GMAT/GRE: What To Know

What are the main differences between the tests?

Generally, the GRE is considered a harder verbal test (better for humanities students) while the GMAT is considered a harder math test (better for STEM students). Specifically, the GRE is harder than the GMAT in two areas:

- Advanced vocabulary (which the GMAT doesn’t test)

- “Check-all-that-apply” question types on verbal that don’t offer partial credit

In some ways, the GRE and GMAT are fairly comparable, particularly in reading comprehension, which tests consistencies and gaps in logical arguments. In other ways, especially in math, they’re just different: the GRE tends to test more knowledge of formulas and rules whereas the GMAT tends to test application of basic math rules in complex ways.

But overall, the GMAT is arguably just a harder test due to:

- Advanced grammar rules testing style and usage (whereas the GRE doesn’t test grammar at all)

- Elaborate “data sufficiency” questions requiring two claims to each checked in three ways

- Higher-level statistics questions

- No calculator allowed (the GRE includes one)

- No returning to previous answers (unlike on the GRE)

- Greater adaptive difficulty (questions continuously get harder the more you get correct)

- Tight timing and penalties for incomplete work

And yet because of how difficult it is, the GMAT has a very nice curve for both sections: it’s possible to get over a dozen questions wrong and still get a 770 (well over a 99th percentile score), though that depends which questions you get wrong. The GRE is less forgiving. So for top students, the GMAT might be a better test; it’s best to take diagnostics to see. (See below for more information about how the tests are scored.)

Do schools have a preference between one and the other?

Non-business programs will, of course, require the GRE: it’s the standard for just about any graduate school program that isn’t Law or Medical school. (Even many law programs, including Harvard and Yale, take the GRE.) Just about every major business school program will accept both the GRE and GMAT; nearly all say on their site that they don’t have a preference.

But there’s a catch: admissions officers at some of the top MBA programs like Wharton have indicated they prefer the GMAT, even though their sites say otherwise. While the GRE has gained traction, 25% of business school admissions officers ina 2016 survey indicated that they prefer the GMAT. (All else aside, the GMAT shows that you’re definitely dedicated to business school.) Plus, some consulting firms require a GMAT score in job applications.

Moral? Take the GRE if it’s the better test or if you’re not sure whether you’re applying to business school or not. But if your diagnostic scores are even and you’re applying to business school, take the GMAT.

What is a good score?

For top programs, over 700 on the GMAT should earn you good consideration and over 750 should give your application a boost; the median score at Wharton and Harvard is a 730. (The GMAT is scored on a bell curve from a 200–800 with an additional “integrated reasoning” section that’s scored 1–8.)

The GRE is more complicated: unsurprisingly, writing programs favor higher verbal scores while engineering programs favor high quantitative scores. (Some programs may also recommend the GRE Subject Tests). Each section is scaled on a bell curve from 130–170, so generally, aim for over 160 on both quantitative and verbal — and over 165 for the very top programs.

As always, your best bet is to check the average scores of the schools you’re applying to. If you beat that average, you’re safe: admissions officers can focus on other elements of your portfolio without hesitation. And if you’re well above average, you have an active advantage in raising the program’s stats. As usual with test prep, though, a good score will get you consideration but won’t get you in — while a bad score can keep you out.

It’s just one element in a holistic process: no matter how good that score is, it can always be replaced by another candidate’s.

How are the tests scored?

The GMAT and GRE aren’t just concerned with how many questions you can get right, but how advanced your skills are in terms of timing and topic difficulty. Both tests are adaptive. Get problems right, and you’ll get harder questions; get them wrong, and you’ll get easier ones. That means that earlier questions are more important since they show you’re capable of advanced problems. Yet harder questions seem to be weighted more. That leads to a paradox: easier questions are more important because they let you get to harder questions that are likely worth more.

At the same time, timing matters tremendously, especially on the GMAT. In fact, the GMAT actively penalizes those who don’t finish sections and those who answer consecutive questions incorrectly (i.e. those who start guessing randomly to make up time). So focusing on earlier questions can also leave little time for the harder questions later. Many GMAT test-takers benefit tremendously from learning how to guess strategically throughout the test so they have time for questions at the end — and questions they’re certain to get right.

How are they scaled?

Each is scaled as a bell curve: most applicants will fall in the middle, and very few will get high or low scores. In a typical year, 1 or 2 applicants get a perfect 800 on the GMAT.

Will an influx of applicants change the scale this year?

GMAT and GRE scales won’t change over time, but percentiles will. If you reorder your scores a few years from now, the percentiles will change to reflect that point in time. Still, an influx of candidates shouldn’t meaningfully change the curve: there would need to be more below-average or more above-average test-takers in the group to move the needle. That could happen, but it’s not likely.

It does mean that admissions could expect higher scores this year, however, and that you’ll want a higher score this year to stand out.

What should I focus on besides content?

Strategy, timing, and timing. With the exception of GRE vocab, neither exams tests particularly high-level content. Both, however, test the application of content in challenging logic games that tempt perfectionists into losing all their time. Working strategically can mean:

- Estimating answers and comparing answer choices without exact numbers or definitions

- Having techniques for Data Sufficiency (GMAT) and Text Completion (GRE) to get a right answer and save time without needing full proof

- Double-testing answer choices to see if they could be true — and if they could be false

- Fighting cognitive bias against the unfamiliar: choosing the answer you don’t know rather than the one you recognize that seems iffy

- Knowing the tests’ terminology (i.e. “an argument” vs. “a conclusion” vs. “a point”) that distinguishes a right answer from a wrong one

- Knowing how to prove that wrong answers are not “ok” but actively incorrect

- Having go-to algebraic expressions on GMAT to plug-in for multiples, odds, evens, fractions, etc.

- Knowing tricks for dimensional comparisons and expected values to avoid plugging-in on GRE

There are many more, but the point is always the same: 1) to maximize the chances of answering correctly while 2) clearing time to focus on the hardest problems at the end.

Since the tests are adaptive, how does that affect my ability to prep and take mock tests?

Because the tests get harder the better you do, no third party mock tests have been able to replicate them accurately. That’s doubly disadvantageous: you have fewer resources to use, and you have fewer gauges of your own top issues.

The good news is that both the GMAT and GRE offer their own extensive resources for practicing. The GMAT offers six full adaptive tests here and here, along withan extensive question bank and diagnostic tool. Our recommendation: start by taking an initial diagnostic here and then get everything else bundled here — you’ll get a number of paper tests as well.

The GRE doesn’t offer quite as many options but does have five official adaptive tests here. Our recommendation: tap that link to take an initial diagnostic, and make sure to get the Powerprep Plus tests with enhanced score reports and answer explanations. (Though try to figure out mistakes first before checking their explanation.)

What resources should I get to prep for these tests?

GMAT and GRE guides and exercises vary considerably in quality: for example, we’d recommend avoiding Kaplan and being wary of some of Manhattan Prep’s recent GMAT resources. Here’s our recommendations.

For the GMAT, start with the GMAT Official Guide and official math and verbal reviews, Then get Manhattan Prep’s advanced quant guide and 2014 (not error-ridden 2020!) GMAT strategy bundle. For high-performers, my personal favorite resource is the online GMAT Club, a free forum of thousands of GMAT questions with multiple explanations for each. It’s GMAT heaven.

For the GRE, start with the official superpack (three guides in one). If you’re starting with a lower score, Princeton Review has the most concise primer to the test as a whole. Then use Manhattan Prep for math and reading comp: get the5 lb guide of practice problems and 8 strategy guides. For Sentence Equivalence and Text Completion practice, though, you’re better off with Magoosh. And to build vocab, get the classic Word Power Made Easy.

Do I have to share all my scores?

For the GRE, no. You can choose to send any score from the past five years, so there’s no need to worry about canceling a score.

For the GMAT, yes. The GMAT report includes all tests from the past five years. If you want to cancel a GMAT score, you must do so within 72 hours of completing the test (there’s a fee).

How often can I take them?

You can take the GMAT up to 5 times in a year and 8 times ever (with a 16 day break between tests). You can take the GRE up to 5 times in a year with a 21 day break between tests.

How do I get extra time accommodations?

For the GMAT, follow instructions from their guide. A full report is expected (a neuropsychologist’s note won’t suffice), and the GMAT should follow up in 30 days or so.

For the GRE, follow instructions on their site. You’ll need to submit documentation, such as recent evaluations, and each request is evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Give six weeks for a decision.

In both cases, a recent neuropsychological report showing clear signs of timing issues is highly recommended.

How can tutoring help?

Good GRE/GMAT tutors take on five roles in the prep process:

As a consultant, they show you the best path to your target score (and offer expectations for getting there)

As a personal coach, they plan and manage a timeline of drills and practice

As a diagnostician, they show you the areas you need to work on to gain the most points

As a teacher, they show you how to master the content

As a tactician, they give you the strategies to optimize gains while saving time

How do I get started?

Start by taking a GMAT diagnostic here and a GRE diagnostic here. We’re happy to help consult on which is the better test; once you decide, order the resources above, and set a timeline working backwards from the date you need to take the test. Plan to take another official practice test in a few months to gauge progress and ongoing issues, but try to keep the practice tests for the end if you can — you want to use them to put the pieces together, not to test concepts you still haven’t learned.

As always, if it’s helpful to catch up about tutoring and coaching for these tests, justsend us a line, and we’d love to be in touch.