I should begin here by differentiating between these two questions (and it’s a really important differentiation!): How many times you can take the GMAT, and how many times you should take the GMAT. To answer the former (let’s get the objective answers out of the way first), here’s what your limitations are: 1) you can only take the GMAT once in any 31-day period(i.e. if you sit for the exam on March 12th, you can’t sit for it again until April 12th), and 2) you can only take the GMAT 5 times in one calendar year (this part should be self-explanatory – although given that you have to pay the full test fee each time you register, I’m going to suggest it’s best not to test the limits – or your checkbook – on this one). Of course in a perfect world, you’d get the score of your dreams the first time around, move on to the applications, and never have to think about the GMAT again (then again, in a perfect world your applications would write themselves). But we all know that the unexpected, even for the most well-prepared of test-takers, sometimes happens: don’t discount the possibility of test-day nerves, unusual mishaps at the testing center, and so on. That being said, there are three points I’d like to cover here: 1) giving yourself enough time between your first GMAT sitting and your application deadlines to retake the exam if necessary, 2) knowing when it’s worth retaking and when it’s best to dedicate your energies to other aspects of your application, and 3) how to plan for the retake (it’s going to require a slightly different strategy than your strategy for the first sitting).
While I’m the first to admit that retaking any exam (especially one you’ve already dedicated many months of your life to studying for) is not always the best idea, it’s undoubtedly great planning to be open to the possibility that you might have to sit for this exam again. So be kind to yourself, and play it safe (you’ve already worked too hard to get here not to be): if your applications are due on November 1st, don’t schedule your first exam for October 1st – you won’t have any opportunity to retake if you do so. Instead, register a few weeks before that date (remember the “once-in-a-31-day-period” limitation; if you sit for the exam the first time on September 15th, you can always retake it if you need to on October 15th – and if you get the score you’re hoping for on your first try, you’ll have that much more time to focus on the other aspects of your application). In fact, I would always suggest that you schedule your first GMAT sitting at least six weeks prior to your first application deadline (and of course begin studying at least four weeks prior to that first test date! Don’t treat the first try like a practice test; treat it like the real thing).
Broadly, there are a few questions you’ll have to ask yourself when your test scores come in: Am I satisfied with the time and energy I’ve put into preparing for this exam? Given the constraints of my life, did I prepare as well as I could have? Is there room for improvement here? Am I capable (again, do I have the time and energy) of working for that improvement? To make it easy on you, here are 12 things to consider for a retake.
Planning for the Retake “Play it again, Sam!”
So, you know exactly what you need to improve on the second time around, you have a strategy for how to approach those “areas of weakness,” and you know you still have the mental and physical stamina to keep studying. What now? I want to begin by stressing that your study strategy for the retake will necessarily be different than it was the first time around. Most likely for the first test you covered all areas broadly and equally: perhaps you took a test prep course, probably you took a number of practice tests straight through, to ensure you covered every possible question under every possible rubric. The big difference, of course, between the first and second try, is that now you know exactly what areas you need improvement in: there’s no need to prep like you’re starting from scratch. This does not mean, of course, that you shouldn’t keep yourself fresh in the other areas: just know what your time ratio should look like. And if your big problem on test day was stress (as it often is), keep taking as many practice tests as you can under conditions as similar to “the real deal” as you can make them. Here’s a list of a few other recommendations for the retake:
- Put your study schedule on a calendar. The whole process will feel a lot more “do-able” when you can see it laid out in front of you. It’s the best way to remember that this kind of preparation only unfolds with time – and also to keep reminding yourself that you’re not biting off more than you can chew.
- Make sure you are using the best books you can for your prep – and make sure you’ve covered them thoroughly. Don’t move on from one section to the next in your prep book if you don’t feel entirely comfortable with the material in that section.
- Remember studying for the GMAT is essentially a daily practice. This doesn’t just mean dedicating 2-3 hours a day to going through the motions: this means exercising, eating well, and getting the sleep you deserve. Everything you do to your body between now and the retake will play a role in your performance on test day.
- Read more books! (and newspapers, and magazines… again, this fits into the “daily practice” category). This kind of daily reading will be a huge help for you when it comes to tackling that Verbal section.
- Practice “teaching others.” This can best be done on GMAT test prep forums, but if you have friends who are studying for the same exam, make a practice of talking through the problems aloud. This will solidify your own understanding of the problem-solving process.
- Congratulate yourself on the small victories.
Remember that the nature of the adaptive test is to give you questions based on your performance. In short, the better you do, the more difficult the exam is going to get. It is crucial to realize that no matter how prepared you are for the exam, you will be faced with unfamiliar questions: settle this with yourself now! The good thing is that when you see these questions, you’ll know you’re doing well.