GMAT vs. GRE: What test should I take?

Tyler York
Choice between two paths: GRE and GMAT

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. And hey, even GregMat has GRE content now.

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 true for all GRE sections.

How hard is the GRE? OK, to be clear, this is not to say that the GRE is a walk in the park (it isn’t). How long is the GRE, for instance? Just as long as the GMAT. 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. There is no GRE to GMAT conversion chart to compare the whole test, but that’s pretty telling.

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. The rudimentary GRE calculator is supposed to be enough to solve every problem.

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. How the GRE is scored doesn’t even differ much in spite of it being a much easier test.

GMAT vs. GRE percentiles and median scores

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 GMAT and GRE Median scores directly from the institutions’ own websites.

UniversityCollegeGMAT or GRE?Median Score – GMATMedian Score – GRE
University of PennsylvaniaWhartonBoth732324
Stanford UniversityGSBBoth734330
Harvard UniversityHBSBoth730326
Massachusetts Institute of TechnologySloanBoth730326
University of ChicagoBoothBoth730326
Columbia UniversityCBSBoth727324
Northwestern UniversityKelloggBoth732324
University of California – BerkeleyHaasBoth725323
Yale UniversitySOMBoth720330
Duke UniversityFuquaBoth704319
University of Michigan – Ann ArborRossBoth719324
Dartmouth UniversityTuckBoth723324
New York UniversitySternBoth720324
University of VirginiaDardenBoth713321
Cornell UniversityJohnsonBoth696320
Average  722324

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 GMAT and GRE percentile scores instead.

UniversityCollegeGMAT or GRE?Percentile – GMATPercentile – GRE
University of PennsylvaniaWhartonBoth96%85%
Stanford UniversityGSBBoth96%91%
Harvard UniversityHBSBoth96%88%
Massachusetts Institute of TechnologySloanBoth96%88%
University of ChicagoBoothBoth96%88%
Columbia UniversityCBSBoth96%85%
Northwestern UniversityKelloggBoth96%85%
University of California – BerkeleyHaasBoth96%84%
Yale UniversitySOMBoth94%91%
Duke UniversityFuquaBoth89%78%
University of Michigan – Ann ArborRossBoth94%85%
Dartmouth UniversityTuckBoth94%85%
New York UniversitySternBoth94%85%
University of VirginiaDardenBoth92%81%
Cornell UniversityJohnsonBoth89%80%
Average  94%85%

Now do you see it? At every top-ranked business school, the GRE score 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 (because the GRE average scores are lower), 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 format 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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