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Is the GRE Easier Than the GMAT?

Stacey Koprince

Stacey Koprince - Manhattan Prep

Stacey Koprince is an mba.com Featured Contributor and the content and curriculum lead and an instructor for premier test prep provider Manhattan Prep.

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Ever since business schools began accepting the GRE as well as the GMAT, “Is GRE easier than GMAT?” has been popping up as one of the most common search terms. And I’m going to give you the definitive answer right now: Maybe! 

Actually, I’m going to give you a better question to ask: Which exam is easier for me to take?

GMAT vs. GRE math difficulty

First, let’s address whether the GRE really is objectively easier, especially on the quant section. Imagine that you create a math test for 10-year-old students. A few get almost everything right, some miss a few problems, some miss a decent number of problems, and a few do really poorly.

What will happen if you give that exact same test to 15-year-old students who are all in the top one-third of their math class in school?

The 15-year-old students are going to find the exam easy, so you’re going to have to grade these students on a curve. Only the top 10 percent can earn an A on the test. The next 30 percent will get a B. And so on. If 10 percent of the class answers everything correctly, someone could miss a single problem but get a B on the test!

If the exam is easier for everyone but it’s graded on a curve (which is how you can think of the percentile ranking we get with our GMAT or GRE scores), then there’s no advantage to you personally when taking that test.

In other words, even if the GRE really is objectively easier, that’s not useful because it will be easier for everyone. The better question to ask is whether one of the two exams is easier for you to take, based on your own strengths and weaknesses.

Preparing for an exam? Or preparing for business school?

Both the GMAT and the GRE test almost the exact same math content. In my experience, the GRE tends to have a bit more geometry than the GMAT, while the GMAT is a bit more likely to have counting or combinatorics problems. (I’m not a fan of those topics, so I notice.)

But I think the real difference is that the GRE tends to focus a bit more on textbook math, while the GMAT places more of an emphasis on what it calls Quantitative Reasoning, or your ability to think logically about quant topics. This is why I personally think GRE quant is objectively somewhat easier—because you’re more likely to be able to get away with the “memorize it” approach that so many of us used in high school math classes.

The big drawback to that old-school approach, though, is that it’s not useful for business school. When I was training to take the GMAT, I was also training myself to be able to analyze case studies in school or to sit in on a meeting at work and discuss the latest marketing or financial numbers coherently. Some of my training for the GRE also addressed those goals—but, frankly, not that much.

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So one question to ask yourself is whether you want to get ready just for the exam or whether you want to use this as an opportunity to get ready for business school itself. If the former, you may lean towards the GRE, but if the latter, take the GMAT. (And give yourself adequate time, as you will be making your studies do double-duty.)

What about the other sections?

If you like vocabulary better, you might lean towards the GRE and if you like grammar better, you might lean towards the GMAT. But most people don’t make the decision based on the Verbal section of the exam (or the essay section).

Some people are nervous about the (relatively) new Integrated Reasoning section on the GMAT. This section was created specifically to mimic the kind of analysis you’ll do on case studies in business school, so again base your decision on whether you want to use your test studies to help prepare you for school itself. If so, go for the GMAT; if not, it’s fine to take the GRE. The actual content tested on the Integrated Reasoning section is the same as on the Quant and Verbal sections; there are just some new question types to learn. 

Test structure

There’s one other factor I’d consider. The GMAT is what’s known as question-adaptive, while the GRE is section-adaptive. One practical outcome of this difference is that the GMAT requires you to answer each question in order (and you can’t return to the question after you’ve answered it), while the GRE allows you to move around as you choose among the questions in any one panel or section of the exam.

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If you have historically had performance anxiety issues on past standardized tests—you get extremely nervous to the point that you experience brain fog, an inability to concentrate, or physical symptoms such as nausea—then the structure of the GRE may be better for you. Knowing that you have to answer each question in order (as on the GMAT) can exacerbate performance anxiety. (You’ll feel pretty nervous no matter what exam you take. That’s to be expected. I’m talking about the kind of anxiety that significantly impairs your ability to perform.)

GMAT vs. GRE: Which exam should I take?

For the many reasons stated above, ask yourself not “GRE and GMAT... which is harder?” but rather “Which test is the better test for me?”

Globally, if you want to use your test prep studies to get yourself ready for both the exam and business school (and work!) quant discussions, I’d take the GMAT. If you have a history of serious performance anxiety in high-pressure situations (especially on standardized tests), I’d consider the GRE.

If those two areas are not of concern for you, I’d base the decision on whether you prefer more “textbook” type math (GRE) or more “logic it out” type math (GMAT)—knowing that both exams also share a core of quant material that’s almost identical—as well as whether you prefer grammar (GMAT) or vocabulary (GRE). (Not sure? Try some problems from both tests to see. We have a GMAT Free Starter Kit and a GRE Free Starter Kit—they’ve each got lessons, practice problems, and a full-length practice test, so you can try out both exams and then make your decision.)

Whichever you choose, do yourself the favor of planning adequate time for your studies. You’ll need at least a couple of months and it’s quite common to study for four to six months. Ideally, get your exam done before you start on applications, both because applications take a lot of time and because you might do better than you were expecting on your exam—and that can change your application strategy.

Good luck and happy studying!

Stacey Koprince

Stacey Koprince - Manhattan Prep

Stacey Koprince is an mba.com Featured Contributor and the content and curriculum lead and an instructor for premier test prep provider Manhattan Prep.

She’s been teaching people to take standardized tests for more than 20 years and the GMAT is her favorite (shh, don’t tell the other tests). Her favorite teaching moment is when she sees her students’ eyes light up because they suddenly thoroughly get how to approach a particular problem.