Graduate Admissions Tests: What You Need to Know

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graduate admission testApplying to graduate school can often feel like navigating a bowl of alphabet soup. There’s an acronym for almost everything, from the forms you fill out for financial aid to the tests you need to take. It can all feel pretty overwhelming, especially when you aren’t sure about the differences between various aspects of your application and which ones are even necessary for the track you are pursuing.

One area that gives many students pause — or might even keep them up at night — is the variety of graduate admissions tests. Depending on the type of program you’re applying to, the admissions department may require that you take and pass a specific test to show that you have the basic knowledge necessary for success on the program.

While some tests are designed for specific types of career paths — the LSAT for Law school and the MCAT for Medical school — if you are applying to a business-focused program, you have several options: the GRE, or Graduate Record Examination, or the GMAT, or Graduate Management Admissions Test.

Start at the Beginning

In some cases, the choice of which test to take is already made for you: the admissions criteria specifically lists which scores the committee wants. In that case, you need to take that test, even if you’ve already taken a different one. Standardized admissions test scores give committees an objective measurement by which to compare otherwise comparable applicants; since most graduate programs only have space for a limited number of applicants, your test scores can make the difference between being accepted or not.

In other cases, test scores aren’t required for admission or they are optional. If the program doesn’t require a test, there’s really no reason to take one, as they can cost several hundred dollars to take and require an investment of time, both for studying and taking the test.

But when test scores are optional, taking an exam can improve your admission prospects. Solid scores on a graduate admissions exam can help bolster an otherwise lackluster application, showing that you have the ability to manage the coursework even if your undergraduate GPA is lower than you’d like or you don’t have an extensive work history. Taking a subject-specific graduate exam like the GMAT can also give you a taste of the type of work you’ll be expected to complete at the graduate level before you enroll.

Choose the Right Test

In the absence of any specific guidance, which test should you take? In general, if you’re applying to business school, or a business-centered program, the GMAT is the better choice. Most top-tier business schools only accept GMAT scores, as there is a clear connection between a high score on the test and success within the program. Also, the GMAT has a greater focus on mathematical concepts, including probability and statistics, than the GRE, which places more emphasis on vocabulary.

Choosing to take the GMAT even if it’s not required can also improve your career prospects, as many recruiters for top-level corporations review applicant test scores as part of the screening process. Many firms, especially those in banking and investments, will only consider candidates with competitive GMAT scores and won’t accept GRE scores.

However, the GRE is still a valid option for many students. Because the GRE scores are good for five years, many students opt to take the GRE soon after finishing their undergraduate degrees while information is still fresh, even though they have not yet decided on a graduate study path. Students with a liberal arts background, who may not have the mathematical skills of a business major, may score better on the GRE than the GMAT, thanks to the focus on verbal skills. It’s this focus on verbal reasoning that make the GRE a good choice for those applying to business-related programs, such as a master in public administration, or for an MBA with a concentration in a humanities or liberal arts subject.

Regardless of which test you opt to take, you should aim for a score within the 80th percentile or above. This generally means a focused program of study on the test material using study guides or a formal course, and taking multiple practice tests to get familiar with the testing process and the type of questions you’ll be asked.

And of course, even the highest GRE, GMAT or other test score cannot take the place of an impressive application packet. If your essay, personal statement, resume and recommendations are all top-notch, any test score will only be the icing on the cake – or the crackers in the alphabet soup of graduate admissions.


Olivia DuBois holds an MBA with a concentration in health care administration. She serves as an alumni representative on her university’s admissions committee, coaching prospective students on their applications and the admissions process.

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