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Earning the Right Score: What to Consider Before Retaking the GRE

This post is a contribution from our friends at CrushTheGRE.

The Basics of GRE Test Taking

One of the most daunting tasks for students getting ready for graduate school is taking the GRE. The Graduate Record Examination is the most commonly accepted standardized test recognized by school admissions. Think of the GRE as the backbone of your graduate school application.

The GRE is administered by the ETS (or Educational Testing Service), a nonprofit dedicated to academic excellence. The test is designed to mirror the style of thinking students will perform throughout graduate school. Made up of three segments—verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing—GRE test scores offer a snapshot of an applicant’s qualifications and ability.

After finishing the test, unofficial scores for the quantitative and verbal reasoning are released immediately. Test proctors can print out an unofficial report for you at the testing site. Your analytical writing score is reviewed by the ETS and official scores are released to schools 10-15 days after your testing session.

Let’s explore if retaking the GRE might be the right decision for you, and which study approaches can help you get the best score possible.

Does Retaking the GRE Help You Get a Better Score?

The competitive nature of applying for grad school made the number of people taking the GRE rise 15% in 2014. This is only expected to continue, as more schools are accepting the GRE in place of other tests like the GMAT and LSAT. Because the test is so challenging, about 25% of applicants choose to retake the GRE after their first attempt. Statistically, those who take the test again receive a higher score the second time around. You can retake the test up to five times within a year as long as each test day is spaced out at least 21 days apart.

The Odds are in Your Favor

Taking the test multiple times is helpful. Once you have already taken the test you are more likely to have a less nerve-wracking experience. Additionally, seeing the areas you performed poorly in helps you focus your studying.

On the second time, you know what to expect and also know which areas you need to study more. The GRE is the only test where test-takers can skip questions and go back to change answers. Simply mastering your understanding of the test’s format and how to effectively allocate your time can help you out tremendously. This is one of many reasons why those who retake the GRE can likely increase their score.

The ETS released some promising statistics on students who chose to retake the GRE. On average, test-takers were able to get higher scores in all areas of the test than they did in their first testing sessions.

GRE Score Improvements For Retakes:

  • Verbal Reasoning: 59% scored higher
  • Quantitative Reasoning: 62% scored higher
  • Analytical Writing: 40% scored higher

Of course, take these statistics with a grain of salt. Simply retaking the test will only be beneficial if you have found a precise method to study. The ETS also unveiled stats showing that some re-takers performed the same as their first attempt, so changing the variables in your study strategies is pivotal to achieving a better score.

Do Schools Care if You Retake the GRE?

The good news is that schools are more than open to students taking the test multiple times, so if you decide to share this information with schools, it won’t hurt you. From an admissions perspective, retaking the test does not hurt your chances of being accepted.

Not only do admission committees not have a preference for the number of times you take the test, but taking the GRE more than once, in my opinion, shows the school faculty your determination and dedication to excellence. With that being said, if you somehow score worse on your second time around, there’s absolutely no reason you should share all your scores.

ScoreSelect

The ETS implemented a system called ScoreSelect. This system allows test-takers the freedom of sending their best score to schools. With ScoreSelect, you can choose which scores you want to be sent to admissions. Test scores are compiled by the test date. This means that if you take the test twice, and improve your score the second time, you can send scores from the second testing session without the school seeing your first test scores. You can either send all scores from each GRE attempt, or only send the one where you received the highest score. Schools won’t know you took the GRE more than once if you don’t choose to share that information with them.

Breaking Down the Test Scores – How is Each GRE Section Scored?

The quantitative and verbal reasoning scores are reported in a range between 130 and 170, with one-point increments. The test is selection-level adaptive. If you answer questions correctly in a prior section, the following section will be more difficult. Each question is regarded as the final raw score—the number of questions you answered correctly. Through a process called equating, the raw score is converted into a scale score—compensating for the level of difficulty. Scores are understood through percentiles. If you are in the 80th percentile, you scored 80% better than other test-takers who took the same section.

For the analytical writing section, a holistic reporting system is used to compile a score. A computer program called e-rater, as well as trained humans, review both essays and assign a score based on quality. If the human reviewer and computer analysis closely agree, the average of the two scores is used. If there is a disagreement, a second human reviewer’s score is used to average a final score. Essay scores are reported on a scale between 0-6, with half scores rounded to the nearest half-point interval.

Test Scores on the GRE:

  • Verbal Reasoning → Scale between 130-170, 1-point increments
  • Quantitative Reasoning → Scale between 130-170, 1-point increments
  • Analytical Writing → 0-6 point scale, in half-point increments

What is a Good GRE Score?

There are hundreds of different programs offered by different schools. Some schools have rigid minimums on the lowest possible score you can get and still be accepted into a program, while other schools are more flexible.

Looking at a few top schools in three different programs offers us a glimpse of what schools expect in GRE cutoff scores:

  1. Harvard Biological Science Program: Harvard’s estimated range for their Biological Sciences program is between a 158-162 for verbal reasoning and a range between for the quantitative 160-164 portion.
     
  2. MIT Civil and Environmental Engineering: MIT doesn’t have an official cutoff score. However, the school does state a preference for interested students to have scored within the 80th percentile or better in all three areas of the GRE. This equates to a total GRE score of 324-331.
     
  3. Stanford Medical School: Stanford’s estimated score range for their medical school ranges from 152-166 for the verbal reasoning and 152-170 for the quantitative.

Scores aren’t everything. Yes, getting a high test score helps your chances of acceptance, but graduate programs take other parts of your application into account. Grades, GPA, work experience, and letters of recommendation are also vital to your application.

If you hit your target school’s cutoff score, focus on strengthening other parts of your application. Otherwise, retaking the GRE is in your best interest.

Getting Ready to Retake the Test

There are tons of factors involved with GRE test-taking performance. The amount of sleep you get the night before the test, having test anxiety, or being sick can all have a negative impact on your test score.

On top of being in the right mental place, you will also need to study properly. There are dozens of different approaches to studying for the GRE. The test itself is difficult to prepare for because it’s a general knowledge test, meaning questions don’t correlate to specific material like a history exam would. Instead, the GRE analyzes your higher order thinking skills. This different style of test requires a systematic approach toward studying.

Having a system ensures you don’t waste time studying areas you’ve already mastered and that you spend adequate time on material you’re not familiar with. For example, if you’re well-versed in geometry and data analysis but don’t recognize common GRE vocabulary, you will want to focus on expanding your vocabulary. Many people spend the same amount of time studying for the Quantitative and Verbal sections of the exam, despite being much stronger in one section over the other. Don’t waste your time doing this.

Finding the Best Study Tools

There are a variety of GRE study options out there and it’s important you choose the right one for you. Course prep styles range from dense textbooks, online prep courses, and in-person tutoring courses. Your style of learning will determine which study course will be the best for your learning habits. I always recommend students use ETS’ free materials alongside whatever prep course they purchase, since ETS writes the test.

Depending on your application deadline, time might be of the essence, so finding a study course that helps you study in a systematic way helps save time and improves your chances. One of the best prep courses out there is Magoosh.

Magoosh’s course is perfect for disciplined students who want to study at their own pace. Magoosh students score six points higher on both sections than the median score of all other GRE takers. That’s huge! I’ve seen students succeed using their course time and time again. Also, if you complete Magoosh’s program and do not see a five-point increase over your old GRE score, you get your money back.

You can read my full Magoosh review here.

Conclusion: Is Retaking the GRE Your Best Choice?

If you have already taken the GRE and aren’t happy with your test scores, don’t worry! This is a pretty common thing. Taking the GRE over again gives you the opportunity to redeem yourself and prove yourself to your target graduate schools. On average, the majority of people who retake the GRE will perform better, so if you put in the effort, you’ll see results.

My advice is to know your ultimate goal. Determine which schools you want to get into and find out what their cutoff scores are, or what the average scores of their applicants are. If you don’t find those answers online, admissions offices will usually point you in the right direction. If you score higher than the cutoff scores for your target schools, then there’s really no need to retake the exam. But if the average scores for your top schools are noticeably higher than yours, take the time to retake the GRE. It’ll be well worth it.

Brett Welker has helped hundreds of prospective Graduate School students increase their GRE scores and get into the schools of their dreams. Get GRE study tips and course recommendations at CrushtheGREtest.com.

Magoosh students score 12 points better than average on the GRE. Click here to  learn more!

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8 Responses to Earning the Right Score: What to Consider Before Retaking the GRE

  1. Suphachart August 8, 2018 at 10:13 am #

    Hello I score 331 (Q169 V 162) but my 3.0 awa disappointed me. I aim for MS in biomedical engineering. My target schools such as USC, Duke say that they choose the best scores of each part if I submit gre score more than once. My questions are Should I retake gre merely for the sake of improving awa and how validity of “selecting best score from each part” since I rarely find this criteria mentioned in gre-related posts.

    PS my writing score in Toefl is 27 can this compensate low awa?

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert August 16, 2018 at 1:30 pm #

      Hi Supachart,

      Sorry to hear your AWA score was lower than you’d hoped! That sounds frustrating, especially after posting such an impressive AWA score. As for “selecting the best score from each part,” you can’t really mix and match section scores from one test or another. For instance, you can’t selectively submit an AWA score from a separate testing session where you got a higher AWA but lower Verbal and Quant scores.

      However, there are a number of other options for you if you’re not happy with your AWA score. The first thing I’d recommend is to contact your target schools and ask them if your AWA score hurts your chances of admission. Not all schools place an emphasis on AWA scores, and in many STEM programs, a 3 in AWA is not a problem, especially if you got 160+ in your other sections and can demonstrate your writing skills in other ways (such as your high TOEFL Writing score).

      If your target schools say the 3 in AWA is not a problem, then I do recommend a retake. The good news here is that with a 27 in TOEFL Writing, I do believe you have the skills to get a higher score in AWA with more practice and a retake.

  2. veekee August 6, 2018 at 7:37 pm #

    Hi Magoosh, i took the GRE today and unofficial scores were 304; V: 156 and Q: 148. I intend pursuing a graduate program in pharmaceutical sciences for fall 2019.

    Seeing my scores are on the average, i will be retaking the test. What is the average time that i can do this seeing the application window is almost open.

    Please also can i use my present scores to apply to some middle tier school and eventually after my second attempt, send the proposed better scores to my desired top tier schools.

    Some facts;
    1. I am yet to write toefl
    2. I have 2 yrs of work experience
    3. Undergraduate major: PharmD

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert August 16, 2018 at 1:51 pm #

      Hi Veekee,

      First off, I’d say your scores definitely would be acceptable to many mid-tier schools. And it never hurts to apply to upper tier schools to see if you can be accepted, even with average scores, especially if you have work experience as a consideration.

      As for the application window and the amount of time you have, I’d recommend studying for the TOEFL immediately before you look at a GRE retake. The TOEFL is required at most English-language-country pharmacy programs, and you’ll want to take all required tests before you look at improving any scores.

      I generally recommend at least 1 month of study to a prepare for the TOEFL. To see what a typical TOEFL study plan of one month or longer might look like, check out Magoosh’s TOEFL study plans. After you’ve prepared for the TOEFL and taken the test, I suggest at least one more month of prep for a GRE retake; a month is generally the minimum amount of time you need to have a significant score increase on a second attempt at GRE.

      In short, I’d say that you should be ready to wait 2 months, maybe a little more, before that GRE retake. But with a good TOEFL score and your current GRE score, you have a shot at many mid-tier schools and maybe even some top ones right now. 🙂

  3. Mini January 21, 2018 at 7:30 am #

    I scored 302(v-144, Q158). While studying for GRE, verbal was always the most difficult part, being a non-native. Also, I do read NYtimes as recommended by magoosh(I’m a premium user), so yes that helped. But I feel that if I need to improve my verbal score, I definitely need at-least 2 months, which can be an issue because my application deadline is 23rd-march 2018. Now this university UBC(Canada) does not need GRE, Yet I thought of taking GRE that, It might be a plus for my profile[Its being 8 years out of school, working fulltime], now I am confused with this situation, I have already sent my score to UBC. Do you think retaking GRE will be better in my case?
    Program: MS in Data Science.

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert January 22, 2018 at 9:02 am #

      Hi Mini,

      Thanks for reaching out! I forwarded this comment to our team of test prep experts so that they can provide you with more personalized and prompt assistance 🙂 You should hear back from them soon!

  4. Aiswarya December 6, 2017 at 8:52 am #

    Hey , I scored really really less on the first attempt (290) is it possible for me to get at least 310 in next go with Magoosh prep lemme know please.

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert December 6, 2017 at 1:56 pm #

      Hi Aiswarya,

      Thanks for reaching out! It’s difficult to predict a score increase with so little information. You should know that students improve their scores by 8 points on average with Magoosh, and I definitely think that we can help you to see strong improvement on your sores. It’s important to realize, though, that it will take time and effort to improve your score by 20 points. You should expect to dedicate at least 3 months to your studies and be ready to commit to your studies. If you are seriously considering Magoosh, I recommend that you send us an email at help@magoosh.com to learn more about our program and how we can help you 🙂


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