GMAT vs. GRE for Business School—Which Should You Take (and How to Ace Both)
Applying to top MBA programs? Click here to determine if the GMAT or GRE is better for you—along with tips and tricks to ace both tests.
Posted May 4, 2023
GMAT vs. GRE: Overview
When applying for top MBA programs, such as Harvard Business School or the Stanford Graduate School of Business, you’ll need to take the GMAT or GRE. One of these two exams is also often required when applying to other graduate programs. These are tough tests, but if you’re eyeing graduate school, you’ll likely need to take one. In this article, we’ll cover the differences between the two, which you should take, and how to tackle both of them.
Now let’s dive in — we’ll start with general info about each exam.
Okay, here are the starter facts about the GMAT:
- The GMAT is question-adaptive. That means the difficulty of the questions will change based on whether you’ve answered a question correctly or incorrectly. Answer a question correctly, and you’ll get a harder question; answer it incorrectly and you’ll get an easier question
- You can take the GMAT at a test center or online, in your home. This is convenient because you’ll get to plan for your test depending on which mode you prefer. If you’re more at ease taking the exam in the comfort of your home, you’ll have that option; equally, you’ll always be able to take it at a testing center, too
- Taking the test at home vs at a test center won’t change your score. Test centers are open 7 days a week, but of course, you can take the online exam around the clock. That can be helpful if you live far away from a testing center, or you’re an international applicant with no testing centers nearby. The only major difference is that, when taking the test at a center, you’ll be given a 5-page laminated booklet with two dry erase markers, as scratch materials, and at home, you’ll be able to able to use your own scratch materials or use the online whiteboard provided by the exam
- You are not allowed a calculator during the exam
- Scores range from 200 to 800 and are valid for 5 years
- As far as structure, the GMAT is divided into four parts: Quantitative Reasoning, Verbal Reasoning, Integrated Reasoning, and Analytical Writing Assessment
- The GMAT will take roughly 3.5 hours to complete
- You can take the GMAT 5 times in a rolling 12-month period. Canceled scores count toward your 5-test total
- MBA.com is the official provider of the GMAT, and it offers free prep tests
And now the facts for the GRE:
- The GRE is section-adaptive. The GMAT is question-adaptive, meaning it will offer up questions of varying difficulty based on how you perform on each question; the GRE, meanwhile, will only offer up the next entire section based on how you performed on the last one
- You can move back and forth between questions on the GRE, and change your answers, which you can’t do on the GMAT
- You can also take the GRE at a test center or online. That gives you the same convenience and flexibility you’d get taking the GMAT
- You are allowed a calculator during the exam (if you’re taking it at a test center, there is an electronic calculator on-screen for your use)
- Scores range from 130 to 170 and are valid for 5 years
- As for structure, the GRE is divided into 3 parts: Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, and Analytical Writing
- The GRE will take you 3.75 hours to complete
- You can take the GRE every 21 days, and up to 5 times in a 12-month rolling period. Canceled scores count toward your 5-test total
- ETS.org, the official website of the GRE test makers, offers free prep tests
Find a GMAT/GRE Coach
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GMAT vs GRE: Scoring
Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s talk about how both tests are scored.
- Total GMAT scores range from 200 to 800 in 10-point increments. Two-thirds of test-takers score between 400 and 600. Verbal and Quantitative scores range from 0 to 60; scores below 6 and above 51 are rare for these sections
- The Analytical Writing section is scored from 0 to 6, in half-point increments
- Note: there is a penalty for not completing each section of the exam. If you do not finish a section in the allotted time, your scores will be calculated based on the number of questions you answered. Your score will decrease significantly with each unanswered question
- Once you complete the exam, you’ll immediately be able to see your unofficial score. You’ll then be given the option to accept or cancel that score. You’ll have two minutes to make this decision. If you decide to cancel your scores, they won’t be sent to your selected schools, though the exam will count toward one of your 5 attempts allowed in a rolling 12-month period
- The unofficial score will contain four numbers: your Quantitative, Verbal, and Integrated Reasoning Scores, as well as your total score (based on your Quantitative and Verbal sections)
- You’ll receive your Analytical Writing score within 20 days of taking your exam, when you receive your official score report
- Once you’ve viewed your scores, you’ll have the option to report them to schools of your selection
- You may send your scores to up to 5 schools for free; you will pay a small fee for each school above 5
- Note: you can reinstate your scores by logging into your MBA.com account; you can reinstate up to 4 years and 11 months after your exam date, and reinstatement costs $50
- Test results are valid for 5 years
- The GRE is scored based on the Verbal and Quantitative sections. Scores range from 130 to 170 in 1-point increments
- The Analytical Writing Section is measured from 0 to 6, in half-point increments
- Unlike the GMAT, once you’ve completed the GRE, you will not immediately be able to see your score. You will first have to decide whether or not to accept your score before you can see how you performed
- If you decide to cancel your score, it won’t be reported to your chosen schools, but it will count toward the 5 test total that you can take in a rolling 12-month period
- If you accept your scores, you’ll then see your unofficial report, with your total score ranging from 130 to 170
- You can access your official GRE scores in your ETS account 10–15 days after your test date. You will be notified by email by ETS when your scores are available online
- After reviewing your scores, you can select the schools to which you’d like to report your scores. You can select up to 4 schools, for free. Any schools over 4 and ETS will charge a small fee
- GRE test results are valid for up to 5 years
- Note: you can reinstate canceled scores, if you contact ETS within 60 days of your exam date, for a fee of $50
GMAT vs GRE: Sections & Structure
GMAT: Verbal, Quant, Analytical Writing & Integrated Reasoning
- The Verbal Reasoning section of the GMAT exam measures your reading comprehension of written material, reasoning and evaluation of arguments, and correcting of materials to express ideas effectively in standard written English. This section consists of 36 multiple choice questions and you will have 65 minutes to complete it
- The Verbal section contains three types of problems: Reading Comprehension, Critical Reasoning, and Sentence Correction.
- Reading Comprehension questions measure your skill in understanding words and statements, understanding logical relationships between significant points, drawing inferences, and following the development of quantitative concepts. Specifically, you will be tested on the following: main idea, supporting idea, inference, application, logical structure, and style
- Critical reasoning measures your ability to make and evaluate arguments, then formulate or evaluate a plan of action
- The sentence correction section measures two broad aspects of your language proficiency. First is the usage of correct expression, which tests your ability to identify sentences that are grammatically and structurally sound. The second is effective expression, which tests your ability to identify sentences that effectively express an idea clearly, concisely, and grammatically
- The Quantitative Reasoning section measures your mathematical reasoning, your ability to solve quantitative problems, and how well you interpret graphic data. It has 31 multiple-choice questions. You will be given 62 minutes to complete it
- There are two types of questions in the Quantitative Section — Problem Solving and Data Sufficiency. Both types of questions require some knowledge of arithmetic, elementary algebra, and commonly known concepts of geometry. The difficulty of the questions stems from the logical and analytical skills required, not the underlying math skills. Note that you’re not allowed a calculator in this section
- Problem Solving questions measure your usage of logic and analytical reasoning to solve quantitative problems
- Data Sufficiency questions measure your analysis of quantitative problems, your ability to recognize which data is relevant, and to determine at what point there is enough data to solve the problem. You’ll see problems that consist of a question and two statements. You will use the data in the statements, plus your knowledge of math and everyday facts, to decide whether you have enough data in the statement to answer the question asked
- The Analytical Writing section requires you to analyze the reasoning of a given argument and write a critique on it. This will measure your ability to think critically and communicate your ideas through an essay written in English
- You’ll have 30 minutes to write your essay
- Topics of the argument range from general interest, to business, to a variety of subjects. You won’t need specific knowledge on the topic; rather, you’re being tested on your capacity to write analytically
- Analytical Writing essays are scored through a combination of machine algorithms and approved human raters. If there’s a disparity between the algorithm score and the human score, your essay is reviewed by an additional human rater and may be adjusted
- The Analytical Writing section does not factor into your overall GMAT score of 200 to 800
- This section of the GMAT exam measures your skill in integrating data to solve complex problems. Your target business schools are interested in the development of future business leaders, who are meant to take in large amounts of data to make solid decisions. This section is meant to test that capacity
- The Integrated Reasoning section evaluates your ability to synthesize and evaluate data presented in graphics, text, and numbers, as well as your skill in organizing information so as to solve multiple interrelated problems. This section also analyzes your ability to combine and manipulate information from multiple sources to solve complex problems
- This section includes four types of questions: multi-source reasoning, table analysis, graphics interpretation, and two-part analysis
- The Integrated Reasoning section is scored on a scale of 1 to 8, in 1-point increments, and does not affect your Verbal, Quantitative, or Analytical Writing scores. It does not affect your composite score of 200 to 800
GRE: Verbal & Quant
- The GRE Verbal Reasoning section measures your ability in analyzing and drawing conclusions from discourse, reasoning from incomplete data, identifying authors’ assumptions and/or perspectives, and understanding multiple levels of meaning (literal, figurative, and authorial intent)
- In this section, you’ll also select important points in the text, distinguish major from minor or irrelevant points, summarize text, and be asked to comprehend the structure of a text
- The Verbal section also tests your understanding of the meaning of individual words, sentences, and an entire text, as well as your understanding of relationships among words and among concepts. Vocabulary and grammar skills are very important here
- The Verbal section is scored from 130 to 170, in 1-point increments
- The Quantitative Reasoning section of the GRE assesses your skills in basic mathematics, your understanding of elementary mathematical concepts, and your ability to reason quantitatively as well as to solve problems using quantitative methods
- Some Quant questions are posed in real-life settings, while others are posed in purely mathematical settings. Many of the questions are word problems
- There are four different types of problems: arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and data analysis
- The GRE Quant section only includes math and statistics at the high school level; you won’t see problems higher than the level of Algebra II. You will not encounter trigonometry, calculus, or other high-level mathematics
- Important things to remember:
- You’ll only see real numbers in your problems
- Assume that all figures lie in a plane unless otherwise stated
- On questions with geometric figures, your answers should be based on geometric reasoning, not on sight estimation
- For problems involving coordinate systems and graphical data presentations, figures are drawn to scale, so, you can read, estimate, or compare quantities by sight or by measurement
- You are allowed to use a basic calculator for this part of the exam. If you are in a testing center, you’ll have an electronic calculator on the screen
- The Analytical Writing section of the GRE consists of two analytical writing tasks that are separately timed: (1) Analyze an Issue and (2) Analyze an Argument
- The Analyze an Issue task evaluates your ability to think critically and to express your thoughts in writing about a topic of general interest. Each given issue statement makes a claim; you may apply different perspectives in your response
- The Analyze an Argument task checks your skills in understanding, analyzing, and evaluating arguments. You will be presented with a brief passage in which the writer makes a case for a given course of action by presenting claims that are backed by evidence. Your task is to talk about the logical soundness of the argument by examining the line of reasoning and using critical evidence
- You’ll be given 30 minutes for each section, for a total of 60 minutes
- Your essays will be scored by an e-rater scoring engine. This is an ETS-developed computerized program capable of identifying essay features related to writing proficiency. Humans will also confirm your scores. If the electronic rating and human rating are close, your score will be the average
GMAT vs. GRE: Which is Harder?
One question we hear all the time is: which test is harder, the GMAT or the GRE? This depends on your strengths as a test-taker and your quantitative and verbal skills, but let’s look at each section in turn.
First, let’s look at how the two tests are similar. Both are multiple-choice and will score your verbal abilities, which will include vocabulary, grammar, and critical reasoning.
The GMAT has 36 multiple choice questions, and you’ll be given 65 minutes. The GRE has 40 questions, and you’ll be given 60 minutes, broken into two 30-minute sections.
The prevailing wisdom is that, because the GRE focuses more on vocabulary, and has a slightly easier math section than the GMAT, it will favor those with strong verbal skills. So, if you’re more confident in your verbal abilities and less sure about your quantitative abilities, the GRE is likely the test for you.
Again, let’s look at where both tests are similar.
The GMAT has 32 multiple choice questions, for which you’ll be given 62 minutes. The GRE has 40 questions, for which you’ll be given 70 minutes (broken into two 35-minute sections).
It’s also important to note that the GRE allows the use of calculators, while the GMAT does not.
The prevailing wisdom is that the Quant section of the GMAT is harder than that of the GRE, so if you’re more confident in your quantitative skills than your verbal skills, the GMAT is likely the test for you.
Both tests are equally matched in the difficulty of their Analytical Writing sections. This shouldn’t factor into your decision as to which test to take, because the Analytical Writing section doesn’t factor into your composite score for either exam.
GMAT vs GRE: Which Should I Take?
Okay, now the big question — which exam should you take?
The best piece of advice we can give is to consider your strengths. We’ll get into specifics below, but know which exam favors which skillset/knowledge base, and choose accordingly. Many people feel pressure to score well on the GMAT because it’s the exam traditionally associated with business school, but if you’re better suited for the GRE, then take it. Don’t let pride get in the way of scoring well on your standardized test!
Here are some other things to consider:
- For MBA programs in the U.S., both tests are accepted equally. Schools used to have a preference for the GMAT, but that is no longer the case. Note that some international schools do still have a stated preference for the GMAT, so be sure to check on the preferences of any international programs you’re applying to
- Both tests are computer-adaptive. The GMAT is question-adaptive and will get harder based on each question you answer, while the GRE is section-adaptive, and will only get harder based on how you perform on each section
- The GMAT does not allow skipping around within the section, or changing your answers. The GRE does
As mentioned above, know your strengths. If you’re a quant whiz, the GMAT may be better for you. If you’re a verbal wizard, consider the GRE. Either way, we recommend taking a practice exam of each and making a decision from there.
And don’t forget — our world-class MBA admissions coaches are here to help!
What’s the best way to prepare for the GMAT/GRE?
Okay — we’ve covered each test, talked about the way they’re scored, and how to make the best decision as to which test to take. Now, you’re looking for a recommendation on how to tackle the exam. We’ve got you covered.
- First, take a practice exam — one GMAT, and one GRE. You can find free GMAT exams at Princeton Review, Kaplan, and Manhattan Prep. You’ll find free GRE practice exams on the official site, ETS.
- Second, once you’ve seen your practice scores, you’ll be better able to determine which test is better for you. From there, we strongly recommend you find a GMAT / GRE coach. Going through this process alone is very difficult. See above for some of our coach recommendations; browse Leland’s cohort of GMAT Coaches & GRE Coaches.
- Third, put together a robust study plan. Give yourself at least six months to prepare and take the exam, knowing that you may need to take it multiple times to get the score you want. For the best results, we recommend pairing a personal coach with free exam and practice questions resources found on the web. Here are some of our favorites:
- Fourth, don’t give up! We know it’s tough when you keep grinding and aren’t seeing the results you’re looking for, but with the right help, you can hit your target number. Still looking for a personalized GMAT / GRE study plan or coach recommendation? Reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll help you out.
Leland provides you with the content, community, and coaching that you need to get into your dream MBA program and accomplish other ambitious goals. Here are a couple of other articles/resources that you may find helpful:
- Navigating the MBA Standardized Test Options and Upcoming GMAT Changes
- Top 50+ Free Resources for GMAT & GRE Practice
- How Late Can You Take the GMAT/GRE for MBA Applications?
- My Top Piece of Advice for Every MBA Applicant
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