There’s no strict rule on when you should take the test. It depends on your unique needs.
But you might take it too late and miss your application deadline. Many of my students made the same mistake. To help you avoid this, I outlined everything you need to consider below.
When Do I Need to Take the GRE for Graduate School?
You should take the GRE at least 2 months before the application deadlines.
For example, if you’re applying to a grad school in January, you should take the test in October or November.
This helps you with two things. Firstly, you’ll have enough time to receive and submit your official scores.
Secondly, you’ll have enough breathing room to prepare for retaking the test if you’re not happy with your initial scores.
Should You Take the GRE In the Morning or Afternoon?
You can take the GRE almost every workday, year-round, either in the morning or in the afternoon.
While I can’t tell you exactly when to take the GRE, I do think you should consider these things:
- You have a unique biorhythm, which may cause your brain to function better in the morning or afternoon. Are you a night owl or an early bird?
- Science says our brains work best from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and then again from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. 
- Most test-takers prefer taking the GRE in the afternoon, which is why afternoon slots book more quickly.
You want to put your best foot forward, which is why it’s so important to book a time slot that suits you. Besides considering the facts I mentioned above, here are some advantages of booking either time slots:
|✔️ more free time in the afternoon
✔️ tackling the challenge early on and minimizing anxiety
|✔️ extra time to prepare in the morning
✔️ more time for much-needed sleep
While most students prefer the afternoon slots, you might discover that morning is a better option for you after you consider these points.
The GRE is Easier On an Earlier Test Date: True or False?
This is false.
Even though some students believe the GRE will be easier if they take it on the earliest possible test dates, this isn’t true.
The GRE is a standardized test that must require the same level of knowledge and skills from everyone.
Otherwise, graduate programs wouldn’t be able to use it to compare their applicants objectively.
Related Article: Is the GRE Hard?
3 Things to Consider Before Taking the Test
I’ll outline the three most important things you need to factor in when deciding when you’ll take the GRE. Put them all together and you’ll have a pretty good estimate.
1. When Is the Best Time for You?
I already discussed the importance of knowing your unique biorhythm. Now I want to discuss the best test date for taking the GRE.
If you can, take the GRE immediately after your junior year - preferably during the fall semester. The summer after your junior year will give you ample time to study for the test.
If you take the test at the beginning of the fall semester, then you’ll also avoid being overwhelmed by school obligations. You’ll be able to focus on the GRE almost exclusively.
The decision might be different for college seniors and adults who’ve been out of school for a while. If you’re one of them, consider how long does it take to prepare for the GRE. Take your work and family obligations into account.
2. When Can You Take the GRE?
You can only take the GRE at the next available test date. While the GRE tests are offered year-round, your GRE test center might be booked months in advance.
Visit the ETS (Educational Testing Service) website  and jot down all available test dates. Then choose one quickly, or you might lose your seat.
Here’s how the ETS describes it:
“The General Test is offered year-round at Prometric® test centers, and also on specific dates at additional testing locations outside of the Prometric test center network. Appointments are scheduled on a first-come, first-served basis.”
Once you identify the next available test date (that gives you enough time for GRE prep), you should register immediately or someone else might steal your spot. I’ll describe the GRE registration process below.
3. When Are the Application Deadlines?
This might be the most important factor for deciding when to take the GRE. You should have enough time to take the GRE and submit GRE scores while your graduate school still receives applications.
As a rule of thumb, you should take the GRE at least three weeks before the earliest deadline. In general, you should work backward from the earliest deadline -- factor in the time for score processing and prep.
Most grad schools have application deadlines four times a year. Usually, the last deadlines are in December or January.
Some also have admission deadlines for working adults once a month or bimonthly.
How to Figure Out How Much Preparation Time You Need
An average student needs to start studying for the GRE at least 2 months before taking the test. However, you might be quicker or take a bit longer, depending on how much studying you need to do.
Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to figure out exactly how much time you’ll need for GRE prep:
- What’s your baseline? The most reliable way to establish your baseline is to take official practice tests and jot down your GRE score.
- What’s your target score? This depends on the graduate program you want to attend. Take note of any minimum cut-off scores or the average GRE scores from successful applicants.
- How will you get there? Do you need to improve both your verbal and quantitative scores, or just one score? Do you have enough study materials, including GRE practice tests? Lastly, how much time can you actually dedicate to GRE preparation?
Put it all together and you’ll know the right time to start studying for the GRE.
Create a Study Plan
Having a study plan will keep you accountable. It will help you sit down and study, even when you don’t feel like it.
Block out at least two hours a day and dedicate them to your GRE prep. It’s up to you what you’ll study each day, but I’d also write this down if I were you.
This way, you’ll also be able to track your progress and pinpoint the areas you still need to work on.
Plan Retakes Ahead of Time
Reality check: According to data collected in 2014, 1 in 4 students retake the GRE .
The biggest reason why a test-taker retakes the GRE is that he wants to improve his GRE score.
This, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s unhappy with his overall performance.
He might just want to improve, say, his verbal reasoning score because that’s what his grad school really cares about.
The same scenario could happen to you. If you’re unhappy with your performance, you’ll probably want to retake the test and submit improved test scores to your school.
All this takes time. Factor retakes into your calculations from the get-go so you don’t miss application deadlines.
Related Article: How Many Times Can You Take the GRE?
Factor in the Score Processing
You won’t be able to submit your scores to a graduate school immediately after you take the GRE. It takes 10-15 days for your scores to be processed. You’ll only get your official score report after that.
Your scores will also be visible on your ETS account once they’re verified.
Because you’ll have to wait 10-15 days to submit your scores to a graduate school, you should book a date that’s at least three weeks before the application deadline.
Your GRE Scores Don’t Remain Valid Forever
A GRE score is only valid for five years. After that, no graduate school will accept your scores -- nor your application.
This means you should only take the GRE if you’re sure you want to apply to grad schools in the next five years. Otherwise, you’ll have to prepare for the test again and retake it later.
Related Article: How Long are GRE Scores Valid?
How to Register for the GRE General Test
You can sign up for GRE online on the ETS website. You’ll have to pay the test fee immediately, which is $205 in most areas of the world.
It can be slightly higher if you’re in China, Australia, India, Nigeria, or Turkey.
You can pay this fee via money order, check, voucher, PayPal, Western Union, and credit or debit card.
Once you do, you’ll get a confirmation email from the ETS confirming your test choice and date. Make sure you bring this email with you to the test center.
Cancellation and Rescheduling Fees
The cost of taking the GRE is $205. However, this only allows you to take the GRE -- not to cancel or reschedule your appointment.
In case you need to do either of these things, you’ll have to pay an additional cancellation or rescheduling fee. Both are $50.
You can use the same payment methods I described above to pay these fees.
Related Article: Can You Reschedule the GRE?
Expert Tips on GRE Test Prep
Your success on the exam comes down to your GRE prep. Not your success in high school and not your natural abilities.
Believe me when I say this: If you take the time to prepare for the test, you could score significantly higher than you (or your friends) expect you to.
It pays off to prepare for taking the test. Here’s how to do it right:
- Take the GRE practice tests. A good mix of theory and practice is exactly what you need to prepare. Find and solve practice tests that, preferably, simulate the real GRE test.
- Practice eliminating the wrong answers. Almost the entire GRE is multiple-choice, which means you might be able to guess the right answer by eliminating the wrong ones. This, however, is a strategy that you need to practice before you take the GRE.
- Learn what you’ll be expected to do. Find the GRE content outline on the ETS website and study it carefully. This will help guide your studies.
Recommended Article: Should You Guess On The GRE?
Bonus Tips for Your Test Day
What you do prior to taking the test can make a huge difference score-wise. It can either help you think more clearly or turn your brain into mush.
Here’s what I’d do if I were taking the test tomorrow:
- I’d get 8 hours of sleep. No more, and no less. Turns out getting both less or more sleep than this is actually bad for your brain functions.
- I’d exercise. This would help me get rid of some anxiety and get the feel-good chemicals shooting down my bloodstream.
- I’d pack my bag. Ugh, is there anything more stressful than packing your stuff on the day of the test? I wouldn’t want that stress, nor the risk of forgetting something (like a confirmation email!), which is why I’d pack my things the night before.
- I’d bring healthy snacks. You’ll be taking the GRE for around 4 hours. You don’t want to go hungry or fill yourself with junk food.
Recommended Article: Best GRE Test Day Tips
When to Take the GRE Test?
The best time to take the test is a time that works for you. No one answer fits all.
I have most free time in the summer. This may not be true for you. It would be silly, then, to tell you that that’s when you should start your prep.
However, I advise you to take the test at least 3 weeks before the application and/or admission deadlines. You don’t want to stress about whether you’ll manage to submit your scores in time or not.