How to Study for a GRE Retake

If this question applies to you, then it is a very important question. If you’re wondering how best to study for a retake, then, most likely, something you did the first time around was not optimal. Your next job is to figure out what that something is. And finally, you’ll need the right GRE study schedule to make sure your retake preparation is staying on track.

GRE retake - image by Magoosh

Of course “something” is a terribly vague word. So first, here’s a guide to whether and how you should study for a retake. After reading that, read below, where you’ll find more information on how to tackle the beast again!


Your nerves totally sabotaged you

Notice I was a bit hyperbolic here. What I’m trying to get across is that your focus should be on managing test stress only if you were overwhelmed with anxiety the first time around. For the most part — and I think this goes for at least 98% of us — taking the GRE is a stressful experience, even when you’re not sure whether it’s important for your application. A moderate amount of stress, however, can help you excel.

What to do this time

Improve your GRE score with Magoosh.

So let’s say you were so nervous that you scored 10–15 points lower than your Powerprep score. If this is the case, you may want to try to make future mock tests as stressful as possible. For instance, do not stand up except for at the appointed breaks of the exam. Maybe even turn on the television in the background, say to the Home Shopping Channel, just so you can learn to cope with distractions (the last time I took the test, someone with a chest-rattling cough was sitting next to me).

Another important way of coping with stress is to notice your breathing. When we become stressed, our breaths become shallower, and we tense up. Nipping this in the bud is not simply a matter of noticing the tension in your upper abdomen. You should also work to diffuse stress by taking longer, deeper breaths. Just a few deep breaths should calm your nerves and help restore your breathing and, most important, your focus.


You did not take enough practice tests

Nothing prepares you for test day better than a mock exam. But don’t take just any mock exam. Manhattan GRE and Magoosh tend to be as difficult, if not more difficult, than the actual exam. Of course, nothing beats taking an official test. There are two ETS GRE tests at the end of the GRE Official Guide, and Powerprep Tests 1 and 2 are on the CD that comes with the Official Guide.

What to do this time

Space out practice tests every five days. The assumption is that you have already prepped sufficiently and thus do not need to learn all the fundamentals a second time. Much of your time in between tests should be focused on dissecting your performance. What did you do wrong? What could you have done better? Any insights gleaned should be used for the following test — i.e. anticipate that you will make similar mistakes and have your guard up for them.


Mediocre prep resources

Not all prep resources are created equal. If you felt that the GRE was very different, in terms of the feel of the questions, from your practice material, then you should practicing with something else. Click here to read our reviews of GRE prep books.

What to do this time

Do your research and use the material that will best help your score. And, if possible, don’t settle on just one resource. For instance, I recommend a prep cocktail of Magoosh, Manhattan GRE, and, of course, ETS.


You did not identify your weaknesses

Over the years, I’ve encountered many a student who operates under the following assumption: the more questions I do, the more my score will improve.

While doing more questions is an integral part of an improved score, whipping through questions without taking a moment to understand where you went wrong will not help you. Most likely, you’ll only get burned out on questions and will continue to make the same mistakes.

What to do this time

Keep an error log. This log can be highly systematized or it can be very basic. For instance, I file the question in my mental Rolodex. I remember how the question tricked me and what I should do the next time in order to avoid the same mistake. That said, I recommend that you be more methodical about your error log than I am. First, jot down the question number and source of the question in a notebook. Then answer the following questions:

  • Why did you miss the question?
  • Why is your answer wrong?
  • Why is the correct answer correct?
  • What will you avoid doing the next time around?

Come back to this log often, especially before you take a practice test. Review your errors so that, on the practice test, you will be careful not to make a similar mistake. By the time your test rolls around you, will be on guard against any careless errors, and, hopefully, you will never have to ask yourself how to study for retaking the GRE ever again! 🙂

P.S. If you need help deciding when to take the GRE, we can help!

Update, October 16th, 2014: Hi everyone! We’ve decided to turn the comments off on this post for now. If you have a Premium Magoosh account and would like a more personalized response, you can use the Help tab on the Magoosh dashboard to contact us. 🙂 Thanks!

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  • Chris Lele

    Chris Lele is the Principal Curriculum Manager (and vocabulary wizard) at Magoosh. Chris graduated from UCLA with a BA in Psychology and has 20 years of experience in the test prep industry. He's been quoted as a subject expert in many publications, including US News, GMAC, and Business Because. In his time at Magoosh, Chris has taught countless students how to tackle the GRE, GMAT, SAT, ACT, MCAT (CARS), and LSAT exams with confidence. Some of his students have even gone on to get near-perfect scores. You can find Chris on YouTube, LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook!