It’s a question that’s bound to go through the mind of every business school candidate at one point or another during the application process.
So what's the difference? Which of the two exams should you take? THAT is the question I’m going to help you answer right now.
There is no universal “correct answer” in the GMAT vs GRE conundrum.
But in this article, I’ll guide you through the major differences between these exams so you can choose for yourself. It breaks my heart to see so many amazing candidates make bad choices about their standardized tests, so I want to help you make the right choice right out of the gate.
Table of Contents
The nitty gritty
GMAT vs GRE: what’s the big difference?
A key difference between these exams is that the GMAT (The Graduate Management Admission Test) was designed to gauge candidate readiness exclusively for MBA programs. The GRE (the Graduate Record Examinations General Test), on the other hand, was originally designed to assess candidates for a wide range of graduate school programs, including Masters of Science candidates, Philosophy PhDs, Art Historians, you name it! So the content on the GRE is broad and less-business focused.
Admissions trends show that business schools and admissions committees aren’t just looking for applicants with a business background anymore. Because of this, the GRE has become an appealing alternative to the traditional GMAT.
There’s also variation between the sections of each. The GRE includes a section on vocabulary, as opposed to the sentence correction section of the GMAT. Do you prefer vocabulary or grammar? If you’re a non-native English speaker, you’ll have to pick your poison. (Our non-native English-speaking clients have tended to perform better on the vocabulary section of the GRE than on GMAT grammar, FYI!)
Understandably, the GMAT quantitative section is more difficult, both because of what the test is designed to measure and because of who takes it. In recent years engineers from the far east have warped the upward end of the GMAT quant curve, making it harder than ever to score in the upper reaches (49, 50, 51, e.g.) on the GMAT quantitative section. Anecdotally, our quantitatively strong clients are scoring 47s and 48s these days on the GMAT quant.
Let’s break it down
A table comparing the GMAT and GRE
The GMAT is accepted for admission to all business schools
The GRE is accepted for admission to most graduate programs, including nearly all top business schools
- Integrated Reasoning—measures your ability to analyze data and evaluate information presented in multiple formats
- Quantitative Reasoning—measures your ability to analyze data and draw conclusions using reasoning skills
- Verbal Reasoning—measures your ability to read and understand written material, to evaluate arguments and to correct written material to conform to standard written English
- Analytical Writing —measures your critical thinking and analytical writing skills
- Verbal Reasoning —measures your ability to read and understand written material, to evaluate arguments and to correct written material to conform to standard written English
- Quantitative Reasoning —measures your ability to analyze data and draw conclusions using reasoning skills
- Unscored & Research Oof. These are mystery sections that replicate either verbal or quant reasoning) and they are not scored. It’s just there for the test writers’ research. But you won’t know which section it is, so you gotta just do them all
Structure at the Test Center
Total time: 3.5 hours
- Analytical Writing section (30 minutes, 1 Essay)
- Integrated Reasoning section (12 questions, 30 minutes)
- Quantitative section (31 questions, 62 minutes)
- Verbal Section (36 questions, 65 minutes)
Total Time: 3.75 hours
- Analytical Writing section (60 minutes total; 2×30 minute essays)
- Verbal Reasoning sections (60 minutes total, 2×30 minutes)
- Quantitative Reasoning sections (70 minutes total, 2×35 mins)
- 30-35-minute experimental section that can be either math or verbal
At Home Online Structure
Verbal and Quantitative Reasoning each have score ranges of 130-170, in one-point increments, for a total score of 260-340.
A paper version only offered where computer-delivered testing is unavailable
How long are scores valid?
Online tests are here to stay!
The final thing to bear in mind (once you choose the exam for you) is the relatively new option of online test-taking, rather than traditional versions. You might think that if I said there's an upside the Covid-19 pandemic, that I had clearly lost my mind. But for those of you who feel more comfortable in your own surroundings and without the pressure of traveling to a testing center, this is now a reality!
Testing circumstances originally had to quickly change due to worldwide disruptions, but it's now possible to take both the GMAT and the GRE online. While there were some glitches with the online process in the beginning, this option has quickly become a very convenient way for many to still take the GMAT or GRE from the comfort of their own home and it's here to stay (unlike Covid….hopefully)!
GMAT and GRE mythbusting
Here are some GMAT and GRE myths you may have heard
- Even if business schools admissions accept the GRE, they prefer the GMAT (not true and most business schools (including Harvard Business School) have spoken out directly against this myth)
- A 720 is good enough because that's the threshold schools *believe* consulting firms screen for (none of that is true!)
- It's ok to have a lower GRE because school average GREs are lower (what score is right for you is highly individual and specific to the rest of your profile – more on that below!)
- Even if I have a high total score, if my quant score is low, I'm screwed (it depends!)
- If I took the test once and got a 730 or above, I can quit while I'm ahead because I am already clearing the minimum GMAT/GRE score required (NOOOOOO!! Most people get higher scores the second time and schools love both persistence and uber-high scores!)
- And a new one: schools will discard or discount the results of the online test (nope!)
An important MBA Ranking consideration
Why schools care about test scores
My good friend, John Byrne of Poets&Quants , invented the first ever MBA rankings when he was at Businessweek. It was super useful at first. But then, as multiple other rankings agencies followed and schools could track their application numbers year after year and find correlations with rankings and app numbers, unintended negative consequences crept in.
Suddenly, schools had to manage their rankings, which meant they had to pay disproportionate attention to applicant criteria that didn't necessarily impact the quality of their classes but that did move the needle on their rankings.
GMAT scores tops that list. Schools need to have ever-higher average GMATs to keep pace with their competitors in the rankings. So when they accept someone with a GMAT lower than last year's average score, they also need to accept someone with a higher than average score to maintain the balance. You can see that the average scores are generally on an upward trend at top schools, despite some annual ups and downs.
But here's the silver-lined loophole:
1. The GRE still may not impact school rankings as much as the GMAT does.
This means that if you expect to have a below average score at your favorite schools, then you're better off choosing the GRE. This is the whole reason the average GRE scores at schools are lower than the GMAT – because schools can be a bit more flexible in accepting interesting candidates that might not score as high on standardized tests but otherwise would add a ton of value to the class.
2. Columbia and NYU are leading an outright revolt against the rankings.
In the 2019-2020 season, these two schools were the first to accept the Executive Assessment (EA – the test usually used for Executive MBA admissions, where candidates are much further out of school and don't have the patience to take the GMAT) in lieu of the GMAT or GRE for full-time applicants. This was a clear move to say: “We don't want to focus on test scores, we want to take the candidates we love even if their scores are low.” EA scores for full-time MBA programs don't (yet!) factor into rankings by the major ranking agencies!
Time to pick your poison
So which test is right for me?
Ok. Ok. You know the answer is “it depends.” But here are three ways to know which exam might suit you better.
Take a practice test of each. Make sure the practice test is timed, includes all the different sections and question types, and is based on sample questions from actual past GMATs and GREs. For a GMAT practice exam, go here. For the GRE, use this one. These practice questions will help you figure out which test feels more intuitive and better to you. In which practice test did you get a higher relative score cold? Which test felt easier to you? If you have a very strong preference, then choose that test.
If the two tests feel more or less the same to you, then consider your target score and whether you believe you are going to beat the average of your target schools on the GMAT.
- For most top 10 schools, the average is 730. If you think you can get 730 or higher, then stick with the GMAT.
- If you worry that no matter how hard you study, you’re going to fall below the average GMAT of your target schools, then go with the GRE. (Check out our post on your GMAT scoring potential for more information.)
Consider your strengths!! One of the great things about having a choice between two exams is that you can play to your strengths. The exams are built to assess a range of skills for entry to graduate programs, including analytical skills, quantitative skills, critical reasoning skills and integrated reasoning skills. If you feel strong in Critical Reasoning and Data Sufficiency, then the GMAT might be your test. If you prefer vocabulary and the GRE quantitative section structure, then the GRE is the one you want!
So to sum up, here's how to choose your test:
Hope this helps!! You can always reach out to us for a free MBA Strategy session to get more nuanced insights about your candidacy and hear more about how we help our clients get into competitive schools even when their stats are weak.
Sign up for a free MBA strategy call right here:
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GMAT or GRE? What GMAT score do you need to get in? Is your score good enough? Find out everything about the MBA tests before applying to business school!
Need GMAT prep tips? Our resident GMAT Wizard, Brian, is dishing out GMAT study guides, practice tests, and resources so you can be fully prepared for the big day!
What’s a good GMAT score? Watch this #MBAMonday episode to discover the importance of the GMAT/GRE for your application and what score you need to be considered for admission.