Should I Take the GMAT or the GRE?

by on April 1st, 2011

Many business schools, including Stanford, Harvard, and Wharton, accept either the GMAT or the GRE. Which one should you take, and how can you decide?

There are two aspects to consider: whether you would have a significant scoring advantage on one test versus the other, and whether certain schools have shown a preference for one exam over the other. We’re going to address the first aspect in this article; we’ll leave the second consideration for the admissions consultants.

Both exams consist of multiple-choice quantitative and verbal sections, as well as an essay-writing section.  Both tests are also scheduled to be revamped significantly: the GRE in August of this year (2011) and the GMAT in June of 2012.

So let’s take a look at the structures of all “four” tests (the current and the planned versions). (Note: I participate here at Beat the GMAT as a GMAT instructor, but I’m also a GRE instructor.)

Quant

The two exams test high-school level math (including number properties, algebra, geometry, and statistics) and currently use fairly similar question types. Both tests have standard “problem-solving” questions – the basic math multiple choice questions that appear on any multiple-choice math test. The tests also have questions that combine elements of quant content and mathematical logic; on the GMAT, these are called Data Sufficiency and, on the GRE, these are called Quantitative Comparisons. The GRE also includes a small number of Data Interpretation questions, where we’re given a table or graph and we have to answer several questions about the presented data.

The general consensus is that GRE math is easier than GMAT math. I’ve taken both exams and agree; GRE math is markedly easier than GMAT math. If math is a weakness for you, and you plan to take the test prior to August of 2011, then put a “plus” in the GRE column.

In August, the GRE will change. Instead of one 45-minute quant section, we’ll be given two 35-minute quant sections. The quant sections will still test high-school level math, but the proportion of questions involving data interpretation and quantitative reasoning will increase. In addition, new question formats will be introduced, including “fill in the blank” answers (no multiple choice options) and multiple choice questions that can have more than one right answer (you must select all of the correct answers in order to earn any credit).

When I took the GRE in December, I was offered an experimental section of the new quant question types. I can’t tell you any details as the actual data is strictly confidential, but I can tell you what I think the general effect of the new test will be: the quant will be more challenging than it is on the current GRE. I’m not sure whether it will be comparable to the GMAT, or whether the GMAT quant will still be harder.

In June 2012, the GMAT will also launch its revised CAT. It appears that the quant section will not change; rather, a new Integrated Reasoning section will be added to the exam (and one of the two essays will be cut). This section will combine math content, data interpretation, and logic. The question forms have not yet been finalized, but the samples I have seen were either on a par with the current GMAT quant section or, in some cases, more challenging.

I would guess that, after the revisions, GMAT quant will continue to be more challenging in general than GRE quant, though there is no way to know for sure until after both revisions have actually launched.

Verbal

The two exams currently differ more on the verbal side. Both tests contain Reading Comprehension questions, but the similarities end there.

In addition to reading comp, the GMAT tests grammar (via sentence correction questions) and logical reasoning (via critical reasoning questions). The GRE, on the other hand, tests vocabulary – lots and lots of vocabulary. Three of the four question types on the current GRE test our vocabulary (these three types are analogies, antonyms, and sentence completions).

Are you better at reading and thinking your way through something you read? Is your grammar great? The GMAT may be easier for you. Is your vocabulary so awesome that your friends regard you as their personal dictionary? The GRE is for you.

Well, if you’re a vocab fiend, the GRE is for you until August, anyway. After that, antonyms and analogies will be dropped entirely. The current single 30-minute section will expand to two 30-minute sections. The test will tilt more towards reading and comprehension at that point, with new text completion and sentence equivalence question types.

Text completions will be similar to the current sentence completions but may involve several sentences or an entire paragraph with some missing words or phrases (with multiple-choice options). Sentence equivalence questions will require us to complete a sentence based upon understanding the meaning of the entire text presented. In addition, there will be more reading comprehension questions.

After the GRE revision, it appears that the two tests will be more similar in terms of their emphasis on comprehension-type questions, though the GRE will also include components of vocabulary while the GMAT will include components of grammar. Generally speaking, then, if you are better with vocab, you may prefer the GRE; if you’re better with grammar, then you may prefer the GMAT.

Essays

Of course, nobody cares as much about the essays (because the schools don’t). Currently, both tests require us to write two essays. After the GMAT revision, that test will require only one. Other than that, the only thing I have to say about the essays is this: you aren’t going to base your decision (about which test to take) on the essays, so there’s nothing else for us to discuss!

Take-aways

First, if you are applying this fall and need your scores before mid-November, then you must take either the old version of the GRE or the GMAT. The new version of the GRE will have a several month delay in score reporting when it launches; students taking the revised test from August to early November will not receive their scores until mid-November.

As a general rule, GRE quant is easier than GMAT quant. After the revised GRE launches in August, the two will be more comparable, but the GMAT quant is likely still to be more challenging (and this will almost certainly be the case after the revised GMAT launches in June 2012).

On the verbal side, the current GRE is better for those with a strong vocabulary, while the current GMAT is better for those with strong reading comprehension and/or grammar skills. If you don’t have a decent vocabulary, the current GRE is not a great option for you. Once the revised GRE is introduced in August, the two tests will be more similar in terms of reading comprehension skills, so the “tip” should be given to whether you’re somewhat stronger in vocab (GRE) or grammar (GMAT).

Still not sure what to do? Take a practice test! Two, actually. Take both a GMAT and a GRE under 100% official conditions, including the essays. Take them several days apart; don’t give yourself an artificial handicap on one by taking it later in the same day.

Ideally, take the official practice tests provided by the official test writers. (Yes, I know we normally save those for later in our study, but this decision is important enough that you want to make sure you’re basing it on the best data that you can get. Just don’t review the tests in much depth afterwards; then you can repeat the test in a few months after you’ve forgotten all of the questions.) If there’s a significant difference in your starting percentile ranking, your question has been answered.

Let us know what you decide and how you decided; your fellow students will appreciate your insight. Good luck!

18 comments

  • is there any forum where you participate as a GRE instructor?
    What are the reliable GRE FORUMS ?
    Where one can get detailed explanation of GRE prep questions?

    • The company I teach for is called ManhattanGRE (a sister company to ManhattanGMAT> I

      We actually just launched some forums a few days ago, so that's a timely question! There isn't much there to browse yet, but if you want to ask questions yourself, that'll be a good place to go. Actual GRE teachers will answer your questions and there isn't a lot of traffic yet because it just launched, so you shouldn't have to wait too long to get a response (usually, it takes a while to get responses from teachers, as opposed to fellow students).

      Also, everyone reading this, help GRE FAN out! If you are studying the GRE, what online resources do you use?

  • I just did gmat in feb and gre a few weeks later. I scored a 620 on gmat and a 620/640 on gre.
    I scored higher in quant on gre than I did on gmat. I would second Stacey's summary above.
    If you have a strong vocabulary, gre may be a little easier. It also seemed to go by much quicker, even with the experimental quant section added.

    • Thanks for giving us the benefit of your experience, Jason!

      If you have a chance (and don't mind sharing), would you tell us what the percentiles are for your various scores? A lot of people aren't that familiar with what the different scores "mean" so it would be useful to have the percentiles as well.

      Thanks, again!

    • hi. The Verbal 620 was 89% percentile, while the 640 Quant was only 56% percentile.
      Unlike my GMAT where i got 6 on the awa, I only got 4 on the GRE awa as I kinda rushed through them. I did the gre more out if curiosity than out of necessity, and really did find quant easier.

  • Hi there,

    I am applying to Harvard to a Doctor of Education Leadership there. My Math is pretty solid, but I am writing to you in my second language. So even though my reading, speaking and writing of English is good, it is not on the level of a First Language user. Which one of the two tests would be more suitable for me, i.e. less vocabulary/grammar demands?

    • GRE = vocabulary. GMAT = grammar. It really depends which of the two you think is stronger / weaker for you.

      I'd recommend that you try 2 practice tests, one of each. Do them a week apart (if you take them both in one week-end, then whichever one you take second is likely to be lower). Compare the scores but also look through the individual questions afterwards and try to make a judgment call about what you think you could learn to improve more easily. Good luck!

  • I am currently planning to start my doctoral program in July 2013. The school requires any one of the standardized tests: GRE, GMAT, LSAT, or MAT. Which one of these tests will you recommend. I completed my graduate school in 1989 and I have not been school since then except for professional designations-CPA, CFE, CFF. Please advise for me.

    • I don't know - I don't know anything about your strengths and weaknesses. :) (I'm also not familiar enough with the content and question types on the MAT, so I'm not going to address / discuss that one.)

      You can try taking sample practice tests and see whether there's one for which you have a higher starting point. If not, then pick the one that tests things that you think will be easier for you to learn. In general:
      - GMAT quant is harder than GRE quant
      - the difference between GMAT verbal and GRE verbal is GMAT = more grammar-based and GRE = more vocab-based
      - LSAT does not include any quant, but does include logic games; some people really like these and most people don't (try yourself and see!)

  • I am thinking of doing the GRE, however my vocab is not fabulous. It is too much to study the dictionary over the next 2 months, or is it going to take more than that?

    • Too many variables for me to answer. How much will you study? How effective will your study be? How far are you now from the score that you would like to get on verbal and how much does your vocab have to improve to get you to your desired score?

      Have you taken a practice test yet? If not, take one (under full official conditions, including the essays). (I know you don't care about the essays, but you care about making your brain just as mentally fatigued as it will be on the real thing before you get to the multiple choice.)

      Do you know what your target score would be? If not, do some research into wherever you would apply. Do those schools just have an overall combined target score? Or do they want certain minimums on quant and verbal? Then see how far you are from that. 

      As a very general rule, in 2 months, you might hope to improve the *percentile* of a particular section by 5 to 15 percentile points - assuming that you are studying regularly and studying effectively. This varies based on scoring level, too - the higher you are, the harder it is to go even higher.

  • Can you please forward me the links of the practice tests for Both the exams ....?

    • I don't have the direct links - but you can find them easily. For any test prep companies, you need to create an account in order to get access to a free practice test, so just go to the websites of any prep companies in which you're interested.

      For the GMAT, go to http://www.mba.com
      For the GRE, go to http://www.gre.org

      Note: I'd recommend that you take a prep company's practice test - there are only a limited number of official practice tests, so save those for after you've prepped for a while!

  • Hi, Stacey. I'm strong of grammar but weak in math. For me it would be easier to improve on my vocabulary than improve my math. Should I then take the GRE instead of the GMAT?

    Thanks

    • Possibly. But you still have to get to a decent level in math - you can't blow it off completely.

      I'd recommend that you take one practice test of each and see how much of a difference there is.

      (Also, don't underestimate how difficult, boring, and time-consuming it is to improve vocab. Unless you know from past experience that you're great at vocab - in which case you probably wouldn't need to study it now - it can be really painful / take a long time to make an appreciable difference in your vocab levels. This is the least-favorite area of study for 90% of students...)

  • Hi.. I am a chartered accountant from India.. i want to do my MBA but not very good with maths..is CPA a better option for me or GMAT?? and how many years of work ex is good for both..

    • I can't comment really comment on the CPA side of things because I don't work in that area. (From what I've heard, though, the CPA exam is harder - it requires a lot more specialized knowledge. Though maybe it becomes easier if you do have all of that specialized knowledge already!)

      Now I'm wondering whether you meant to type something other than CPA. Do you mean that you might want to get a Master's degree in accounting or something like that? The CPA itself is just an exam - if you pass it, you are then designated a CPA and can go to work. It's like passing the Medical Board exams (for doctors) or the Bar exam (for lawyers) - it happens at the end of your schooling; it's not an entrance exam.

      The GMAT is an entrance exam - you have to take it to get into a Master's program. Most schools want a minimum of 2 years of work experience. The average for full time programs is usually about 5 to 6 years of work experience.

  • im looking into attending Wharton University, my vocab skills are pretty good, but my math skills are no to good at all. Would you suggest i take the GRE over GMAT? Does the GMAT require more math over GRE?

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