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Should You Retake the GMAT?

One of the most common questions I get from prospective students is, Should I retake the GMAT? Perhaps you have that question yourself. You want to know whether it’s worth continuing to invest time and money preparing for an exam that’s already taken up a lot of your time and money.

That’s understandable.

Unfortunately, the answer to that question isn’t clear cut. It varies from student to student. But there are nevertheless some key things that should factor into that decision for everyone. Let’s take a look at them.

Considerations for Retaking the GMAT

I wrote a pretty detailed article on this topic a few years ago titled “Should I Retake the GMAT?” that you can read HERE. But let me quickly summarize five questions that should guide your decision as to whether or not to retake the GMAT. Then we’ll look at what the data say in terms of how likely you are to improve your score on a retest (see the next section). First, answer the following questions:

  1. What’s likely to change this time around?

    Albert Einstein famously said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different result. If your approach to preparing for the GMAT the second (or third, or fourth…) time around will pretty much be the same, then don’t bother. But if you tried studying for the GMAT on your own the first time but plan to take a GMAT prep course this time, for example, then there’s reason to expect a different outcome. Shake things up a little and get some outside help if you want better results.

  2. Was there anything abnormal about your first test experience?

    I once had a student who had a family member die just a couple days before her GMAT. It was incredibly sad — and it’s no wonder that she didn’t perform up to her standards on test day. Her focus simply wasn’t there. Sometimes you know that things were just a little “off” when you took the GMAT. Maybe you didn’t get enough sleep the night before your exam. Perhaps you had an overly stressful week of work leading up to the big day. Or maybe your time management was way off for some reason and you left a lot of questions unanswered (a big “no-no” based on GMAT scoring). If you can point to something specific that hurt your score and that wouldn’t be a factor the next time around, then a retake might be in order.

  3. Would you be better off taking the GRE?

    A lot of test-takers find the GMAT to be a harder exam than the GRE. Since MBA programs are increasingly accepting either test, you might want to consider making a change, especially if certain GMAT-specific questions—such as Data Sufficiency—or the timing and rigid computer-adaptive format of the test are playing a major role in your struggles. Here’s a video where I compare/contrast the GMAT and GRE to help you decide which is right for you. If you do decide to switch to the GRE, check out Dominate the GRE for tips and prep courses.

  4. Is a higher score really necessary for your target school(s)?

    There’s a great book called Your Ego is not Your Amigo. I think that phrase applies to the GMAT for a lot of students. Whether or not to retake the GMAT should in part be driven by the expected score of your target school(s), not your pride. Remember, the GMAT is a means to an end. Nothing more, nothing less. If your score falls within the 80-percentile range for the schools you want to apply to, then you’re probably good to go! I know, I know, you want to crack 700 just to prove you can do it (or to one-up your friends, or whatever). But no employer is going to ask for your GMAT score, so as long as it’s good enough to get you in to business school, then it’s okay to leave your ego at the door when it comes to the GMAT.

  5. How likely are you to improve your score?

    Let’s be honest. Whether or not you should retake the GMAT largely comes down to how likely you are to see your score go up. That in part depends on how many times you’ve already taken the GMAT and what your current GMAT score is. The GMAC gathered some really interesting data looking at those trends in their 2016 Prospective Student Survey of over 3,800 MBA candidates, and we’ll analyze that information in the next section.

If you have a positive answer to one or more of these questions, then it may in fact be worth retaking the GMAT. But before you definitively make that decision, let’s take a closer look at the last — and perhaps most important — question, namely what sort of score improvement you can expect the next time around.

Likelihood of Score Improvement on GMAT Retake

The biggest determining factor for how much you can expect your GMAT score to go up on a retake appears to be your highest previous score — i.e. where you’re starting from. That makes sense, right? I mean, if your first GMAT score is in the 500’s, then you still have a lot of room for improvement, whereas if you’ve already scored in the upper-600’s or cracked 700, then your score ceiling is a lot lower.

Specifically, the GMAC just released new data showing how many points students increase, on average, broken down by their first exam score. Here’s how it shakes out:

A) If your first exam score is less than 500…

GMAT score improvement if score is less than 500

As you can see, almost everyone (81%) sees at least some improvement on the next attempt, with 59% improving by 50 points or more. What’s particularly interesting is the high-end improvement. Over a quarter (26%) of test takers saw more than a 110-point increase on their next attempt. So if your current GMAT score is less than 500, retaking the GMAT appears to be a good idea.

B) If your first exam score is between 600-640…

This is where you need to be realistic about your expectations. A GMAT score between 600-640 is already well above average and very competitive for most business schools. Yet, a lot of students with scores in the low-600’s have their eyes set on cracking 700. So the question is, how likely is that for you?

As you can see, only 17% of repeat test-takers in this category improved by 90 points or more — moving them from the low 600’s to over 700. Conversely, 24% didn’t see any improvement at all. The rest fell somewhere in the middle, with modest increases of between 10-80 points. This is where my earlier questions (above) should come into play for you. While we don’t have hard data on this, my guess is that the students in this category who saw the largest increases did something different with their GMAT prep the next time around — either they took a preparation course, worked with a tutor, or simply put in a lot more hours of study time.

C) If your first exam score is over 700…

expected score increase on a retake of the gmat

Finally, what should you expect if you’ve already scored over 700 on the GMAT? Well for 44% of you, you shouldn’t expect your score to increase at all. And of course there are only so many points left with a score cap of 800, so it’s no surprise that the max improvement students saw was 80 points. If you’ve already cracked 700 on the GMAT, this is where my earlier admonition comes in about not letting pride get in your way. Now certainly if you’re shooting to get in to a top-10 MBA program where GMAT scores are incredibly competitive, then every little improvement will help. I’m certainly not telling you not to retake the GMAT if you’ve already scored over 700. In fact I recently had a student go from 710 to 750 after taking my comprehensive GMAT prep course. But I guess what I’m saying is, be realistic with your expectations.

Correlation Is Not the Same as Causation

My college statistics profession preached the idea that correlation doesn’t equal causation. I pass that understanding along to my GMAT students when discussing Critical Reasoning arguments on the verbal section. And I bring it up to you here to remind you that despite the pretty-looking graphs above, retaking the GMAT in and of itself isn’t likely the cause of the reported score increases you’re seeing.

In other words, the data compiled by the GMAC shows correlation, not causation. A certain percentage of students saw their GMAT scores go up on a retake, sure. But what caused those scores to increase? Not merely the act of sitting for the exam, certainly. Rather, it was very likely some other factor — something they did between their first and second attempts — that resulted in a different outcome. Maybe they studied more. Maybe they took a course. Maybe they worked with a tutor. Or maybe they simply got more sleep the night before their second attempt. Keep that in mind as you consider whether or not to retake the GMAT. If you’re still confused or have questions, post them below. And if you’re looking for that edge to help you improve your score the next time around, we’re here to help!