MBA admission committees evaluate all applicants with both qualitative and quantitative criteria. The qualitative factors refer mainly to non-standardized components of your application, such as your work experience, essays and extracurricular activities.
The quantitative factors address standardized measurements of your performance, such as your GPA, GMAT or GRE, and TOEFL scores (if applicable). The numbers that you report allow the admissions committee to compare you directly with the applicant pool. These numbers are often considered decent predictors of your first-year performance at business school. However, note that there can be some qualitative wiggle room here as well. For instance, the GPA of an Engineering major is generally not comparable to that of an English major.
The GMAT and GRE tend to be the most 'standard' criterion by which admissions committees compare candidates. But the question is, which test should you take?
Why the GRE?
There are two main reasons why the GRE presents itself as a strong alternative to the GMAT. The most important argument made by ETS, the administrators of the GRE, is that accepting GRE scores allows unsure candidates from diverse backgrounds to apply to business school.
While the GMAT has certainly enjoyed a monopoly for MBA admissions, the GRE is widely used as an admission criterion for the majority of other graduate programs. If you're debating between an advanced degree in Computer Science or an MBA, then having to take just one test makes it a lot easier for you to apply to both programs. The prospect of taking two tests may discourage students with non-traditional backgrounds (such as environmental engineers or someone with a degree in pharmaceuticals) from applying to business school. Thus, ETS claims the GRE is a great test for business schools to accept because the test invites more diversity, one of the key elements of a successful MBA program.
A second reason why you should consider taking the GRE instead of the GMAT is that it is administered at far more locations that the GMAT, usually at all the venues that also provide TOEFL testing. While this is not such a big deal in the US, it is a huge plus for international students, since some students might have to travel extremely long distances to reach a GMAT testing facility.
If you are unsure about the type of the degree you'd like to pursue or if a GMAT center is simply too far away for you, then taking the GRE instead of the GMAT is definitely a plan worth considering. But, if you already have your mind set on business school specifically, I would advise you to take the GMAT, even if your program of choice also accepts GRE scores. This is because there is currently little data correlating GRE scores with business school success (unlike the GMAT, whose makers have produced lots of research substantiating a correlation), so admissions officers might be more reserved when dealing with an applicant with GRE scores. Despite this, before you make a decision, you should be properly informed about the similarities and differences between the two tests.
Some Things Never Change
There are a few common elements between the two tests. The essay writing section is largely similar for both tests. This section requires you to write two essays, an analysis of an argument and an analysis of an issue. Both essays have an allotted time of 30 minutes on the GMAT, but you get 45 minutes for your issue essay on the GRE (also on the GRE, you have the choice to write one of two topics presented). One key similarity between the GRE and GMAT: how well you fare on the writing section does not affect your other scores (for the quantitative and the verbal parts). These quant and verbal scores are the ones that admissions committees really care about, so you shouldn't focus on over-preparing for the writing section.
A second similarity between the two tests is in the verbal section: you will see Reading Comprehension questions in both the GRE and the GMAT. Actually, Reading Comprehension is the only question type that you will see in every major standardized test and the reason for this is pretty obvious: no matter what degree you are aiming for, you will undoubtedly be required to comb through dense written passages throughout your studies.
The final common element between the two tests is the multiple-choice quant question or Problem Solving. Besides the format, these problems also test largely the same concepts, mainly high school math.
The list of differences between the GMAT and the GRE is fairly long, which is why making a choice between the two requires considerable thought. The most striking difference is the length of the two main sections: the GMAT gives you 75 minutes per section (with 37 questions in quant and 41 in verbal), while you only get 30 minutes for the verbal section (with 30 questions) and 45 minutes for the quant section (with 28 questions) on the GRE. This is why the GRE is generally considered to be more intense and fast-paced as compared to the GMAT. Since timing is essential in getting a good score in both tests, you should probably opt for the GMAT if you like taking your time with questions (not too much, though!).
The quantitative portion of the two tests is also quite different. While both will present you with Problem Solving questions for the most part, the remainder of each test features distinct questions types. The GMAT will have Data Sufficiency questions, where you'll be asked to evaluate whether two pieces of information are enough to answer a given question. The GRE, on the other hand, contains Quantitative Comparison questions, which require you to compare two quantities in two different columns.
However, note that the style of the questions is probably not as important as the fact that the GMAT is considerably trickier when it comes to math. The underlying concepts for the two quant sections are similar, but the problems in the GRE tend to be a lot less wordy and complex as compared to what you'll see on the GMAT. This is definitely an important issue, because you should pick the test that best fits your current ability.
This last observation is also valid when considering the verbal sections of each test. Here, the only similarity is Reading Comprehension. Besides this common feature, the GRE mainly tests vocabulary (with Antonyms, Analogies and Sentence Completion questions), while the GMAT will focus on grammar (Sentence Correction questions) and logic (Critical Reasoning problems). The vast differences between the question types and the skills tested should not be neglected when you make your choice. If you are strong in vocabulary but weak in logic, then you should go for the GRE. However, if you're a non-native speaker, then it will probably be easier for you to brush up on English grammar for the GMAT than to learn thousands of words for the GRE.
Finally, note that the scoring scales are different for the two tests. Each part of the GMAT is graded on a 1 to 60 scale, with a combined, total score of up to 800. The GRE awards scores between 200 and 800 for both sections, without any general score.
As a test taker who has had considerable exposure to both tests, my honest opinion is that the GRE is markedly less balanced that the GMAT. The latter tends to be more challenging in quant, but less so when it comes to verbal. The GRE, on the other hand, has relatively easy quant questions, but will require months on end of vocabulary exercises (unless you're a former Spelling Bee champ). The GMAT also tests softer skills, so to speak, because understanding an argument in Critical Reasoning or dealing with Data Sufficiency questions is less about memorization and more about constant exposure to the question type.
In the end, deciding between the GMAT or the GRE is a matter of personal preference and skill. Your goal is to maximize your potential scores, so you should carefully weigh in your strong points and choose the test that fits you best.
About the Author:
Dana is a finance student and a moderator for the Beat The GMAT - GMAT & MBA Community, one of the world's largest online resources for GMAT prep and MBA admissions advice.