If you have a choice among different exams, which one should you take? There are two broad considerations as you make this choice:
- Does the school prefer one exam over another?
- Which exam is better for you?
Before we dive into either one, I just want to address the beginning of my very first sentence: “If you have a choice among different exams…”
You have some research to do first of all just to see what your options are. Where are you sure that you want to apply? Are there other schools that you might want to apply to, even if they’re not on your list today? Review the application requirements for these schools in order to determine which exams they accept.
Once you know which exams are an option for you, you can dive into the real decision.
How do I know what the schools prefer?
Most graduate management education (GME) programs, including MBA programs, accept both the GMAT and the GRE. A number of those programs also now accept the EA. Most programs don’t express a preference for one exam over another—but there are some exceptions.
Some Executive MBA (EMBA) programs are indicating that they prefer the EA, which was originally created specifically to serve these programs. (The good news: The EA is probably the best exam of the three to take. More on this later.)
Go back to the websites of the schools to which you plan to apply. Look through all of the application materials to see whether they explicitly indicate that they prefer one exam over the others. Also search the school’s blog and other communications that they put out for applicants. Is there anything in the materials that indicates a preference for one exam?
If you are debating between multiple types of programs (eg, an MBA and a Master’s of Finance), don’t forget to check the school’s website for both types of programs. Even within one university, different programs can have different requirements and preferences.
Finally, feel free to ask the schools directly. They love to hear from students and they want to answer your questions! (Just make sure that the answer to your question isn’t readily available on their website. Show them that you’ve done your homework.)
Sign up for an info session. One of the ways that you can show engagement during the session is by asking questions, including this one about test preferences.
How do I know which exam is better for me?
If your schools lean towards one exam, that’s a strong plus in the “choose this one” column for that exam. But you’ll also want to consider the exam content. You may find it easier to prepare for one of the exams over another for a variety of reasons.
All three exams test math, verbal, and logical reasoning skills. Two of the exams also have an essay section.
Many people think that the math on the GRE is somewhat easier than it is on the GMAT or EA. I agree with that assessment for people who are relatively strong across all math topics. That’s not necessarily the case, though, when you have specific strengths and weaknesses.
For example, the GRE tends to have more geometry questions than the GMAT does, and the EA tests barely any geometry at all (it covers only coordinate plane and some super-basic “real-world” geometry topics). (Note: Except for this difference in geometry coverage, the GMAT and the EA cover the same type of content and use the same problem types.)
The GMAT tends to have more story problems (which lots of people hate) than does the GRE. It also tends to have more “number sense” or “math reasoning” problems that can be very annoying to do via brute-force calculation but can be quite quick if you really do understand the underlying math concept.
The GMAT and the EA use only “choose 1” multiple-choice problems in their quant sections, while the GRE uses a number of different formats, including choose-all-that-apply and numeric entry (you have to just type in your answer—there are no answer choices).
There are just a few of the quant reasons why someone might prefer one of these exams over the other.
Verbal and Logical Reasoning
All three exams test reading comprehension and logical reasoning in fairly similar ways on the verbal section. They differ in how they test communication skills: The GRE focuses on vocabulary and meaning, while the GMAT and EA focus on grammar and meaning.
So the real question here is whether you prefer vocabulary or grammar. Actually, the real question is which one you find easier to study and improve. You might like grammar better but think that it’s easier to memorize a bunch of vocab words in order to supercharge your verbal score—or you might think the exact opposite.
Note: The GMAT and EA verbal sections are identical in terms of content and problem types.
Integrated Reasoning (IR)
The GMAT and EA include a section that combines math and verbal skills together. It tests the same math content that’s tested on the quant section and the same reading comprehension and logical reasoning skills tested on the verbal section, but the question types ask you to put together that knowledge in different ways.
The question types in the IR section feel very foreign to some test-takers, but others actually find them more straightforward than the rest of the test. IR problems tend to feel more like real world data-analytics problems: Read this graph and interpret it. Sort this table and answer a question about the data. If you do that kind of analysis regularly at work, then you may actually like the IR section.
The GRE has you write two essays (30 minutes each)—and, annoyingly, you have to write them first, before you take the rest of the exam. The GMAT has you write one essay (also 30 minutes) and it gives you a few choices about when to write it—including at your last section of the exam. The EA doesn’t include an essay.
For the most part, business-focused programs care more about the multiple-choice portion of the exam than your essay score, as long as you get a “good-enough” essay score. They just want to make sure that you can put together coherent sentences in English. “Good enough” typically means a score that’s about 25-30th percentile or higher—so most people get a good enough score.
If you are applying for a Ph.D. program, though, the scrutiny may be stricter. You’re going to have to write a thesis to earn that degree; if your test essay displays significant issues with written communication, that could hurt your application.
Ok…so which exam should I take?
If you’re able to take any of the three, then there’s a good chance that the EA will be the best one to take—with one big caveat. I’ll get to that in a minute.
First, here’s why the EA is such a good test for most people:
The EA is shorter.
The EA is about 1.5 hours long, compared to 3+ hours for the GMAT and GRE. Mental stamina is a real thing on these exams; the EA isn’t going to tire your brain out as much.
The EA scores are used differently in the admission process.
The EA isn’t used in the way that the GMAT and GRE are—on the latter tests, the average scores keep going higher and higher as everybody keeps trying to outdo everyone else.
The EA, though, was designed as a “readiness test”—it’s more of a threshold indicator. The idea is that, if you hit a certain level (or higher), then you’re ready for the academic rigors of that program. On the 120 to 174 score scale, most EMBA programs are saying they want to see a 150 (or higher). Not as many regular MBA programs are using the EA yet, but those that are seem to be saying they want a 155 (or higher).
And here’s where the beauty of this approach comes in. The schools aren’t aggregating the data and publicly reporting the average scores of those they admit. The average score stat doesn’t matter; they’ve already told you what their threshold is and you just have to beat the threshold.
For the GMAT and GRE, by contrast, the average score data is used by rankings websites in their ranking formulas—and that causes the average scores to keep ratcheting up over time, like an arms race, as schools try to improve their position in the rankings.
In short, for many programs, it’s easier to hit the scoring threshold required on the EA than to hit the ever-increasing score averages for the GMAT or GRE.
But I mentioned a caveat. Here it is:
On the EA, the Integrated Reasoning section—that section that combines your quant and verbal skills into the same problems—is equally weighted alongside your quant-only and verbal-only scores.
On the GMAT, the IRsection is not part of the main score that the schools care the most about when evaluating your application. The schools do still look at your IR score but this section is not as important as the quant and verbal sections of the exam.
Earlier, I said that some folks find the IR problem types weird and some people actually like them better than the “classic” types of problems more typically found on standardized tests. So the question is really how you feel about IR.
When you first see the problems, you will likely find them weird just because they’re pretty different from the classic problem types. If you’re interested in taking the EA but unsure about IR, give yourself a week to play around with the 4 IR problem types. See how they work and give your brain a chance to get used to them. Then decide.
I’m debating between [this exam] and [that exam]…
If you’re debating between two exams, give yourself one week to learn the very basic basics about that exam—question types, how the timing works—then take a practice test. And then take another week to do the same with the other exam.
Your scores won’t be great, of course; you’ve barely studied yet. But you’ll see what your baseline scores are and you’ll also be able to evaluate qualitatively. What felt harder vs. easier to you? Of the things that you’d need to learn to do better on this exam, which ones feel more straightforward and which ones feel like more of a lift?
And how can you learn the basics about each exam? Don’t worry—we’ve got you. We’ve got free Starter Kit study plans for each of the tests. And no need to limit yourself just to what’s in the Manhattan Prep Starter Kits; use whatever free materials you have access to, including the other articles, videos, and book excerpts posted here on Poets & Quants, as well as any other free materials you can find from other companies.
The GMAT Starter Kit study syllabus includes lessons on Data Sufficiency, Sentence Correction, and time management. It also has a free practice test.
The GRE Starter Kit study syllabus includes strategy lessons and a free practice test. You can also sign up for a free trial of GRE Interact, a series of on-demand interactive videos; the free trial gives you access to more than 10 lessons! (Look under Try More For Free in the syllabus.)
The EA Starter Kit study syllabus includes lessons on Data Sufficiency, Sentence Correction, and time management as well as a Basic Math Diagnostic exam.
Good luck and happy studying!
Stacey Koprince is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in Montreal, Canada and Los Angeles, California. Stacey has been teaching the GMAT, EA, GRE, and LSAT for more than 15 years and is one of the most well-known instructors in the industry. Stacey loves to teach and is absolutely fascinated by standardized tests.