GMAT vs GRE: How to Decide Which is Right for You

Since more than 1,200 MBA programs now accept GMAT scores or GRE scores from applicants, it’s important for prospective business school students to explore their options before committing to a test. Read on to learn more about GMAT and the GRE exam, how they compare with each other, and which option is right for your profile.

Deep Dive on the GMAT 

The GMAT is a standardized test that assesses the quantitative, verbal, and writing skills applicants need for business school. GMAT questions are designed to measure specific abilities related to higher-order thinking, as well as your ability to apply problem-solving techniques in a timely fashion. The GMAT is the leading entrance exam required by business schools around the world.

Structure and Content

The GMAT exam is divided into four major sections:

  1. The Quantitative section assesses your capacity to evaluate and draw conclusions based on data. It is made up of data sufficiency and problem solving questions.
  2. The Verbal section consists of reading comprehension, critical reasoning, and sentence correction problems, testing your “ability to read and understand written material, to evaluate arguments and to correct written material to conform to standard written English.” 
  3. The Integrated Reasoning section tests your data analysis skills, specifically in regard to “information presented in multiple formats.”
  4. Finally, the Analytical Writing Assessment consists of one, 30-minute essay, used to gauge your writing skills as well as your abilities to formulate and articulate an argument.

You can learn more about each GMAT question type by reviewing Official GMAT Practice Problems.

The GMAT & Business School Admissions 

The fact that the GMAT was created specifically for business schools is the number one differentiator when comparing the GMAT to the GRE. That is, the test is expressly designed to predict success in the first year of business school, and business schools have a longstanding relationship with the exam

How far back does that relationship extend? According to MBA.com, the GMAT exam was first designed by business schools in 1953. “This means that schools have used the exam to measure a candidate’s critical thinking, reasoning skills, and suitability for the academic rigor of an MBA program for decades.”

Over the course of this decades-long relationship, admissions departments have grown to trust and rely on the GMAT, as they have shown that the correlation between GMAT scores and performance in the first year of business school is stronger than a similar measure from the GRE. Put simply, the GMAT is a more reliable test for evaluating an MBA applicant’s chance of academic success. 

Further, because it was created for business school, the attributes tested by the GMAT are very particular to the MBA classroom. On the other hand, the GRE is a general entrance exam and applies to students from many disciplines, an important fact discussed later in this article. 

The reliability of the GMAT score as a measure of future success has even extended beyond the classroom and into the business world; some post-MBA industries, especially management consulting, ask for the GMAT as part of their recruitment process.

Verbal

According to Chris Kane, Head of Test Prep at Menlo Coaching, the GMAT’s Verbal section is a primary point of divergence between the GMAT and the GRE, at least on the content side. “The critical reasoning and reading comprehension sections are more comprehensive and better made on the GMAT.  However, the sentence correction section is the biggest differentiator: this question type is a clever assessment of decision-making skills and much more valuable to admissions officers than the corresponding components on the GRE.”

Quant

While the quantitative portion of the GMAT is certainly challenging, the questions overall are based on relatively simple underlying math content. Instead of creating difficulty with questions that require memorized formulae or high-level math concepts, the question writers rely on abstract presentation, critical thinking, and data sufficiency. 

This means that people with strong math backgrounds may not perform as well on the quantitative side of the GMAT as on that of the GRE without first learning how to attack this unique type of difficulty.

This challenge relates to one of the fundamental traits of the GMAT: its reliance on “the con.”

The Con

The GMAT is famous for its recurring use of the “con”: a principle that is one of the central areas of focus within Menlo Coaching’s GMAT curriculum. 

The con is used by GMAT question writers to ensure that test takers engage with the full extent of their critical thinking abilities. That is, to consistently solve GMAT questions, students must learn to fully evaluate all possible answers and to accept solutions that may at first seem unlikely or counterintuitive.

The use of the con on the GMAT is not simply an exercise in test taking. “Spotting the con is a vital skill in business as well,” said Chris. “As a business school applicant, you have to remember who you’re trying to differentiate yourself from: hard-working, creative, innovative, and at times cunning businessmen and businesswomen who are really good at spotting potential that no one else can see. When taking the GMAT, students must always remain vigilant, question-to-question, just as they will need to remain attentive in business school and in the marketplace.” 

“This is also why the GMAT is so challenging. Three-quarters of the difficulty doesn’t come from knowledge. It comes from the con game.”

Strategy

The GMAT is delivered on the computer. What’s more, it is a question-adaptive test, which means the difficulty of each question is determined by your performance on the question that came before. 

That is, if you answer a question correctly, the next question will be slightly harder, and if you answered incorrectly, the next question will be slightly easier. 

Further, once you answer a question on the GMAT, you can’t go back to it. 

For test takers, this situation changes the question-to-question experience of the exam and the overall strategic approach. “If you’re doing well on the GMAT,” said Chris, “it’s a really frustrating experience, because everything is hard! And it’s made even harder by the strategy implications of a question-adaptive setup: you have to know when (and how) to guess on a problem and when you should spend extra time. You have to know how to attack not only the questions of the test but the test overall—and this makes for an added challenge in preparation.” 

Learn Expert GMAT Strategies

In this free introductory lesson from the Menlo Coaching GMAT Prep Course, veteran instructor Chris Kane explains best practices for multiple choice and data sufficiency questions.

Deep Dive on the GRE 

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is a standardized test for prospective graduate students. Created and administered by Educational Testing Service (ETS), the GRE tests verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, analytical writing and critical thinking skills. 

Structure and Content

The GRE has three major sections: Analytical Writing, Quantitative Reasoning, and Verbal Reasoning.

  1. Analytical Writing consists of two essays, each of which you’ll be given 30 minutes to write.
  2. Quantitative Reasoning and Analytical Reasoning each have two 20-question sections, for a total of 80 multiple-choice questions.
  3. The exam will also include one 20-question research section which won’t be included as part of your GRE score. This will be either a Verbal or Quantitative section, but you won’t know which section is the research section.

The GRE & General Graduate Admissions

Unlike the GMAT, the GRE is used by a wide variety of graduate programs to assess candidates. This includes incoming students to programs as diverse as mathematics, physics, sociology, political science, and even creative writing!

As a result, the GRE is less equipped to speak to future success in business school: as the assessment becomes more and more broad, there is a diminished ability to evaluate a very specific population. 

In and of itself, this does not disqualify the use of the GRE for business school admissions. But it is an important fact for applicants to understand and should be considered in the decision on choosing the GMAT vs GRE.

Verbal

Compared to the GMAT, the GRE is more content-driven across the board. What does this mean? It means that the test taker is required to draw more from knowledge than from critical thinking to answer questions. 

For example, the GRE’s Verbal section is often said to be more difficult than the GMAT. This is because the exam includes more challenging vocabulary and sentence equivalence exercises—and if you do not already know the definition of one of the vocabulary words, or you struggle to unlock the context of those words, you will not perform as well.

Quant

Similarly, the Quantitative component of the GRE is driven more by mathematical content than by abstract presentation. 

In this way, it’s “more of a math test”: there is no data sufficiency, less critical thinking, and more emphasis on knowledge of mathematical concepts. 

“You can almost think of it as more of a math test than a quantitative reasoning test,”  says Chris. “When you sit down to work through the GRE’s quant section, you’ll have more questions that will test whether or not you’ve memorized and understand a mathematical concept.  Whereas on the GMAT, you get quant questions that are wildly difficult not because they require content knowledge, but because they require advanced critical thinking and the ability to unlock abstract presentation.”

Strategy

Like the GMAT, the GRE is delivered on the computer. Unlike the GMAT, the GRE is section-level adaptive rather than question-level adaptive. This means that your score on the first section of both Verbal Reasoning and Quantitative Reasoning will affect the difficulty of the questions tested on the second section for each subject.

Unlike the GMAT, where each individual question determines the difficulty of the next question, on the GRE, your score on the entire section determines the difficulty of the next section on that subject. Plus, you can return to questions you’ve already answered within a section.

Strategy-wise, this gives you more flexibility in how you approach the test: rather than needing to carefully evaluate the risk and reward of guessing or spending more time on a question (as is the case on the GMAT), with the GRE, you can safely work through all the easier questions within a section and leave the more difficult problems for the end.

So…which is easier: GMAT or GRE?

There’s no easy answer to this question—and it’s worth considering whether it’s even the right question to ask. 

After all, performance on the GMAT vs the GRE will be unique to each individual test taker, and it is impossible to say definitively if you will do better or worse on a specific test without more information. 

According to Chris, “The best—and only—way to figure out which test is going to be more difficult is to take an assessment: you need to do a run-through to get a feeling for each exam. It will always need to come down to the individual situation, as there are too many factors at play. And this brings up an important point that often leads people astray: just because you can earn a higher score on a GRE section you’re already familiar with does not mean you should decide to skip out on the GMAT.”

Let’s unpack this further. 

Content knowledge and GRE scores

While the GMAT and the GRE are each difficult in their own way, the content-driven nature of the GRE might allow someone with a strong background in mathematics or in language to perform well in the section that most relates to their field, and do so with less prep. 

In other words, a test taker with strong verbal abilities might sit down to the GRE and earn a higher verbal score when compared to their first attempt on the GMAT.

But it is important to note that this assumes a “cold turkey” approach to the test: someone who is coming to both tests without any prep work. 

This situation is possible because the GRE is so content-driven. If you’ve earned your Bachelor’s in English literature or mathematics, you likely already possess the knowledge needed to perform well on the GRE—at least in the section relevant to your studies. 

The GMAT, by contrast, is not a test that lends itself well to a ‘cold turkey’ approach. 

“Most people who sit down to take the GMAT without any form of prep will perform poorly. The GMAT requires that test takers learn how to play the game—and it’s a weird game—but nonetheless something that can be learned. For example, I’ve seen PhDs in mathematics who, without any prep, did not (at first) perform as well on the GMAT as they did on the GRE. But this should not come as a surprise. You won’t perform well on the GMAT without some training ahead of time, and you shouldn’t discount the GMAT just because you can’t immediately perform well without study.”

Is the GMAT or GRE better for an MBA application?

When it comes to deciding between the GMAT vs GRE for your MBA application, it is important to note that the official stance of MBA programs is that both tests are considered equal.

This is underscored by the fact that the all-powerful U.S. News MBA ranking looks at both the GMAT and GRE in evaluating an MBA program.

Admissions committees care deeply about their program’s ranking on this list, which we cover in great detail in our article on MBA rankings in general. And this fact means that the AdCom will be paying close attention to your score’s impact on the average incoming GMAT score or average incoming GRE score for your target program. 

With all this said, it is true that we encourage most clients to start with the GMAT.

As we’ve already discussed, the GMAT was written exclusively for MBA programs, and admissions officers trust what your GMAT score says about your likely performance during the first year. In this way, “it’s a better test for the highly specialized field of MBA admissions, and the people on the admissions committee know this.” 

We do not mean to imply that the GRE is not worth the time—our advice is to start with the GMAT. 

If the best study methods have been used, prep has been consistent, expert help has been enlisted, and progress on the GMAT is not being made, then a student can consider switching to the GRE. 

One exception to this standard might be for a client who can achieve a competitive GRE score with very limited study. This is no doubt an appealing option, and would give the candidate more time to focus on other time-consuming aspects of their application.