If you’re wondering whether to take the GRE or GMAT, you’re probably getting ready to apply to business schools. In a lot of situations, it doesn’t matter very much which test you take! However, there are some critical differences between the two tests, and you don’t want to be surprised when it’s time to submit applications. Keep reading to learn how to make your GRE vs GMAT decision.
GRE or GMAT: First Steps
In some situations, you have to take the GRE. In others, you have to take the GMAT. Do your research now, because if you’re in one of these situations, there’s only one right test for you!
Although a large and growing number of MBA programs will accept the GRE, a small number only accept the GMAT. The ETS has published a list of programs that accept GRE scores: if your program is on this list, you’ll be able to take either test. However, a few programs have stated that they prefer the GMAT, even if they technically accept the GRE. It goes without saying that if you’re applying to one of these programs, the GMAT is the way to go.
In some situations, you’ll have no choice but to take the GRE instead of the GMAT. For instance, if you’re applying to a dual-degree program, research your program’s test requirements. Some dual-degree MBA programs require the GRE rather than the GMAT, in order to satisfy the admissions requirements of both programs.
There are also logistical reasons to choose between the GRE or GMAT. The GMAT comes with a lifetime limit: you can only take the test eight times in total, and while you can appeal, it’s not guaranteed that you’ll be allowed to take it a ninth time. There’s also a limit to how many times you can take either test within a year (five times in any twelve-month period for either the GRE or GMAT). If you’re at this limit, you’ll have to take the other test if you want to continue retesting. It’s also possible, but unlikely, that you’ll be offered testing accommodations for one test but not the other. In that case, you’re probably better off taking the test that you received accommodations on.
At this point, go ahead and check the websites for the programs you’re applying to. If none of the situations above apply to you, and if all of your schools accept both tests, keep reading! And while you’re at it, jot down the average GMAT and GRE scores for your target schools: they’ll help you make your decision later on.
Which Test is Easier: GRE or GMAT?
You may have heard that one of the two tests is easier. That’s not entirely false—but it’s not entirely true, either.
The GMAT is an “item-adaptive” test. On the GMAT, you aren’t allowed to go back and check your work on previous problems. Also, if you’re consistently getting problems right, the test will steadily increase the difficulty level until you start getting a significant number of problems wrong. Because of this, virtually everyone misses a substantial number of problems on the GMAT, especially on the Quant section. The difference in scores comes not from how many problems you got right, but from the difficulty of the problems you were able to answer consistently.
In contrast, the GRE is scored based on how many problems you get right. However, you can also go back (within each section) and double-check your work, and you can save problems for later to avoid wasting time.
Due to this difference between the test algorithms, you’ll almost certainly get more right answers on the GRE than on the GMAT. That can definitely make the GRE feel easier. But does it mean your score will be higher on the GRE?
Probably not! Even though you’ll get more right answers on the GRE, a very high GRE score requires a lot of right answers, while a very high GMAT score definitely doesn’t. On top of that, remember that both tests compare you to other test-takers. Even if the GRE is easier, it’s easier for everyone who takes it—so your “higher” score will put you at about the same level, once you’re compared against other test-takers.
So neither test is universally “easier”—at least not in any way that matters. However, it’s possible that one of the tests will be significantly easier for you. If that’s the case, you should definitely take the significantly easier test. Here are some things to consider.
The Test-Day Experience
The GRE and the GMAT are both taken at a testing center, in front of a computer. Both tests are about equal in length, and the rules (no notes, no snacks in the testing room, no using your phone) are similar. Nonetheless, many people find the GRE less stressful than the GMAT.
If you’re seriously affected by test anxiety, especially if you’re currently struggling with the GMAT, consider taking the GRE instead. You should exhaust other avenues for anxiety reduction first, but it’s possible that taking the GRE will get you unstuck. The GRE allows you to go back to previous problems, check your work, and mark problems to review later, which can make the time limit feel less oppressive. It’s worth your time to take a practice GRE and see whether there’s a substantial improvement.
GMAT vs GRE: Question Types
The two tests look at very similar material. First, let’s go over the question types.
The question types almost completely overlap, with only a few differences. Although GMAT Data Sufficiency and GRE Quantitative Comparisons have different rules, they both test your ability to work with mathematical logic, rather than purely crunching numbers. Both tests look at how well you can read graphs, although the GRE includes this as part of the Math section, while the GMAT makes it a completely separate part of the test. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the GMAT tests English grammar, while the GRE tests your vocabulary. Vocabulary and grammar are both useful on both tests, but each test heavily emphasizes one over the other.
It’s unlikely that these differences will make one test much harder for you than the other. Even if one problem type is especially tough for you, that problem type will only make up a fraction of the entire test. The one exception might be if you’re primarily concerned about your Verbal score, and you’re much stronger at vocabulary than grammar, or vice versa—but in most situations, that shouldn’t force you to take one test or the other.
GMAT vs GRE: Content and Skills
The math content between the two tests is very similar as well. The GMAT emphasizes tricky story problems more than the GRE; GRE Math problems are often easier to understand but involve more calculation. There’s also an on-screen calculator on the GRE, but not on the GMAT (except on the Integrated Reasoning section).
The GMAT Quant section can be more forgiving of careless errors than the GRE, although careless math errors aren’t a good thing on either test. Because of the difference between the scoring algorithms, you really want to get as many right answers as possible on the GRE. Missing two or three problems due to careless errors can cause a major drop in your Quant score. On the GMAT, however, you have a chance to ‘recover’ from a careless error by consistently answering the following questions correctly.
There are a few math topics that are more heavily emphasized on one test than the other. For instance, the GRE focuses more on geometry and on certain statistics topics (such as quartiles) that rarely or never appear on the GMAT.
The difference is more dramatic on the Verbal side. Both tests include Reading Comprehension, as well as problems that test your ability to understand a brief argument (on the GMAT, these problems are called Critical Reasoning; on the GRE, they’re Logical Reading Comprehension). However, the GRE includes problems that require a knowledge of academic vocabulary. In contrast, the GMAT requires you to know grammar rules.
If you suspect that one or more of these differences will make one of the tests much easier for you, start by learning the basics of each test—the problem types and the basic format. This information is available on the GRE website and the GMAT website. Then, take a practice version of each test. Here’s a link to our free practice GMAT, and here’s one for our free practice GRE.
Here’s how to interpret your results. First, remember how we had you jot down the average scores for your target programs? Use those to decide on an appropriate goal score for each test, following the advice in this article. Then, compare what you got on your practice tests to those goal scores. Here are the possible scenarios:
- Your scores were similar on both practice tests (in percentile terms), and your GMAT score was within approximately 100 points of your GMAT goal score. In this case, go ahead and get started with the GMAT.
- Your percentiles were similar on both tests, but the GMAT seemed very difficult (for instance, you weren’t even close to finishing one or both sections) or your GMAT score was very far from your GMAT goal score. In this case, read the next section below before you decide which test to take.
- There was a dramatic difference in your scores between the two tests, or there was a small difference, but the material on one test seemed like it would be much easier to learn. In this case, continue with the easier test.
Do Business Programs Care Whether You Take the GRE or GMAT?
Many programs outwardly claim to give identical consideration to the GMAT and the GRE. That said, the statistics show that there’s a small but consistent difference between successful applicants’ GMAT and GRE scores. On average, successful applicants who took the GRE tend to be accepted with lower scores than applicants who took the GMAT. In other words, it looks like you can “get away with” a lower score on the GRE than on the GMAT.
There are a number of reasons this could be true, and in fact, it might not be meaningful at all—for instance, GRE applicants might have simply been stronger applicants in other ways. However, there are reasons to believe that taking the GRE might help you out if your score is marginal, especially if you have a non-traditional background.
What If I’ve Already Started Studying for the GRE or GMAT?
Switching from one test to the other won’t necessarily improve your score overnight. But learning the format of the other test and then taking a quick practice test will only take a few hours, and it might give you valuable information. If you’re having a tough time with one test, give the other one a try. Compare your goal scores on each test to where you are with each one right now, then make your decision. Don’t fall for the sunk cost fallacy, though—the right test to take is the one that will help you impress business programs the most, not the one you’ve sunk the most time into already.
Hopefully this information helped you make your GRE or GMAT decision! If not, we recommend chatting with an admissions counselor about your specific situation. mbaMission offers a free half-hour consultation, which is a fantastic resource if you have a complex situation or if your concerns weren’t addressed here. And once you’ve picked your test, check out a free trial session of the Manhattan Prep GRE course, the Manhattan Prep GMAT course, or both! 📝
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Chelsey Cooley is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in Seattle, Washington. Chelsey always followed her heart when it came to her education. Luckily, her heart led her straight to the perfect background for GMAT and GRE teaching: she has undergraduate degrees in mathematics and history, a master’s degree in linguistics, a 790 on the GMAT, and a perfect 170Q/170V on the GRE. Check out Chelsey’s upcoming GRE prep offerings here.