When Is the Right Time to Take the GRE?

iStock_000003401233XSmallThose who prepare to take the GRE often wonder if there is either an optimal year of school or time of year to take the test. While there is no one answer that will perfectly fit each person’s specific situation, potential test-takers should keep the following in mind:

Scores are Good for Five Years

Some people suggest that the optimal time to take the GRE is during a student’s first year of college. The argument goes something like this: since the GRE is so similar to the SAT, and because you’ve recently taken the SAT, it’s better to just take the GRE while those basic math and vocabulary skills are still sharp in your mind. While there is some validity to this argument, it fails to consider a pretty relevant factor: who really knows that they want to go to graduate school when they are just in their first year of college? Because GRE scores only last five years, students taking the test during their first year are put in a peculiar position: they must go to graduate school no later than one year after graduation. Otherwise, students who take the GRE so early will be forced to take the GRE again.
A better approach would be for students to get a couple of years of college under their belt. Then they can make the decision to take the GRE after they are confident that graduate school is their next best career move. For students who plan on attending graduate school either immediately or nearly immediately after graduating from college, taking the test during their Junior year is ideal. Students looking to get a few years of professional experience under their belt before heading to graduate school might find that taking the test during their Senior year makes more sense: they will still have five years to make the decision to return to school before they have to take the GRE again.

Allow Time to Prepare for the Test

Because the GRE is offered year-round at Prometric(TM) test centers, there is no need to sign up for a test date months in advance. In determining the right time to take the GRE, students should check their academic schedule — it’s unwise to take the test during a very busy semester, as both test results and GPA will suffer. Instead, students would be smart to try to find a way to lighten the load for a semester and use the extra hours to prepare for the GRE. Alternatively, students who have a light summer should use those months to prepare for and take the test then.

Know the Application Deadlines

This is perhaps the most important factor to consider. Application deadlines for most programs are in December and January. That means test-takers should aim to have all of the pieces of their application polished and ready to go by the beginning of December. For those looking to attend graduate school in the fall of 2015, this is a good target. But does that mean test-takers should wait until November to take the GRE? Not at all. If a student’s fall 2014 semester is very busy, then it makes more sense to prepare for and take the test over the summer. Even if the semester is light, it’s better to aim for a September or October test date. That way, if a student needs to retake the test, he or she will have enough time to do so. Keep in mind that test-takers must wait 21 days before taking the test a second time.
Those who are not looking to go to graduate school right away, or who are currently first year students or Sophomores, should know that taking the test in the summer or fall is less important. Instead, these students should focus on taking the test when they have the time, energy, and resources to completely and effectively prepare for it.

What if You’re Not Currently in School?

Not everyone who is preparing for the GRE is a college student. Many people decide to return to graduate school after some time in the real world — either as a professional, a parent, or a wanderer. Those who have made the decision to take the GRE after a period of time out of school need to allow an appropriate amount of time to study and prepare for the test. Additionally, they should take the test during a time of the year that’s not incredibly busy. Parents, for example, would be wise to avoid taking the GRE during the busy back-to-school season. And those who are currently working professionally should avoid taking the test during a particularly busy quarter.

In Short

Every person is different. Students need to take the GRE at a time that is right for their schedule and their career goals. For most people who are still in college, the best time to take the GRE is sometime between the spring semester of their Junior year and the fall semester of their Senior year. At the very least, it is important that all test-takers give themselves adequate time to prepare for the test (at least a couple of months) and plan for the possibility that they may want to retake it if things don’t go perfectly.