The GRE vs. the GMAT: Which is right for me?

We reveal the differences so you can decide which test is right for you

By Miriam Holt  of Parliament Tutors

Writing a personal essay and getting letters of recommendation is just the beginning when it comes to applying for graduate school. You also need to determine if you should take the GRE or the GMAT. Then of course comes the task of preparing for the exam, and oh yeah, scoring competitively.
When it comes to deciding if you should take the GRE or the GMAT, there are several factors to take into consideration.

1. Admissions Requirements

Some programs accept only the GRE and some accept only the GMAT. Check with a representative of each program to which you're applying to see if one is required or if you have a choice. While you're at it, find out if your target program has a minimum score requirement, and if not, ask how much weight the admissions department gives to test scores.

2. Location

Is there a GMAT or GRE testing center near you? It’s important to be familiar with where you will be taking the test so that you can arrive promptly on test day.

3. Cost

The GMAT costs $250, and the GRE costs $140. While this isn’t a substantial difference, the dollars do add up because the application  process  can be expensive with the fees for ordering transcripts and applications.

4. Timing

Check the testing websites. If you're trying to work within a tight schedule, the dates when each test is administered might determine your decision.

Now what?

Now, suppose you've got plenty of time, you have the necessary cash, there are both GRE and GMAT testing centers near you, and your target programs accept either test. Then which one should you choose? 
At this point, your decision becomes more interesting, because it turns on the content of the tests and on your unique strengths. The tests aren't vastly different--both require strong analytical reading and writing skills, both have tricky math questions, and both will tax you to the point of mental exhaustion--but some people find it easier to prepare for one test and some for the other. Which one are you?

Let's talk writing section

Both the GMAT and the GRE require you to write two timed essays and to answer questions based on reading passages, but they differ in the way they test basic language skills: the GMAT tests grammar and the GRE tests vocabulary. The GMAT tends to present the same ten grammatical errors to students again and again, and it's not difficult for most graduate school applicants to learn to identify those errors. The GRE, on the other hand, presents dozens of challenging vocabulary words on each test. 
Although the analogies and antonyms sections are things of the past, the sentence completion questions are now more difficult than they were before the revision in August of 2011. Now, instead of choosing one of five pairs of words for each sentence completion question, testers must choose three words, each from its own pool of choices, just to complete one question. If any of those three choices is wrong, the entire question is marked as wrong. If you already have a vast vocabulary, or if you love learning new words and can do so at a good clip, you might excel on this section of the GRE which many others find so difficult. A high verbal score on the GRE could distinguish you in the eyes of your target programs.
All about the math
Both tests have math sections which ask you to demonstrate your knowledge of arithmetic, logic, algebra, and geometry, but they differ in two primary ways. 
1. GMAT includes quantitative comparison questions, whose specific format some students don't mind, but others dread. ,
2. The GRE provides you with a calculator, while the GMAT does not permit you to use one. If you're not confident doing calculations without a calculator, you might prefer the GRE, but keep in mind that because the GMAT prohibits calculators, their questions are designed to be doable with pencil and paper alone. 
Yes, the math questions are difficult, but they're not tedious, as a question might be if a calculator is required. Many of them have shortcuts. Look over some practice GRE math questions (available for free at the ETS website) and some GMAT math questions (free with registration at You might find yourself more mentally engaged while doing one set or another, and that engagement will make a difference as you prepare for the test.
The usual wisdom you might hear is that math people should take the GMAT and verbal people should take the GRE, but there's more to it than that. It's not so important what you already know as it is what you're able to learn between now and the time you take your test. Today you might be rusty at algebra and geometry, and more confident with your writing skills, but with some focused study and a good teacher or tutor, your math skills might come flooding back. Or perhaps you identify as a math person, but you hate so much the feeling of being rushed while trying to interpret and solve an obtusely-worded quantitative comparison question that you'd rather devote yourself to memorizing definitions than risk choking on the test. 

Final thoughts

Whichever one you choose, the best thing you can do for yourself is allow plenty of time to study the test, learn what to expect, and practice answering test questions under pressure. Aside from helping you raise your score and distinguish yourself in the eyes of the school you want to attend, all that focused preparation will be excellent practice for the rigors of graduate school.
Miriam Holt is an academic advisor with Parliament Tutors, a New York-based tutoring service. Miriam offers one-on-one GMAT and GRE tutoring. 


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