Studying for and taking the GRE is a massive undertaking. You’ve probably asked, “How often can you take the GRE?” and “How long do you need to study for the GRE.” But instead of beginning with those questions, I’m going to start this post in a rather unorthodox way. Don’t worry — I’ll give a break down of who should (and shouldn’t) retake the GRE. But in agonizing over this question, students lose sight of the bigger picture: How do I maximize my chances of getting into grad school?
Taking the GRE for Grad School Admissions
For many, the answer to the question above appears simple: maximize my GRE score. However, the answer is not that straightforward. Indeed, many lose sight of the ivory tower beyond the austere gates of the GRE, spending 6 months on GRE prep, and, in some cases, only a day on essays and applications.
So yes, the GRE is important, but it is only a part of your application. In terms of getting into grad school, you may be hurting your chances by focusing on the GRE at the expense of your application. There are, after all, essays and letters of recommendation to get in order.
How often can you take the GRE?
You can take the computer-based GRE every 21 days, and up to five times within any continuous 365 day period. Even if you cancel your scores for a GRE exam, this still counts towards one of your five annual test dates, and you’ll have to wait at least 21 days to take the test again.
As for the paper-based GRE General test, you can take that one as often as it’s offered.
But just because you can take the GRE that often, definitely doesn’t mean that you should. Keep reading.
Who Should Take the GRE Again?
As promised, I’ll get back to the main question at hand. It is not an easy one to answer, since everybody has a different story, different goals, different reasons they did not score where they hoped, and different time frames for when they have to submit their scores to prospective graduate programs. My hope is to be able to give an answer that is helpful to everyone. So, I’m going to break this into several different groups.
Click the links below to hop to the section that best suits your situation:
1. You didn’t have enough time to prep
So you rushed into this, thinking that you’d do okay. You might want to lambaste yourself for doing this, but don’t: there is nothing wrong with a retake. In fact, think of your first test as a trial run, one where you learned valuable things about the test and about how you functioned under pressure.
What to do: You’ll want to scrutinize any area in which you feel you can improve the second time around. Did you arrive a little late to the testing center? Did you not have enough snack (did you eat too much of your snack?) Were the testing center’s check-in procedures nerve-wracking? Whatever it may be, think of ways you can avoid this during the retake.
As for the content of the exam, what caused you the most issues? Was it the math section? The essays at the beginning? The length of the exam? Your pace on any one section? All of these?! You’ll have at least three weeks—the minimum time before you can retake the exam. So spend your time wisely before the retake, focusing on these areas.
2. Your performance test day was not up to expectations based on your mock scores
First off, the only mock scores that truly count are from the PowerPrep tests, the ones that ETS creates. Assuming you’ve taken both PowerPrep tests, if your test day score is much lower than your performance on the test was not consistent with your skill level.
Most likely, you stressed out and got flustered. It might have been running out of time; it might have been sheer never. Another common cause of not doing well test day is fatigue. Often students take the PowerPrep test without writing the essay. Or, they are not ready for the fact that there is experimental section—one more entire section—test day. It’s like training for a 10-mile race by never running more than 6 miles. Not a good idea.
What to do: The worst thing to do is to say that you are just bad at tests, or something similar. Yes, your nerves might have gotten the best of you, or you might have simply run out of steam after the 450-passage about isotope dating of the Ice Age. But it happens to many people—they just don’t often tell you.
So think of your first test as a trial run in which you learned something valuable about yourself. Whether it is taking an entire test with some Magoosh questions thrown in there for the experimental section (right before you begin the PowerPrep test) or whether it is learning breathing techniques to help you stay calm, make sure you do it this time around so you won’t let what happened to you the first time around happen again.
3. Your scores aren’t quite within to the middle range of the schools you want to go to, but are within 5-10 points of these scores
You might have already retaken the test and you aren’t quite where you want to be. I think if you have enough time—and you improved by 5-10 in your first retake—you should consider a second retake, if it will make you a more competitive candidate (this is especially the case for those whose transcript might lack in other departments).
What to do: Figure out ways that helped you improve the second time around. Make sure to keep at these, but also figure out ways you can improve in general. (Read “What to do” from point #1 above and also reading point #4 right below).
4. You prepped for a while but you didn’t use the right materials or take advantage of all the resources out there
There are many books out there (even ones that are well-reviewed on Amazon) and there are many Internet sites out there that provide material that is nothing like what you’ll see test day. Sure, superficially the questions might appear the same, but they are stripped of all nuance. To give you a quick example, I’ll give you two questions, one that is a real GRE question and another that is one I wrote that is a mock version of the subpar content that unfortunately accounts for about 50% of the material out there (to prove my point, I’m going to omit the answer and just focus on sentence complexity)
1. Shawna was upset that her husband Paul forgot to DVR favorite show. Therefore, when she got home she ______ him.
2. Stories are a haunted genre; hardly (i) ________ kind of story, the ghost story is a paradigm of form, and (ii) _________ was undoubtedly one effect that Poe had in mind when he wrote about how stories work.
If your practice consists of Shawna’s favorite show level of writing, you are not going to ready for turns of phrase like “paradigm of form” and the complex sentence structure in the second sentence (which is an official ETS question). This shoddiness carries over to other sections of the test, giving you a false sense of mastery. But practice should be challenging and to do well you’ll need questions like the second one and even ones that are easier. But nothing will be anywhere near the level (which is maybe 5th or 6th grade) of the first sentence.
Sadly, many use this type of content and then are shocked at how different the actual test is.
What to do: Don’t use this kind of content. It’s hard sometimes to tell the quality of content since not all of it is as egregiously bad as the first example. The best bet is to stick to official materials and official tests as much as possible. I highly recommend that you read our list of best GRE books before purchasing any new materials.
Who Should Consider NOT Retaking the GRE
Click the links below to hop to the section that best suits your situation:
1. You want to get a perfect score
For those scoring above the 90%, retaking the GRE, just to get a 170 in math (vs. a 166) will only detract from time that could be spent hunting down an old professor for a glowing letter of recommendation. Even those who are trying to enter a math program, the extra bump in points may not carry as great a significance as one would expect.
Of course I cannot look into a crystal ball and divine what grad admissions are thinking. But one thing to keep in mind is that on the GRE 94% is 166. So if an admissions program is comparing your performance to somebody who only took the old GRE (which is valid until August 2016), then essentially you got the exact same score.
Would that same admissions program give more weight to the 170? Perhaps. But I think it could very well dump them all in the same bucket, so to speak, and look at other parts of the application. “Ooh, look at this glowing letter of recommendation that the 166 scorer got. Hmm… it looks like Mr. 170 wrote his own letter of rec—and did a poor job of it, at that.”
My one caveat: if your application is already strong and you are applying to a top engineering or physics program, then you might want to aim for that 170.
2. You’ve taken the test more than four times
It’s hard to say exactly when too much is too much with the GRE. But if you taken the test four times in less than 18 months, the chances are you should take a serious break from the GRE. That isn’t to say that you should never take the test again. Indeed, you may want to look at point #4 above. It might come down to you just taking a year off, working on your vocabulary and number sense in that time, and maybe even getting a tutor at some point.
The final assessment is up to you. Of course there are many who are on the fence. And on this blog I’ve had literally hundreds of comments asking me whether score x is a “good” score. For a helpful post read What is a Good Score on the Revised GRE?.
If you’re still not sure where you stand how to go about it, check out our Retaking the GRE Flowchart.
And if you’re looking for even more help in deciding, our free Ultimate Guide to the GRE might help!
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in June 2012 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.