GMAT vs GRE Smackdown: How to decide which test is right for you?

My next 3 posts are gonna demystify the whole test score enigma and debunk some key myths about them. This is some heavy stuff.

But it breaks my heart to see so many amazing candidates make bad choices about these tests, so I want to help you make the right choices right out of the gate.


If you wanna skip these posts and cut right to the chase, here's the synopsis:

  1. You should choose one test and make it a goal not to switch, but which one is best for you depends (if you’re asking, “on what?”, keep reading!)
  2. Your score needs to be as high as it can possibly be (AKA your personal max limit)
  3. What scores will help or hurt you depends on everything else about you!

Before we jump into choosing the right test…

Here are some myths you've probably heard

  • Even if schools accept the GRE, they prefer the GMAT (not true and most schools 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 (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!)

So which test is right for me?

You have probably already caught on to the fact that for this entire three-part series, the answer is always going to be “it depends.” Ha!!! Here is the process I recommend you go by to decide which test is right for you:

Step 1: Take a practice test of each – which test feels more intuitive and better to you? In which practice test did you get a higher relative score cold? If you have a very strong preference, then choose that test.

Step 2: If they feel more or less the same to you, then consider 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.)

Step 3: 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. (We’ll talk about your scoring potential in Part 2!)

But first, here’s why you want to make the choices I recommend above.

Schools have to care about their rankings, unfortunately!!!

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

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.

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 fulltime 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 fulltime MBA programs don’t (yet!) factor into rankings by the major ranking agencies!

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.

And check out Part 2, where I talk about which scores are good enough (for you) and which ones aren’t.