GMAT or GRE? Which Test to Take for Business School and How to Prepare

Reason Test Prep Founder Brian Prestia

Reason Test Prep Founder Brian Prestia

With recent changes to both the GMAT and the GRE, the process of applying to business school has become even more complicated. We at Gatehouse Admissions know that admissions committees have no preference between the GMAT and the GRE. Therefore, for better or worse, the decision of which test to take is in your hands. We reached out to our friend Brian Prestia, founder of Reason Test Prep, for practical guidance and answers to applicants’ most pressing questions about the GMAT and the GRE. 

How Do I Figure Out Which Test to Take: GMAT or GRE?

Simply put, you want to take the test that you can score better on! You should take an official diagnostic of each and compare the scores. Make sure you take the official versions, not those from a test prep provider. 

But that short answer has a longer component to it. As of this writing, neither ETS nor GMAC has released a chart comparing GRE scores and GMAT Focus Edition scores. So, you have two options: you can compare the percentiles of your scores on each test, or you can convert both scores to the “classic” GMAT and then have a basis for comparison. 

It is critical to compare the scores and not just your subjective interpretation of how the tests “felt,” because most people walk away feeling like the GRE was “easier.” The Quantitative section certainly is easier, but remember that your score is important only in terms of how it compares to other people’s scores. You still must outperform the cohort of people who apply to the same schools as you, regardless of which test you takeand if the GRE is “easier” for you, then it will likely be easier for everyone. Bottom line: you must outperform the applicant pool that you are up against, regardless of the measuring stick. Comparing scores is the only way to help you discover which test sets you up for the biggest positive delta versus the competition. 

What Are the Differences Between the GMAT and the GRE, and Should These Differences Influence My Decision?

Understanding both the GMAT and the GRE as well as what it takes to prepare for them is helpfulespecially if your scores are close on your initial diagnostics. For a few reasons, the GMAT Focus usually favors people who are stronger quantitatively. First, since the GMAT Quantitative section is somewhat harder than that of the GRE, you need to be able to handle a lot of challenging questions correctly to get a high score. The GRE has challenging questions too, but not as challenging, and there are definitely fewer of them.  

Second—and more important—the GMAT has three sections: Quantitative, Verbal, and Data Insights. However, the Data Insights section skews quantitative, so the GMAT is really like 5560% Quant and 4045% Verbal, whereas the GRE has an even 50/50 split between Quant and Verbal. On the previous version of the GMAT, a very high Verbal score yanked up the overall score in a way that a high Quant score did not, so the test slightly favored people who are very strong at verbal reasoning. Now, in the GMAT Focus, all three section scores weigh equally. Because Data Insights is more quantitative than verbal, the GMAT has really gone from slightly favoring people who are extraordinarily good at the Verbal section to emphasizing quantitative reasoning. 

There are other nuanced differences to be aware of, but we will discuss only the more important ones. The GRE tests a lot of vocabulary. And while vocabulary can be studied and memorized, this component of the GRE poses a challenge for non-native English speakers that the GMAT does not. The GRE also allows a calculator in the Quant section, whereas the GMAT does not (a calculator is allowed in the Data Insights section, but it is not as useful there). This is not the most important differentiator because, again, if you have a calculator, so does everyone else. You need to think of it in relative terms (how you will perform relative to others), though there are undoubtedly some people who just cannot function without a calculator. But please do not assume that you are one of those people! Most people begin their test preparations being terrible at basic math; getting better at that computational type of math is just part of what preparing for the tests is all about. Everyone has to do it!

Is One Test—the GMAT or the GRE—Harder to Prepare for Than the Other?

This question is a little tricky. On the surface, the answer should seem to be “no.” Again, you are up against the same cohort of people regardless of which test you take, so you should need to out-study and outperform those people either wayand this is mostly true. 

In reality, though, the GMAT usually requires a little bit more prep for several reasons.

One very underappreciated fact about the GMAT Focus, even among people in the test prep industry, is that the GMAT has eight—yes, eight!—question types. Yikes! The Quant section has one, the Verbal section has two, and Data Insights has five. That means eight different question types to master. Now, most of the question types in Data Insights build off the skills that you hone while preparing for the Quant and Verbal sections, but they still require attention and practice. They are distinct question types, after all! In comparison, the GRE has only five-ish question types (there is some debate about whether the chart/graph questions in the Quant sections are distinct, hence the “ish”)—and most of them either are not that complex or do not appear much on the test. For example, two of the question types are vocabulary based, and although you do need to spend time learning how to approach each question type effectively, doing so doesn’t take that much practice. And “argument questions,” better known as Critical Reasoning on the GMAT, tend to represent only a single question in each Verbal section, so they just don’t warrant that much attention and practice.

The other fact, which we alluded to earlier, is that the GMAT Quantitative question types (in both the Quant and the Data Insights sections) rise to a level of difficulty above that which you would encounter on the GRE. This means more prep is needed, especially if you are aiming for a very high score. The GRE Verbal section does require vocabulary study and the GMAT does not, but that study is of a different character and is not as rigorous or time consuming as the extra prep needed for the more challenging GMAT Quant and Data Insights questions.

With all that said, although GMAT preparation can require more time and effort, it is a difference of days or weeks, not months. Regardless of which test you take, you will likely need several months (or more!) of prep to achieve a really competitive score. 

Can I Take Both the GMAT and the GRE—or Pivot from One to the Other?

Although you should make your best guess as to which test is a better fit for you, sometimes it can be hard to predict. In such cases, it is a good idea to just switch gears and try the other test.  

I do not advise studying for both tests simultaneously, but pivoting from one to the other can be a good idea for several reasons. For example, after prepping for one test for a long time, if you start to hit a wall, consider switching. Start by taking a diagnostic test to see how you do. Now, if you go in cold, the result will probably not be great. Instead, familiarize yourself with the test and answer some practice questions before taking the diagnostic to get a more accurate idea of how you might ultimately perform on that test. Even with that warm-up, the score might not be as high as your score on the original test you had been studying for, so you should try to assess whether it would be easy to bring the score up on the other test. For example, when switching from the GMAT to the GRE, you will likely get clobbered on the vocabulary-based questions. But if you surmise that you would be able to get most of those questions correct after some study, then you might feel more comfortable taking the GRE.

Moreover, prepping for one test really is prepping for the other since the tests are so similar. Reading Comprehension, which is the main feature of the Verbal sections of both tests, is nearly identical across the tests (though it tends to be a little harder on the GRE). And the body of content knowledge tested on the Quantitative sections of both tests is nearly identical. In fact, when preparing for the GRE, it is a good idea to use GMAT Problem Solving questions because they help prepare GRE test takers for the more difficult questions that they are likely to see on the GRE. Even Data Sufficiency (a staple of the GMAT) and Quantitative Comparisons (a question type on the GRE) are very similar, though Data Sufficiency questions tend to be more difficult. Indeed, these tests are so similar that when I am coaching clients, I suggest preparing agnostically for a whilefocusing on Problem Solving, Reading Comprehension, and Critical Reasoning/Argument questions without even needing to make a firm decision on which test to take.

Given the above, there is no need to stress too much when deciding which test to take. Make your best possible judgment about which test seems to be a better fit, but take solace in knowing that much of what you will do to prepare for one test will translate to the other. If you are hitting a wall or getting the sense that you may have made the wrong decision, you can always switch. It is possible to pivot from one test to the other and reach your score goal in a matter of weeks. We have seen it done many times!

If you have questions about which test to take or are looking for high-caliber GMAT/GRE tutoring, we encourage you to reach out to Brian and the team at Reason Test Prep.