Should You Retake the GMAT?

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I hear this question often, and it's a tough one to answer. Like so many things relating to preparation for a high-stakes test, the answer can be very personal. But I'll try to explain the way I look at the issue so you can consider the various criteria yourself.

It's not at all uncommon for someone to take the test and not get the score they aimed for–and for a wide variety of reasons. I've had students who were exceptionally well-prepared who fell victim to bizarre mishaps at the test center, and I've heard from people who froze up and couldn't deal with the test-day stress well enough to finish the test. These things happen. The question is, can you do better next time?

What Can You Improve?

If you have an answer to this question, you probably can do better your second time taking the GMAT. If you scored 50 points lower than you wanted, but you had to rush through the last seven Quantitative questions, guessing in ten seconds per question, you should know you have time management issues. Improving that one thing could make the difference between the score you got and the score you want.

However, if you don't know of anything you can improve on, don't count on seeing the score increase. If you've prepared thoroughly–you've done hundreds of practice problems, taken at least a couple of practice tests–you may be at a point of diminishing returns where continuing to study the same way will not do you much good. It's a tough pill to take, but it may be that reaching your score goal will take way more time than you have to spend on it.

Can You Keep Your Focus?

Often, by the time someone takes the GMAT, they've been working at it for weeks, if not months. If you've followed my advice, you've studied each and every day. If you're going to take the test again several weeks after your first try, you can allow yourself a short break from the test, but not much more than that. When you get back on the horse, you need to keep at it, every single day.

That's not easy, I know. When I work with students to put together study schedules, I try to remain very aware of the reasonable limits of studying without burning out. If, all of the sudden, your ten-week study plan becomes a fifteen-week one, especially if you've been pushing other projects aside to make room for the GMAT, it can become very difficult to maintain your focus. If you can't keep up your current level of work, you probably won't see much improvement the second time around.

What's the Application Trade-Off?

If you're a month away from your B-School application deadlines, you've just taken the test, and you've slated the final month for getting recommendation letters together, writing your essays, and doing the nitty-gritty of filling out application forms, do you have the time to spend on retaking the test? Is it worth it?

Ultimately, you may have to weigh a stronger GMAT score against a better rest-of-application package. Making that decision depends somewhat on the GMAT score required by your target schools. If you're within striking distance–say, the average GMAT score at your school of choice is a 640 and you just got a 620–making the rest of your application as perfect as it can be may be more beneficial. If you're not even close, you'd better improve that GMAT score if you want to be considered at all.

Also, educate yourself as to how your target schools will look at your scores. Will they look at your best score? Your most recent? Your best Quant and Verbal, regardless of whether they were on the same test? An average of your scores? There are B-Schools that do all of those things.

If You Do Retake It...

If you've already put in a lot of time (say, six or more weeks of consistent studying) and you decide to retake the GMAT, don't try to do too much. Too many students try to start over, doing everything at double-speed, retaking a course, basically operating under the assumption that the more things they try, the better their score will be.

That's simply not the case. Everything you did before was of value–you must have learned something in all of that studying. It would be counterproductive to try to start over, and even more worthless to think that you could study "faster" the second time around. Pick a few areas for improvement, work hard at those, and do a little practice on everything else, too, to keep yourself fresh. You're not starting from zero, so don't prep like you are.

In other words, act as if you just took the test a little early: pretend that your first crack at the GMAT was a practice test, several weeks before the real thing. Keep working steadily toward your goal, and you have a decent shot at substantially improving your score the second time around.



About the author: Jeff Sackmann has written many GMAT preparation books, including the popular Total GMAT Math, Total GMAT Verbal, and GMAT 111. He has also created explanations for problems in The Official Guide, as well as 1,800 practice GMAT math questions.

Total GMAT Math

The comprehensive guide to the GMAT Quant section. It's "far and away the best study material available," including over 300 realistic practice questions and more than 500 exercises!
Click to read more.