Which Test Should You Take: the GMAT or GRE?

An increasing number of MBA programs (including many outside the U.S.) accept either GMAT or GRE scores. So if you're applying only to schools that have adopted this policy, you can choose which exam to take — or you can take both exams and then decide which scores to submit to the schools.

This page explores decision factors that can help you develop your best strategy. To review these factors, scroll down or click on these links:

NOTE: All GMAT references here are to the revised exam (launched in June, 2012), and all GRE references are to the GRE revised General Test.

GMAT vs. GRE — Test Availability, Testing Fees, and Your Career Goals

Your decision as to which exam (GMAT or GRE) to take might very well turn on a particular school's admission policy, on testing availability and fees, or on your long-term objectives. Here's what you need to consider:
  • Hundreds of B-schools accept scores for both exams. Find out if the schools that interest you accept GRE scores. If they don't, then you'll probably need to take the GMAT.

  • Although the GMAT and GRE are both widely available throughout the world, the GRE is offered in more cities and in more countries than the GMAT. So for each exam, find out if there is at least one testing center located conveniently enough for you.

  • The GRE registration fee is lower than the GMAT registration fee (although both fees are subject to change from year to year).

  • If you have diverse academic interests or career goals, consider taking the GRE instead of (or in addition to) the GMAT in any event. That way, you'll have a GRE score report ready to submit to your M.A. or Ph.D. programs of choice should you later decide to pursue an advanced academic degree. (Like GMAT scores, GRE scores are valid for five years.)
Of course, if both the GMAT and GRE are available to you and if you have enough time to prepare for both exams, your best strategy is probably to take them both.
    NOTE: At the official GRE website you'll find a list of MBA programs officially accepting GRE scores. (Also available at the site is a GRE-to-GMAT score-conversion table.) But keep in mind: some B-schools do not publicize that they accept GRE scores, so be sure to contact the schools directly to inquire about their current GRE policy.

Comparing General Features of the GMAT and GRE

Comparing the general features of the two exams provides only limited guidance in determining which exam better plays to you strengths, since in many respects the two exams are quite similar:

  • Both exams measure the same general cognitive skills: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning and analytical writing.

  • For the most part, the two exams employ similar question formats for measuring the above-listed skills.

  • Neither exam is inherently more difficult than the other (and GRE scores convert reliably to GMAT scores).

  • Testing procedures are virtually the same for both exams.

  • Both tests employ essentially the same computerized testing interface.

  • Total testing time is about the same (3 hrs. 30 min. for the GMAT; as long as 3 hrs. 45 min. for the GRE).

In terms of general features, there are only two significant differences between the GMAT and GRE:

  • The GMAT CAT adapts to your ability level from one Verbal or Quantitative question to the next, while the computer-based GRE is adaptive only at the section level. (The overall difficulty level of the second Verbal or Quantitative section depends on your performance during the first section of the same type.)

  • The GMAT CAT does not allow you to return to any question once you've confirmed your answer to it. In contrast, the computer-based GRE functions more like a paper-based exam: you can return to any question within the same section, and with the exam's mark-and-review feature you can "tag" questions that you want to skip but possibly review later.

If you're more comfortable with an exam that allows you to skip questions and to review and change answers to questions you've already answered, then consider opting for the GRE. Otherwise, comparing general features is not all that helpful in deciding between the two exams.

Comparing the GRE and GMAT Verbal Sections

If you compare a GMAT Verbal section with a GRE Verbal section, you'll notice that in most respects their Reading Comprehension passages and questions are remarkably similar:

  • Passages are similar in style, substance, and length (although passages involving business-related fields are more common on the GMAT than the GRE).

  • The questions themselves focus on the same reading and comprehension skills and are virtually indistinguishable (except that on the GRE a few of the questions employ a nontraditional format).

But upon further examination, you'll discover some significant differences when it comes to the Verbal sections:
  • Reading-Comprehension questions account for less than a third of GMAT Verbal questions but as many as half of GRE Verbal questions.

  • Vocabulary receives far greater emphasis on the GRE than on the GMAT. (GRE Sentence Equivalence questions, which account for about 25 percent of that exam's Verbal Reasoning questions, are designed largely to gauge your vocabulary.)

  • GMAT Critical Reasoning questions, which gauge your ability to evaluate arguments, account for about a third of that exam's Verbal questions but do not appear at all on the GRE.

The bottom line: If reading and vocabulary are your strong suits, then you'll likely earn a higher Verbal score on the GRE than the GMAT. But if your critical-reasoning skills are stronger, expect a higher Verbal score on the GMAT.

Comparing the GRE and GMAT Quantitative Sections

If you compare a GMAT Quantitative section with a GRE Quantitative section, you'll see that on both exams the conventional multiple-choice format accounts for a significant percentage of the questions. And there are additional similarities as well:
  • Both exams present a similar mix of questions involving arithmetic, number theory, probability, statistics, algebra and geometry.

  • On both exams, the areas of math covered are the same areas covered in basic high-school coursework — but not beyond.

  • Both exams include data-interpretation questions, which involve data presented in graphical form (tables, charts and graphs).

  • Both the GMAT and GRE employ at least one other format (in addition to standard multiple-choice) for emphasizing math concepts and quantitative reasoning, as opposed to problem solving.
But there are also some notable differences between the two exams when it comes to their Quantitative sections:
  • Unique to the GMAT is the Data Sufficiency format, which accounts for 13-14 of the exam's 37 Quantitative questions.

  • Only the GRE employs the Quantitative Comparison format, which accounts for as many as half of all GRE Quantitative questions.

Here's the upshot: The GMAT and GRE Quantitative sections are a lot alike, and you'll probably earn comparable scores on them. That said, you should by all means attempt a fair number of GMAT Data Sufficiency questions and GRE Quantitative Comparison questions to discover which format, if either, you're more comfortable with. A clear preference might help you decide which exam to take: the GMAT or GRE.

Comparing the GRE and GMAT Analytical Writing (Essay) Sections

The essay portions of the GMAT and GRE are quite similar in their procedural and technical aspects:

  • The testing interface and word-processing features are essentially the same.

  • Essay prompts are selected randomly from a large pool. (You can't choose from a list of prompts.)

  • The writing section come first — before all other exam sections.

  • The time limit for any given writing task is the same: 30 minutes.

  • The evaluation criteria and scaled scoring systems are the same for both exams.

As for the writing tasks themselves, the GMAT and GRE both include a 30-minute Analysis-of-an-Argument component, in which your task is to critique a paragraph-length argument. But the GRE also includes a 30-minute Analysis-of-an-Issue component, in which your essential task is to argue for a position on a stated issue. So essay writing accounts for 60 minutes of GRE testing time, as compared to 30 minutes of GMAT time.

The GRE Issue task is more open-ended and places greater emphasis on rhetorical skills than the GRE Argument and GMAT Argument tasks. Some test takers are quite comfortable with issue analysis, while others are not. The best way for you to determine your own comfort level is to write two or three essays based on actual GRE Issue topics. (You'll find the list of topics at the official GRE website.) If issue analysis comes easily to you, then that's one reason to opt for the GRE over the GMAT. But if you struggle with this type of essay writing, consider taking the GMAT instead.

Factoring in the New GMAT Integrated Reasoning Section

The 30-minute GMAT Integrated Reasoning section is designed to measure analytical, verbal, and quantitative skills at once through true-to-life problems cast in a workplace context. The GRE does not include a section like it. If you find the question types on this new GMAT section especially difficult, then you might consider opting to take the GRE instead of the GMAT, especially if your rhetorical writing skills are stong (as explained above).

Widely recommended for GRE prep:

GRE bookGRE book    Official Guide to the GRE revised General Test
Educational Testing Service

GRE prep from ETS—the people who make the exam. The book provides vital testing information, sample questions, test-taking tips, full-length GRE exams (on CD), and more. [Kindle edition]