There are many times in life when spontentuity is exhilarating: taking a random vacation to a tropical paradise or bustling city, trying out a new restaurant instead of eating leftovers from two days ago, and hoping in your car with no real destination in mind. But if I were to write out as many things as I could think of that could be exceptionally successful even if unplanned, the GRE would never be one of them.
The key to success on the GRE–and acceptance into a graduate or MBA program–is to plan accordingly. In this article, I will list out the steps you will need to follow in order to determine when to take the GRE.
5 Steps to Deciding When to Take the GRE
Step 1: Research Your Desired Program(s)
There are two primary reasons it is important to research the graduate/MBA program(s) you will be applying to before you start preparing to take your GRE. First, the amount of time you spend studying for the GRE will be determined by how close you are to your target score. It is imperative you see what GRE scores the program(s) you are applying to require. Always make your target score a little bit higher than the average score of admitted students.
Second, you will need to know every school’s deadline for accepting GRE scores. These dates might not always match up with the application deadlines. Whichever school has the earliest deadline, that should become your deadline.
Keep in mind, it will take 10-15 business days for schools to receive your official GRE score (that’s if you choose to add them to the “score recipient” list the day you take your computer-based GRE). Hence, you will want to take your GRE for the last time at least three weeks before your earliest deadline.
Step 2: Take a Practice GRE Test
After completing Step 1, you will have a better understanding of what your GRE target score is. Now it will be time to complete a practice GRE full-length exam, or diagnostic test, in order to figure out how close, or how far, you are from your goal.
Overall, taking full-length GRE exams is one of the most important things you can do when studying. On your ETS account, you will be able to take four full-length GRE tests called POWERPREPS. These tests are the most valuable because they are the only ones written by ETS for students to utilize prior to their actual GRE. Therefore, I do not advise taking one of the POWERPREPS as a diagnostic test–they should be saved to track your study progress.
However, several companies offer free full-length trail exams that will definitely give you a good idea of where you stand with your GRE score. For a list of the best GRE practice tests, check out this article.
Step 3: Determine How Many Times You Will Take Your GRE
It is important to know when to take the GRE for the last time, because you might want to take the exam more than once. If you are very, very close to your target score (or at your target score) you are probably fine taking the GRE only once. However, most students need to take the test two or three times before they reach their target score.
Here is the thing, everytime you take the GRE you have to wait 21 days before you can take it again. Therefore, I tell my students they need to give themselves about a month between GRE test dates. If you are very far off from your target score, plan on taking the GRE three times. This means you will need to take the exam for the first time three months before your school(s) deadline.
Program Deadline to Receive GRE Scores: November 15th
- Mid August: Take the GRE for the first time, allowing 21 days before you take the exam a second time (you will also need time to continue to study to raise your score).
- Mid September: Take the GRE for the second time, allowing 21 days before you take it for the last time (you will also need time to continue to study to raise your score).
- Mid October: Take the GRE for the last time, allowing 3 weeks for schools to receive official scores.
If you are not too far off from your target score, you are probably fine taking the GRE twice. In the above scenario, your first attempt will be in mid September.
Step 4: Determine How Many Months You Will Spend Studying
How long to spend studying for the GRE is a question almost every student has during our consultation. There are two situations to avoid: studying too much and studying too little. Overall, I tell students to spend three months studying for their GRE. This should be three months before you take the exam for the first time. With the above schedule, this would mean you start studying mid May.
Most people who do not leave themselves three months to study have decided to apply to school last minute and they are very much aware of the sticky situation they are in. Cramming for any exam, especially one as hard as the GRE, is never a good idea.
However, it is studying too long that most people do not realize can also be dangerous. I will have students who want to spend a year or more studying for their exam. These are often students who also want to take the GRE as many times as possible. Please note, you can only take the GRE five times within a twelve month period (also, it costs $205 every time you take the test). Graduate schools really do not want to see you taking the test over and over again. Especially if you are not improving each time.
So what can happen if you spend too much time studying? You could get burnt out, you could start forgetting information and then spend valuable time relearning concepts you have already studied. You can also run out of good test-prep material. If you have studied for several months and have made little improvement, it is because you are not studying properly–not because you need more time.
If you are someone who has been out of school for a while, and you feel you are starting from the bottom when it comes to building up your math and/or reading skills, by all means work on this over the course of a year. Start incorporating reading material such as The Economist into your daily routine and work through an Algebra and Geometry book. However, do not go through actual GRE material for an entire year.
Step 5: Schedule your Test Day(s)
The computer-based GRE is held almost every day of the year. However, not every test center holds the exam every day of the week and weekends tend to fill up faster than weekdays. You can schedule your test day two days before, but I would not recommend this for the previously mentioned reasons. Also, you can reschedule your test day for $50, as long as it is at least four days prior to your test day.
The GRE is usually offered two times in a day: in the morning and afternoon. It is important you schedule your test for the time you will be most alert. If you are not a morning person, avoid taking the GRE bright and early. Also, I always suggest being mindful of the other activities you have going on during the week. You do not want to take the GRE on a Wednesday if you know that Tuesday will be very stressful at work and you will be up late.
You should plan on being at your testing center for about four and a half hours. If possible, try to plan something fun and relaxing post test!
When to Take the GRE: Summary
If you are trying to plan when to take the GRE, start by looking at the programs you want to apply to and get their deadline for receiving scores (this is not always the same deadline for receiving applications). Keep in mind you need to take the GRE for the last time at least three weeks before this deadline. Also, you might want to take the test more than once (not exceeding five times in twelve months) and will need to schedule each exam about one month apart.