Should I take the GRE or the GMAT?


GMAT or GREMost business schools now accept both the GRE and the GMAT, so which one should you take? I’ve written on the topic before but it’s been nearly a year and I’ve got some updates.

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 a few admissions officers admit that they do think about this (strictly off the record, of course). Most admissions officers, though, have said this doesn’t matter to them at all, including several officers at the top 10 schools.

So we’ve come up with a series of decisions to help you make this choice. The first three questions are “deal-breakers”—that is, a certain answer will point you definitively to a specific test (the GMAT, as it happens). The fourth question is…murkier. We’ll address that in a little bit.

#1: Do all of “your” schools accept the GRE?

This one is obvious. All business schools (that ask for a standardized test score) accept the GMAT. Most—but not all—accept the GRE. If you want to apply to any schools that require the GMAT, such as London Business School MBA (at the time of this publication), then you’ll be taking the GMAT.

#2: Do any of “your” schools prefer the GMAT?

Most schools that accept both tests don’t express a preference between the two. Some schools, though, do say that the prefer the GMAT. They publish this preference right on their web site, so go look up all of your schools and see what they say about the GMAT / GRE requirement for admissions.

As of the date of this article, Columbia, Haas (Berkeley) and Anderson (UCLA) all state that they prefer the GMAT, even though they do accept the GRE. If you want to apply to one of these schools, I recommend that you take the GMAT. (Note: these aren’t the only three schools that prefer the GMAT; I just picked out the three most well-known ones that do. You still need to research your schools!)

#3: Do you want to go into banking or management consulting after b-school?

The major banks and consulting firms ask for GMAT scores when you apply. (Some of them even ask for undergraduate GPA and SAT scores. I think that data is irrelevant after someone has a b-school GPA and GMAT scores but I’m not the one making the hiring decisions!)

We don’t know how these companies will react when candidates start to want to submit GRE scores instead, but given that we haven’t yet heard of a bank or consulting firm asking for “GMAT or GRE” scores, it’s a safe bet to take the GMAT.

#4 Now it gets messy

If you made it through that gauntlet without a definitive push towards the GMAT, then you’ve got a tougher decision to make. I’m going to split people into two broad categories here: those who haven’t started studying yet (or barely started studying) and those who have been studying for one test for a while and are considering a switch to the other test.

If you’re new to the process…

If you’re relatively new to all of this, then you’ll need to try to assess your strengths and weaknesses based upon how you did on various subjects in school.

Are you better at vocabulary (GRE) or grammar (GMAT)? Do you also think that better area would be easier for you to improve even further?

Are you better at geometry and data interpretation (emphasized more on GRE)? Or are you better at story problems and number theory (such as divisibility, odds and evens, etc.)? The latter is emphasized more on the GMAT.

Do you hate the reading and analysis stuff that shows up on the verbal section? If so, you’re stuck: both tests cover reading comprehension and arguments. Both tests also require you to write an essay. On the GRE, you’ll actually write two essays. On the GMAT, one essay was replaced with the Integrated Reasoning section (a mix of quant and verbal). This IR section may eventually become a factor in deciding which test to take, but right now, the IR score isn’t used much in the admissions process.

Both tests also put you under pretty serious time pressure. Some people like the fact that you can jump around among the questions in one section on the GRE; on the GMAT, you have to answer each question to get to the next one and you can’t go back. In practice, you actually won’t have time to go back to many (if any!) questions on the GRE, but knowing you have that option can reduce stress during the test—something to consider if you have a history of anxiety during high-pressure tests.

If you’ve been studying and are considering a switch…

First, you need to figure out whether a switch will be worth the additional cost (time and money). It may just be that you are burned out and could use a break.

Is the current test “fatal” for you in some way that the other test wouldn’t be? For example, if you’re struggling with vocab, but much better at grammar, then a switch from GRE to GMAT might be wise. If GMAT stories and number theory are driving you crazy, but you actually kind of like geometry and graphs, then maybe you should switch to the GRE.

If, on the other hand, you’re struggling most with the reading (passages and arguments), or you aren’t a fan of algebra, then switching tests isn’t going to do much for you, since both tests cover those topics.

If you do switch, expect to start at a lower level than your scoring level on the current test; after all, you’ve been studying for a while and made at least some progress. The question is whether the lower starting level is still high enough to mean that you can reasonably lift your score beyond the equivalent scoring level of your current test.

How to tell? Take one week to study for the “other” test. If the “other” test is the GMAT, study data sufficiency, sentence correction, and timing. If the “other” test is the GRE, study quantitative comparisons, the two vocab question types (sentence equivalence and text completions), and timing.

Then take a practice test. How far off are you? (Note: the two tests use different scoring scales, but you can estimate based upon the percentile rankings that you earn.) (Note #2: you can get one free practice test just by signing up for a free account on our respective GMAT and GRE websites.)

If you’re new but really, really dedicated…

If you just can’t decide based upon what we discussed earlier, you can follow a similar path to the one I described in the last section: take two weeks to study, one for each test (and take two practice tests).

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 all else fails, get some outside advice

This isn’t an easy question to answer. If you find yourself in the middle of this debate without a clear way to make a decision, I highly recommend getting some outside advice. You can visit me on our forums; let me know your situation (everything you’ve already tried, scores, etc.) and we can discuss. (Do let me know that you’ve read this article—otherwise, I’ll start asking you things like, “Did you research your schools to make sure they take the GRE?”)

You may also want to talk 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!)

Join us next time…

In later articles, we’ll talk about what to do if you decide to switch from the GRE to the GMAT or from the GMAT to the GRE. Until then, happy studying!

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