GRE vs. GMAT, part III: the test-day experience

As threatened in my last blog post about the differences between the GRE and the GMAT, I recently retook the GRE exam for the first time in several years, and I want to report an incredibly boring observation:  GRE and GMAT testing rooms aren’t exactly fun places.  I think I looked like a less-bloody version of this guy by the time I walked out of the exam.

If you’re thinking about applying to an MBA program sometime soon, you probably already know that standardized tests are unpleasant, but you might be wondering whether the GRE is easier to beat than the GMAT.  The answer is… maybe.

For starters, I absolutely loved a few things about the new version of the GRE.  As I mentioned in an earlier GMAT blog post, the GRE is now section-level adaptive, not question-level adaptive.  That means that you can flag questions within any given section, and come back to them later. The GRE even includes a handy little review screen, so that you can see exactly which questions you’ve flagged or skipped.  That saved my ass at least once:  I whiffed on a quant question, and completely failed to fill in the bubble.  No harm done, though:  the review screen helped me catch the omission.  Thank you, GRE.

The other nice thing about the GRE is that the first half of the exam is relatively gentle:  the first quant section and the first verbal section contain the approximate GRE equivalent to 500-level GMAT questions.  So the GRE starts with two 30-minute essays, followed by one non-threatening quant section and one fairly straightforward verbal section.  Then you take a 10-minute break.  And that’s good, because if you’re like me, you’ll need to pig out after two hours of testing, even if those two hours aren’t particularly intense.

But after the break, things got rougher.

I had three sections remaining:  one quant, one verbal, and one experimental section, which turned out to be quant.  The good news is that the quant sections weren’t too awful, and I’d argue that the hardest GRE quant questions are much easier than the hardest GMAT quant questions.  GRE quant questions feel substantially more formulaic:  you’ll see plenty of fairly straightforward algebra, a hearty dose of relatively orthodox geometry questions, some nonthreatening data analysis, and only a light sprinkling of number properties, overlapping sets, and probability.

The GRE does seem to test statistics (standard deviation, median, mean, range, percentiles, etc.) more deeply than the GMAT, but that’s the only quant topic that seemed as difficult on the GRE as on the GMAT.  If you’re scoring in the mid-40s on the GMAT quant section, you probably won’t have a terribly hard time on the GRE, as long as you spend some extra time on statistics and avoid silly errors.

The second verbal section, on the other hand, kicked the crap out of me.

The 20 verbal questions were a roughly even mix of reading comprehension-type stuff (including some short, critical reasoning-style passages) and vocabulary-based questions.  Out of the first 10 questions, I skipped six, because the vocabulary in them made my eyes bleed.  I also struggled through the reading comprehension, despite the fact that I’d guzzled enough Red Bull to make my wings flap uncontrollably—the passages were ludicrously convoluted and not particularly interesting.

I was sweating right up until the last second of that section, and I had to look up eight vocabulary words after I finished the test.  Not fun.  I won’t pretend that the GMAT verbal section is much more enjoyable than its GRE counterpart, but there’s a special feeling of helplessness that sets in when you can’t decipher the vocabulary in a GRE text completion or sentence equivalence question.  It hurts.

Out of the 20 questions on that last verbal section, I was completely sure that 12 of my answers were correct, but all I could do was hope for the best on my eight educated guesses.  It worked out for me in the end (my score was a perfect 340), but I definitely got lucky on some of those vocabulary questions.

So now that I’ve had the chance to suffer through the new version of the GRE, let’s talk about whether you might actually gain an advantage by taking the GRE instead of the GMAT.

I would argue that the GRE is a better test for you under only two circumstances:

  1. You’re better at vocabulary than grammar.  I don’t know whether I’ve ever met anybody who fits this description.  Maybe a really well-read native English speaker who lacks the discipline to do well on sentence correction?
  2. You’re comfortable with statistics and algebra and geometry, but you struggle on the toughest GMAT-style questions.  It’s possible that a test-taker with moderately strong quant skills—and relatively little propensity to make dumb errors—would have a much easier time on the GRE.

If these two characteristics apply to you, then maybe the GRE is worth a look.  After all, almost every major MBA program now accepts the GRE.  And despite the challenges of my second verbal section, I’m convinced that the GRE offers a less excruciating test-taking experience than the GMAT.  But unless you’re an unusual test-taker, the bad news is that the GRE is very unlikely to offer you any particular advantage in MBA admissions.

Although this little corner of the internet is called “GMAT Ninja,” the author of this blog post also offers GRE tutoring services in Denver, Colorado and online via Skype. If you’re not sure which test to take, feel free to call or email to discuss your specific situation.

7 responses to “GRE vs. GMAT, part III: the test-day experience

  1. Pingback: GRE vs. GMAT, part II: test content and structure | GMAT Ninja

  2. Many top business schools either require the GMAT still or prefer the GMAT to the GRE, at least some Californian schools
    -UC Berkeley requires the GMAT for full-time
    -UC Davis prefers GMAT
    -UCLA prefers GMAT

  3. Yes, most of the UC programs aren’t too crazy about the GRE. In part I of the series, I specifically mentioned that Haas doesn’t accept the GRE for full-time applicants, and also explained that the GRE doesn’t have much of a track record in the MBA world yet. It isn’t a surprise that many–if not most–MBA programs prefer the GMAT, but it is theoretically possible to apply to the vast majority of top-tier MBA programs with just a GRE score. It might not be ideal, but it’s possible.

    Unless, of course, you’re interested in Haas or BYU. In that case, you’re out of luck with the GRE, unfortunately.

  4. Actually, Haas takes the GRE now for any of their programs. They closely look at your quantitative sections for a comparison. They pay heavy attention to the quantitative than the verbal portions of each test.

    • Charles Bibilos

      You’re absolutely correct, the Haas full-time MBA program has finally joined the GRE fun for the 2013-14 application season. Thank you for taking the time to let us know! May the GMAT and/or GRE gods grant you the score of your dreams.

  5. Hi,

    How many questions are approximately there in the GRE exam which have high quality verbal words which might be difficult to comprehend or which require by hearting difficult words? The approximate weightage


    • Charles Bibilos

      Thank you for the question, Aditya! The quick answer is that half of GRE verbal questions are vocabulary-based (either text completion or sentence equivalence), and half of the questions are critical reading (in GMAT terms, a mix of reading comprehension and critical reasoning).

      How much vocabulary do you need to memorize? That’s a much thornier question. If you really understand the logical approaches to text completion and sentence equivalence, you can sometimes answer questions correctly without knowing 100% of the vocabulary words, and some test-takers have a strong enough vocabulary to reach their target score without extra memorization. But if you need a particularly high GRE verbal score and your vocabulary is weak… then you probably won’t love the GRE verbal section, unfortunately.

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