GMAT vs. GRE: Which is Better for Business School Admissions?
Maria |
February 28, 2023

In a hurry?

Taking the GRE instead of the GMAT may substantially improve your chances of getting accepted to an MBA program

  • Since weaker GRE scores are more easily “forgiven” in MBA admissions, I’ve been recommending taking the GRE instead of a GMAT as a sort of “standardized testing hack” for the past several years
    • The increase in the percentage of applicants submitting GRE scores (from around 10% to about 25% of the accepted student pool!), tied with the decrease in number of GMAT tests taken, shows that the word has gotten out about this, ha ha! 
  • You should ONLY consider the GMAT if you are aiming to get a MERIT SCHOLARSHIP to business school, or if you are applying to one of the few schools that does not accept the GRE, such as INSEAD
    • This is because schools will often “buy” high GMAT scores (for the rankings) by offering high GMAT scorers merit scholarship money
    • Of course, this means that you are confident that you will score significantly (say, 30 – 50+ points) above a school’s average
    • So if getting a merit scholarship is important to you, AND if you historically score well on standardized tests, then look to the GMAT
  • If, however, getting accepted to the best business school possible is what matters more to you, take the GRE!

Table of contents:

Reasons you might worry about taking the GMAT

There are many good reasons you might (rightfully!) hesitate to take the GMAT! Here are some of the most common reasons:

  • You don’t have a lot of time to study
  • You’re planning on taking the test close to the application deadline – so close in fact, that you won’t have time for a re-take, should things not go your way
  • You aren’t super-confident in your quant skills
    • Perhaps you didn’t take any advanced math (e.g. calculus) in college
    • Or perhaps you did, but the specific flavor of quant questions asked on the GMAT just gets you tangled in knots
  • Standardized tests in particular just haven’t been your thing in the past
    • For example, if you grew up in the U.S., did you score in, say, the 90th –  95th percentile or above on the SAT / ACT in high school ?  If your standardized test performance in high school wasn’t a true reflection of your academic capabilities, then there’s a chance this pattern will still continue, all these years later (sorry!)
  • The GMAT score is judged MORE HARSHLY than the GRE score (this is what I’m about to spend a lot of the rest of this post explaining)

GRE vs. GMAT for business school acceptance: quantifiable data / proof

Let’s look at candidates who were accepted to at and then later enrolled at top MBA programs.

If you applied using a GMAT score, then on average you had to perform at a much higher level on the test, compared to your peers, versus if you applied using a GRE score. Behold (click here if you’re on a phone and the chart below isn’t re-sizing):

In other words…

The average student enrolling at Stanford GSB

who applied with a GMAT score in their application

was in the top 3% of the GMAT test-taking pool.

However, candidates to that MBA program submitting a GRE score

only had to be in the top 15% of all GRE test takers!

(To be clear, I’m not saying that being in the top 15% of all GRE test takers is “easy” per se, but it’s certainly EASIER than being in the top 3% of all GMAT test takers! ESPECIALLY considering how much stronger GMAT test-takers are than GRE test-takers… more on that below).

Put more bluntly: lower relative performance on the GRE seems to be more easily “forgiven” in admissions than lower GMAT performance.

It’s “easier” for the typical business school applicant to score in a higher percentile on the GRE


Since the GRE is taken by applicants to all sorts of graduate programs, not just business,

but also “softer” topics like literature, sociology, education, psychology, the arts, etc…

… it’s usually easier to score in slightly higher X% of GRE test-takers than it is for the GMAT,

which is pretty much ONLY taken by business school applicants (which tend to be a quanty bunch!)

In other words, sure, some of the other people in the GRE test-taker pool are hard-core quants (engineering; hard sciences; mathematics)… but there are also people who want to study 18th century Baroque Art, or inner-city education policy, or adolescent psychology. In other words, the GRE test-taking pool has lots of people in it that are not naturally strong at math.

I mean, think about it! When it comes to quant performance, who’s going to be harder to compete against? Someone who took multi-variable calculus, differential equations, and / or econometrics in college? Or someone who hasn’t touched a math class since the 11th grade? Even though standardized tests do not ask questions ABOUT advanced math topics, simply taking a challenging math class would help someone feel more COMFORTABLE with the quantitative concepts that ARE tested!

I noted above that there seems to be more leniency / “forgiveness” for GRE scores that aren’t as sky-high vs. GMAT scores… but, why would that be?  Well, I’ve got a few theories:

The psychology of the GMAT score vs. the GRE score

  • Familiarity / “Admissions Intuition”:
    • The GMAT was *THE* primary test accepted by business schools for decades – everyone in the MBA “ecosystem”, from admissions officers to test-prep companies to admissions consultants to alumni to EMPLOYERS — has a good sense of what a “good” score is.Even if you’re pretty new to business school admissions, you’ve probably heard quick rules of thumb, like: “Well you need at least a 700 for the M7” or “Over-represented candidates should aim for at least a 740” (neither of which is strictly true, BTW!)
      • However, if I ask the same parties above: “Ok so… quick! What’s a ‘good’ GRE score?”…you’re more likely to get some hemming and hawing, or even a blank stare. “Hmm, let me look up what the GRE range was for that school….”
    • THE RANKINGS THEMSELVES only seemed to care about GMAT, emphasizing it over GRE for years.
      • Admittedly, this made sense in the past when the GRE was only used by a small percentage of applicants… but can you blame “the ecosystem” for not keeping
  • The scoring system itself: ten-point swings vs. one-point swings
    • If you’ve seen my blog post on “top 3 GMAT / GRE test taking tips”, you might have seen my “one weird tip” about the psychology of motivating yourself.
    • Continuing in that tradition, here is my take on the “psychology of numbers”
      • Ie, a 3-point change in a GRE score might be the same as a 40-point swing in the GMAT … but seeing that someone has a “160 vs a 162” somehow just doesn’t feel as “bad” as seeing that someone has a “680 vs. 730”. Take a look for yourself!

“But I’ve heard that the Verbal section on the GRE is more difficult? Shouldn’t I be worried about that?”

Yes, it probably is more difficult. And, just like how the broader variety of test-takers means that you’re more likely to score in a higher percentile on quant vs. on the GMAT… the inverse is also true: since a lot of humanities graduate school applicants are also taking the GRE, then it’s possible that you’ll land somewhere slightly lower on the verbal percentile.

In particular, the GRE apparently has very random, obscure vocabulary word questions, which even stump native English speakers!

But here is why I am less concerned about that:

  • The quantitative section of the test is the part that matters more, since, when people DO struggle with business school coursework, they tend to struggle with the analytical subjects more so than the “fluffy” subjects.
    • While I’m sure anything is possible, you’re far more likely to hear a rumor of someone flunking their finance mid-term vs. their human capital management midterm!
    • Given that, admissions committees are mostly worried about someone’s quantitative ability
    • The kinds of vocabulary words tested on the GRE aren’t relevant to the clear communication that success in the business world demands. Allow me to zealously assuage you, the equivocal verbiage tested is only for pedants, and would be an anomaly in “the real world”. (See what I mean? Who would want to work with someone who writes that way, with all of those “big words”? Yikes!)
    • If you’re not a native English speaker, there are SEVERAL OTHER ways to prove your command of the language, aside from the GRE test score:
      • If you attended a college / university that was taught in English, you might have strong grades from those courses
      • Specific English-language tests (such as the TOEFL or IELTS) can often be required in addition to the GMAT or GRE… and a strong score there will help counter a potentially lower score on the GRE
        • In fact, while most business schools do not have a minimum GMAT Verbal or GRE Verbal score to apply, some MBA programs DO have minimum TOEFL scores (or, well, “Strongly recommended” lower-floors… which you can interpret as a cut-off)
Sources cited (note that this information / these links may change from year to year, but again, my goal for providing the data was to get to something that was directionally correct):
is the GMAT or GRE better for getting in to a masters in business program
GMAT vs. GRE: Which is Better for Business School Admissions?
Maria |
February 28, 2023


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