GRE versus GMAT: Which should you take?

BY Meghan MalasApril 24, 2021, 10:26 AM
Martin Laksman

If you are reading this, there’s a good chance that you are planning on becoming one of many in a competitive pool of MBA program applicants and you want to strengthen your application as much as possible. An important part of this process is deciding which standardized test to take and submit to business schools.

Business degrees are the most popular among graduate programs, and each year hundreds of thousands of students graduate from MBA programs. In 2020, the demand for graduate management education increased as people sought ways to up their credentials and mitigate COVID-19’s impact on the economy. While the overall number of applications to MBA programs fell in 2019 and in 2020 compared to prior years, 72% of full-time two-year MBA programs still reported relative growth in applications in 2020, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council’s Application Trends Survey. 

Applicants usually have to decide which test—the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) or the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE)—will emphasize their strengths and increase the chances of acceptance into their desired MBA programs. Here’s what you need to know about the two tests, and how they will factor into your application process. 

How are the GMAT and GRE similar?

It’s important to note that when schools are evaluating your application, the function of both test scores is the same. Although the GMAT and the GRE are each examining your ability to make quick and strategic executive decisions, they go about measuring these capabilities in different ways. 

Being aware of the differences between the quantitative sections, the verbal sections, the computer adaptive formats, the writing portions, and the cost of either test can help you decide which exam you can ultimately perform the best on—and therefore, which test to take. 

Do business schools care which test I take?

A decade ago, almost everyone applying to an MBA program would have to submit GMAT scores. Now most business schools accept GRE test scores as well. More than 1,200 MBA programs accept scores from the GMAT or GRE for business school admissions, according to the Princeton Review. A 2020 survey by Kaplan Test Prep revealed that 86% of responding business schools said that their MBA programs had no preference between GMAT or GRE test takers when considering applicants. Stacey Koprince, content and curriculum lead for Manhattan Prep (a sister company of Kaplan), says this is due in part to a push by business schools to expand and diversify their pool of MBA applicants. 

Koprince says that the GMAT is still considered the primary option for prospective MBA students, especially for those vying for a competitive program. The GRE option opens doors for students who are less sure about the graduate degree they want or are worried about performing poorly on the GMAT.

Before you weigh all the details and aspects of both tests, it is important to ensure that the business schools you are applying to do in fact accept the GRE. If one of your prospective programs happens to have a preference for the GMAT, then that makes your admission test decision simple. 

If your prospective schools are indifferent, then how do you answer that inevitable question of which test to take? 

“The first thing that I advise the students to do is to take a practice test for both,” John Fulmer, the content director for the GMAT and GRE at the Princeton Review, says. “What that will do is help students expose some of their strengths and weaknesses.”

Practice GRE and GMAT tests are available for free online.

What is the difference between the GMAT and GRE verbal sections?

The GMAT consists of questions on reading comprehension, critical reasoning, and sentence correction. The sentence correction questions ask you to choose an answer that expresses an idea in the most grammatically correct, clear, and concise way. 

The GRE’s verbal section includes reading comprehension, as well as sentence equivalences and text completions (in other words, you are trying to pick the right word for the job). 

“If you have a really strong vocabulary, the GRE might be a better option for you,” says Fulmer. “On the other hand, if your grammar is stronger or you’ve traditionally been somebody who has had a little bit of trouble learning vocabulary, then the GMAT might be better.”

What is the difference between the GMAT and GRE quantitative sections?

In general, the GMAT’s quantitative section is considered more difficult than the GRE’s quantitative reasoning section. The GMAT quantitative section tends to lean into evaluating your problem-solving and logic-based math skills as opposed to the GRE’s more textbook-style math questions. The GRE also allows you to use a calculator while GMAT does not. 

Computer adaptive by question vs. computer-based multi-stage

The GRE’s verbal and quantitative reasoning sections are computer-based multi-stage tests. This means that you are given a block of questions and if you perform well on that block, the second block of questions will be made more difficult. 

The GMAT’s verbal and quantitative sections are computer-adaptive by question, meaning that you begin with a medium-level question and as you answer questions correctly, subsequent questions will be more difficult. Because the GMAT is question adaptive, test-takers do not have the option to go back to questions they have already answered, and they must answer questions in order. Additionally, if you are performing well on the test, the difficulty level of the questions will ramp up quickly. 

Koprince says that the GRE could feel a little more approachable for those who get performance anxiety during exams or for people who have issues managing their time in a question adaptive exam.

Differences between the GMAT and GRE analytical writing sections

The GRE has two separate analytical writing tasks. One essay prompts you to analyze an issue and deliver your perspective on the topic. The other asks you to critically analyze a given argument. The GMAT has one essay. The GMAT’s Analytical Writing Assessment examines your comprehension, analytical, critical thinking, and communication abilities as you evaluate a given argument. 

Time, money, and some other details to consider

The GMAT takes three hours and 30 minutes and costs $250, while the GRE is about three hours and 45 minutes and costs $205. In terms of exam prep duration, the GMAT and GRE are similar depending on the competitiveness of the programs you are applying to. Koprince says that most people probably need to plan for at least three to four months of preparation for either test. Additionally, both GMAT and GRE scores are valid for five years. 

What is the Executive Assessment and is it an option for me?

The Graduate Management Admission Council developed the Executive Assessment (EA) for Executive MBA program applicants, most of whom have substantial work experience, as a measure of readiness rather than aptitude. For this reason, it is significantly shorter than the GMAT or GRE. It consists of 40 questions and is 90 minutes long. 

Koprince says that although the EA was originally for applicants to Executive MBA programs, the EA is becoming more commonly accepted by types of MBA programs other than Executive MBA programs in place of GMAT and GRE scores. The Graduate Management Admission Council regularly updates its list of programs that accept EA scores.

“If someone has the option of all three, then I would almost certainly tell them to take the EA over the other two,” Koprince says. She points to less test preparation and the ability to avoid the hyper-competitiveness of GRE and GMAT test scores as key benefits of the EA. “If I’m an admissions person and I just want to make sure that you have the basic grounding that you need to succeed in my program, it doesn’t really matter once you get a score higher than a certain threshold.”

Fulmer says that applicants should consider that the GRE and GMAT also indicate an applicant’s willingness to prepare, which can be a valuable attribute to admissions offices. The EA was purposefully created so that people would not have to spend a lot of time preparing for it, so by design, it loses this competitive edge. The EA also does not have as many test preparation materials and resources as the GMAT and GRE for this same reason.

“One of the things that a high score on the GMAT or GRE shows is that you put in the work to get that score,” Fulmer says. “That too is a signal of being a serious student. It says, ‘I’m willing to put in the work to achieve my goal.’”

Allow time to figure it out

In any case, MBA applicants should be willing to put considerable time into preparing for the standardized test they choose. Although the logistics of the GMAT and GRE differ and some people may find that they strongly prefer one over the other, the tests serve the same purpose. 

Ultimately, you want to put your best foot forward during the application process, so it’s important to give yourself enough time to reach out to the schools you plan to apply to, evaluate all factors, decide which test you want to take, and prepare the best you can for that test. In the end, test scores are just one part of your application, but they are a critical part nonetheless.