How to approach retaking the GRE: sitting for the test multiple times

Davis: Hey everybody, this is GRE Bites. My name is Davis, and I’m an educator with over ten years of experience.

Orion: And I’m Orion, the founder of StellarGRE.

Davis: We’re here to bring you your weekly bite-sized episode on GRE prep and grad school admissions. Check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at And don’t forget, you can use the code “BITES” for 10% off any membership.

Let’s get to it. So, we’ve already had one episode on a listener question request, and today I’m excited because we have another one. This is from John. Thank you for being with us today and for sending in your request. He says, “Hi Davis and Orion, big fan of the GRE Bites podcast. It has been super helpful. I sat for the GRE for the first time yesterday. Unfortunately, my quant score was not where I needed it to be for engineering programs. I plan on retaking the test in three weeks. Do you mind doing an episode on how to approach retaking the GRE?”

Many thanks, John. So, Orion, this is a great question, something we’ve talked about, but I don’t think we’ve done an episode on what key strategies are involved in retaking the GRE. How can a student approach it?

Orion: Yeah, it’s a great question. Thanks for writing in; we love to get those listener requests; it makes our job here much more fun. So I’m sorry to hear that it didn’t go your way the other day. Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon experience for students. I hope that everyone I work with is one and done with the test.

Unfortunately, that’s just not the reality we live in. And sometimes it is necessary to sit for the exam more than once. It’s not the end of the world; it can sting. So, on a purely practical level, what I often suggest for students is to take the weekend off. Like, don’t think about the GRE, don’t do GRE prep, just get an ice cream, lick your wounds, take a walk, do other things, shake it off. Sometimes students get right back on the horse, but they do it with a sort of frenetic intensity that I think is counterproductive to their aims. So it’s like, “Hey, you took an L. It happens.”

Davis: Yeah.

Orion: So it’s like, take care of yourself. And get yourself in a calm, peaceful, and focused mindset so that you can then make the best use of your time moving forward.

Now, it’s really important advice to know that getting a score that’s not ideal is par for the course in trying to get the score you’re aiming for.

Davis: So, I have a question for you, Orion. Is there anything that students need to know? Or can we rest at ease knowing that when we take a GRE score, sometimes there’s a feeling that it’s recorded, it’s out there, ETS has it now. But if you take another score, they only remember your top score, is that correct?

Orion: Oh, okay. So it depends. Students have a lot of options with respect to what programs know which scores. ETS calls this ScoresSelect. And basically, students can choose for their programs to just know their best scores, all their scores, none of their scores; you have a lot of flexibility with respect to who knows what. In today’s day and age, generally, it’s a good idea to just release your top scores to the programs you’re applying to. That’s what’s expected.

Davis: Yeah.

Orion: You don’t have to send all three scores if you take the test three times, especially if maybe your first or second attempt wasn’t what you wanted others to know about.

Davis: Yeah, that can happen.

Orion: So it’s not an all-or-nothing thing. Students have a lot of rights with respect to who knows what in the application process.

Davis: That answers that. That’s good. So people don’t have to worry that if they take a test, the college they want to get into is going to know that score.

Orion: Oh, yes, ETS knows that score. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that anybody else knows that score. There’s an extra conscious step that needs to be taken to release the scores from ETS to any program of interest, and the student or applicant has the ability to choose that score.

Davis: Yes. So that just helps you take that time off to really just be like, okay, just that water under the bridge. I did that; it wasn’t what I wanted. Okay, so we’ve taken the weekend off. We’ve relaxed; we’ve shrugged it off, let it pass, taken a break for a minute. And then we’re going back to retake it. What do we do? Do we get a copy of where we went wrong so we can understand what to do better?

Orion: Not really, you can pay ETS an extra fee, I think it’s like 30 or 40 bucks, to get a score analysis report from your actual GRE administration. I generally don’t recommend that students do this, because the information that report gives you, in my opinion, isn’t very useful. It doesn’t show you the actual questions, which they maintain for copyright and confidentiality reasons.

Davis: But then, what do they do?

Orion: They break all the quant problems, for example, down into four categories: geometry problems, arithmetic problems, and number theory problems, which are not very useful. They just say this was an easy, medium, or hard problem, so that’s the level of granularity you can expect from that score report, which I don’t feel is very useful to most students, just for the record.

Davis: Now, what’s interesting about John’s email is he says that he plans on retaking the test in three weeks. So, some students might not know this, but three weeks is the minimum amount of time between administrations; you have to wait at least three weeks between consecutive administrations. So he is wanting to get back on that horse as quickly as possible.

Orion: There are pros and cons to this. A pro is that if you’ve been doing a lot of prep, and you don’t want to extend the time you’re spending preparing for this test unnecessarily, you do want to take the test sooner rather than later, of course. But sometimes, it’s also important to keep in mind what you’re really going to be doing in those three weeks.

So, if you were scoring at or around your target level on practice tests, if you’ve already done a substantial amount of prep, and then something went sideways on test day, maybe you got anxious, maybe you encountered something that threw you for a loop, like there was some sort of performance aspect that got in your way, then sure, take the test as soon as you can, in three weeks. However, if you actually, and again, if you have a deadline, a hard deadline that you’re working with, yeah, I guess you’re going to have to take the test before that deadline.

On the other hand, if you have more time, and there might be more work required for you to hit your target score, it may not be in your best interest to just take the test again in the minimum amount of time. Because what’s the likelihood that you’re going to make the significant changes that are necessary? And then you just delay it for another three weeks? So now, it’s actually six weeks later? Why not spend six weeks and actually make it so that you’re far more likely to hit your target score, if you’re in the second camp?

Davis: So something that I’m noticing is that, you know, practice tests, is it going to be a good idea to take another practice test, like a full mock GRE test, you know, and then be able to really look at where the mistakes came from there?

Orion: Yeah.

Davis: I mean, so what are you going to do in three weeks, no matter which camp you find yourself in?

Orion: The key is to do a post-mortem on what happened. Where did things go sideways? Did you encounter problems that you didn’t recognize? Did you run out of steam? And so you encountered fatigue three hours into the test? Did you become anxious? Potentially, if you’re really surprised that you didn’t perform as well as you expected, that’s probably due to carelessness.

You might have to really dial down on mitigating your careless responding. But like, you have to do something different. And sometimes students, they just want to do 1000 problems, they just want to take a shotgun approach and do as many repetitions as they can get in, which is not as useful as doing fewer repetitions in a different way, based on feedback from your previous performance.

So it’s like it’s a better idea to try to dial down on where things went sideways, change those behaviors, and then implement those changes on fewer problems than to just say I need to do every problem that’s been published in existence, which sometimes students get into. That’s really an anxiety-based impulse.

Davis: Should they do mock tests?

Orion: Absolutely. There are two really good free mock tests available on ETS; those are the PowerPrep exams. Stellar GRE also has five full-length adaptive tests that are available through its online self-study program, but absolutely as you approach your test date, you should be doing full-length tests. This is because GRE prep is really three things: first is getting the question right. That’s the easiest. Second is getting the question right in 90 seconds or less, a little bit more challenging, then it’s getting the question right in 90 seconds or less, 100 of them in a row.

Davis: Yeah, that’s really, really hard, the step, but the distance between step two and three is huge.

Orion: Yeah. And you can only really begin to practice for that in full-length mock simulated exams.

Davis: Well, that sounds like really good advice. And it’s a great question.

Thanks, everybody, for tuning in. We’ll be back next week with another bite-sized episode of GRE Bites. If you have a topic you’d like discussed on a future episode, let us know at And if you’re ready to take your prep to the next level, check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at You can use the code “BITES” for 10% off all memberships there. Talk to you soon.

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