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Graduate Exam Guide: Deciphering the GRE and GMAT

Graduate Exam Guide: Deciphering the GRE and GMAT
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Noodle Staff March 12, 2024

As you set out on the path to graduate education, a pivotal decision awaits: opting for the GRE or GMAT? This comprehensive guide is crafted to demystify the distinctions between the two exams and provide you with an effective blueprint for conquering the GMAT.

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Embarking on the journey to graduate school, you face the initial challenge: GRE or GMAT? This detailed guide is designed to explain the differences between each test and equip you with a solid plan for mastering the GMAT.

Understanding Your Options: GRE and GMAT

When considering graduate-level standardized tests, the GRE and GMAT cater to different needs. The GRE is recognized across a diverse array of graduate programs, comprehensively testing verbal and quantitative reasoning, along with analytical writing. It has a section-level adaptive format that adjusts the difficulty according to your performance. The GMAT, on the other hand, is predominantly favored by business schools, particularly for MBA aspirants. It assesses a candidate’s abilities in analytical writing, integrated reasoning, quantitative analysis, and verbal skills, employing a question-by-question adaptive mechanism that tweaks the difficulty based on each response. The decision between the two ultimately hinges on the specific requirements of the graduate programs in question, your personal strengths in the areas assessed by each test, and the professional trajectory you intend to pursue, with the GMAT being a common requisite for those firmly on the business leadership track.

The GRE: A Versatile Path

  • Scope: Broad, suitable for various graduate programs.
  • Components: Emphasizes verbal reasoning, quantitative skills, analytical writing (including the Analytical Writing Assessment), and analytical reasoning (assessing ability to analyze and evaluate written material).
  • Format: Section-level adaptive, adjusting to your performance as you progress.

The GRE is actually a lot like the SAT – more so than any of the other exams required for graduate school admissions. Preparation will probably focus most on how to take the test and what to expect, as opposed to memorizing information.

Still, there are definitely some key areas that warrant studying, especially if you haven’t taken a math course in a few years or if you don’t already have a habit of using big, obscure words.

The GRE consists of three sections: Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, and Analytical Writing. The first two sections are multiple choice, and for the third, you will have to write an essay.

Verbal Reasoning

The lists of thousands of GRE words that you can find in books and online may seem overwhelming, but you don’t have to learn them all. This is because the vocabulary words will be tested based on multiple choice, so you can often use process of elimination to improve your chance of guessing the right answer, even if you’re not sure. Since many of the words are presented within a larger text, you can also use the context to figure out the meaning.

Quantitative Reasoning

Even if you did well in high school math, or even if you studied math in college, it is important to review the concepts that are tested on the GRE, including geometry and algebra. These questions are in “types,” and any good GRE review book will explain how to tackle each “type” of question. Once you’ve learned how to solve a “type” of quantitative reasoning problem, solving other ones just like it will be easier.

Analytical Writing

The good news? You don’t have to use “GRE words” when you write the essay. Your essay just has to make sense and use a clear, evidence-based argument.

What’s tough about this section is that you only have 30 minutes (one hour total) to write each of two essays. You can’t go back and edit or revise them later; it all has to happen within 30 minutes. This isn’t what writing is like in real life, so you probably don’t have much experience doing it. For this reason, it is essential to practice writing at least a couple of essays in this situation. The skill you are building is to spend a couple minutes of planning and then JUST WRITE.

You can register for the GRE on the Educational Testing Service (ETS) website. Avoid procrastinating on this because schools will need to receive your scores by a certain deadline, and ETS will require a processing time before sending them out.

(Written by Leo Brown)

There are two types of essays on the GRE: argument and issue. While daunting at first, argument essays tend to be the easier of the two because their prompts provide all of the information that you will need. Issue essays, on the other hand, require you to take a position on a question about life, education, or society — and to support your position with reasons and examples. The burden of this task not necessary grow lighter with practice or familiarity. For tips on how to come up with strong examples, read on.

For some people, brainstorming for examples comes naturally. The ability to connect an essay topic to the vast expanse of information that an average college-educated carries around in her memory is a kind of gift. Does that mean that test takers who do not possess this talent are simply stuck? Of course not. Lacking the ability to improvise on the issue essay simply means that you must develop and rehearse your supporting material in advance.

As soon as you read the issue essay question, you should start thinking of examples from a few different areas: history/current events, science/technology, literature, pop culture, and personal anecdotes. While it’s better to draw from multiple areas on each essay, some topics lend themselves particularly well to examples of a particular type. When brainstorming about examples during the test, be methodical. Consider each area individually and thoroughly, and ask yourself: Does this example fit? For instance, if a question asks you about the merits of innovation vis-à-vis tradition, you might begin by contemplating examples in history and current events. Competition between businesses or nations would be a fruitful theme to explore. You might then think about science — natural selection might offer insights and examples. Finally, consider pop culture, the evolution of art forms, music, fashion, and even sports. The key is to be methodical in examining each category and to be flexible in interpreting the theme that is up for debate.

Another way to jump-start your brainstorming is by identifying and developing go-to examples that you can plug into a variety of different essays. Ask yourself questions designed to jog your memory and prompt your creativity into action. For example: What are five books that have changed some facet of how you look at life? Name a few obstacles you’ve had to overcome, and what you learned from your struggles. What are the most important historic events that you have lived through? Who are the thinkers, scientists, historic figures, or artists you admire most and why? The answers to these questions should be personalized to you, and will require some thought to relay to your reader. The best answers that such thinking elicits can usually be applied to multiple essays.

For instance, in my own writing, I have frequently cited the example of the Cuban Missile Crisis to great effect. During the crisis, President Kennedy disregarded the conventional wisdom of his generals and his cabinet in pursuit of his ultimate goal: the avoidance of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Left to his own devices, Kennedy drew heavily in his decision-making from the diplomatic blunders and brinksmanship that precipitated the First World War, and he was particularly influenced by Barbara Tuchman’s “The Guns of August.” With this one example, I can touch on the themes of self-reliance vs. groupthink; and learning from the past vs. repeating its mistakes in a concrete and engaging narrative form.

For longer-term preparation, you can keep a journal to develop at least 15 such go-to examples. You don’t need to learn anything new. Just identify and elaborate on ideas already in your own head. Then practice selecting examples by working from essay prompts available on the GRE website.

(Written by Rich Carriero)

The GMAT: A Business-focused Gauge

  • Scope: Targeted towards MBA and management programs.
  • Components: Concentrates on analytical writing, integrated reasoning, quantitative analysis, and verbal skills.
  • Format: Question-level adaptive, demanding precise and accurate responses from the get-go.

What Is the GMAT?

The Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) is a marathon, four-hour exam that purports to measure critical reasoning, grammar, math, problem-solving, analytical writing, and reading comprehension skills. Most (but not all) MBA programs and other master’s-level business programs require applicants to submit GMAT scores.

Learn more about the GMAT

Strategic Choice Considerations:

  • Program Demands: MBA programs may favor the GMAT, while other graduate programs might lean towards the GRE.
  • Skill Alignment: Assess which exam plays to your academic strengths and preparation bandwidth.
  • Career Trajectory: For certain career paths, the GMAT might carry more weight with potential employers.

Does it really matter? What b-schools say

In October 2014, Kaplan released survey results indicating that 78 percent of MBA programs view the two tests as comparable. Students, however, are slow to stray from the GMAT; Kaplan reported that only one in 10 (or fewer) applicants opted for the GRE when applying to b-school.

ETS pitches the GRE to business schools as a way to attract a more varied pool of students. Christine Betaneli, the head of public relations at ETS, says that the two tests are generally held in the same regard by business schools. “At ETS, we know anecdotally that business schools find great value in accepting GRE scores, as it helps them attract a larger and more diverse applicant pool for their MBA programs,” Betaneli said.

“We’ve also gotten great feedback from business schools that say they are pleased to see the number of applicants with GRE scores rise with each admissions cycle,” Betaneli said. She added that some schools saw up to 30 percent of their applicants submitting a GRE score in lieu of the traditional GMAT.

The Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), the creator of the GMAT, has an established reputation that has become synonymous with the MBA. The test’s 60th anniversary took place in 2014, and business schools have had a long, reliable history with the exam. Moreover, many b-school applicants consider the GMAT to be a rite of passage on their path to attaining an MBA.

While 85 percent of MBA programs accepted GRE scores as an alternative to the GMAT in 2014 (an increase of 24 percent since 2009), it’s important to understand that some schools — such as UCLA’s Anderson School of Management — express a firm preference for the GMAT over the GRE. Others make clear that the trend is shifting toward a level playing field for both exams. To quote Harvard Business School’s website FAQ section: “We promise you, we are really neutral on the two tests, so please take one that works best for you.”

What’s better for you? Weighing your options

The GMAT is a test designed for business school, just as the LSAT is a test specifically for law school. If you know without a doubt that you have no interest in going to graduate school in any field other than business, then the GMAT may be a good bet for you. While the GRE is widely recognized, the GMAT is the only test that is universally accepted by all business schools.

Taking the GRE is a sensible option for students who are applying to a variety of programs, to dual-degree programs, or who are certain that their GRE scores will significantly top their GMAT scores. To learn more about how well each test aligns with your core strengths, read this article for a breakdown.

When deciding which test you should take, consider the following questions:

  • Which graduate programs do I plan to apply to?
  • Do the b-schools on my list have a preference for the GMAT or the GRE, or are they neutral?
  • Do I intend to apply to business and other graduate programs, or only MBA programs?
  • Which test better aligns with my skills?

While the number of MBA programs that actively accept both tests is quite high, applicants should consider each of the four factors above and make a balanced decision after weighing all of them.

(Written by Matthew Creegan)

Graduate School vs. Business School

Many business schools have come to accept the GRE in recent years and some graduate schools accept the GMAT. The programs to which you plan on applying is a powerful determinant of which test is best. If all of your schools accept one test but do not all accept the other, the choice is already made for you. If both are universally accepted, then you will want to choose the test that plays to your strengths.

The choice is more obvious for students who are applying to graduate school. Liberal arts majors will usually have an easier time with the GRE verbal section than the GMAT verbal.

The math section of the GRE is considerably easier for a number of reasons — namely, it doesn’t adapt by question, you can skip around, and you are allowed a calculator. Math and science majors regularly score close to perfect on the GRE math section for these reasons.

Finally, the GRE is the test most graduate school admissions personnel are familiar with, and so, all things being equal, you’re better off applying with a strong GRE score.

Business school applicants face a tougher decision. B-schools are long accustomed to GMAT scores, and if you believe you can score equally well on either test, the GMAT is probably the better option. You should only opt for the GRE over the GMAT if you’re able to score markedly higher on the GRE. Since the GMAT is harder, there are a number of students for whom this happens to be true.

International Students

Many international applicants to business school opt for the GMAT for a few reasons. Most importantly, the GMAT doesn’t test vocabulary. The esoteric and frequently arcane words which appear on text completion and sentence equivalence questions can be a nightmare for the ESL crowd.

Secondly, sentence correction questions test rules of grammar and written English that international students have had to learn more recently, and in greater detail, than native speakers. Reading comprehension also makes up a smaller fraction of GMAT verbal than it does of GRE verbal, and this can be the hardest section for students whose command of English isn’t the best.

Finally, many foreign-born students are accustomed to more rigorous math programs than are American students and thus are less likely to be dissuaded from taking the GMAT by a harder quantitative section.

Weaker Math Students

The main reason some students struggle to reach a competitive score on the GMAT, but are able to do so on the GRE, is that the GMAT quantitative section is more difficult. Beyond the format differences mentioned earlier, the GMAT tends to have more involved questions which frequently result in unfriendly decimal and radical answers. Frankly: it’s meaner.

Also, data sufficiency has a way of haunting frustrated students in a way that quantitative comparison questions don’t. It’s the number one math-oriented complaint of new GMAT students that I hear.

Parting Advice

The decision of which test to take should not be made lightly.

Do your research. Look at the 25th and 75th percentile scores, for both tests, of accepted applicants to the schools to which you plan on applying. Take a free test to see where you are: ETS’s Power Prep II software for the GRE, and GMAC’s GMAT Prep software are both available to download for free.

Carefully consider how your strengths and weaknesses mesh with the preferences of your preferred programs. Above all, whichever test you decide to prepare for, commit to your success on that test by studying as far in advance of the deadline as you are able.

(Written by Rich Carriero)

GMAT Preparation: Your Tactical Playbook

Preparing for the GMAT requires a strategic and methodical approach. Begin by taking a diagnostic test to establish your baseline performance and identify strengths and areas needing improvement. Then, develop a personalized study plan dedicating time to review fundamental concepts and advance to more challenging practice questions. Consistent practice, combined with in-depth reviews of correct and incorrect answers, will deepen your understanding of the test’s intricacies. Regularly scheduled full-length practice exams are essential for building endurance and refining your timing and test management strategies. Embrace official GMAT tools, like the whiteboard for calculations, to enhance problem-solving efficiency. Additionally, participating in study groups can provide moral support and diversify your study methods. Throughout your preparation, maintain focus on learning and understanding over simply accruing practice test scores, and ensure balanced study time across all sections. In the final run-up to the test day, shift your efforts to consolidating your knowledge while allowing sufficient time for rest and mental preparation, setting you up for the best chance of success.

Assess and Strategize:

  • Initial Evaluation: Take a GMAT practice test to establish a baseline. Identify strengths and weaknesses.
  • Study Timeline: Develop a structured study plan with daily and weekly goals for gradual improvement.

Foundational Prep:

  • Conceptual Review: Review fundamental quantitative concepts and essential verbal skills using official GMAT guides or reputable test prep resources.
  • Skill-Building: Engage in targeted practice to fortify weaker areas, utilizing reputable GMAT prep materials.

Advanced Techniques:

  • Practice and Review: Allocate regular sessions for practice questions, followed by in-depth reviews to analyze each answer choice and understand the reasoning behind correct answers.
  • Simulated Exams: Commit to taking full-length, timed practice exams to hone test-taking strategies and time management.

Adaptive Learning:

  • Iterative Approach: Adapt your study plan based on performance in practice sessions and mock exams, focusing on enhancing precision and speed.
  • Error Analysis: Keep a detailed error log to track mistakes and understand underlying patterns.

Test-Day Readiness:

  • Endurance Training: Gradually increase study session length to build mental stamina for the 3.5-hour exam.
  • Stress Management: Incorporate stress-reduction techniques into your routine for optimal calmness and focus on test day.

Final Review:

  • Consolidation: In the last weeks before the exam, shift focus to consolidating knowledge and refining test-taking techniques.
  • Rest and Reset: Give yourself ample rest before the exam. Approach it with confidence, knowing you’ve prepared systematically.

Specific GMAT Readiness Content

Our resident editor Tom Meltzer began his career in education publishing at The Princeton Review, where he authored more than a dozen titles (including the company’s annual best colleges guide and two AP test prep manuals) and produced the musical podcast The Princeton Review Vocab Minute. He’s authored a few articles overing specific GMAT test prep topics.

Here’s the Trick to Answering GMAT Data Sufficiency Questions: Of all the GMAT question types, data sufficiency is the most unique and most confusing. Here’s how to solve these perplexing GMAT math questions.

GMAT Verbal Prep: Spotting the Most Common Sentence Correction Errors: You don’t need to be the Grammar Girl to ace the sentence correction questions on the GMAT. You just need to know how to identify the most common errors. Our expert shows you how.

GMAT Math Prep: Every Math Skill You Need to Know: Everything you need to know you learned in eighth grade—at least as far as the GMAT quantitative reasoning exam is concerned. Here’s why the GMAT math section tests middle school concepts, and how something so simple can be challenging.

Answer a Lot of Practice Questions

From our experience, the more questions a student answers, the higher they scores on the actual test. A student who answers more than 1,000 questions will have a greater score increase than a student who only answers 500 practice questions. Further, a student who answers 2,000 questions will improve more than the student who answers only 1,000 questions.

But it’s not just about numbers. That’s only the beginning.

Spend More Time Analyzing Answers

Not only do you need breadth—answering a lot of questions—but you also need depth. Take the time to dig into explanations and solutions.

As our GMAT expert, Mike, likes to say: “The mark of an excellent student is never making the same mistake twice.” The best students spend more time in solutions and explanations than actually answering the questions. They verify that they answered a question correctly and for the right reasons. They take the time to see why they missed a question, and they keep track of these errors as they practice by keeping an error log.

Don’t Write in Your Books

Along the lines of the first guideline, plan on answering questions more than once during your studies. Attempting the same questions more than once is a great way to gauge your progress and reinforce your skills. Repetition is an important part of learning, so make a point of leaving the questions clean and unmarked when solving so you can return to them.

Also this will help you to develop your note taking ability. You won’t be able to mark up the test when you take it, so it’s a good habit to start now—copy down the important information and solve.

Take Practice Tests

Mock tests are the key to any successful GMAT attempt! Make sure to take as many as you can. Create an environment that mirrors the testing environment as much as possible. Get away from distractions. Use a strange and foreign computer. You need to practice your pacing strategies and build stamina for the test and the only way to do this is with practice.

Use a Whiteboard for Solving Questions

Practice taking notes and solving problems on a whiteboard with dry erase markers. You won’t have paper and pencil on test day, so it’s better to practice on something that is more like what you will have on the test. Again, we are trying to get comfortable with the testing environment ahead of time so there are no surprises on test day.

Love the Test

I can’t emphasize this point enough. Students who can embrace the test as a puzzle to be solved have a better chance at taming the test. Students who hate it will never reach their full potential. You need to approach the test with curiosity and interest in order to break into the highest percentile scores. Only by loving the test will you be confident and relaxed enough to reach the 90th percentile.

Study Wisely

Study sessions should be filled with short breaks. Studying in 45 to 60 minute blocks with five to 10 minute breaks in between will make study sessions more efficient and effective. Putting in 8-hour power sessions will not help and won’t facilitate learning.

Your mind needs time to rest and to incorporate new knowledge into long term memory. To do this, you have to take breaks and return to concepts after you‘ve seen them.

Don’t Focus on Estimated Scores

Study and make progress without obsessing about your score on a prior practice test—regardless of whether the results were good or bad. These are predicted, estimated scores, and ultimately, are flawed. Remember that none of them are the actual test, with actual test questions, and the actual scoring algorithm.

Attaching a lot of significance to these scores will distract you from your main purpose: preparing for the test.

Study with Others

If you can form a study group with others, you will find it easier to study on a regular basis, and you will be surrounded by people all going through the same experience.

Check Meetup for study groups in your area. Or start your own meetup. Also, head to Facebook and join a GMAT group. Reach out to people and see if they will Skype with you once a week so that you can check in on each other and ask questions.

Know Your Strengths and Weaknesses

With limited time, you need to know what to study and how to improve. If you find the verbal questions difficult, you need to be reading reputable, academic-like material every day. If you find the math more difficult, you need to work on your number sense by doing more mental math.

(Written by Kevin Rocci)

Execution and Beyond

When test day arrives, trust in your preparation. Approach each question methodically, and manage your time judiciously. Remember, you’ve trained for this.

After the test, regardless of the outcome, view each GMAT attempt as a learning experience that brings you closer to your graduate school goals.

MBA Programs Which Don’t Require GMAT Scores

Believe it or not, there are MBA programs which don’t require GMAT scores for admissions. Executive MBA Online Programs Which Don’t Require GMATs presents a list of executive MBA programs which aren’t requiring GMAT scores, and Online MBA Programs That Don’t Require the GMAT highlights online MBA programs which have eschewed requirements for taking the test.

Wrapping Up

Choosing between the GRE and GMAT and preparing for these exams can be demanding, but with a clear understanding of both, and a dedicated approach to GMAT prep, you’re setting a solid foundation for success in your graduate school applications. Additionally, research and understand the specific admission requirements of the graduate programs you’re interested in, as some may have preferences or requirements beyond the GRE or GMAT scores.

Good luck, and may your preparation pave the way to the graduate program that will shape your future.

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