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In 2003, Educational Testing Service (ETS) lost the contract to manage the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) to ACT and a division of Pearson. Since then, ETS has been aggressively urging business schools and students to consider using the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) instead of the GMAT.

Since Stanford Graduate School of Business took the step of accepting the GRE in 2005, 450 B-schools have followed suit. ETS will be launching a revised GRE in August, 2011, which should further intensify the competition. For those interested in the Coke-Pepsi rivalries in standardized testing, you can read the flurry of articles in the business press over the past two years: “GRE or GMAT: Test-Takers Dilemma” in BusinessWeek; “G.R.E. vs. the GMAT” in NY Times; “GRE is Fast Becoming a GMAT Alternative for B-School Applicants” in US News & World Report.

But as a college student or recent grad, you simply want to know: “Which test should I take?” Here are some considerations:

1. Differences between the two tests and your own test-taking strengths. Historically, the GMAT has been known to emphasize  logic, while the GRE has measured the test-takers’ ability more in vocabulary. The GMAT has been known to favor students of higher mathematical ability. However, I would warn against studying specific internet comparisons of GMAT vs. GRE right now, because the GRE is about to be changed (8/2011). Check out a comparison of the old vs. new GRE in About.com.

2. Your future goals.The GRE is the entry level test for the broadest set of future goals. If you plan to get a masters or doctorate in just about any field, including economics, the GRE has you covered. You may want to do your graduate school standardized test-taking while you are still in student mode, but you are not ready to commit to saying you will be applying to business school five years hence.

3.Where do you plan to apply? Most of the top ranking B-schools accept both the GRE and GMAT now: Stanford, Harvard, MIT Sloan, Columbia, NYU Stern, Wharton,  U Chicago Booth, U Mich Ross, UVA Darden, UNC Kenan-Flagler, Duke Fuqua, and Dartmouth Tuck. However, there are a few stars missing from the list: Northwestern Kellogg, UCLA Anderson, Cornell Johnson, USC Marshall, Emory Goizueta. So if you intend on applying to any of these schools, you will need to take the GMAT.

I advise researching the schools you are most interested in, to see what their philosophy is about GRE vs. GMAT. According to Wikipedia, Stanford GSB prefers the GRE but accepts both; NYU Stern prefers the GMAT but accepts both; Columbia accepts the GRE only if the applicant has not taken the GMAT in the past five years.

At this point in time, it may actually make sense to take both tests, to maximize flexibility. This is admittedly an expensive approach ($140 GRE, $250 GMAT), but what future brand manager would want to apply to Wharton, Tuck or Duke without applying to Kellogg? After the GRE is revised in 8/2011, there may be more efficiencies in studying for both tests. And hey, someday you may just want to get a PhD.

Recommended reading: The Best Business Schools’ Admissions Secrets: A Former Harvard Business School Admissions Board Member Reveals the Insider Keys to Getting In by Chioma Isiadinso. Related posts: Does Your College GPA Matter? Take the GMAT While You’re Still Smart, Can I Get an MBA if I Wasn’t a College Business Major?

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You majored in medieval history, but you ended up in retail merchandising. You still love history, but management and marketing in the real world is actually quite fascinating. You’re better at it than you thought you would be, and judging from that recent promotion, your managers must have faith in you.

But your lack of business background may eventually hold you back. You would like to have more practical tools in accounting, statistics, operations and business law. If you want to advance within your organization, switch companies or industries, start your own business, or just make more money, you probably will want an MBA.

But you’ve never taken a business course. Doesn’t getting a Masters degree in a subject require some previous study of that discipline?

An MBA, or Masters of Business Administration, is a unique graduate degree. It is designed to give accomplished professionals, no matter what their previous background, a well-rounded exposure to core business disciplines. Such cross-functional exposure will either help them apply their former skill set to a business environment or enable them to supervise multiple business functions as a general manager.

Any major can be a good background for a business career, especially with the training of an MBA. Were you a theater major? Your ability to communicate dynamically with an audience could make you a powerful leader in sales or marketing. An art history major? Your visual orientation makes you a natural for advertising! Psychology? Market research is calling you. English? Every company needs managers who can write. Foreign language? One word: “global.”

Recently, I researched a sample of Class of 2012 profiles for full-time MBA programs at elite institutions, including Harvard (HBS), Stanford (GSB), U Penn (Wharton), Northwestern (Kellogg), NYU (Stern), U Virginia (Darden), and U Michigan (Ross). The results were generally consistent from school to school.

You quanti-phobes out there will be happy to learn that on average, only a quarter of incoming MBA students had been business majors in college. Undergraduate business majors ranged from a low of  17% at Stanford to a high of 31% at Kellogg. Another quarter of the incoming class had majored in engineering, mathematics or the natural sciences.

About half of the incoming class at these premier business schools had majored in the humanities, arts, social sciences and “other.” For those class profiles that broke out the economics major separately, economics majors represented an average of 20% of the incoming MBA class.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? The goal of MBA programs is to create rich, eclectic, stimulating dialogue among professionals from diverse backgrounds. Diversity does not just mean ethnic or racial heritage or an international upbringing. It also means the perspectives students bring from their previous education and work. All business majors or engineers would make for a boring conversation!

That said, if you are considering going back to school for an MBA, and you have no prior business training, many schools recommend a few courses to help you hit the ground running. Requirements vary, but most schools suggest a course in economics and statistics (which most college grads have taken anyway). A basic accounting course is always a plus, and will probably help you in your current job as well.

Is it intimidating for a “pure liberal arts type” to go back to business school? At first. As a psychology undergraduate from Penn, I found the introductory accounting course at Wharton to be rather frightening. Of course, I was (and will always be) the recovering child of a CPA.

But there was a familial sense of camaraderie among the case groups and project teams. The engineers helped the psych majors with the math, and the psych majors helped the engineers string a few multi-syllable words together to make sentences (only kidding!).

When it came to the Wharton Follies, our school’s annual musical theater revue and defining tradition now widely  (and hilariously) imitated, even accountants and engineers were known to sing and dance. Thank goodness they had us liberal arts types to teach them how!

Recommended reading: The Best Business Schools’ Admissions Secrets: A Former Harvard Business School Admissions Board Member Reveals the Insider Keys to Getting In by Chioma Isiadinso. Related posts: Does Your College GPA Matter? Take the GMAT While You’re Still Smart, Preparing for Business School: GMAT or GRE?, Time to Apply to B-School?,Getting a Job with a Lackluster GPA.

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