Scheduling your GRE test: when is the best time to sit for the exam?

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.

Okay, let’s paint a picture here. I’ve prepped for the GRE. Okay, I’ve taken all the stellar GRE courses I could. I’m confident, to a degree, in my ability to perform. But I also have grad school admissions coming up, deadlines, and I’m looking to schedule my test. So, do I rush into it? Do I wait a few months, take as many practice tests as I can before? I’m like, what? Do I do it in the morning? The afternoon? What are these tests? What’s the best time to schedule the test where I can ensure my highest performance?

Orion: These are great questions. So, I’m going to preface this by saying that everybody’s different. And so, you need to examine yourself and what works best for you. But I’m going to give some general rules of thumb. So, first of all, I recommend, my preference is to be one and done with this test. I’d rather take the test once, get what I need, and then move on with the rest of my life. To further that end, I need to be sufficiently confident that when I schedule the test, I can get what I need. I have to do that. And in order to do that, I have to do some research and some self-inquiry. Basically, if I’m scoring at around my target level on full-length practice tests a week or two before the test, I’m ready to take the test. Does that make sense?

Davis: Yeah. So let’s unpack that a little bit. What’s a target score?

Orion: A target score is the median score for successful applicants at your top program of interest. So if you’re applying, let’s say, to GSB at Stanford, that has a quant median, I think, of 166. It’s very high. But that’s what you’re shooting for. So if you can score on, let’s say, your power prep diagnostics, between a 165 and a 167, you’re ready to go. You’re scoring around your target level; you should be able to schedule that test with confidence. Now, in the past, before COVID, you’d have to schedule the test months in advance, because you’d have to go to a testing center, and certain times of the year were way busier than others.

Now, we have the luxury of at-home administration. And basically, you can schedule the test days in advance. So you have a lot more flexibility with timing, and you can wait until you’re scoring around your target score at a consistent level to pull the trigger on that test. And that will increase the likelihood that you can be one and done.

Now, is it the end of the world if you don’t get what you need on your first attempt? No, you do have to wait three weeks before you can take it again. And that means you will have to continue to study, or even study more, because you have to at least keep what you’ve maintained. And if it wasn’t enough, you have to do something different. So it prolongs your test prep experience, at least a month, it seems like, maybe more. And test prep is kind of not a happy, good times place. You know, I love it. But most people don’t want to hang out there indefinitely. It’s kind of like a Bardo; it’s a waiting room between two places, you know. It’s not a destination in and of itself for the vast majority of people, which I totally understand.

So, I like to take a boot camp approach to things. I hit it hard, I hit it fast, I make it a priority in my life. And if I do that, usually people can do that between two and three months. And then they’re ready to hit their target scores. Now, obviously, the two or three month window can change depending on a student’s baseline and also a student’s target. Obviously, the bigger the gap between where they’re starting and where they want to go may take a little more time. Obviously, you know, some people waltz in, and they’re brilliant on the verbal section and the writing, and they just need a little help on the quant. And so basically, two thirds of the test are kind of taken care of for them. And so they get to have a more targeted approach to their prep, which takes less time, right, generally, right. So that’s when you know that you’re ready to take the test.

Now, with respect to when, like what time of day, that is actually an excellent question. So, yeah, each person should examine himself or herself, and determine when they’re at their peak mental functioning. If I took the test at 8 am, I wouldn’t have gotten a perfect score. That’s just how my mind works. And you have to, you’ve gotten the perfect score a number of times. I’ve gotten a perfect score once on an actual one and done what exactly I don’t, I don’t say to anybody else, what I don’t want for myself or what I don’t do for myself. I’ve taken scores of ETS tests and practice tests and things like that. But when I’ve actually gone into a testing center for the official score, I’ve only done that once. I got a perfect score. I moved on with my life. And a lot of my students would like to follow in that as well and have followed. They have, I’ve helped students get perfect scores before. It’s pretty cool.

Anyway, if I had to do that, am I’d be half asleep. I’m not a morning person; my mind would be foggy; I’d be sluggish. It’s just really, really important that I find a time that was at my peak mental functioning, which is in the afternoon. I need a lot of time to wake up. I wanted to exercise. I wanted to do some practice. I wanted to feel fully awake and sharp. And then I sat for the exam. So it’s better to change if you can, to change the date, if it means that it allows you to take the test at the time of day at which you’re at your peak mental functioning. Does that make sense?

Davis: Yeah. And so this self-awareness, examination study process? People are potentially, they already know what you mean. They might already be like, oh, yeah, I’m a morning person. I’m sharpest at 8 am. Some people aren’t. But if someone’s like, I have no idea when my peak mental functioning of the day is, what’s the, what are you looking at?

Orion: You know, to be honest, I haven’t had that problem. Most people, I think, based on what you said, I think most people know by the time they’re in their 20s whether they’re a morning person or an afternoon person. So that general, or like eating a big meal or something, or those are those things. Do you get down into like that granular detail about, sure, when not even necessarily when to schedule it, per se, you realize you’re an afternoon person. But you also want to be focusing on these other aspects of what you do that day, like you said, exercise or something like that.

Davis: Oh, yeah.

Orion: I mean, I want to make sure that I’m well fed, whether it’s a breakfast or lunch. I want to be sure that the first questions I do that day are not the questions that count. Like, a coach doesn’t send you to the game cold; you have to run up and down the sidelines a little bit before the subject, right.

Davis: Okay. So you don’t want to warm up with a test; you want to warm up with practice problems beforehand. So you’re already in the GRE zone, you sit down and hit question number one.

Orion: So, I like to do some cardio, gets the blood flowing, I wake up, I have a lot more like my consciousness, that’s important for me. I mean, I treat the GRE like an academic Olympiad, which it kind of is. You’re competing against the brightest people around the world who are trying to become doctors. I mean, it is the Olympics of standardized tests. It’s at that global level, and it’s at that peak of performance. So I take it very seriously. And these, you know, being half asleep, having low blood sugar, being foggy of mind, these things can have extremely detrimental effects on a student’s performance. And I mean, why prep for three months? If you’re just going to show up and be half asleep on the day of the test? That’s terrible. It’s not a good idea, right?

Davis: Yeah. So we’ve talked about when to schedule when you’re scoring consistently at around a target, talked about your peak mental functioning. There’s also hard deadlines. So all grad school programs have dates at which you need to submit; they have application deadlines, let’s put it that way.

Orion: Now, here’s something to consider: there are two types of schools with respect to application deadlines, and each student has to do research to determine which type of school he or she is dealing with. There are what I call “Cool Schools” and “Strict Schools.”

Davis: Okay.

Orion: A “Cool School” basically allows you, the student, to submit your unofficial GRE score on the application prior to the deadline, provided you at least had taken the test prior to the deadline. So, for example, if the deadline is December 1 and you took the test on November 30, you could submit your unofficial scores the next day and be totally cool with respect to the deadline. Unofficial scores meaning the scores that you receive immediately following your administration, right? You get your unofficial scaled scores in Quant and Verbal two minutes after you finish the test, right. But your official scores only show up in your ETS portal about two weeks later.

Davis: Gotcha.

Orion: And even then, schools will require ETS itself to release the official scores to them. It doesn’t trust you even with communicating the official scores that are eventually communicated to you. So, some schools are like that. And it’s important to know if you’re dealing with a “Cool School” because it gives you a little bit more time to potentially prepare and to schedule the test. Now, there are “Strict Schools.” “Strict Schools,” on the other hand, require you, demand that they have received the official scores from ETS prior to the application deadline. So, if it’s a December 1 deadline, they need to have received the scores from ETS by that time, which will take at least two weeks or 10 business days for that to happen, which means that your point of no return for a “Strict School” is actually about two weeks before the official deadline in November. And you don’t want to figure out which school you’re dealing with in mid-November, because that’s going to create unnecessary stress and could even freeze you out of that year’s application cycle. That’s no bueno.

So, you want to do that research first. And the best way to do that is to write an email to the admissions department and say, the question you want to ask is very specific, it should be something like, “Do you need to have received the official scores from ETS prior to the application deadline? Or can I submit my unofficial scores from tests taken before the application deadline with the expectation that the official scores will follow after the deadline?” It’s kind of wordy, but you want to get all that in, so that the choice is very clear for the person you’re speaking to. Right?

Davis: That makes a lot of sense. And so, we’ve talked about on the front end, in terms of like, timing your test so that you make sure you hit these deadlines for a “Strict” or “Cool School.” What about, like, say, you’ve taken your GRE a few years ago and you’re looking at applying or still looking at applying? Is there a time limit on which you can no longer… there is both a hard deadline, like a hard time limit, saying like this GRE score is no longer even viable, but also like a perceptual, like if a school is looking at it differently. If it’s like, “Oh, I took that two years ago,” or “Do you want to be taking it always right?”

Orion: No, before your application deadline, I mean, I think the sooner you can get through the GRE the better. Okay. A lot of students come to me while they’re still in undergrad or immediately out of undergrad because they’re still in academic mode. They don’t want to go to grad school right away, but they figure this is the time to sit for an academic standardized test. So, they take the test, and they just put the score in their back pocket. That score is valid for five years. So, if they decide to go to grad school in the next five years, that’s done. I think that’s a perfectly reasonable strategy.

Davis: Nice.

Orion: So, that’s the hard deadline; the scores are valid for five years. With respect to the perception, there could be some of that. I can’t speak to the individuals involved. I know that they shouldn’t be considering that because a test that was taken last week versus four years and 11 months ago, they’re still equally valid. And so, legally, the admissions folks should treat both of those scores as valid scores, i.e., exactly the same, and just compare them on the merits of their actual scores.

Davis: Yeah. So, there could be that perception.

Orion: I can’t speak to that. But there shouldn’t be; in an ideal world, they’re not paying attention to that. And I think that is less important. If you have a very good score from four years ago, I think that’s enough. You don’t have to think about rescheduling tests.

Davis: Okay, no, that’s great. So, you’ve covered a lot of bases; you’ve covered time of day, depending on the individual; you’ve covered… you know, you don’t want to, after you’re arriving at your target score, you don’t want to push it more than a couple of weeks from when you’ve hit that benchmark; strike while the iron’s hot when you take the test. And then, you’ve talked about the admission “Cool School,” “Strict School” deadlines that you want to know beforehand, before you’re even considering scheduling it, so that you can line everything up, right?

Orion: Correct.

Davis: No, that’s great. I just wanted to make sure, so we’re good.

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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