It used to be that applying for a Master of Business Administration (MBA) program meant taking the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT), regardless of which university you were targeting. This no longer the case.

In 2011, Educational Testing Service released the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) revised General Test, providing an additional option for business school applicants. Previously, universities used the GRE for just about every graduate program but business. However, with management schools seeking a broader applicant pool, more than 1,300 MBA programs worldwide now accept the GRE.

So which is the better option: the tried-and-true GMAT or the more versatile GRE? This depends on your goals. One thing to keep in mind is the GMAT is still the leader in MBA entrance exams, with more than 7,000 programs worldwide accepting the test. In contrast, more than 1,300 programs worldwide allow students to take the GRE, although that list is growing.

If you know to which schools you'll be applying, it's worth checking whether they'll accept both. However, don't assume that applying to a top-tier university means the GMAT is your only path. Some of the nation's most prestigious business schools—including Harvard University, Yale University and Stanford University—accept the GRE. 

For scholars who have their heart set on graduate school, but don't know for certain they'll study business, the GRE provides a degree of flexibility the GMAT doesn't offer. You can take the exam knowing that, if you later switch to a different field, you don't necessarily have to sit for a whole new test.

Play to Your Strengths

Even though the GMAT is used solely for graduate business schools, it's important to realize the exam doesn't specifically test business knowledge. Instead, it evaluates the basic skills that enable students to excel in one of these programs.

When you take a closer look, you'll notice the content of the two exams is remarkably similar. The GMAT is broken into four sections: analytical writing, integrated reasoning, quantitative reasoning and verbal reasoning. The revised version of the GRE has three components: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning and analytical writing. 

To be sure, there are some differences, subtle though they be. For example, some test-takers say the GMAT puts more emphasis on reasoning. The GRE, on the other hand, emphasizes vocabulary skills. Also, the GMAT relies more heavily on word problems to test math skills than the GRE. 

If the schools you want to attend accept either exam, it may make sense to take the one more suited to your strengths. Research both exams, take some practice tests and see which one does a better job of showing off your skills.

With prior editions of the GRE, students could choose a paper version of the exam, a nice alternative for those who like to write notes in the packet. But when the revised edition came out, Educational Testing Service eliminated this option in the United States and Canada. Whether they opt for the GRE or GMAT, most students can expect to take a computer-delivered test.

Neither is there a great variance in terms of test time. The GRE takes about three hours and 45 minutes to complete, compared with with three hours and seven minutes for the GMAT.  However, taking the GMAT costs $275 in the United States, while the GRE costs $205 in most places. 

The Bottom Line

When it comes to the MBA entrance exam, students now have a choice. The tried-and-true GMAT is the obvious pick for business schools that still haven't jumped on the GRE bandwagon. However, the GRE is the more versatile option, providing a safety net for students who may choose to enter a different field altogether.