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When should you take the GRE or GMAT

When to study is a big decision
When to study is a big decision
Photo by Ashley Pon/Getty Images

Graduate school is often a prospect simmering on the back burner for many young professionals. Taking the GRE or GMAT can be a real foray into the admissions process that gets everything rolling. It can also be the bucket of cold water in your face that makes you stop and think about your options more carefully. Because both tests have long shelf lives, you don't have to have to aim for a particular admissions deadline when studying for either of these tests. In fact, many students are more successful studying for the test without the pressure of a deadline. Others, however, need that pressure to really commit to the preparation process. Whatever your situation or personality, here are some common scenarios when it may be a good idea to studying for one of these two standardized tests.

You need to immerse yourself in academics after a long layoff. I've had students who were returning to school after a decade or more hiatus during which they committed to a career, had their children or traveled the world. The academic feel of studying for the GRE or GMAT is a way to reacquaint yourself with the patterns and thought processes of the academic world. If you haven't done algebra in 20 years you'd be amazed at how alien it feels at first but then also struck by how quickly it comes back and how satisfying the feeling of solving a math problem can be.

You have the time and financial wherewithal to study rigorously for 2-4 months. You definitely should not study for a standardized test if your work schedule won't allow you to meet for lessons, put in 1-2 hours of study time at least 4 days per week or have the proper level of energy and concentration to actually absorb what you are studying. As Yoda says, "Do or do not; there is no try." If you can afford to take some time off of work or work a bit less to accommodate a study schedule and your are mentally committed to your preparation, then go for it.

A surprise opportunity arises. Most of the time someone asks me to tutor her in the GRE or GMAT with less than a month until test day, I am dealing with a person who has procrastinated too long and may not have the maturity or discipline for graduate school. However, occasionally there are those undergrad students who are offered a one time opportunity to transfer into a PhD program with 6-8 weeks until their application must be submitted. The overwhelming advantages of such an opportunity usually warrant taking a gamble on a quick GRE or GMAT course. Since such applicants are usually already in school, the transition into the material of the test is not so shocking as well.

You are facing an application deadline in 4-6 months. This is the stereotype of most GRE and GMAT students. 4-6 months is an ideal time frame for studying all of the content tested on the exam, learning the structure of the test and perfecting one's approach. Between the two, I would recommend studying earlier for the GRE--particularly the vocabulary. If all you do for the first two months is study as set of GRE vocab flashcards or a smartphone app, it's a welcome start.

Rich Carriero has been a standardized test prep teacher and tutor since 1999. In addition to his position as Academic Manager for Next Step Test Preparation’s GRE tutor and GMAT tutor programs, he is also a freelance writer.

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