Test-optionality had been a growing trend in undergraduate admissions, and during COVID it became common for many graduate programs as well. While the pandemic is largely over, test-optionality even in grad programs shows no signs of disappearing. A growing number of programs offer test-optional applications or test waivers, and decisions that were previously non-negotiable, such as whether to take the GMAT or the GRE, are now frequently up for grabs. In fact, the number of grad school applicants requiring the GMAT is virtually in freefall, given the growing alternative options now available.
Still, most applicants to top full-time MBA programs will take one of these tests and we continue to field many questions about them, including:
- Is there an advantage to taking one exam over the other?
- What are the secrets to studying effectively and beating test anxiety?
- How can I get the best possible score?
We will get to these questions a bit further into this post, but first, let’s discuss the circumstances under which it might make sense for you to choose a school where standardized tests are optional, or when to request a test waiver. Adding to this decision mix for some applicants is the possibility of taking another kind of test entirely: the Executive Assessment. This EA test, originally aimed at the EMBA market, is increasingly accepted for part-time MBA programs and occasionally, full-time MBA programs. As of this writing, those programs include Columbia Business School and Duke FT.
When should you opt out of taking standardized tests?
As a general guideline, Accepted believes that candidates whose profiles are on the weaker side should take the GRE or GMAT, unless they are poor test takers. The reason is simple: the strongest candidates have already won the confidence of the admissions committees through their academic stats and work records. Weaker candidates still need to prove themselves. Scoring well on one of these tests helps the school know if you can succeed. The quant portions of both tests are solid predictors of academic success in the core classes.
Applicants with really strong academic track records and excellent professional experience don’t need the test to show they will do well. If they are good test-takers, they may want to take it to reinforce that impression and perhaps help them be considered for merit fellowships.
We are often asked by candidates who are weak test-takers and whose undergrad records don’t reflect their true abilities: what should they do? MBA applicants can prove themselves in other ways, such as by taking the HBS CORe for graduate management education. If it’s relevant to their career goals, they could also pursue the CFA or the Certified Financial Planner. Another route is to simply take additional relevant graded courses, especially if they lack these other business course options.
Factors to consider when choosing between the GMAT and GRE
Most b-schools now accept the GRE (you can see the full list here), which means you can weigh your options and decide whether the GRE or GMAT will increase your chances of acceptance.
Pros for taking the GMAT
You’re an unmistakable candidate for the GMAT if:
- At least one of the b-schools you’re applying to doesn’t accept the GRE.
- The wording on one of your target schools’ websites indicates (if you read between the lines) that the GRE is accepted, but not preferred. (We’re seeing this less frequently.)
- You score higher on GMAT practice tests than on GRE practice tests.
Pros for taking the GRE
You should opt to take the GRE instead of the GMAT if:
- You’re fresh out of college and aren’t sure exactly what to do next, but feel prepared to take the GRE. You may as well go ahead and take it – the scores remain usable for up to five years. Maybe you’ll use your scores for a future b-school application, or maybe for some other grad program.
- You want to save money, will have trouble getting to a GMAT testing center, and/or can’t or don’t want to take the online GMAT. If that sounds like you, go ahead and take the GRE (obviously provided that your target schools accept it). The GRE is cheaper, there are more testing centers throughout the world, and it also has an at-home option.
- You score higher on practice GRE tests than on practice GMAT tests AND your target schools accept the GRE.
For most applicants, it’ll come down to where you get higher scores on practice tests. If you repeatedly do better on the GMAT practice tests than on the GRE, then that’s the exam you should take, hands down. Weigh your options, see what makes the most sense for you.
How to prepare and take the exam
Some applicants set themselves a specific amount of preparation time to get their best score, then choose target programs based on their qualifications at that point (including the test score). Other applicants select programs first and determine a target test score based on the program’s average. With this strategy, they prepare with that target in mind, scheduling the exam when their scores on practice exams are close to that target.
Both of these are reasonable strategies, so do what works for you.
Which test prep option is right for you?
You have a lot of options when it comes to studying for standardized tests. Determining which route is best will depend on your style of learning and what areas you need to strengthen. If you are someone who experiences test-taking anxiety (or you’ve struggled with standardized tests in the past), preparation is the key.
As you consider the choices listed below, factor in the level of score improvement you are looking for; your budget; and personal preferences. If you only need to improve your score slightly over your practice exams, self-study may be enough. If you need a significant boost in your scores, allow plenty of time and consider a course or tutoring.
- Self-study, using traditional books and online study aids (such as sample questions and practice exams).
- Online courses offer a more structured approach, and usually incorporate videos and instructional guides, in addition to self-paced study materials and exams.
- Traditional test prep classes may be best if you have historically learned best in a classroom environment.
- Tutoring–either in person or online–may be the best choice if you’re someone who responds best to individual interaction, or if you know you have very specific areas you need to focus on in your preparation.
Whichever preparation method you choose, study consistently and steadily to achieve your goals!
Our expert MBA admissions consultants can give you personalized advice on which test to take and help you with any other aspect of your business school application. Check out our MBA Admissions Consulting Services to learn how we can help you get ACCEPTED!
For 25 years, Accepted has helped business school applicants gain acceptance to top programs. Our outstanding team of MBA admissions consultants features former business school admissions directors and professional writers who have guided our clients to admission at top MBA, EMBA, and other graduate business programs worldwide including Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, Booth, INSEAD, London Business School, and many more. Want an MBA admissions expert to help you get Accepted? Click here to get in touch!