The GRE vs. GMAT Conversation

Within the last few years, the GRE has gained momentum in being accepted by top U.S. business schools. In 2009, just 24% of all business schools accepted the score in lieu of the GMAT, with more top schools, such as Wharton, adding the option beginning in 2013. Prior to this, dual degree seekers were often subjected to months of preparation and study for both exams…can you imagine? For students intimidated by the GMAT — particularly the Integrated Reasoning section — or for undergraduate social science majors, the GRE has been a welcomed opportunity to improve their chances for admission into competitive business schools.

There are lots of great reasons to consider the GRE:
1) The dreaded Integrated Reasoning section. Someone thought it would be a great idea to merge Verbal reasoning with data analysis (which by the way, is what you would be required to do in a case study, but you haven’t been admitted into an MBA program so you may not have this skill yet). This section, added in 2012, includes Graphics Interpretation, a Two-Part Data Analysis, Table Analysis, and Multi-Source Reasoning. Each question has multiple parts that must be answered correctly to receive any credit, once answered you can not go back and change them, and you have to complete the question before moving on. Crap.
2) Stuck on a question? Skip it. The GMAT is adaptive, which means that your performance on question one predicts the difficulty of question two, and so on. You have to answer the questions as they are presented to you. This adaptation can immediately impact your score potential. The GRE allows you to skip around the test. As your confidence grows, you can go back to a question on which you may have wasted precious time trying to figure out.
3) The quant section is more approachable. Don’t mistake this as “simple”. GRE Math is far from easy. However, because it is standardized for a wider range of disciplines, it’s not quite as difficult as GMAT Math. You’ve likely encountered similar questions in your college-level coursework.
4) The test is more accessible. It’s cheaper, by about $30. The savings can add up, especially if you plan to take the test multiple times. It is also administered in more test centers and at more times. Definitely a big plus if you live in a rural town or smaller country. The GRE is offered at more than 1,000 test centers in 160 countries.
5) The GRE doesn’t affect school rankings. Yet. Take a peek around admissions sites for top business schools and you’ll only find their GMAT range. Most ranking organizations use this GMAT range to help determine school standing — so far, the only exception to this is U.S. News and World Report, which for the first time published some GRE data in its 2014 ranking. GRE score ranges are closely guarded, with many schools only reporting the percentage of students who apply using the GRE- if they provide any data at all. This means that schools are able to take bigger risks on candidates with lower scores without it affecting their ranking. Remember all of the buzz around Harvard’s acceptance of a student with a 520 GMAT score in 2014? Every business school news source — and HBS alum — wanted to know “Who was this candidate?” Business schools will not be subject to this type of scrutiny for accepting an applicant with a lower GRE score — yet.

Sounds great right? Ready to start your GRE study? Proceed with caution! Here’s why I’m not 100% sold:

1) The quant section is not as tough on the GRE. You can even use a calculator on the GRE. But your first year of business school will, without a doubt, require strong quantitative skills. Business school admissions directors know this. Your Math score on the GRE will need to be high. You won’t get a pass. You MUST perform well on the Math section.
2) The correlation between GMAT performance and success in business school. How was your academic performance in your undergraduate math classes? How much quantitative work and data analysis are you performing in your job? Admissions directors do not want to accept students that can easily flunk out of their programs. Don’t believe the hype — it can and does happen. Admissions directors are still trying to understand what GRE scores may indicate in regards to how well or how poorly a student will perform in the core curriculum.
3) More emphasis on writing and vocabulary. How much do you enjoy writing? How strong is your vocabulary and command of the English language? Again, because the GRE is designed for a broader set of graduate programs and majors, there are two essays rather than just one on the GMAT. The GRE Text Completions and Sentence Equivalence questions test the art of word usage. Many business school applicants are not trained writers, contrary to popular belief. This is where English, social science and humanities majors will shine.
4) Considering consulting? Investigate the consulting recruiting process and you’ll find that many consulting firms, such as Bain Consulting, will ask for GMAT scores. The GMAT’s Integrated Reasoning section and logical thinking requirements strongly reflect the skills needed for consulting careers. You don’t want to get to your second year and realize that you don’t have a GMAT score to provide.
5) Do all of your schools accept the GRE — — and respect it? The list of schools that accept the GRE is lengthy and growing every day. If your school isn’t on this list, check with the admissions office. You don’t want to sit for the GRE because your first choice school accepts the test only to find that your second choice does not. And listen, just because the school accepts the GRE doesn’t mean that they completely respect the exam (or your decision to take it) in their admissions decisions. Two reasons: first, most top schools are reporting that only 10–15% of applicants submit GRE scores. The Yale School of Management reports one of the highest percentages at 20%. Admissions directors are now tasked with comparing students from similar backgrounds, one with a GRE score and the other with a GMAT score. They already know how to interpret the GMAT score. Will this put you at a disadvantage in their decision? Secondly, the GRE is a test with options. In other words, the GMAT demonstrates your commitment to pursuing an MBA — and your dedication to working hard to get it.

As with everything in the business school process, the decision to take the GRE rather than the GMAT is a personal decision, and should be made with respect to the rest of your application package: your goals, background, school choices, and academic performance. In addition, you can test your own performance by taking free practice tests. My own personal opinion (and it is just that, my opinion) is that if you have a significantly better score on your GRE practice test, seriously consider that route. If not, a slightly better performance isn’t enough to put yourself in the position to raise questions with the admissions committee about your ability to successfully complete an MBA program.

Shaquita Basileo is a member of the MBA Catalyst consulting team and Director of Social Media & Marketing. She is a 2007 graduate of Stanford Graduate School of Business. For more information about MBA Catalyst, visit http://www.mbacatalyst.com or email us at info@mbacatalyst.com.