Scott Woodbury-Stewart

Should You Take the GMAT or the GRE?

GMAT or GRE

Not too long ago, if you were applying to business school, your only option was to take the GMAT. Today, most business school applicants have the option to take either the GMAT or the GRE. In this article, we’ll provide some guidance on how to choose which test to take. Let’s begin by considering the schools you’d like to attend.

Do the Schools to Which You’re Applying Accept the GRE?

The obvious initial point of consideration is whether the schools to which you’re applying actually accept the GRE. Of the business schools that require applicants to submit a standardized test score, all accept the GMAT. Most of these schools also now accept the GRE, but some do not. For example, the London Business School MBA does not accept the GRE (but the LBS EMBA does). So if the LBS MBA is on your list of schools, unless you want to take the GMAT and the GRE, the GRE is not a viable choice for you. A list of all business schools that accept the GRE can be found on the ETS website. Lists and policies change, so be sure to do your due diligence by getting in touch with the programs that interest you.

If all of the schools to which you’re applying accept the GMAT and the GRE, your next point of consideration is whether any of the schools openly prefer the GMAT to the GRE.

Do Any of the Schools to Which You’re Applying Openly Prefer the GMAT to the GRE?

Some schools make it clear that, although they’ll accept both tests, they prefer the GMAT to the GRE. For example, Anderson (UCLA) states:

“We prefer GMAT scores as the common denominator by which we have historically compared candidates, but we accept the GRE now as well.”

Haas (Berkeley) states:

“Although we do not have a minimum requirement, a GPA of B (3.0) or better is generally the standard for serious consideration. We also evaluate your performance on the GMAT (preferred) or GRE, and if required, the TOEFL or IELTS, to assess your ability to succeed academically in our program.”

So if UCLA or Berkeley is on your list of schools, it seems that your better move is to take the GMAT. Again, policies change, so be sure to verify the facts with the schools to which you are applying. Start by reading their admissions policies on their websites. If you have questions, contact the schools. Don’t be afraid to reach out; admissions people are usually more than willing to help.

The next consideration is your career goals.

What Are Your Career Goals?

As if deciding between the GMAT and the GRE were not complex enough, students may also need to consider their career goals post-business school. For some time, certain employers have been asking applicants for copies of their GMAT scores. This practice is particularly common in management consulting and banking. Some companies are particularly interested in an applicant’s Integrated Reasoning score and Quant score; Integrated Reasoning is found only on the GMAT. So if banking or management consulting is in your future, you may want to take the GMAT. Of course, your best approach will be to get to know the companies to which you’d like to apply after you earn your MBA. Network with people who are in the know at these companies. See what they have to say. Do insiders recommend one test over the other? Are hiring managers interested in your performance on the Quant section of the GMAT? Do your research.

Still Unsure of Which Test to Take?

Let’s assume all of your schools accept either test, have no preference about which one you take, and your future career goals aren’t steering you toward one test or the other. In that case, there are some other factors to consider.

Firstly, have you begun studying?

You Have Not Yet Begun Studying

If you’re just beginning your preparation and you’re not sure whether to take the GMAT or the GRE, it’s wise to get a baseline score for each by taking an official practice test for each. You can take an official GMAT practice test from MBA.com. The GRE counterpart lives here.

Take each exam under test-like conditions and do your best. If one score percentile is significantly greater than the other, you may have an advantage on that test. For example, if you earn an 89th percentile score on the GMAT and a 57th percentile score on the GRE, you should probably consider preparing for and taking the GMAT.

It may be helpful for you to convert your GRE score to an expected GMAT score. Here is a tool from ETS that calculates predicted GMAT scores based on an applicant’s GRE Verbal Reasoning and Quantitative Reasoning scores. Keep in mind that the conversion isn’t perfect, but it is a reasonable approximation.

If you earn similar scores on both your GMAT and GRE practice exams, you should then consider the mechanics of each exam.

The Mechanics of the GMAT and the GRE

Time

Both tests take about the same time to complete. The total test time for the GRE is 3.75 hours (3.5 hours if you take the paper-based GRE). The total test time for the GMAT is 3.5 hours. So, you’ll need to build test-taking stamina regardless of which you take.

Adaptivity

The GMAT is adaptive on a question level. That is, after you answer each question, the computer determines whether to give you a harder question or an easier one. When you correctly answer questions, succeeding ones are more difficult, but when you incorrectly answer questions, the ones that follow are easier (and are worth fewer points). You can’t skip around on the GMAT; you must answer the question presented to you before moving to the next one.

The GRE is adaptive on a per-section basis, not on a per-question basis like the GMAT. On the GRE, you’ll have two graded Quant sections (20 questions each) and two graded Verbal sections (20 questions each). So, instead of individual questions changing based on your correct or incorrect responses, the sections will become more or less difficult due to your performance on previous sections. It’s the same concept as the adaptive strategy used on the GMAT, just applied in a broader way. Whereas you can’t skip around on the GMAT, the GRE allows you to skip around within each section.

Ability to Skip Questions

Some students like that the GRE provides the flexibility of being able to skip around within a section. If you take a GRE practice test or two, you’ll be able to get an idea of whether this feature is helpful to you. Some students improve their scores by being able to skip around. Other students find that once the time pressure is factored in, they have little time available at the end of a section to return to questions they skipped.

Calculator

The GRE provides a simple calculator on the Quant sections. Some students choose to take the GRE because of this calculator. Taking the GRE just because you can use a calculator is a big mistake. The calculator cannot do the thinking for you and its availability will likely be of minimal help. The GRE is a thinking test, and although there will be calculations to perform, the majority of the work you’ll be doing on the Quant sections will be analytical reasoning. In other words, you’ll be thinking more than you’ll be crunching numbers. If you’re a person who truly has a hard time doing multiplication, division, addition, and subtraction, take a few GRE practice tests and determine whether the calculator is of significant help to you.

Question Types

Another mechanical consideration is the question types on the two exams. The GMAT presents traditional multiple choice questions (except for Data Sufficiency questions). The GRE, in addition to its Quantitative Comparison questions, has a wide variety of question types: traditional multiple choice, numeric entry, select exactly two, the dastardly select all that apply, and even “highlight the sentence in the passage that…” For some students, this vast array of question types is overwhelming. Add to this the stress caused by knowing that if you miss even one part of a “select all that apply” question then the entire question is considered incorrect. For many students, the standard five-option multiple choice question format of the GMAT is a safe and dependable haven. Of course, if you take the GMAT, mastering Data Sufficiency questions is a must.

The Fatigue Factor

The GRE Quant and Verbal are each presented in two sections: you will take two Quant sections (35 minutes each), two Verbal sections (30 minutes each), and an additional Verbal or Quant section that is unscored. These may appear in any order, so your Quant and Verbal could alternate. Remember that you won’t know which section is unscored, so you must treat each section as if it were scored. Some students like jumping from one type of thinking to another. Others find this “stop and go” thinking challenging, and thus prefer the immersion provided by the GMAT’s one 75-minute Quant section followed by one 75-minute Verbal section. Some find that the GMAT’s two 75-minute sections are tiring and become fatigued at the end of each. You have to know a bit about yourself and how you perform to use the fatigue factor as a decision point.

You should also consider the content tested on each exam.

GMAT and GRE Content

Both the GMAT and the GRE test similar content, especially in the Quant sections: linear and quadratic equations, roots and exponents, number properties, inequalities and absolute values, functions and sequences, probability and combinatorics, ratios and percents, rates and work, unit conversions, general number skills, estimation, statistics and overlapping sets, and geometry, for example.

Yes, the two tests have subtle variations in the weighting of topics tested and in the logic that the questions demand. Yes, GMAT Quant is a bit harder than GRE Quant (more on this in a minute). However, the topics tested on the GMAT and GRE are similar enough that the primary difference you may wish to consider between the Quant sections of each is the question types, not the content.

For instance, the GMAT presents Data Sufficiency (DS) questions and the GRE presents Quantitative Comparison (QC) questions. Each requires mastery of a quantitative concept, but the twist in each is the particular logic applied for determining the final answer.

The GMAT’s DS questions give you initial information in the question stem, and a question is posed to you about that information. Then you are given Statement 1 and Statement 2, each of which provides additional information. Your job is to determine whether the information in each or both statements is sufficient to answer the question posed in the question stem.

The GRE’s QC questions provide you with two mathematical quantities: Quantity A and Quantity B. Your task is to determine which of the quantities is greater, or if the quantities are equal, or if the answer cannot be determined based on the information given.

Each of these Quant problem types has a particular logic that must be applied when you are working the problem. For some students, DS questions just “feel” easier to grasp and to answer. For other students, the QC question type suits their unique problem-solving style. If you’re concerned about Data Sufficiency or Quantitative Comparison questions, try questions of each type to determine which fits your way of thinking and applying logic to problem-solving.

Another major difference in the Quant sections is that GRE Quant includes two data interpretation scenarios (charts, graphs, tables) with several questions about each. The majority of data interpretation on the GMAT is included in the Integrated Reasoning section.

Despite these differences, if you’re choosing one test over the other on the basis of the content, I think that the Verbal sections of each exam are what you need to most consider.

Both exams test reading comprehension, so there is no way around that. However, GRE Verbal is significantly more heavily weighted in vocabulary, whereas GMAT Verbal is more heavily weighted in English grammar. You enjoy learning vocabulary words, but you dislike grammar? Consider taking the GRE. The reverse is true? Consider taking the GMAT.

Finally, you should consider the difficulty of the Quant sections of each exam.

Is GRE Math Easier Than GMAT Math?

Students sometimes ask me whether they should consider the GRE over the GMAT because they heard that the math on the GRE is easier than the math on the GMAT. The short answer is that GRE Quant is probably easier than GMAT Quant. GMAT Quant is notorious for presenting challenging logic questions that test multiple concepts at once and use basic math as the backdrop. GRE Quant questions are a bit more straightforward, probably due to the fact that a much broader audience takes the GRE. After all, students take the GRE to do a master’s degree in English, a PhD in math, and everything in between. People taking the GMAT are all applying to business school.

Nonetheless, students who go into the GRE with the notion that the math won’t be that difficult tend to be surprised. Whether GRE math is actually easier than GMAT math is not that relevant a question. The Quantitative sections of both exams are challenging and favor the well-prepared. Do your best to prepare as diligently as possible and don’t expect one to be easier than the other. Furthermore, most MBA programs have quant-heavy coursework. If your math skills are weak, why not strengthen them before business school?

The nervousness that many students feel about GMAT Quant is a little misplaced because this section can be mastered if you put in the time and hard work, and prepare with the correct study materials. Many students are nervous about this section because they are not fully prepared to deal with it. This nervousness dissipates as their skills increase to the level of proficiency.

One final point to consider: Let’s assume for argument’s sake that GRE math is actually easier than GMAT math. Let’s also assume that admissions people know this. Would an 80th percentile, for example, on GRE Quant carry the same weight as an 80th percentile on GMAT Quant? I can’t predict the answer to that, but it’s certainly something to think about. If you and the rest of the GMAT/GRE test-taking population think that GRE math is easier than GMAT math, then admissions officers probably think that same thing. There doesn’t appear to be a free ride that comes with taking the GRE over the GMAT solely by considering the relative difficulty of each exam’s Quant sections.

Switching Exams

If you’ve already invested time studying for one exam and are considering switching, I think it’s important to do some careful self-reflection during which you clarify your motivation to switch. Is there something irreconcilable about one exam that is pushing you to switch to the other, or could it be that you simply need a breather from studying? Perhaps you feel overworked, need better study materials, or should consider enlisting the help of a tutor.

One reason not to switch is the perception that the other test will be easier.
Neither the GMAT nor the GRE is an easy test, and each requires considerable preparation.

One major downside to switching tests is that you will lose some of the material you worked hard to learn. Then, you’ll have to start fresh learning new content and skills. You must carefully consider whether losing this study investment is worth it.

Also, it’s important to consider whether the weaknesses you’re turning away from will become bigger problems later on. For example, from time to time, I see students who are struggling with the grammar and writing tested on the GMAT. They choose to switch to the GRE, thinking that it will be the easier option. To me, the better approach would be to fix the weaknesses they have. I realize that working on one’s weaknesses usually is not easy, however it may be critical to success. So, instead of continuing to not understand grammar, why not step up to the plate and commit to mastering the basics of formal English? After all, we are forced to write more than ever—emails, texts, presentations, etc. Why not use the GMAT as an opportunity to improve your weaknesses while also earning a great score?

The same can be said for math. I see students switching from the GMAT to the GRE because they feel that the math on the GRE will be easier. Listen, in most MBA programs, particularly the top ones, math is an essential component. Why skimp on math preparation for the GMAT? If you do end up getting into an MBA program, you may struggle with your quantitative coursework, resulting in a lot of unnecessary stress. Why not use the GMAT as an opportunity to improve your math skills and also earn a great GMAT score?

If you’ve already been studying for one test, a valid reason to switch is if something very specific about one test is seriously holding you back, and this issue would be alleviated by taking the other test. For example, is the vocabulary on the GRE such a significant (and unfixable) issue for you that switching to the GMAT is a smart choice? Are you having irreconcilable differences with the grammar tested on the GMAT, and thus considering a switch to the GRE? Again, take some practice tests before you decide.

Some Final Points to Consider

Finally, let’s discuss some finer points of difference between the two exams. Some students may find the following to be helpful decision points:

Is Business School Your Only Option?

What do you plan to do if you are not accepted to the business school of your dreams? Will you apply to a lower-tier school, study harder to earn a higher GMAT or GRE score, or perhaps apply for a master’s or PhD program instead? If there is any chance you’ll apply to graduate programs outside of business school, the GRE is probably the better test choice since it provides you the flexibility to apply to a wider range of graduate programs.

Are You Unsure of Your Graduate School Plans?

If you are in undergrad and plan on saving the exam for a later date, and have not yet decided between grad school and b-school, the GRE is the safer bet because it allows you the flexibility to apply to most business schools as well as a wide-range of other graduate programs.

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