Everything you need to know about the entrance exams for business school

Years ago, there was only one answer to what exam you should take when applying to business school: the Graduate Management Admissions Test, commonly known as the GMAT. Over the past few years, the Graduate Record Examination, or GRE, has become accepted at more business schools as well.

Preferences for the GMAT vs. the GRE vary from school to school, and even program to program. After all, MBA, Master of Science in Finance, Master of Marketing, and Master of Accountancy are looking for slightly different applicants, so it stands to reason that they have slight different guidelines for test scores as well.

No matter what business schools or program you’re applying to, here’s what to keep in mind as you choose a test and prepare to take it.

You don’t have to take both tests.

Consuela Knox

The GMAT is pretty much accepted universally at all business schools. However, admissions committees have come to realize that applicants may also be applying to other non-business graduate schools that require the GRE and do not accept the GMAT. For this reason, more than 1,200 business schools now accept the GRE to help applicants avoid taking both tests.

“If you have a GRE score because you’re applying to other graduate programs, we don’t want you to have to take both the GRE and the GMAT,” said Consuela Knox, Director of Admissions Operations & Diversity Recruiting.

Your GRE score will probably be converted.

Educational Testing Service (ETS), the company behind the GRE, offers a conversion tool to translate GRE scores into equivalent GMAT scores. This conversion allows admissions committees to accurately compare scores from applicants who took different tests using the same scale. If you’re submitting a GRE score, know that there’s a good chance it will be converted during the admissions committee process.

Not every business program prefers the GMAT.

More quantitative programs, such as MBA and Master of Science in Finance (MSF), usually do prefer the more quant-heavy GMAT exam. However, other programs, such as Master of Marketing, actually like the way the GRE emphasizes verbal reasoning and creativity. Others, such as Master of Accountancy, don’t necessarily have a preference between the two exams.

Cherrie Wilkerson

“There’s more quantitative work on the GMAT, so given that the MSF program involves more quantitative courses, that makes a difference,” said Cherrie Wilkerson, Assistant Dean for Young Professional Programs. “(However,) for the Master of Marketing, they favor the GRE because it’s more qualitative and verbal-based and it makes more sense for students who are choosing the marketing function…a quant score doesn’t measure (creativity).”

All the sections are important.

High scores on one section don’t compensate for low scores in another. Some programs — such as MBA or Master of Science in Finance — will place more emphasis on the quantitative scores, while other programs like Master of Marketing will look more closely at your writing and reasoning sections. However, a really high score in one section will not offset a really low score in another, no matter what program you’re applying to — and admissions committees for business schools normally don’t superscore (which involves taking the highest scores from multiple tests), so keep that in mind.

Try to take the test while you are still in college.

Whichever test you take, the GMAT and GRE quantitative sections involve high school level math — so the more time away from high school you’re had, the more you’ll have to study. Plus, if you’re still an undergrad, you’re already in studying mode and have more control over your free time. The longer you wait, the more you’ll have forgotten and the less time you have to study, so take the test in college if you can — GRE and GMAT scores are good for five years.

Give yourself plenty of time to study.

Christie St-John

Whether you’re still in school or not when you take the test, you should give yourself plenty of time to study for the GMAT or GRE. Most students, especially those who haven’t taken a math course or test in a few years, find that between six and 12 months is enough time to feel really confident about taking the test. There are other benefits to extra time as well. “You start learning the material that you be facing in business school while you’re studying for (the test), and if you don’t do well the first time, you have time to re-take it,” said Christie St-John, Director of Admissions for the MBA program.

It’s about whether or not you will succeed in the program.

In many cases, admissions committees are looking for reasons to admit applicants — but they won’t be helping the school or the student if they admit candidates with low tests scores who will struggle with the academic load, or (even worse) fail out. “Ultimately, you have to be able to handle the academics in the program…we’re looking at all the parameters we have to make sure you will be successful in the program, whether that’s GRE, GMAT, GPA, etc.,” Knox said. 

“You want a student to be successful when they get here. If they’re not over 50 percentile, they’re going to struggle, and we’re taking their money and their time…that’s where we are at the end of the day: Can we help this student in their career? If they can’t do the quant work in most of our programs here, they’re just not going to be successful,” Wilkerson explained.

Remember that the test is just one part of your application.

Admissions committees for every business school program evaluate candidates holistically, so if you didn’t get your ideal score, remember that you still have your essays, rec letters, and the interview ahead of you. As long as you’re within the school’s middle 80% range of test scores, you still have a good shot at getting in. “The test score is one component among many,” Wilkerson emphasizes.

Want to learn more about the MBA program at Vanderbilt Business? Visit our program page, or request information.