GRE vs. MCAT: Similarities, Differences, and Which Test Is Easier

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Choosing the best standardized test for graduate studies and your future career is a major step. Understanding the differences between the GRE and the MCAT will help you make an informed decision.

The GRE, or Graduate Record Examinations, is a more general standardized test that is accepted for many different types of master’s degree programs and doctoral programs, primarily in the U.S. and Canada. The GRE General Test is written and administered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS). The exam tests students’ aptitude in verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing.

The Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT, is the “gold standard” for admission to nearly all medical schools in Canada and the United States. The MCAT is written by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) and tests students’ knowledge of topics like the biological and social sciences, along with analytical reasoning, reading comprehension, and problem-solving skills.

The GRE and MCAT test some of the same major content areas, but there are crucial differences between them. In this article, we’ll go over the main components and characteristics of each exam.

The Major Differences Between the MCAT and the GRE

Here’s an overview of the major differences between the exams in terms of purpose, length, format, cost, and other basics.

  GRE MCAT
Purpose Admission to graduate schools, including master’s degree programs and doctoral programs, primarily in North America Admission to medical schools in North America, Australia, and the Caribbean Islands
Format Computer-based test Computer-based test
Length About 3 hours and 45 minutes, including a 10-minute break About 7 hours and 30 minutes
Cost About $205.00 About $310.00
Scores Maximum score is 340, with each section worth 170 points; Analytical Writing section scored separately from 0-6 118-132 for each of the 4 sections; total score 472-528
Test Dates Computer-based test offered throughout the year; paper-based test offered 3 times a year in October, November, and February Offered from January-September each year, usually around 25 times
Sections Analytical Writing; Verbal Reasoning; Quantitative Reasoning Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems; Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems; Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior; Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills

The biggest overall content difference between the GRE and the MCAT is that the former tests primarily aptitude and skills, while the latter tests content knowledge as well. 

Students who hope to do well on the MCAT will need to review concepts in subject areas like biochemistry, anatomy, physics, math, biology, sociology, and psychology. During the test, they will need to use that background knowledge in the natural, physical, and social sciences and apply it to answer questions.

In contrast, the GRE is perhaps best described as a more advanced SAT or ACT. It tests cognitive aptitude and reasoning skills rather than specific background knowledge. There’s also a writing section in the GRE, which requires test-takers to write two analytical essays. Students looking to take this exam should practice writing GRE-style essays based on sample prompts.

Finally, the MCAT is also around twice as long as the GRE, so it might be more difficult for you if you struggle with maintaining focus or cognitive endurance for long periods of time. 

GRE vs. MCAT: Which Test Should You Take?

Between the GRE and the MCAT, the MCAT is widely regarded as the more difficult of the two exams. It’s much longer and more focused on content knowledge than the GRE, which is more focused on general aptitude in certain areas. Many pre-med students say they take 300-350 hours to prepare for the MCAT. However, if you’re not as strong in writing or critical reading, if you’re a non-native English speaker, or have a somewhat limited vocabulary, the GRE may be more difficult for you. 

Whether you should take the GRE or MCAT is ultimately dependent on where you’d like to go to school and your career path. Generally speaking, the GRE is more widely accepted and is used for admission to a wide variety of graduate schools, while the MCAT is specifically for admission to medical school. 

If you aren’t sure yet whether you’d like to apply to medical school, it might be worth it to take the GRE and hold off on preparing for the MCAT at first. GRE scores are considered valid for five years, while MCAT scores are only considered valid for three. So you could potentially take the GRE first and wait to decide whether to take the MCAT. This could be a good move if you ultimately choose to go into a healthcare-related field, such as public health, rather than directly to medical school. 

Another factor to consider is your potential career. Schools in certain specialty areas of medicine, such as veterinary medicine, might accept either the GRE or the MCAT from applicants. In that case, it may be better to take the GRE (unless you struggle with critical reading or writing), as it’s both less expensive and shorter.