It's common to take the GMAT twice; some have gone as far as retaking the test three or four times! At the end of the day, we all have the same reason for retaking this test: to get a higher score. Perhaps you need a higher GMAT score to compensate for a weak area of your business school application. Or maybe you wish to strengthen your performance in one section on the GMAT to indicate competency to MBA adcoms.

So what is the best strategy for retaking the GMAT? Before answering this question, it is important to assess your options.

Should I Retake?

There are several cases where retaking is definitely to your advantage. These situations usually involve elements that are out of your control, or events that happen on your test day. If you are sick, dealing with a personal or family issue, or taking the GMAT in less than perfect conditions (I've heard many stories of people underperforming because of construction work that disrupted their ability to focus), then a retake may be advisable. These external factors likely had some impact on your low score, especially if your practice tests indicated a higher performance level.  

If external factors affected your GMAT score, then retaking is a no-brainer. But there are other situations in which the decision to retake is not that easy to make. In contrast to the ones described above, these instances relate to elements that are more or less under your control: the quality of your study plan and of the materials you've used, test day anxiety, and so forth. For example, if you didn't prep with the Official Guide to the GMAT Review, you should probably consider a retake and focus your studies on this critical book.

On the other hand, if you've studied diligently for the past few months and have used the best materials available, then you may want to move on from your GMAT and focus on improving other aspects of your application. The same holds true for students who retake the test over and over again: unless you are consistently improving your scores, then you may have hit a plateau in your performance. Remember: taking the test more than three times may be a red flag for some admissions committees for the simple reason that a strong applicant should demonstrate good judgment in investing in other parts of her application package instead of obsessing over a single element.

All that said, if you've made the decision to retake the GMAT, it's time to diagnose what went wrong in your first attempt and remedy any problems. In the following sections, I break down some of the most common mistakes students make on their initial GMAT prep.

Common Mistake #1: Wrong Materials

Many people have problems on their GMAT because they have studied with the wrong books.  You must have the right GMAT books for your GMAT prep-period.  Here are my recommendations:

-    The Official Guide for the GMAT Review and the two supplements released by GMAC, the creators of the test. These books are essential for any test taker!

-    Kaplan GMAT Premier, Kaplan Math and Verbal Workbooks. These three books are edited by one of the most respected companies in the business and cover most of what you'll need to get a good score

-    The PowerScore Critical Reasoning Bible is a must have for anyone struggling with Critical Reasoning and Reading Comprehension

-    The Manhattan GMAT Set of 8 Guides. These 8 guides are often considered the most complete GMAT prep collection available

Depending on what you already have, you should come up with a shopping list to complement your strengths and target your weaknesses.  

Besides the books mentioned above, do not forget to download the free GMATPrep software from MBA.com. This software contains the two best practice tests available.

Common Mistake #2: Wrong Study Plan

Consider the following scenario: math has always been your strength. When you started studying for the GMAT, you enjoyed solving math problems a lot. As a result, you were biased in spending more time on math prep than on verbal prep. Consequently on your test day, your verbal score was well below your math score, resulting in a poor overall GMAT score.

The problem here is easy to spot: when you are preparing for the GMAT, you need to ignore your preferences and invest more time in your weaknesses-even if they include subjects you do not enjoy. Targeting your weaknesses should be your top priority; fortifying your strengths should come second.  Here are some suggested study plans.

Another common mistake is not being consistent in your prep. When you've decided to take the GMAT, you need to devise a solid plan from the start and to stick to it. Procrastination and intermittent study translate into poor test performance. Inconsistent study will prevent you from learning GMAT concepts effectively. This is why a realistic, personalized plan that fits into your daily routine is the best way to go about preparing for the GMAT. If you follow this advice for your retake, I guarantee you'll get better results.

I would also advise test takers to be optimistically conservative when setting their target scores. No matter how good a study plan is, sometimes it's just not enough. For instance, hoping for a 200-point increase in less than a month is unrealistic.

Common Mistake #3: Dealing with Timing/Anxiety Issues

You'll often hear GMAT experts mention that almost any student can solve all the questions on the GMAT if she is given enough time. However, one of the reasons why this test is so difficult is that you are under a pretty severe time constraint. In your retake study plan, be sure to emphasize test pacing. This is important to master because the penalty for not finishing a section on the GMAT is severe. You can check out a few tips regarding pacing here.

Related to test pacing is stress management. Poor time management will often lead to stress on the GMAT, which will seriously affect you ability to answer all the questions. To remedy your stress management issues, be sure to practice under simulated conditions so that you'll get used to performing under pressure. It's also worth mentioning that a lot of people feel more comfortable on their retake because they have already gone through the whole process once and thus are more familiar with the testing conditions.

A method that I've personally tested when feeling anxious is taking a few seconds to talk yourself into ignoring the stress and trying your best under the circumstances. Accepting the situation really helps boost your morale. You can also find some useful hints regarding stress control here.

Final Thoughts

These three mistakes are among the most commonly reported by test takers (that I've seen), but this list is not nearly exhaustive. No matter your reasons for retaking the GMAT, be sure to do a full review of your initial GMAT strategy. Examine your errors and target your weak concepts. If you find it hard to do this on your own, remember that you can always ask for help in online communities like Beat The GMAT.

About the Author:

Dana is a finance student and a moderator for Beat The GMAT, one of the world's largest online resources for GMAT prep and MBA admissions advice.