MBA Admissions Test Choice: GRE or GMAT?

More schools than ever are offering applicants a choice between taking the GRE and taking the GMAT. But many admissions directors say they still prefer the trusty old GMAT.

Betsy Kacizak, MBA director at the Wisconsin School of Business, says if a student asked her which standardized test to take before applying for MBA admissions, her answer would be easy.

"I'd say take the GMAT," Kacizak says. "I do prefer the GMAT for MBA programs. It specifically was designed for business schools, with input from business school faculty."

The GMAT, or Graduate Management Admission Test, used to be the sole standardized test for business school applications. However, more and more schools have started accepting GRE, or Graduate Record Examination, scores in lieu of the GMAT. There are currently more than 1200 business schools in 70 countries that accept the GRE, including London Business School in the UK, IMD Business School in Switzerland, China’s Tsinghua University, and McGill University in Canada. As of 2014, 85 percent of business schools were accepting GRE scores instead of GMAT scores, according to a Kaplan survey.

This increased acceptance of the GRE has led to a rising number of aspiring business students taking the test. In 2009, heavyweights like  Harvard Business School and NYU's Stern School of Business announced that they would begin accepting the GRE as an alternative to the GMAT. And the number of test takers in fiscal year 2015 who intended to study business increased by 10 percent over the previous year and doubled since fiscal year 2012, according to ETS, the group that administers the GRE.

But despite an increased acceptance of the GRE, many MBA admissions directors agree with Kacizak, saying that if all else is equal, they prefer the GMAT over the GRE.

"It's a long-standing test that was developed for business schools. Approximately 90 percent of our applicant pool takes the GMAT test," says Kelly Wilson, executive director of graduate admissions at Carnegie Mellon's Tepper School of Business.

"That said, for anyone taking the GRE, there's no penalty per se for someone taking it. But for a program like ours, the GMAT provides an additional data point that we find interesting, which is the integrated reasoning score."

The integrated reasoning section is one of four parts of the GMAT; the other three are analytical writing, qualitative and verbal, which the GRE also tests.

Lisa Shatz, Assistant Dean of MBA Programs at the University of Texas at Dallas' Jindal School of Management, says until a few years ago, her school only accepted the GRE for professional MBAs, and that even now, she still prefers GMAT scores over GRE scores. She also points out that some schools use a conversion tool to transform GRE scores into roughly equivalent GMAT scores, a method that's often imprecise.

However, although admissions directors prefer GMAT scores, they stress that students might still have valid reasons to take the GRE. Directors say that students should consider taking practice versions of both tests and see which they perform better on.

"If they have more confidence with one test versus the other, I would rather they submit their application to the test that they're most confident in when they're taking it," Wilson says. "I'd rather see them perform their best."

More and more MBA programs accepting both GRE and GMAT

In 2011, ETS revised the test to further emphasize data interpretation and real-life skills, according to Jason Baran, GRE Program Spokesperson at ETS. Baran says that these math skills are more applicable to business school than the skills the GRE tested previously. However, he attributes the high number of schools that now accept the GRE to two other factors. First, as more and more schools started accepting the GRE, other schools felt pressure to jump on the bandwagon, and the number of schools that accepted the test snowballed. Second, MBA programs wanted to attract a wider range of candidates.

Admissions directors agreed, saying that they don't want to turn away candidates with a diverse set of interests who may have taken the GRE directly out of undergrad before deciding to apply to business school.

We started accepting the GRE because “we didn't want to give up more candidates,” says Shatz.

“If a student is calling and saying, 'I really want to get an MBA, what should I do?' we would say, 'Get a GMAT, take a prep course.”

“But what about the student who already took the GRE because they were considering an economics degree or engineering? Do we really want them to take another test? They might apply to another school that accepts the GRE."

Use FIND MBA's Advanced Program Search to find MBA programs by average GMAT

Kelly Wilson says that Carnegie Mellon's decision to accept the GRE stems directly from the desire to recruit a varied group of students.

"In terms of the GRE, we're looking to build a more diverse pool of applicants, and so by extending the option to candidates to take the GRE we believe that we'll be able to reach some folks that we might not otherwise reach," she says.

And Wisconsin’s Kacizak says that although she prefers the GMAT, the GRE is still an established test that's comparable in difficulty to the GMAT.

"The GRE is a fine test, so we would accept it, because I don't want them to have to go through the obstacle of taking a GMAT," she says. "It reduces some barriers for candidates. More people are taking the GRE because they're not sure which programs they want to apply to, and instead of making someone retake the exam, we are open to it. We know it's still a reliable test."

Things to ask when debating GRE vs. GMAT when applying to MBA programs:

  • Does the MBA program you're looking at accept both the GRE and GMAT? Some do and some don't. It's best to make sure.
  • Do the business schools you're considering prefer the GMAT or the GRE? A business school might prefer one admissions test over the other; make sure you ask them.
  • Can you score better on either? Perhaps you can get a better score on the GRE; take practice tests for both to find out.
  • Do the MBA programs you're considering publish average GMAT or GRE score info? Take a look and see how you stack up.

Image: Admissions360 / Flicker, CC BY 2.0 (cropped, rotated)

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