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Should You Take the GMAT or GRE?

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Should You Take the GMAT or GRE?

If you are in the process of considering whether to apply to business school, you have probably heard several times how important is to secure a great GMAT score in order to increase your chances of admission. While an excellent performance on the GMAT will certainly boost your candidacy at any school to which you are thinking of applying, most top-ranked business schools now also accept GRE scores from applicants who do not want to take the GMAT, causing many prospective students to debate which of the two exams is really the right one for them to prepare for and take. In this article, we’ll discuss the similarities and key differences between the GMAT and GRE and tell you which one you should take (spoiler alert: it depends on your skills in various academic areas).

Which test do business schools want you to take?

From its inception in 1954 (we’re pretty sure it was just a little bit different back then!) until a few years ago, the GMAT was the only admissions test accepted by MBA programs. In recent years, however, an increasing number of schools have decided to start accepting GRE scores from MBA applicants in lieu of GMAT scores. Today, almost every business school has officially stated that they have no preference for whether applicants take the GMAT or the GRE before they submit their graduate school applications.

So, should you take the GMAT or GRE for business school? It all depends on how confident you feel with your math and language skills, as well as how you feel about the elements that make the GMAT and GRE unique.

Are you good at Quant?

Both the GMAT and the GRE have a Quantitative (or “Quant”) section. On each exam, this section will ask you to solve questions based on a variety of math concepts, but there are several key differences to consider:

  • For the most part, the GMAT and GRE test you on the same pool of mathematical topics: arithmetic (basic operations, fractions and decimals, factors and multiples, percents, ratios, etc.), algebra (expressions, equations, & inequalities, exponents and roots, functions and sequences, etc.), geometry (lines and angles, polygons and circles, coordinate, etc.), basic statistics (mean, median, mode, and standard deviation), basic probability (independent, dependent, conditional, etc.), and combinatorics (permutations and combinations).
  • However, the GMAT tends to go more in-depth with these topics. For example, the GMAT and GRE will both ask you to solve problems about permutations, but you are far more likely to encounter a permutation with tricky restrictions on the GMAT than you are on the GRE.
  • Additionally, the wording of the questions themselves tends to be more difficult on the GMAT. A question may be testing the same concepts or skills on each exam, but the GMAT version is more likely to include additional layers of obfuscation through which you have to sift in order to get to the heart of the question. You may end up performing the exact same mathematical process to get to the exact same answer; the GMAT just adds some additional hurdles before you get down to the actual math.
  • The GMAT adapts to your performance after each question. Correct answers lead to harder questions, and incorrect answers lead to easier questions. While this leads to encountering more difficult problems, the scoring algorithm is actually more forgiving for outlier mistakes. Everyone misses questions, but the GMAT is more conducive to rebounding from wrong answers because you have multiple opportunities to make up for them.
  • The GRE only adapts after the first Quant section. Performing well leads to a harder second section, performing like the average GRE test taker leads to a second section of similar difficulty, and performing poorly leads to an easier second section. The questions on the GRE will be more straightforward, but the scoring algorithm is less forgiving than that of the GMAT. Making silly mistakes on the first section leads to a less difficult second section, limiting your ability to make up for earlier errors and placing a cap on your potential Quant score.

Are you good at Verbal?

The GRE and the GMAT both include Reading Comprehension passages and Critical Reasoning questions in their Verbal sections. While it may sound like you’ll be facing identical questions on the GMAT and GRE, there are subtle differences between the same question type on each exam. The GRE tends to be place more of an emphasis on drawing inferences (determining what you can conclude is guaranteed to be true) from the given information, while the GMAT is essentially more heavy on analysis of the given information. To put it more simply, the GRE features more elements of formal logic (similar to what you would be likely to encounter if you took the LSAT exam or enrolled in a philosophy class), whereas the GMAT requires you to be comfortable with the more practical applications of logic. Despite these apparent differences, Reading Comprehension and Critical Reasoning on the GMAT and GRE tend to be much more similar than they are different.

Beyond Reading Comprehension and Critical Reasoning, the Verbal sections of the GMAT and the GRE differ in the form of the remaining questions you’ll face. The GRE features Text Completion and Sentence Equivalence questions, on which you’re asked to choose individual words (based on meaning and logic) to best fill in the blank (or blanks, in the case of some Text Completion questions) in the original prompt. On the other hand, the GMAT features Sentence Correction questions, on which you’ll be asked to choose the best version (based on grammar and meaning) of the underlined portion of a sentence. Ultimately, both exams are primarily testing the meanings of sentences and short passages – is the meaning being expressed clear?, is the meaning being expressed logical?, etc. Even with this overall similarity in mind, test takers who have stronger backgrounds and skills in grammar than in vocabulary will probably prefer the GMAT and its Sentence Correction questions, while those students more proficient with vocabulary than with grammar will probably prefer the GRE and its Text Completion and Sentence Equivalence questions.

So, should you take the GMAT or the GRE for business school?

Take the GMAT if…

1) You’re reasonably confident in both the core math concepts and skills and in your ability to reason your way through questions. Over the course of 31 adaptive questions, those abilities and skills will be your competitive advantage against the global pool of GMAT test takers. Because of the nature of the scoring algorithm, you’ll go into the exam knowing you won’t have to get every question right, so you can afford to make a mistake or take an educated guess every now and then, knowing that all the while your true level of ability and performance is still being measured.

2) You’re comfortable with uncertainty. The GRE definitely feels more “controlled” in many ways than does the GMAT, as it allows you to use an on-screen calculator during the Quant section and to bookmark, skip, and return to questions you may be unsure on. The GMAT forces you to complete each question, without those extra tools, to the best of your ability before moving on to the next one for the 62 minutes you are given for the Quant section. Working through the various sections of the GMAT will not feel as comfortable as working through them on the GRE, but if you’re confident you can handle that, then you can consider this a competitive advantage.

3) You aced the SAT and ACT Writing Sections. The Writing sections on both the SAT and ACT exams (which you probably took if you attended college in the U.S.) are very similar to the Sentence Correction questions you will see on the GMAT, so if you were successful on the SAT Writing section or the ACT Writing section, you are in excellent shape to succeed with GMAT Verbal.

4) You’re a fast reader. Unlike the GRE, the GMAT does not allow you to go back and forth between questions; you must submit an answer for each question before you can move on to the next one. For Reading Comprehension questions on the GMAT, it will be important to internalize passages quickly so that you can budget your time well and answer each question as well as you can.

5) You consider yourself a strong, practical, critical thinker. You may not be a fan of pure philosophy, but in a business or social context, you’re good at picking up and picking apart arguments as well as playing the “devil’s advocate”. Having these skills will definitely come in handy answering questions on the GMAT Verbal section (especially Critical Reasoning questions).

Take the GRE if…

1) You’re intimidated by GMAT math. The GRE is much more straightforward than the GMAT in the Quantitative section, and will allow you to apply content knowledge to answer a question without requiring more clever reasoning or more difficult interpretation of the question itself.

2) Your strength lies more in precision than in reasoning. If you think you may struggle to make some of the more abstract connections that GMAT Quant questions will force you to make, and you know that you will be able to avoid losing points to silly or careless mistakes, the GRE will play more to your particular quantitative strengths.

3) You have a more-voluminous-than-average vocabulary. If you have a large vocabulary or if you aced the vocabulary questions on the old version of the SAT, you should be very comfortable handling the comparatively heavy emphasis on vocabulary-based questions you’ll encounter in the Verbal section of the GRE.

4) You enjoyed formal logic classes in high school or college. Especially if you excelled in a philosophy or symbolic logic class, there is a very good chance you will be able to handle the GRE’s more formal logic challenges.

5) You feel more comfortable previewing questions in a passage before you read it. Some test takers feel much more comfortable knowing all of the questions in store for them before they dig into a Reading Comprehension passage. If this sounds like you, then you will likely prefer the GRE’s approach with these questions (remember, the GMAT only allows you to know one question at a time).

So Should You Take the GMAT or the GRE?

The truth is that the GMAT and the GRE are actually much more similar than they are different, especially since the the GRE underwent significant revision in 2011. With that in mind, take care to be aware that some of the advice that you still see out there on various sites may be significantly out of date since it was written back when the two tests were much more different from one another. These days, the GMAT and the GRE are not two radically different tests but two similar exams with slightly different emphases, and we almost never meet a student who is likely to perform extremely well on one exam but extremely poorly on the other. Choosing which test to take is not a question of “will the GMAT or the GRE allow me to achieve a score that is good enough for my purposes?” but of “which exam plays more to my strengths, allowing me to maximize my score?” It is likely that you will be able to succeed with either exam, but every little bit helps, and choosing the correct exam for you will help you get the most of the test, improving your candidacy at your target schools.

With that said, if you’re completely undecided about which test you should take, and you’re sure that business school is in your future plans, then go with the GMAT. It helps to show that you’re serious about earning an MBA, (this is especially critical if other aspects of your profile may make you look like an unusual or uncommitted candidate). Anything that shows you’re serious about business school can only help your candidacy.

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