When to Take the GMAT

NOTE: This post was updated in December, 2015, to incorporate recent changes in the GMAT test-taking experience. When in doubt, always check out www.mba.com to get the latest into on the GMAT!

We dispense a lot of high-level advice on this blog, from advanced GMAT strategy to some of the more subtle nuances of the MBA application process. Sometimes, it helps to go back to the basics and answer questions that someone might have when they’re just starting the GMAT prep process. Some applicants not only don’t realize that the GMAT is computer-adaptive, but also don’t even know all the topics that can be tested on the exam. Worse, they’re unsure when they should even take the exam and what their options are if the first attempt doesn’t go well. So let’s answer that ever-important question “when should I take the GMAT?”

First, keep in mind that you can take the GMAT almost any time you want. Unlike the SAT and LSAT, the GMAT is administered all year long. You simply log onto mba.com to schedule an appointment at a test center near you. Register and pay your $250, and you’re ready to go. No need to wait months and months for the next time the test is offered, but it’s worth noting that test appointments do fill up, so “tomorrow” may not be available. Once you know that there’s a general timeframe that you want to take the GMAT, be prepared to register in advance.

Accordingly, you should aim to schedule your exam about a month before you take the GMAT, so that you can pick the day and time that works best for you. If you’re an early riser, you should take the test in the morning (8 AM typically). If you’re a night owl, taking the exam on 4 hours of sleep is a recipe for disaster, so you may want to schedule a later hour for your test (10 AM or noon, typically) and enjoy your morning coffee before trudging off to slay the beast. Some people are only available on weekends, and those spots tend to fill up faster than random Tuesdays.

One approach that works well for ensuring you have the best time to take the GMAT is leave room to take a day or two off of work for final preparations and mental relaxation. Many students want to take a practice test the day before their GMAT, which is akin to running 20 miles the day before a marathon. It is not only useless, it’s counter-productive. You would be better served sitting down and binging on Netflix. The day before a mental marathon like the GMAT, you want to take it easy. Go to the gym, watch movies, do a little light review but nothing extravagant.

To that end, a strategy that many students have employed is to take a Monday and/or Tuesday off of work and scheduling their GMAT on that day. This allows them to spend Friday/Saturday reviewing and taking Sunday/Monday to relax and clear their minds before the test. The GMAT is a test of how prepared you are for the GMAT, and being fatigued will reflect very negatively on your score. Many students feel that one or two days after a weekend is an optimal time to take the GMAT, so keep that option under advisement.

Another issue that cannot be ignored is preparation. Many students asking themselves “when should I take the GMAT?” have not even studied for the test! Some test takers can get by with only a few weeks of studying, others will take months and months and still not feel prepared. Ultimately, deciding how much study time is necessary is a personal issue, but there are some helpful guidelines to review.

First, build in plenty of time to take at least a couple of GMAT practice tests before you take the real thing. We normally advise Veritas Prep GMAT students to take one practice test before they start our course, not necessarily to see what their score is (if you haven’t prepared at all yet, don’t put any stock in this score!), but to get a feel for the test and to understand just how long and involved of an experience it can be. Then, plan on taking a couple of practice tests over the course of your GMAT preparation, and at least one more when you think you’re finished preparing and are ready to take the real GMAT.

A good rule of thumb is to take one practice test per week, time permitting. Typically, students will take one every two weeks at first, then one a week, then perhaps two per week as test day approaches. If you figure an average of once a week for 6-12 weeks, then adjust depending on your results, you’ll be in good shape. For example, if you’re aiming for a 700, and your first few practice scores are in the 400 range, your best time to take the GMAT is probably a few months away. However, if your second or third practice test is already in the high 600s, then you may decide to take your GMAT earlier than initially expected. Remember, you can reschedule exams earlier or later for a small fee as long as the exam is at least 7 days away, so you can schedule an exam – a great way to have a date written down to keep you accountable – without completely sacrificing the flexibility to change things if you find you’re falling behind what you thought would be the optimal GMAT schedule for you.

Your practice tests will help guide your timeframe of taking the GMAT. If you’re consistently scoring 650 on practice tests, the chances that your GMAT score will be 780 or 520 aren’t that high. You’ll likely end up somewhere around that 650, depending on many outside factors (stress management, timing, even luck), so it’s usually wise to wait until your practice scores are close to your target score before scheduling the test. Students routinely over perform on test day and end up with a score higher than any of their practice tests. However, students just as often underperform and end up with a disappointing score on their test. Ideally, your practice score will be above your target score to give yourself that extra margin in case things don’t go as planned on test day.

Sounds easy enough, right? But when should you actually take the GMAT? Another good tip is to think about what you’re going to do once the GMAT is over: apply to business school. Work backward from when you want to apply… If you plan on applying in Round 1, then that means you’ll need to be done with the GMAT by late September (when Round 1 deadlines start to come), right? Well, technically yes, but it’s far from ideal to take the GMAT while you’re scrambling to finish your business school applications. Assume that your whole September will be taken up by your applications. So, you want to take the test by late August, right?

Well, if you know for certain that you’ll ace the GMAT on your first try, then this plan just might work. But the reality is that many test takers take the GMAT more than once, and you’re required to wait at least 16 days between test sittings. (This 16-day window shouldn’t bother you… If you need to retake the GMAT, you should spend at least a couple of weeks preparing before taking it again.) To be safe, you really should build in enough time to retake the test at least once. So, that means scheduling your test date no later than late July. We consider this the latest that you can realistically target Round 1 without cutting too many corners as you prepare for the GMAT.

Speaking more generally, for whatever MBA admissions round you’re targeting, your target date for taking the GMAT should be at least two months before your first application is due. So, if you plan on applying in Round 2 and your deadlines are in early January, that means taking the GMAT no later than late October. If your need to retake the test, you can do so by December 1, which will still give you plenty of time to work on your business school applications, as well as not ruining Christmas plans with stressful exam preparation.

Have even more time? Great! Use it! Remember that your GMAT score is valid for five years, and it’s pretty hard to take the GMAT too soon. We recall an online class where two students were still in university at the time, going into their final year that September. They’d already identified the GMAT as part of their academic journeys, and decided to spend the summer before their final year preparing for the GMAT instead of working menial jobs. A GMAT score that’s 4 years old is just as valid as a GMAT score that’s 4 days old, so consider scheduling your test as early as possible.

Furthermore, because the GMAT is a test of mostly high school level material, the less time has elapsed since high school, the fresher the material will be for you. Meaning, if you’re young enough to still be in school but think an MBA or any higher degree in business would be useful in your career, consider taking the exam while still in university or just after graduation. Your brain will still be used to learning and taking tests, and the material will be relatively fresh before you become a full-fledged boring adult and start filling your brain with mortgage rates and BBQ grilling techniques.

In general, the more time you have, the better, but we consider two months the absolute minimum amount of time you should build into your calendar between your test date and your application deadlines. Other factors are, of course, important as well. Preparation for the test can be an arduous number of months, but many test takers feel like they need more time, more time, more time, until something else happens to them (big promotion, unexpected pregnancy, lottery win, etc.) and they never end up taking the GMAT.

One of the most daunting questions test takers ask themselves is “when should I take the GMAT?” because there’s no one correct answer. The exact time, date and circumstances must be dictated by you, the GMAT test taker. The correct guidelines are, roughly: “when you are ready” and “early enough that you can apply to the school(s) of your choice.” The details will be filled in by your preparation, your experiences and your needs. Hopefully this blog has helped answer a few questions, but “August 29th, 2021” is not nearly as helpful as knowing what needs to be done between now and test day and which issues are important to consider.

Finally, don’t worry if your test date is approaching and you’re still nowhere near where you want to be on the test. You can always reschedule your test date, although we usually advise that students try not to reschedule unless they have to… Having that deadline is a great motivator for you as you get ready for the GMAT!

Plan on taking the GMAT soon? We have GMAT prep courses starting in many cities in September. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter!