GMAT vs GRE.  Which test looks better on your application?  It depends.

Oh, the times they are a changin’.

Just three years ago, top b-schools like Chicago Booth were going on record as “having no plans to accept the GRE in the near future.” Today, it’s hard to find a b-school that will not accept the GRE in lieu of the GMAT. HBS? Check. Stanford? Check. Booth? You betcha. In fact, as of this writing, the only top 10 MBA program that will not accept the GRE is Berkeley Haas.

So it’s official: the GRE has quickly established itself as a viable alternative to the GMAT. But how do the two exams stack up? Are b-schools truly as acronym-blind as they claim to be? And which test is right for you?

As usual, the answer is not simple. There are numerous factors in play, a wealth of conflicting information, and at least a handful of “it kinda depends” scenarios.

For example, while many contend that adcoms secretly frown upon the GRE, John Byrne at Poets & Quants recently pointed out that because many rankings organizations don’t factor GRE scores into their rankings criteria, MBA programs are actually more tolerant of a low GRE score than a low GMAT score. Likewise, some b-schools refrain from reporting GRE scores to rankings organizations, meaning that they are more likely to admit a strong candidate with a poor GRE score than a strong candidate with a poor GMAT score. In other words, if you’re not a strong test-taker, the GRE seems the way to go.

On the other hand, there’s a perception gap to contend with. The GMAT is still considered the gold standard of standardized testing for MBA programs, while the GRE is often regarded as an easier test (primarily because the quantitative section is less challenging). If you’re a strong candidate and you choose the GRE over the GMAT, it could cast a slight shadow of doubt over your entire candidacy (“If he’s really as smart as he looks, why was he afraid of the GMAT? What’s he hiding?”). If you’re a less-than-stellar candidate, meanwhile, taking the GMAT could be exactly what you need to show admissions that you’re up for the rigors of their program—but only if you get a strong score. Finally, for people who aren’t 100% set on b-school, the GRE is a great option because it is transferrable to numerous other programs…but taking it instead of the GMAT could raise questions about your commitment to pursuing an MBA.

In short, there’s enough strategy involved in the process to make General Patton go a little weak in the knees. Because of this, it’s virtually impossible for me to give you a “general rule” on the GRE vs GMAT debate. If you really want to know which test is right for you, you should contact Forster-Thomas for a free and personalized candidacy assessment. But if you twisted my arm for a general rule, well, this is what it would be:

For the majority of b-school candidates, I suggest taking the GMAT. As mentioned earlier, it’s still the gold standard, and it will be for the foreseeable future. Admissions officers know the test, trust the test, and like the test, if for no other reason than it’s more familiar to them. While the GMAT will likely require more preparation time, tutoring sessions, and headaches, chances are better that it will all pay off in the end.

Getting a bit more specific:

  • If you are a very conventional applicant, the GMAT is practically a must. “Very conventional” means that you are from a big applicant pool and have a quant background (i.e., investment bankers, PE associates, management consultants, etc). The GMAT is what your (numerous) peers are taking, and you’ll stick out like a sore thumb if you opt for the GRE. The only exception here is if you’re bombing your GMAT diagnostics (even after sufficient prep). If that’s the case, the GRE might be a good alternative; schools are more likely to overlook a poor GRE score than a poor GMAT score, since they may not have to report the former. However, this only works if you have a stellar candidacy—otherwise, they’ll just take the “you” with the good GMAT score (probably that guy you hate who works two cubes over from you).
  • For highly unconventional applicants with strong GPAs, the GRE is a viable alternative if you’re struggling with the GMAT. You’re unconventional if you have no “business experience” and/or never took a single econ or finance class in college—in other words, you’re a Sociology major who has spent the last two years doing Teach For America or working in the PR department of a crunchy non-profit. If this sounds like you, I still suggest you try your hand at the GMAT; if you can do well on it, you’ll impress the adcom. But if the GMAT just isn’t paying off, the GRE will suffice—after all, the reason b-schools started accepting the GRE was to attract a more diverse applicant pool, and you are the “diversity” they had in mind. Just make sure your GRE quant section is strong, as that’s where admissions will really be looking.
  • For strong dual-degree applicants, the GRE can be a great option. Not only will it allow you to take one test instead of two, but you have a built-in “excuse” for not taking the GMAT. That being said, you don’t want to seem lazy, so you better study hard and get a great score. Further, while MBA programs have nothing against dual-degree programs, they look out for applicants who might just be tacking on the MBA to add an extra degree, but one for which they might not really care about. Therefore, if you opt not to take the GMAT, you better make it clear just how much you want that MBA in your MBA goals essay. In summary, the GMAT is still the king, but the GRE is gaining ground, and is a great option for less traditional candidates and those who just can’t crack the GMAT.

Finally, if you’ve taken the GRE already and want to know what your score looks like to MBA admissions, check out this handy GRE/GMAT comparison tool.

--Justin Marshall

In 2013, 86% of Forster-Thomas MBA applicants got into at least one of their three top choice schools.  Join the club!  Contact Forster-Thomas for a free and personalized candidacy assessment.