GMAT vs. GRE: What test should I take?


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If you’re considering business school, chances are good that the “GMAT vs. GRE” question has crossed your mind. Unfortunately, most of the internet chatter on the subject avoids offering a definitive answer. So allow me to answer the question directly: You should take the GRE – full stop. While this may seem like a case of a barber recommending a haircut (author’s note: Hi! I’m Orion, Achievable’s GRE author and founder of StellarGRE), the GRE provides important tactical advantages to business school applicants, without any of the significant liabilities associated with the GMAT. How so? Let’s dig in.
GMAT vs. GRE? Oxford University accepts both

Nowadays, even Oxford University accepts the GRE for MBA applications. Photo by Delfi de la Rua on Unsplash.

The GRE is accepted almost everywhere and is rapidly gaining popularity

First, the GRE is no longer a second-tier test in the eyes of business schools. Every one of the top 15 business schools now accepts the GRE as a component of their applications. And if a business school accepts either test, it must treat them as functionally equivalent because anything that a university shares publicly about itself in its own literature is legally binding. In fact, not only is the GRE now on equal footing with the GMAT with respect to admissions criteria, but it is rapidly dominating the market. According to U.S. News & World Report, less than half of admitted applicants to top business schools submitted a GMAT score in 2018 Furthermore, the GMAT is only accepted by business schools, while the GRE is accepted by business schools and almost every other kind of graduate program in America. This is an important consideration if you’re either (a) interested in applying to a joint-degree program (i.e., MBA/MPP, MBA/MFA, etc.), or (b) interested in enrolling not in the immediate future, but further down the road. Since test scores are valid for five years, many students sit for a graduate entry exam right out of undergrad, while they’re still used to standardized testing. Taking the GRE gives you optionality if your focus changes in the years ahead. 
Math problems on the GMAT are more difficult than on the GRE

Photo by Antoine Dautry on Unsplash

The GRE is easier, both overall and especially in the math section

Second are the tactical advantages of taking the GRE. I have worked in the test prep industry for sixteen years and taught every standardized test under the sun. Simply put, I think the GRE is easier than the GMAT.  This is not to say that the GRE is a walk in the park (it isn’t). However, the GMAT more frequently requires the use of logical reasoning – on both sections of the test – in addition to knowledge of the relevant quantitative and qualitative material. Therefore, preparation for the GMAT requires both extensive studying of the testable content and practicing how to manipulate that content using the rules of formal logic.  The GMAT’s verbal section contains many more critical reasoning problems than does the GRE’s verbal section. In fact, only approximately 6% of all GRE verbal problems have a logic component Additionally, half of the GMAT’s quantitative section is comprised of logic-heavy data sufficiency problems, widely considered to be the most challenging question type on the entire test. On the other hand, less than 1% of the GRE’s quantitative section is constituted by data sufficiency problems. Odds are, you won’t even see one such problem on the day of the test. So unless you’re one of the lucky few who seem to be wired for this kind of thinking, why subject yourself to an additional (and unnecessary) difficulty? The truth is that the test is hard enough as it is.

GMAT vs. GRE median scores and percentiles

Now for the kicker. The following is a table listing the top 15 business schools as ranked by U.S. News & World Report for the most recent year available (2020). I pulled the Median scores directly from the institutions’ own websites.
University College GMAT or GRE? Median Score – GMAT
Median Score – GRE
University of Pennsylvania Wharton Both 732 324
Stanford University GSB Both 734 330
Harvard University HBS Both 730 326
Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan Both 730 326
University of Chicago Booth Both 730 326
Columbia University CBS Both 727 324
Northwestern University Kellogg Both 732 324
University of California – Berkeley Haas Both 725 323
Yale University SOM Both 720 330
Duke University Fuqua Both 704 319
University of Michigan – Ann Arbor Ross Both 719 324
Dartmouth University Tuck Both 723 324
New York University Stern Both 720 324
University of Virginia Darden Both 713 321
Cornell University Johnson Both 696 320
Average 722 324
Besides reiterating the fact that all the top-ranked business schools now accept the GRE, there’s probably nothing surprising in that chart. And that’s because the medians are reported here as scaled scores, which are largely arbitrary and meaningless. Now here’s the same table with the respective medians reported as percentiles instead.
University College GMAT or GRE? Percentile – GMAT
Percentile – GRE
University of Pennsylvania Wharton Both 96% 85%
Stanford University GSB Both 96% 91%
Harvard University HBS Both 96% 88%
Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan Both 96% 88%
University of Chicago Booth Both 96% 88%
Columbia University CBS Both 96% 85%
Northwestern University Kellogg Both 96% 85%
University of California – Berkeley Haas Both 96% 84%
Yale University SOM Both 94% 91%
Duke University Fuqua Both 89% 78%
University of Michigan – Ann Arbor Ross Both 94% 85%
Dartmouth University Tuck Both 94% 85%
New York University Stern Both 94% 85%
University of Virginia Darden Both 92% 81%
Cornell University Johnson Both 89% 80%
Average 94% 85%
Now do you see it? At every top-ranked business school, the percentiles associated with the median scores of their matriculated cohorts are lower for the GRE than for the GMAT. Across the 15 schools listed, median GRE scores were on average 9 percentile points lower than median GMAT scores This means that you don’t have to perform as highly on the GRE as you have to perform on the GMAT to be competitive for these programs. Nine percentile points is an enormous advantage!  The benefits are twofold: not only do you need to outperform fewer other people on the GRE (relative to the GMAT) to remain competitive for these programs, but these people that you do not need to outperform are also the most challenging competitors in the highest percentiles.  Remember: percentiles represent the portion of your competition that you outperform. More and more effort is necessary for smaller and smaller gains as you approach the ceiling of any test (or group of people, for that matter). Moving from the 80th to the 85th percentile is much easier than moving from the 90th to the 95th percentile – think of it this way: going from worst to best swimmer in your high school is still way easier overall than going from worst to best swimmer among Olympic athletes. Taking the GRE will not only increase your likelihood of success, but should reduce your overall time, energy, and money expenditures with respect to test prep, as well.

Conclusion: The GRE is accepted almost everywhere, tests easier material, and increases your competitiveness for top business schools

So there you have it. The GRE doesn’t just give you more options in grad school admissions (without any meaningful exclusions) – it also affords you higher chances of success by testing less-challenging material and offering a lower threshold of competitiveness to get into top programs. I hope this explanation was helpful!

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Last modified: August 1, 2020

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