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GMAT vs GRE: Which Test Should You Take?

As the GRE has gained more acceptance among business schools, the myth that the GRE is an inferior exam or one that would somehow sabotage an applicant’s business school chances has been pretty much dispelled. The GRE was changed over five years ago, largely with the goal of making the exam more competitive with the GMAT for business school admissions, and, with each passing year, I’ve seen more and more clients take the GRE and gain admission to top business schools (examples include HBS, Sloan, Columbia, Stern, Wharton, UCLA, etc.). Of course, this doesn’t mean that one test is preferable to another or that you should immediately drop your GMAT studying and move on to the GRE, but the exams’ equivalence in the eyes of most MBA AdComs should make any prospective applicant reflect on his/her strengths and weaknesses and make an informed decision about which test to study for. Having tutored both the GMAT and GRE for nearly a decade, I’ve seen misconceptions abound regarding which exam to take, and, while I never blindly endorse taking one exam over the other, I want to discuss some of the primary reasons someone might benefit from taking the GRE.

  1. Quant is a glaring weakness. This is the most common justification for taking the GRE over the GMAT. Although the two exams test pretty much identical Quantitative concepts, the GRE Quant is more “user-friendly”. A primary differentiating factor is, of course, the on-screen calculator. And there’s the fact that GRE’s Quantitative Comparison questions are a tamer version of the notoriously tricky GMAT data sufficiency questions. Just as importantly, though, the distribution of quantitative concepts on the two exams differs. Whereas the GMAT heavily tests abstract topics like Number Properties and almost always features several questions on Rates, Overlapping Sets, and Probability, the GRE more heavily tests “real-world” topics such as fractions, percents, and ratios. This isn’t to say that Number Properties, Rates, etc. don’t appear on the GRE, but they appear less often, and when they do, the questions are typically more manageable (for example, I’ve yet to see a GRE quant question address the concept of “shrinking and expanding gaps” within Rates, whereas you can almost always expect one such question on the GMAT). Finally, the different way the exams are scored (the GRE is section-adapative, whereas the GMAT is question-adaptive) means that you’re less likely to see any truly brutal Quant questions on the GRE. Though you’ll most likely need to get a higher percentage of questions right on the GRE to get an equivalent GMAT score, you’ll almost definitely see no “curveballs” or questions that deviate substantially from questions you’d already seen. The GMAT, on the other hand, will sometimes present questions that, while addressing a familiar topic, will test it in a way that makes the question seem almost inscrutable.
  2. You feel confident in the other components of your application. To understand this point, you need to understand how business schools use the GMAT and GRE. The original use of these exams was to help business schools determine an applicant’s readiness for graduate coursework. But as the business school rankings such as US News started paying attention to median and average GMAT scores as signals of a school’s quality, business schools had to place undue weight on the GMAT, lest their rankings, reputation, and matriculation rates suffer.So where does the GRE come into play? Since the exam changed so recently (in October of 2011), business schools haven’t submitted data on their median and average GRE Scores, which means that, by submitting a GRE score, you effectively remove yourself from the MBA rankings game. This is good news for candidates who have stellar credentials (good work experience, GPA, and letters of recommendation) but for whom a low GMAT score might be a liability. Think of it this way: If the average admitted GMAT score of your demographic is 710 and you score a 660, the admissions committee will inevitably have reservations about admitting you and your ratings-deflating score, even if they love the rest of your application. But if you submit that application with a comparable GRE score (this score converter can help), then many of those reservations will vanish, thus increasing your chances of admission.

    Whether it should be this way and how long it will continue to be this way are different questions, but, for now, if you view the GMAT as the one element of your application that might jeopardize your chances of admission to your dream school, and you think the GRE lends itself more to your strengths, then the GRE might be a better option.

  3. You’ve been diagnosed with a learning disability. This is probably the most overlooked consideration in taking the GRE over the GMAT. The GMAT is a notoriously strict, high-security exam. One of the consequences of this fact is that GMAC is hesitant to provide extra time to test-takers except in the rarest and most exceptional circumstances. In addition, getting extra time on the GMAT often turns into a months-long ordeal that makes it difficult for test-takers to set a a concrete timeline and plan their studies accordingly. Relative to this somewhat byzantine process, getting extra time on the GRE is surprisingly straightforward. Since ETS changed the exam, I’ve yet to see a student apply for extra time and not receive it. In fact, last year, I had a student with a particularly debilitating form of test anxiety apply and receive extra time — something that, to my knowledge, is unheard of with the GMAT. Why this is the case is a topic for another time, but ETS’ relative lenience probably has to do with a desire to recruit more test-takers and make the exam as competitive as possible with the GMAT.

So, given that, at this point, MBA AdComs view the two exams equally, the primary considerations determining which exam you take should concern your personal strengths and weaknesses, not the school’s potential perception of the exams. The above list, while not exhaustive, should help you come to an informed decision.



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