To GMAT or GRE? That is the Question.

Over the past several years, there has been a subtle migration away from GMAT exclusivity among the top b-schools-but why?

One reason may be, that there has been overall downward trend in application volume. When the economy is up, people tend to stay employed and make a paycheck.  This drop in number of applications has put a dent on revenues for schools as well as in the overall quality of the application pool. It makes sense: fewer applicants generally will mean fewer top applicants (not always true, but in this case, the percentage of good, better and best applicants seems to hold pretty constant no matter how many applicants there are in total). Neither result is attractive to these top schools. 

One way to combat the drop in application volume is to try and reach outside the normal circles for folks who might think of applying to b-school who perhaps would not have in the past. Accepting the GRE instead of the GMAT is one way top schools have broadened their search.

Because the GRE is widely considered a more “accessible” test for the general graduate school population, it has never in the past been given serious consideration by the b-schools, who are in agreement that the GMAT is a better indicator of b-school success. Granted, the GRE does not have a large enough statistical base to test its predictability for b-school success yet, but old traditions die hard.

 Enter Harvard, Stanford and Wharton, the first and last bastion of high quality business school reputations. What they say goes, and what they said pretty early on was, GRE is OK with them.

Certainly if you are Harvard, Stanford or Wharton, your reputation will not be dampened using any test for admission (even “guess how many fingers I am holding up behind my back?”)—point is, no matter what these super elite schools do, their rankings will likely not suffer. So, they started accepting GRE scores in lieu of GMATs. This did indeed give them a broader look at those interested in graduate school and has enticed more students to choose b-school as their graduate education path. As could probably have been predicted, so goes H/S/W, so goes the rest of the b-school world, and sure enough, over the past several years, more and more schools have been quietly accepting GRE scores.

So which test should you use as part of your application package? If your target school accepts the GRE, should you use that instead of the (some argue more difficult) GMAT? This is indeed the question.

In some respects, the GRE is a tempting alternative. For starters, it’s about $100 cheaper to take the test, which for some post-college, recession damaged applicants, is real money. Additionally, the test is not quite as rigorous on the quantitative side, making it for some, a less punishing preparation process. There is also the argument that it could help you stand out in the crowd, since with fewer applicants submitting GRE scores, you force yourself out of the general application pool and into a category which will require the admissions committee to consider you separately from the crowd. Is this true? The Admissions Director I spoke with said it makes no difference whether someone submits the GMAT or the GRE, but I argued that simply due to the new nature of the discussion, there will naturally be more attention drawn to applicants with GREs. This could be simply a psychological phenomenon, and of course the risk is that the lack of reliable data out there with which to compare scores, could put applicants in a no-man’s land without any real evidence of aptitude. At least with the GMAT, the scores are very well established and everyone knows what a 550 means vs. a 650 or 750. As more GRE scores show up in admissions committee evaluations, we will begin to establish some better standards for exactly what a good score is as compared to the GMAT, but as for now, it’s really anybody’s guess what that score should be.

The other challenge for b-schools who are now accepting the GRE is what to do with the scores when the time comes to tally statistics for rankings.

The GMAC as well as the BW and US News rankings boards have indicated that schools need only list whether or not they accept the GRE, and are presently not required to report their average scores (which in the case of some schools, could be the average of as few as one or two applicants’ scores). Again, as more data comes online, we may start seeing a dual category, with schools listing both their GMAT average and their GRE average. I wouldn’t bet on this, however. The same b-school traditions and history which established the GMAT in the first place will be hard to sway in another direction. The computer adaptability of the GMAT test and other technological advances it has made vs. the GRE is keeping it in a position of superiority for now. 

In the final analysis, it is now safe to say that if the GMAT is kicking your tail, you might at least try your hand at the GRE, just to see if perhaps the test better meets with your abilities.

If your target schools accepts the GRE for admission, and your score on the GRE is impressive who knows? You might just be able to “slip in through the back door” while other applicants who are relying on mediocre GMAT scores get lost in the proverbial shuffle. 

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