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GRE vs GMAT: What's the Difference?

GRE vs GMAT

With many full time MBA programs embracing the GRE and with the percentage of people accepted to top universities using only GRE scores climbing rapidly (in 2015, 23% admitted to Yale and 16% to Stanford with GRE), the GRE vs GMAT debate comes up ever more frequently. The big question: Which test will make it easier for you to get into your desired MBA program? Well - the GMAT is the standard test for MBA admission and is considered the tougher test. So, all things being equal, a great GMAT score beats a great GRE score. Done! Well, not really. This GRE vs GMAT discussion is a bit more nuanced than that! We need to consider outcomes. Will you shine on the GRE but sink on the GMAT?

Actually, you would be relatively safe in assuming that you would perform similarly on each test. Of course there are exceptions and you might be one of them. The general thinking has been that if you are lopsidedly talented at verbal then it is easier to earn higher marks on the GRE. This is still somewhat true but the GRE verbal has gotten less dense and more GMAT-like while the quant has gotten far more challenging, giving less advantage to verbal virtuosos. And, let’s face it, some schools want to see you showcase your quant skills. If you have mostly non-math oriented work experience and/or a non-math oriented undergraduate degree it may be important to face the rigor of the GMAT quant. The following paragraphs will break down both tests and hopefully shed some light on whether you should approach the GMAT, the GRE, or (oh no) both.

GRE vs GMAT Problem Solving

The fundamentals for each test are nearly identical. And from easy to medium level questions the tests are somewhat similar in difficulty. Yes, the GMAT presents more puzzles on all levels and the GRE presents more of a straightforward "math test" but the big divergence is in the top shelf questions of the GMAT. The GMAT could hit you with a question that regardless of how much time you have leaves you completely stunned. For most people who are “good” at math this deer in headlights moment is unlikely to happen on the GRE. The GRE flattens out rather quickly. The other thing to consider is that the group of people taking the GMAT probably has better quant skills than the group of people taking the GRE. So a person with weaker quantitative skills could achieve a better percentile on the GRE than on the GMAT. While this better percentile isn't necessarily meaningful it might look better on an application. Bottom line: the GRE problem solving is on average easier than the GMAT problem solving and on the GRE it may be easier to snag a higher percentile. An apt comparison might be between the ACT and the SAT in that the GRE is closer to the ACT. Less time for more questions that cover similar content but that are on average easier.

GRE QC vs GMAT DS

For most people beginning their GMAT saga the most feared section is the Data Sufficiency. That makes a lot of sense as this question type is unique to the GMAT and is as slippery as a salamander (at least for the uninitiated). For many people, Data Sufficiency remains a quagmire, hit or miss question type, throughout GMAT preparation and right on through the exam. Why? Because you solve not for exact answers but for whether you have enough information to solve. Because the answers are not the actual solutions it is tough to detect rotten logic. Confused? Here are some Data Sufficiency samples to get you up to speed.

The GRE response to Data Sufficiency is the Quantitative Comparisons. I'm just going to come right out and say it: Quantitative Comparison is easier than Data Sufficiency. So although Quantitative Comparisons seem similar to Data Sufficiency questions, the idea of comparing the size of two piles should be fairly familiar to most people right from the get-go. The other thing that makes QC easier is that you only have 4 answer choices. That’s right - 1/4 on a guess!

Does GMAT Data Sufficiency have to be such a troll? Absolutely not! In fact, with an organized approach, for the non-math inclined the GMAT Data Sufficiency can become easier than problem solving because DS requires far less follow through and arithmetic.

GRE vs GMAT Reading Comprehension

Versus the GMAT, the GRE used to have much denser and longer passages (I know because I assign this “vintage” GRE to my GMAT tutoring students for some extra tough reading comprehension practice!). In its newest iteration, the GRE has trended closer to the GMAT with shorter, less dense passages paired with tricky questions. This makes sense considering that the GRE wants to appeal as an international entrance exam for business  school and probably wants to avoid scaring off international candidates. So is there an easy way out for reading comprehension? I don't think so. Nowadays the difficulty level is very similar on both tests. The only real difference is that you can skip around on the GRE as opposed to the GMAT which only allows you to see one question at at time.

GRE Sentence Completion vs GMAT Sentence Correction

These sections are extremely different but both being the odd man out in this GRE versus GMAT debate I pitted them against each other. If you have a strong vocabulary the completions will be relatively simple. There isn't much critical thinking here - just regurgitating memorized words. As silly as it seems, these questions are about memorizing vocabulary. If memorization isn’t your thing or if you do not already have a broad vocabulary you may have an easier time learning the “logic” of the GMAT sentence correction. It is unlikely that you will be good at one and not the other but I’d probably place myself in that category (much better at logical grammar than vocab memorization).

GRE vs GMAT Critical Reasoning

You will most likely only have two pure critical reasoning questions on your GRE so versus the GMAT critical reasoning the GRE critical reasoning is lightweight. I would place the GRE critical reasoning questions somewhere around mid-level GMAT critical reasoning questions. If critical reasoning is a strength then go GMAT! Those CR skills will most likely translate to the reading comprehension as well and contribute to an excellent verbal score. If you abhor critical reasoning then the GRE might be a great way to avoid these guys. Not that you can't train critical reasoning but it does take some time and effort to do so.

GRE vs GMAT Structure

The GMAT CAT can feel very threatening and certainly imposes some practical challenges. You can't skip questions. You can't go back to questions if you have some epiphany later on in the exam. You can't see what questions are coming up. You don't know exactly what the mix of questions will be. And if you keep answering questions correctly the test keeps on getting harder! All of this is anxiety producing (here are some strategies for dealing with GMAT Anxiety and the GMAT CAT). Contrast this with the GRE which allows you complete freedom to move around, is barely adaptive, and even provides a calculator.

GMAT Integrated Reasoning/Essay vs GRE

The GRE has no section which compares to the IR section of the GMAT. So how does the IR factor in to this GRE vs. GMAT discussion? I'd say not very much. Although it may be an important element at some point in the future it doesn't seem to be extremely relevant to current admissions decisions. The same can be said of the essays.

Still Confused, GRE or GMAT?

Just to be clear, a top GMAT score is better than a top GRE score. Why? Since the GMAT is the de facto MBA exam most admissions officers are more comfortable judging GMAT scores (and some have stated that they still prefer seeing GMAT scores). Not to mention that the GMAT is tougher than the GRE. But just to play devils advocate you could argue that schools might be willing to accept a lower GRE score because that score won't ding their prized GMAT averages. Though that doesn't excuse you from demonstrating a proven ability in Quant (this can arguably be done by taking a pre-MBA math course).

My thinking is that getting a super score on either exam is going to take most people some real, solid effort. So given the same substantial time and cash investment I would bet on the safe choice (GMAT) and have the GRE as a back-up. Once you have prepared for the GMAT it doesn't take much more effort to prepare for the slight differences presented in the GRE. One last thing to consider: as demented as it sounds, some jobs require that you submit standardized test scores. I've had students retake the GMAT after being accepted to business school just to improve post-MBA job opportunities. A low or non-existent GMAT score might make you a less competitive candidate (then again you may not be gunning for this type of job). It may be that things will change in a few years but for now the GMAT is still the reigning MBA entrance exam.

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