Candidates instinctively know that not doing well on the GRE or GMAT exam is often a huge black mark on an application, and an obstacle to gaining acceptance. While doing well on your exam may not be the last word on getting in, failing to perform often creates a near-impregnable barrier to being admitted. Most candidates have a solid understanding of this reality from the media, stories from friends, and from clear-eyed conversations with admissions officers.
What is not clear is when a candidate should retake the exam after not obtaining a strong score the first time. Candidates ask us quite frequently (sometimes the same candidate multiple times), so it’s a question worth exploring. What are the main factors in making the decision? How can you ascertain your own best options? Let’s begin.
To retake or not to retake?
This may seem obvious, but if you scored above your target score on the first try, there’s no need to retake the test! That said, if you have the time to retake it, have confidence in your ability to improve your score, and perhaps have the desire to make up for a less impressive part of your application, like a low GPA, you may just want to take it again.
If you scored at or around your target score, you might be okay not to retake. But how far from target is too far? When thinking about a retake, consider whether your score falls into an appropriate range of scores for your target school. Generally, this means about 20 points away from average on the GMAT, and 5 points away from average on the GRE. As you can see, that’s not much wiggle room.
If your first try gave you a low score that’s outside this range, you should retake the test at least one additional time. That said, if you put a lot of time into preparing for the exam the first time around, your time may be better spent improving another portion of the application instead. Additionally, if your GPA is above the mean for your target school, you may be able to skip retaking the exam and not be at a disadvantage. This isn’t always the case, however…
You should retake when:
Your undergraduate major doesn’t line up with the graduate degree you’re pursuing. If your college major is substantially different from your graduate school focus, you may still need to retake the exam for your score to not be a blemish on your application. Generally, this factor will be more limiting when you’re moving from a more qualitative field of study to a more quantitative one.
For example, an undergraduate major in STEM will set you up nicely for a Master’s in Data Analytics. If you studied linguistics in undergrad, however, this might pose a problem for your application.
In some cases, a business-oriented undergraduate major will suffice. And if you’re moving from a more quantitative field of study to a more qualitative one, this is rarely an issue. If you did study one of the humanities during your undergraduate career and didn’t perform well on your first exam, you might need to retake, even if you have a strong GPA.
For example, if your undergraduate degree was in sociology, you have a 3.6 GPA, and your GMAT score was 650, but your target MBA program has a mean GPA of 3.5 and a mean GMAT of 670, you may be disadvantaged if you don’t obtain a higher score. Why? Because your undergraduate major is in a field which is not numerically analytical. MBA admissions officers may believe that you are not trained for the rigors of an MBA in terms of numerical analysis and may view your GMAT exam as a true harbinger of such skills.
You’re score is well below average. Being 21 points off the mean for the GMAT and just 6 points off the mean for the GRE can be problematic. A test score that is below average can be enough to push you out of the running in an admissions world with too many applicants and too few spots. In fact, the lower your score, the bigger the red flag for admissions officers. Those with scores more than 40% below the mean for their target school will face an uphill battle in their application, especially in regards to demonstrating academic acumen and quantitative skills.
Retaking is a better bet when:
Your practice exam scores have been higher that your first real exam score. In short, retaking is more logical when you have reason to believe you can perform better on the test than you did the first time around. While you should definitely retake the exam at least once if you are considerably off the mean for your target school, a critical element in deciding to is the strength of your practice scores.
If your practice scores during test preparation are better than your actual score on the real exam, there is a promise that you will fare better the second time, and you should look to retake the test. You have at least one indication that you are capable of doing well on your real exam and now you just need to optimize conditions.
There was an isolated incident that affected your performance. If you came into the test knowing you were going to perform poorly, taking the test again is a smart idea. Whatever the reason (illness, injury, lack of sleep, family situation) that caused you to perform poorly the first time, if you believe the same issue won’t happen again, it’s safe to retake. However, if your poor performance on the exam is attributable to a chronic issue (test anxiety, lack of preparation), then you need to be ready for some heavy lifting if you’re going to retake…
You are willing to put time and energy into increasing your performance. If your strategy doesn't change, neither will your results. Regardless of your score on the first exam, you will not perform better on a second exam unless you make some significant changes.
View your study process is an investment. Every part of the application process, including critical test preparation, has an opportunity cost.
If you feel completely burnt out on studying and test-taking, you might be better off devoting energy to rewriting essays or editing your resume than taking the test another time. If you still have another go in you, though, take a look at the advice in the Creating the Ideal Testing Conditions section at the end of this article to make sure this time is the last time you’ll ever have to take the test.
How Many Times?
The strictest limitation on the number of times you take the test will be the official restrictions set by various testing bodies. But, as you will see, these strict limits aren’t likely to apply to the average candidate. The administering body for the GMAT exam, GMAC, will not permit you to take the test more than eight times in your life. Well, who plans on taking the exam that many times? Likely nobody.
There may be some people who are seeking to take the exam every two months for a year, however, and that would be problematic as GMAT only permits you to take the exam five times in a year, not six. But again, most applicants will feel no impact. Who takes the exam more than five times a year? According to most applicants, only the candidates in the most rare and most desperate of cases would do so. And they would be right.
But there is one final restriction that does impact many candidates: The inability to take the exam more than once every 16 calendar days. Why is this important? Because if you are looking to take the GMAT exam within a month of your application deadline, you will be unable to take the exam again and submit a new score before you have to submit your application. ETS, the creator of the GRE, has similar guidelines for applicants. For the GRE, you may take the exam up to five times a year and once every 21 days.
Fundamentally, the concept of retaking either exam must be understood within the structure of what their governing bodies permit.
Other factors to consider when deciding how many times to retake are the amount of time you have (are you willing to resubmit in a year’s time, or do you have to apply this year?), how much money you have set aside for test preparation courses and tutoring (these may be a critical part of your exam retake plan), and how much grit you have left to push through the work. Furthermore, if you did all you could to prepare the first time around, another go at the test won’t help. Neither will additional time to prepare, if you don’t end up doing the work.
When you consider retaking, it’s important to know that it’s unlikely you will raise your score after the second exam if you really put in the time and optimized testing conditions for the first exam. Indeed, to earn a score in your second GMAT exam that’s even fifty points above your score on the first exam would be highly unusual.
However, if you can retake within the test’s timing restrictions, you have a score that’s outside the appropriate range, and you didn’t optimized the testing conditions the first time around, it’s possible you could increase your score. In that case, we strongly recommend using the following strategies to better position yourself for retaking the exam.
Creating the Ideal Testing Conditions
The ability to do well must be paired with the right conditions to do well for maximum test performance. If you cannot furnish an environment for yourself that allows you to put ample, focused time into studying, then you should not look to retake the exam. Even if you did not take the time to prepare appropriately for your first exam, your chances of excelling in the next exam are not strong unless specific conditions are achieved.
Beyond giving yourself enough time to prepare, you need to ensure that a few other key conditions are met. Ask yourself: Am I enrolled in the right test preparation courses? Do the practice questions I’m using focus on the right type of content? Do I feel comfortable in my local testing environment?
Time alone is not enough to improve your score and neither is repetition. Unless there was a specific extenuating circumstance before or during your first exam, retesting without additional preparation will not produce a better score. If you have time, but don’t possess the following elements, then you are in bad shape.
- Make sure that your courses and test questions are of high quality. You should be getting a solid core of knowledge about the question content and the test itself.
Ensure you are capable of focusing on your exam. This focus will translate into the discipline necessary to execute the kind of robust study plan that is likely needed to improve your test results.
- Understand your weak areas. Without knowledge of your specific weak areas on which to concentrate, your ability to perform well is compromised.
If you’re not clearing all obstacles prior to preparation, you should not be thinking of retaking the exam. But if you have the ability and the motivation to control the aforementioned conditions, it makes sense to retake the exam. If this article has you thinking about additional test preparation, consider the following resources: Magoosh, Manhattan Prep, and Noodle Pros.