It used to be that applying for an MBA meant taking the GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test), regardless of which university you were targeting. That’s no longer the case.

In 2011, the GRE (Graduate Record Examination) revised General Test came on the scene, providing an additional option for B-school applicants. Previously, universities used the exam for just about every program but business. However, with management schools seeking a broader applicant pool, more than 1,000 MBA programs worldwide have started to accept this more widely employed exam.  

So which is the better option: the tried-and-true GMAT or the more versatile GRE? That depends in large part on your goals. One thing to keep in mind is that the GMAT is still very much the leader in MBA entrance exams, with more than 6,000 institutions accepting the test. In contrast, more than 1,000 business schools worldwide allow students to take the GRE, although that list is growing.

If you’ve already whittled down the list of schools to which you’ll be sending an application, it’s worth checking to see whether they’ll accept both. However, don’t assume that applying to a top-tier university means the GMAT is your only path. In fact, some of the nation’s most prestigious business schools – including Harvard, Yale and Stanford – allow the GRE these days. 

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

Play to Your Strengths

Even though the GMAT is used solely for graduate business schools, it’s important to realize that the exam doesn’t specifically test business knowledge, per se. 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 that the content of the two exams is remarkably similar. The GMAT is broken into four sections: analytical writing, integrated reasoning, quantitative and verbal. The revised version of the GRE has three components: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning and analytical writing. 

To be sure, there are some differences, although they tend to be subtle. For instance, some experts say the GMAT puts more of an emphasis on reasoning; the GRE, on the other hand, drills deeper into one’s vocabulary skills. Also, the former relies more heavily on word problems to test the student’s math skills than the latter. 

If the schools you want to attend accept either exam, it may make sense to take the one more suited to your strengths as a test-taker. 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, the exam provider, the Princeton, N.J.-based Educational Testing Service (ETS), 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 computer version of the GRE takes about three hours and 45 minutes to complete, just a tad longer than the GMAT at three and a half hours. Taking the GMAT does cost $55 more, however.

Figure 1. A quick look at the differences between the GRE and GMAT exams. 

Content Verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning and analytical writing Analytical writing, integrated reasoning, quantitative and verbal
Test Duration 3 hours, 45 minutes (for computer-based exam) 3 hours, 30 minutes
Cost $205 $250
Format Computer-based or paper-based (varies by country) Computer-based 


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.