Applying to MBA programs? Which test to take – GMAT or GRE?

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Are you facing the dilemma as to which test – GMAT or GRE – to write when applying to MBA programs?

It was a straightforward choice – GMAT – before 2009, as GRE wasn’t an accepted test for admission to MBA programs then. In the initial years of its existence too, GRE didn’t pose much of a dilemma to the applicants, as not too many programs accepted GRE score.

But it has changed dramatically in the last few years: according to Kaplan 2014 survey 85% of MBA programs accepted (at the time of survey) both the scores in contrast to only 24% in 2009. 85% practically covers any MBA program of repute, and hence the problem of some of your target schools not accepting a GRE score, for all practical purpose, is gone now.

So, which of the two to write when you’re applying to MBA programs? Here are few broad guidelines that you can evaluate your decision against.

(Note: Admission policies of schools and guidelines for standardized tests can change. Refer to their website for the most updated information.)

Look from 30,000 feet: are you applying to non-MBA programs as well?

Are you also applying to non-MBA graduate programs such as those in engineering, public administration, law, or education including dual-degree programs that some B-schools offer. You might even be considering a PhD program.

If an MBA program is not your sole focus, or you want to keep your options open in case you do not get admission in a program of choice, then you’ll be better served by GRE, as GRE score, unlike GMAT score, is accepted for non-MBA graduate programs as well.

Descend to 10,000 feet: which B-schools are you applying to?

If you’re considering only an MBA program, then you scrutinize your target schools bit closely (in the order below):

1. Verify if all the schools in your list accept both GRE and GMAT. (With GRE score being accepted by almost all major schools, it’s unlikely you’ll find the programs in your list not falling in both the categories.) You may verify this by visiting the school’s website (usually at > full-time MBA > Admissions > Application Process), though an easier way is to do a ‘Ctrl + F’ on the ETS list.

2. Verify if the schools in your list have any bias toward one or the other test. Some do, as reported by Kaplan 2014 survey: “Additional Kaplan data shows that 78% of MBA programs say scores from both tests are viewed equally, but 18% of MBA programs say applicants who submit a GMAT score have an advantage over applicants who submit a GRE score.”

An example being Haas:

And if you find a school, very unlikely though, which doesn’t accept both the tests or which has preference for one over the other, then drop it from your target list. Or, be willing to write both the tests.

Hit the ground: assess your strengths and weaknesses

Following scenarios emerge from the previous two steps:

  1. If you’re considering non-MBA programs as well, then GRE is the most likely option for you (some non-MBA programs accept GMAT, and in such cases you can go with GMAT).
  2. If you’re considering only an MBA program, then, for all practical purpose, you can write either GRE or GMAT.

Now consider the most realistic, and also the most confusing as far as choosing a test is concerned, scenario: you’re considering only an MBA program, and you’ve the option of writing either GRE or GMAT.

Key differences between GRE and GMAT

From a test-taker’s perspective, it’s important to understand the major differences between the two tests which may help you identify the test which is more aligned to your strengths. Key differences between the two are:

1. GMAT Math is generally tougher than GRE Math.


Because GRE has a diverse set of test takers seeking admission to diverse set of programs (science, liberal arts, engineering, and history, among many others), the difficulty level of its Math is more reflective of the common denominator of the abilities of diverse groups. In contrast, GMAT is taken by a much narrower group of people who are applying mainly to B-schools, which require much stronger quantitative skills. Hence, GMAT Math is harder.

2. Unlike GRE, GMAT has Integrated Reasoning section which requires strong data interpretation and quantitative analysis.

3. In the verbal section, GRE focuses predominantly on vocabulary and somewhat on logic. GMAT, on the other hand, focuses on grammar, sentence-structure based questions, and logic.

4. GMAT is a question-adaptive test. That is, you cannot skip any question. Whereas, in GRE you can skip questions within a section, and come back to answer them at a later stage. So in case of GRE, you can use traditional time-management techniques such as answering easier questions first.

So, if you’re just starting out on your test-prep, evaluate your strengths & weaknesses. Do you’ve a strong vocabulary or do you sweat at seeing those difficult words? Do you fear quant stuff? And so on. Well, some of the weaknesses can be overcome through preparation, but nothing better if you start with few advantages.

The best way to identify your strengths & weaknesses is to write both the tests without any preparation. Just write two (one for each) test papers under test conditions, preferably on separate days so that the later test is not influenced by fatigue, and see if you do significantly better in one of them. If that is the case, then this could be your test.

Which one to choose if you don’t have a clear preference?

However, if you don’t have a distinct preference, either by choice or by your strengths, it’s better to go with GMAT, as it is more universal (in 2012-13 testing year nearly 90% MBA-bound applicants wrote GMAT) and is specifically designed for admission to MBA programs.

But if your strengths clearly lie with GRE, then don’t get seduced by the wider appeal of GMAT: what is more important is where you end up relative to other test-takers, and if you start with at least few strengths, then you’re likely to finish better in percentile terms.

Popular facts/ perceptions on GRE vs. GMAT

Some of the popular perceptions on GRE vs. GMAT rivalry are:

1. Writing GRE, instead of GMAT, may signal to the admission committee that you’re not focused on an MBA program, let alone their B-school.

2. Of the two, GRE is an easier test, predominantly because of its easier Math section, and, therefore, you impress the admission committee more by writing GMAT.

3. For the same reason, admission committees want to see a higher Quant percentile in GRE than in GMAT. Yale SOM is a case in point. To quote Bruce DelMonico, assistant dean and director of admissions:

On the GMAT quant, there is no minimum or threshold but we like to see people in the 60th percentile and above. For the GRE, we like to see it closer to the 70th percentile or above. We believe that equates to each other. That might change as we look at this further.

This may or may not be representative of other B-schools, though. And, as said above, this policy too may change as GRE (as an admission test for MBA programs) grows old and throws up more data.

4. Applicants with more traditional backgrounds (such as consulting and finance) should prefer GMAT over GRE, as admission committee might wonder why you didn’t go the normal (GMAT) route.

5. Admission committees view GMAT score more favorably than GRE score. According to Kaplan Survey, 18% of the surveyed admission officers say that applicants submitting a GMAT score have an advantage over the applicants submitting a GRE score, whereas 4% speak in favor of GRE.

However, most of these are unsubstantiated. Moreover, the GRE-landscape has evolved (and still is evolving) so fast in the past few years that some of these, even if true, might have become dated as clarifications keep coming in from schools and the testing organizations – the most credible sources. The best way to get clarity on the issue, therefore, is to directly check with the schools.

Check the school’s website to find if they have preference for one test over the other. Unless they specifically mention (like Haas does) a preference, it’s safe to assume that they treat both the scores equally: it’s highly unlikely that the admission committee will hide information about its preference and hold it against you when you don’t conform to it.


Pick a test where you can use your strengths more. And if your strengths or weaknesses don’t favor one over the other, GMAT – being the time-tested, commonly-used test for MBA admissions – is a better option to go with.

Although most schools accept both the test scores non-preferentially, it’s better to check their websites (or drop an email in case of doubt) lest you’re unpleasantly surprised at a later stage.

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