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Switching from the GMAT to the GRE: Cautionary Tales

I cannot count the number of times I've been asked by MBA candidates (and even folks considering the LSAT for law school admissions) who have for whatever reason been turned off by the GMAT - shouldn't I just take the GRE? After all, in every corner of the internet it seems that the GRE is championed as the easier exam - and why wouldn't it be?

  • The math is "easier"
  • The quantitative section provides an interface calculator
  • None of those weird GMAT "Data Sufficiency" problems
  • You can skip questions and return to them within the sections
  • And now - the GRE is even shorter at under two hours of testing time

These are the facts. However, that doesn't mean that the GRE is the better exam for any individual test taker, and unfortunately, I've had a number of students who ended up regretting their midstream switches from the GMAT to the supposedly "easier" GRE.

Bert - From Solid GMAT to Subpar GRE

At the start of 2023, I was contacted by a high school classmate of a student that I had helped achieve a 700+ GMAT score back during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Bert (name changed for privacy) was a very promising MBA candidate having graduated from a U.S. service academy, who was looking to move out of active duty following his time as an active officer. We began a relatively standard GMAT journey, and after working for a period of a few months he was able to achieve a mid-600 overall score, not quite to the levels he was seeking (partly to try and best his referring friend!) but a very solid improvement of approximately 150 points from his first diagnostic exam. 

After a summer break for some personal activities, Bert reached back out in July to continue his GMAT journey in pursuit of that elusive 700 mark. After a couple of sessions, he indicated that a couple of other people aware of his MBA application had recommended that he consider switching to the GRE. By this point, ETS, the administrators of the GRE General Test, had announced the exam would be undergoing a significant change that September, shifting from a three-and-a-half-hour exam with five multiple choice sections of at least 30 minutes each and two essays to an under two-hour exam of four multiple choice sections averaging 22 minutes each and only one essay. At that time, very little information was available regarding this new "Short-Form" GRE, so I counseled Bert that if he wanted to pivot from the GMAT to this other exam, he should do so before the changes were to be implemented in late September 2023.

We ramped up GRE study quickly, but Bert found that although the math was maybe a bit "easier" and that there was a calculator on this test, the faster pace of the quantitative section didn't necessarily lead to an improved score. He also found that the score curve for the GRE was more pronounced than that of the GMAT, so fewer missed questions could actually lead to a lower result. We did our best to cram for the GRE in about a month and he ultimately came away with above the 50th percentile in both sections. However, using available GRE to GMAT score conversion tools revealed that 50th-plus percentile GRE score to be approximately a 560 on the classic version of the GMAT, or a 525 on the new GMAT Focus, and well below the 640 he'd achieved on the actual GMAT only a few months prior. Ultimately, while the GRE may have been potentially easier, its smaller margin for error resulted in a comparatively lower overall score.

Alan - Trading "Tougher" Math for Vocabulary

That same summer of 2023, another MBA candidate with tech industry experience and a strong STEM academic background, let's call him Alan (name changed again for privacy), was referred to MyGuru by a former GRE student who had recently been admitted to Harvard's 2 + 2 deferred MBA program. That former student was pleased with the improvement he made on the GRE as part of his application and recommended MyGuru to Alan as a way to improve the standardized testing portion of his MBA application as well.

In our free consultation, Alan shared a lamentably lengthy tale of attempting the GMAT several times in 2021 and 2022 and stalling out in the mid-600s short of his target score of 700+. After hearing about his experiences and more importantly his academic background in engineering, I counseled that the upcoming changes to the GMAT Focus Edition and Short Form GRE that fall combined with his strong foundation in arithmetic and algebra led me to believe that the shorter path to completing his testing journey still lay with the GMAT. However, after a single GMAT session, he decided it was time to pivot to the GRE.

In a classroom of one, we at MyGuru will always accede to the requests of our students, so we happily turned left to the GRE path. Almost immediately though, we ran into that number one scourge of GRE prep - vocabulary. Never a strength for the more mathematically inclined Alan, vocabulary would need to become a major new focus for him requiring daily rigor. This proved difficult for Alan to manage with the demands of an exacting (GRE vocab word alert!) tech job. He put in as much work studying vocabulary as he reasonably could, but struggled to retain the words he learned over time.

Simultaneously, Alan learned that while it may not seem like that big of a deal, the shorter time allotted per question in both the verbal and quantitative section led to other challenges. The minute and a half pacing of the verbal section led him to cut corners and read less deliberately, while having to speed up about 15 seconds on average for each quantitative question led to more unforced errors even though the math itself was probably of a more remedial nature on the GRE.

After a few starts and stops along the way, this winter, Alan decided to pivot to the new GMAT Focus. His diagnostic exam for the updated version of the GMAT showed that he performed much better on a verbal section that allowed a little bit more time per question and didn't prioritize vocabulary. Furthermore, although his quantitative score was lower, he recognized that it wasn't due to being unfamiliar with the concepts, but rather that he needed to clean up his problem-solving processes to help him be flexible in approach. Alan acknowledged that the changes to the GMAT Focus, as has been the case for just about every student we've worked with so far, really validate the MyGuru belief that the GMAT Focus is a test of problem solving and logic that uses the languages of math and English. By comparison, the GRE is more a test of obscure math and English that actually takes more time to study for effectively.

CHoosing the Right MBA Admissions Exam

Every student is different. Recently, I counseled someone to consider pivoting from the GMAT Focus to the GRE, but that was after reviewing past practice exam results as well as her personal quantitative and verbal proficiencies. Ultimately, I wish every student answered several questions before making a rash, unilateral decision on which test to take:

  • Where are you in your test prep journey?

Don't believe the sunk cost fallacy. If something isn't working, you may want to change your approach. However, you should first determine how close you are to your goals. If all you need for your target programs is a 50th percentile result, it is likely easier to achieve that on the GRE than the GMAT.

If you're just beginning your study however, I am going to advocate pretty adamantly for the GMAT Focus. The reason is simple, if you study for the GMAT Focus the logic, arithmetic, argumentation, data analysis, and reading skills that you develop will be beneficial long after test day. The arcane vocabulary and geometry required by the GRE will not be nearly as useful at any MBA program or executive boardroom after graduation. 

  • What are your score goals?

If you need a top decile result, the margin for error on the Short-Form GRE is so small that two missed questions on the quantitative section will drop you out of the top ten percent of all scorers, making the GMAT Focus a better option for most MBA applicants targeting the most selective programs. That said, if your score goals aren't at the tip top of the curve and you are markedly better at the verbal section than the quantitative, the GRE could be better for you personally.

  • What are your academic strengths?

The internet is right about one thing, the GRE verbal section tends to be harder than the GMAT Focus one, while the GMAT does require much better manual calculation skills because it lacks a calculator for its quantitative section. A history major who hasn't taken a math course in ten years should probably consider the GRE, while a non-native English speaker with an engineering degree is more likely to benefit from taking the GMAT.

Ultimately, the best way to learn which test is best for you will be to take a diagnostic of both exams from for the GMAT Focus and from for the GRE. And of course, please contact us at MyGuru for a free consultation to discuss how to turn the standardized testing obligation into an application opportunity!