Many business schools now accept either the GRE or the GMAT, so students now have a decision to make: which test should you take? We’ve written on the topic before but this discussion deserves an update now that some changes to the GMAT are gaining more traction.
Both tests made some significant changes in the past couple of years. These changes were designed to make the test results more attractive to their customers—not you, but the business schools.
The conventional wisdom has been that the math is easier on the GRE. Though many schools do accept the GRE, rumors abound that students who take this test are at a bit of a disadvantage because they are expected to do better on the (easier) quant section. Anecdotally, we have heard some admissions officers admit that they do think about this (strictly off the record, of course). Other admissions officers, though, have said this doesn’t matter to them at all.
Recently, Bloomberg Businessweek reported that Bain & Co, a well-respected management consulting firm, is considering using Integrated Reasoning scores in its hiring process. Most banks and consulting firms already ask for the “regular” GMAT score when recruiting MBA candidates (and sometimes they even ask for your SAT scores!). If these companies begin to require IR, then someone who took the GRE could find themselves at a disadvantage during the hiring process—or even scrambling to take the GMAT during the second year of b-school while going through recruiting. Yikes!
So this question of whether to take the GMAT or the GRE has become a much more complicated calculus of a decision. There is no one-size-fits-all answer, but here are some guidelines to consider as you figure out the right decision for you.
Do you actually exhibit a markedly different performance level on the two exams? Most people have pretty similar results.
To figure this out, you’re going to take two practice tests (one of each). Before you do that, learn about the different question formats on both exams.
Quant: about half of the questions are your standard multiple choice. The other half are a weird type called Data Sufficiency. You’ll definitely want to learn how those work before you take a practice test (your next task).
Verbal: if you’ve ever taken a standardized test before, then you’ll be very familiar with Reading Comprehension questions. Critical Reasoning questions are similar, but much shorter, and the questions are more argument-based (how to strengthen or weaken a conclusion, for example). Sentence Correction questions require knowledge of grammar and meaning. You don’t need to study that yet, but you should just learn how the question type works.
In a nutshell, you’ll be given a sentence with a portion underlined. The first answer, (A), will repeat whatever was underlined. The other 4 answers will offer different variations for that underlined text. Only one is correct!
Essay: you don’t need to prep for this before your first practice test.
Integrated Reasoning: these questions combine math and verbal topics in four new question formats that you probably won’t have seen before. You’ll definitely want to investigate those a bit before your practice test, just to see how each one works. Here are some example problems:
Quant: most of the questions are either standard “pick one” multiple choice or fill in the blank. Some questions ask you to “pick all that apply” (so multiple answers are possible. The GRE also has its own weird type called Quantitative Comparisons. You’ll definitely want to learn how those work before you take a practice test (your next task).
Verbal: the GRE also contains Reading Comprehension and Critical Reasoning-type questions (on the GRE, these are both called Reading Comp). The other questions, though, hinge on vocabulary rather than grammar. You’ll be asked to fill in blanks in sentences with the proper vocab words from multiple choice lists.
Essays: you don’t need to prep for these before your first practice test.
Take Two Tests
Next, set aside some time about a week apart (to give your brain time to recover) to take one practice test of each type. You can skip the essays as long as you do so on both tests—either do this section on both or skip on both.
If your percentile rankings are within 15 to 20 percentile points, then you don’t have a major advantage on one test versus the other. If your percentile rankings differ by more than that, then you might have a major advantage on one test.
You also need to take into account whether you had any major timing problems that might have significantly hurt your score. On any standardized test, timing is a major factor. If you run out of time on one section of one of the tests and don’t finish all of the questions, your score will drop (in some cases, quite a lot). This is really just due to messing up the timing, though—not to a fundamental disadvantage on that particular type of test. You have to master timing no matter which test you take.
If the timing was okay on both tests, though, and you see a very large (> 20 percentile point) difference in scores on the quant or verbal sections, then you may want to consider studying for the test on which you earned the higher score.
If this test is the GMAT, then the decision is a no-brainer. If this test is the GRE, then you will also have to think about what we discussed earlier. Might the business schools to which you plan to apply discount GRE quant scores? Might you eventually want to go into banking or consulting, in which case you may be asked to show GMAT and Integrated Reasoning scores?
Get Some Outside Advice
Those aren’t easy questions to answer. If you find yourself in the middle of this debate without a clear way to make a decision, I highly recommend talking to an admissions consultant. I’m a big fan of mbaMission, and there are plenty of other firms out there. Call them up and ask for help! (Note: many consulting firms will offer free advice online or a free phone consultation. Check their websites for details and sign up for any free offers!)
What was that about Banking and Consulting…?
Because so many students want these jobs, the consulting firms and banks can afford to be choosy. At the same time, they have to wade through a large number of resumes—what to do?
One possibility, evidently, is to let the GMAT do some of the sorting for them. As I mentioned, these types of firms typically already ask for GMAT scores. Keith Bevans, global head of recruiting at Bain, told Bloomberg Businessweek, “The IR scores are trying to test analytical abilities, which is important to us. We hope it’s a good match for determining if you’ll be successful at Bain.”
Bain hasn’t actually decided yet whether to use IR scores (or, if so, how). Mr. Bevans did make a point of saying that other important factors—such as “work experience, education, leadership experience, and one-on-one interactions with staff”—will still be just as important as ever.
If you don’t want to go into banking or consulting, but you do take the GMAT, then your only IR concern is what the business schools think. In 2012, the schools didn’t use IR, so most test prep companies and admissions consultants were counseling students to aim for 4 or higher (the high score on IR is 8).
Some schools may begin to use IR this year, so we’ve been counseling people to go for a 5 or higher—possibly a 6, if you’re applying to a top 5 school. Several schools, though, have said that they want to see how well IR scores predict success in business school, so it will be a couple of years at least before they begin to place any serious emphasis on this section.
If you do want to go into one of these fields, then you have a choice to make. You can take more time to study now and focus on maximizing your IR score as well. To be competitive at the very best companies, you’ll need a 7 or 8.
Alternatively, you might decide to take the test again after starting business school, either before your first summer break (if you need the score to help secure an internship) or before the recruiting season begins in earnest in the winter or spring of your second year in school.
Realistically speaking, a lot of people will want to follow that second path. I just want to warn you: the last thing you’re going to want to do in a year or two is to re-take the GMAT just for the IR score. You’ll also have to study again for quant and verbal because you won’t want to risk a big score drop in those areas; the firms will see those scores as well.
If you are applying soon and just don’t have time to add thorough IR prep into the mix, then the decision is made for you. Quant and Verbal are more important now, so you might have to re-take the GMAT in the future to get that IR score.
If you have the luxury of time, though, then use it. Plan to add about 4 weeks to your overall study timeframe. Then start incorporating IR throughout your study (there are actually a lot of overlaps between IR, quant, and verbal).
If you’re one of our students, use our IR Interact interactive online lessons in conjunction with our IR Strategy Guide to learn all of the strategies for IR questions.
If not, then identify an IR book or program that you think will be effective for you and start studying.