach the apex and take the test, you’ll be able to look down and know that you will never have to climb that hill again. Happy studying!


By the way, sign up for our 1 Week Free Trial to try out Magoosh GMAT Prep!

2 Responses to How to Study for a GMAT Retake

  1. alex February 4, 2014 at 9:26 am #

    You should put these tips in the lesson vids. I felt so nervous writing the GMAT and did poorly because of this. I will def try to write at my schools computer lap that is pretty noisy for practice for the actual gmat.

    • Kevin Rocci
      Kevin February 4, 2014 at 10:00 am #

      That’s a great idea! I can record a GMAT Tuesday to cover these topics. I hope that you’re retake goes well! Lots of practice in stressful, uncomfortable places will be good training. :)

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