CAT: Common Admission Test

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I think CAT is somewhat a game. It is not entirely a test of intelligence. Neither is it a test of your memory. It is a tricky two hour game where you need to be alert, agile and cool. Believe me, a large part of CAT is a test of your personality – how quickly you make decisions, how poised you are under extreme tension, how you allocate and manage time and how you attack questions. This note is rather comprehensive in coverage, including groundwork for CAT, preparation strategies, learning from mock CATs, sailing through the D-day and tips for GD/Interview. Hope it helps you in your endeavor.Good Luck!


Let’s Do It

I sometimes wonder – where would I be and what I would be doing if I didn’t make it to the IIMs. I honestly don’t see myself anywhere, except of course trying to bell the CAT one more time. Before I go on to tell you what to do, what not to do and how to prepare, let me make one thing clear. CAT is not for people who can do without an IIM. I have harped on this point earlier too. If you think IIMs are where you ever wanted to be, there is a good chance that you actually land up there. Stay passionate and top it up with pure unadulterated HARD WORK. There is surely no easy way out to grab the CAT.

Words such as these may sure sound like a dragged on cliché – but let me tell you, Quants, Verbals or LRs come much later in your preparation for CAT. You start with a passion and that passion alone can see you through the exam. Everything else is just a byproduct, be it confidence, expertise, performance.

Having said that let me go straight to how you prepare for the various sections.

A little bit of a disclaimer before you start. The views expressed here are solely my own and the strategies I have employed have worked for me. I don’t claim that they would work for everyone. During the course of your preparation, you would find many experts saying many things about how to prepare. My word of caution to you – don’t ask around a lot of people about how to prepare. Everyone has his/her own opinion and it wouldn’t surprise me if some of the opinions run exactly opposite to each other. A lot of suggestions will ultimately get you confused. I asked no one. I did what I thought was right for me.

If someone were to ask me – what takes the maximum time to build expertise in – I would say ‘Verbals’. Because a command over English doesn’t get built overnight. But if you already have a good reading habit and if you are good at grammar, there is good news. You just need to refine that skill with fast reading, a vocabulary brush-up and certain not-so-obvious rules of English grammar. GMAT English section is really good in these. You can buy the GMAT official guide and other guide books from Princeton or Kaplan and work the verbal section out.

Let me also tell you the advantages of a good reading habit. Even if you think you aren’t exactly improving your grammar or English language skills, you pickup certain things subconsciously. The sentence syntaxes get stored in your mind and when you see a sentence correction question in CAT, you would automatically know whether the sentence is wrong. Or when you see a word whose meaning you don’t know exactly, you would recall automatically the context the word was used and you would be surprised how accurately you can guess its meaning.

As for vocabulary, there is a word of caution. Don’t get obsessed with it. That won’t help you get anywhere. CAT is moving away from vocabulary testing, though the coaching classes still hang on to pure Vocabulary questions in mock CATs. Don’t mug up the Vocabulary lists. Look through them and find words familiar to you. Try to see if you know their meanings. However, while reading if you see a new word, note it down along with a couple of words that followed and preceded it so that when you later look the word up in the dictionary, you exactly know how it was used in the text.

Regarding reading comprehension, what you need most is concentration with a little bit of technique. When you read a passage that is not engaging (which many of them certainly are), your attention tends to drift away. Though you keep on running your eyes over the text, you actually don’t understand anything of what is written. Relax, that is very common.

You can start by having a positive attitude towards reading comprehension passages. Think in your mind that the passage is interesting and you are going to know what is there inside. ‘It’s sure something new to me and I want to learn what the author is trying to say’. This attitude makes your task easier and you start understanding what is written. Moreover, if you have developed liking in a wide array of subjects, there is a high probability that you would enjoy reading whatever is given in the passage. But I must say that you should learn to concentrate while reading those difficult passages. If you are not able to, work on it – forget everything else while reading a passage and try to get absorbed in the subject.

The eye-span thing worked well for me. I could improve my speed by not going through each word one by one, but by breaking a single line into two parts and reading a single line in just two eye movements. This is called increasing your eye-span. You can try this out. It works! So, you read half a line at a time and not 5 words one at a time. Don’t get too bogged down by a line if you don’t understand it. That line may not be needed at all for answering the questions. However, try to be extra-cautious about the starting and ending lines in a paragraph because in a well written article, the first line explains why the paragraph is written and the last line gives a short summary of the whole paragraph. Even if that is not the case, reading these two lines gives you a fairly good idea about what the paragraph is trying to say. If you don’t understand what is inside the paragraph, you can revisit it if a question is asked from that paragraph. But don’t spend undue time in trying to understand each and every line, unless the line seems to absolutely critical.

Some say it’s a good idea to run an eye through the questions before reading the paragraph. I have found it dangerous. I lose valuable time in reading the questions. Sometimes the questions themselves are so difficult that unless you read the paragraph, you won’t understand what the questions mean. You are in a soup if you end up spending 2 minutes in reading the questions and understand nothing. My suggestion – forget the questions. Start reading the paragraph right away. Underline important names, keywords etc. as you go along.

Now coming to Logical reasoning, I believe it’s a skill you can’t do much about. You need to have the knack to crack the logic behind the question. Your thinking should be clear and systematic. However, I feel there are couple of things which if taken care of could improve your speed further in that section.

First, try to use visual tools to understand the question faster and build a map so that you don’t jumble up thing later. Say if Sita is the sister of Nita and Radha is the mother in law of Nita and Gita is the daughter of Nita, there is a high chance that you end up confusing the names and end up with Sita being the daughter of Gita. You could do well to draw a family chart and keep it in front of your eyes while you solve the question. Develop your own shorthand notation for various things. For example, don’t write ‘Nita’, just write N (provided all the names start with different letters). Similarly for questions in which you are given some clues and you need to fill up all others (Prof A, B, C teach subjects X, Y, Z on days P, Q, R, then some clues and the question asks you who teaches what on which day), draw a grid immediately with one column each for Prof, Subject and Day and try to match them. You can employ various techniques such as writing all possible options in a grid and eliminating them progressively as you keep on reading the clues and apply your logic.

Logical reasoning is unlike any other section in CAT. It is a high risk game. From my personal experience I can tell you – sometimes it’s like a nasty trap. You think the question is simple and you go after it. Say even after spending 5 minutes you are not able to crack it. You think why leave the question when I already have spent 5 minutes on it? Just one more minute of try and I can quickly answer the 3 questions that follow. You are already into a trap where you think that the question can be solved anytime with a little more effort. After 10 crucial minutes are gone, your heart starts racing. You don’t know whether to leave it or not. It’s painful because you have spent so much time on it – Do you then move on? When do you decide to move on?

There is no simple answer to this. If you think CAT is all about having strong fundamentals in Quants and a great deal of knowledge in English language, you are probably not correct. CAT is also about making decisions quickly. Which questions to attempt, when to leave a question and move on, what to attempt first, how to allocate time. These softer things play as much a role as any Quant or verbal skill does. Read a question and see if you have solved anything like that before. Can I crack it in given time? Does the number of questions that follow the LR justify the time I am going to spend on it? Learn to make these decisions.

Logical reasoning questions can’t have a well explainable strategy. I gave some hints; you can develop your own strategy that suits you the most.

Let’s come to my favourite subject. The quantitative section. There is not really any ground work to be done in quants except mugging up the multiplication tables, squares and cubes. You would find information on these and on various short-cut techniques in the ‘CATch Me If You Can’ document that I prepared. Most of what you will need in Quants section would anyway be provided by your coaching class, if you join one. If you are not joining one, you should seriously consider buying the material from someone else and register at least for the mock tests. If you don’t appear All India mock tests, you probably don’t want to appear in CAT.

Quants is one area you can improve upon a lot if you work systematically and intelligently. I remember when I started solving Quants, I used to solve the section tests of IMS. I could solve only about 10 questions in 40 minutes with an average of 3 mistakes per test. This is no doubt a fairly poor performance. Not that I was bad at Quants or something; I was pretty good in Quants having been selected for the National Mathematics Olympiad – just that I didn’t have the kind of agility needed for CAT kind of questions. Weeks before the actual CAT, I could easily solve about 20 questions with an average of 2 mistakes only. This number improved to about 23-24 while my target was 27-28. Though I don’t remember attempting 27 questions ever in any mock test, 22 was a fairly good number given that the cutoffs normally hover in the range of 10-12 (again this is my perception and not a vedic dictum)

If I list down the factors that helped me improve my speed, they would in the order of significance be:
1. Practice, practice and more practice
2. Use of shortcuts, quick calculation etc. (Refer to my guide on shortcuts ‘CATch Me If You Can’)
3. Careful analysis of which questions took more time and why, which questions were omitted, why were some easy questions not attempted, how do I figure out which questions can be solved in a flash etc.
4. Willingness to improve my speed every time I attempted a paper
5. Confidence that if I solve a question, it would be right because I have done similar question many times before.

You see, practice gives you confidence. If you have attempted CAT-like full length papers many times and have scored well, in actual CAT you would not be that nervous. Most of CAT questions would look easy to you and you would know how exactly to solve them. I was surprised to find that the CAT-2004 Quant section seemed like a kid’s job to me and I finished answering 30 marks in just 15 minutes!

How much time per day?
This is a nagging concern. Given that many of you would also be appearing for their finals in your respective degrees, devoting time towards preparing for CAT could be difficult. If you start very early, say in December, you could devote 1 hour a day till say July and still be fine. But if you start in April or May, you might need about 2 hours every day. Don’t increase the number of hours per day drastically as CAT approaches. You will break yourself. 4-5 hours a day is okay couple of weeks before the CAT. You should be preparing at a healthy pace when CAT approaches. Not last moment cramming.

I would any day suggest joining a class-room coaching. I have benefited a lot from it. Not that the professors there are great and you get to learn a lot from them. In most cases, they just solve what is scheduled for the day and then leave immediately as their billed hours get over. Most don’t stay back after the class to answer your personal questions because they are not paid for that. But yeah, some good professors in my coaching class did stay back.

What helps you most when you join a class is that you fall into a routine. Everyday you attend the classes, spend two hours solving questions, work for the next day and appear for tests almost every other day. More importantly, you get to mix with sharper people, learn from them and get motivated by them. Additionally, the handouts given by the coaching class that I joined had some real good questions not given in the material.

The best thing you can do while preparing is be regular. Appear classes regularly, write tests regularly and judge your improvements regularly. That way you maintain a healthy pace and slowly build up confidence. If you stop preparing for say a month, you speed drops significantly and you start worrying.

Mock CAT and the D-day CAT
Mock tests are extremely important. However, don’t enroll for all kinds of tests being conducted out there by all kinds of coaching classes. I think the 8 SIMCATs by IMS is just the right number of tests you need before the D-day. Prepare well before the tests and don’t take them lightly. Every time you appear for a SIMCAT, try to surpass your previous score and percentile.

However, don’t get frustrated with the mock CAT percentiles. I never scored great percentiles in mock CATs for various reasons. However, I kept on improving and that is important. It never ceases to surprise me how wildly the mock CAT and actual CAT percentiles vary for many people. I have seen friends do extremely well in mock CATs and yet not get a single call from anyone of the IIMs. I believe what happens on the actual day is a different ball game altogether. And you need to play that ball well. By staying confident and cool.

Tell yourself that you are better than all other guys who have come to the exam hall. The astronomical number of people appearing for CAT is not a true representation of how tough the exam is. About 80% of them don’t have any clue as to what it takes to crack the CAT. I have never heard any of my friends ever securing less than 80 percentile, no matter how under-prepared they were. So, you are not competing with 1.6 lakh people; it’s just 32,000. And you need to be in the top 3000 or so to get a call. That means it’s just about one in 11 and not 1 in 100 as the coaching classes and the media want you to believe. Boy that does something to boost your confidence!

Every time I came out of mock CATs, I found myself not satisfied with the kind of questions asked. I was even more disillusioned with the answers to RC passages. I always thought that in an actual CAT there won’t be any controversial questions and whatever I answer would be right.

Whoa! I just scrolled up and realized how long this note has become. Okay, let me wind up quickly. The final hurdle in your journey towards one of most hallowed places in the country is the GD/Interview.

I don’t have much to say about interviews because they are like any other interviews where you just go and present yourself. No rocket science involved. Plain vanilla commonsense. Be it having proper dress sense, showing confidence, making eye-contact or greeting the interviewer while going in and coming out. I don’t think I need to harp on these any further.

What really amazes me is the kind of stories that go around about preparing for a GD. They are further fuelled by the coaching classes that try to scare your guts out by asking you to remember scores of strategies you must use to cut into the discussion. Shall I mention those strategies? Those are utter crap!

Let me tell you some of the strategies I was taught in my mock GD session:

  • Better be the first one to start. You get an added advantage. You lead the discussion.
  • Try to figure out who is the weakest speaker. It’s easy to cut him/her short.
  • Try to raise your voice which getting into the discussion and level your voice afterwards.
  • Try to summarize the discussion when you see no one else is talking much sense.
  • Try to bring the discussion to track if it goes off-track
  • You should be coming into the discussion at regular intervals and when you come, try to speak for about 30 seconds for the judges to take note of you.
  • See if someone is pausing for breath. That is the right time to come in and just grab it!

Utter nonsense! Don’t buy into these terrible strategies that go around year after year. I would probably not speak at all if I try to apply some of these in an actual GD, let alone cutting someone short.Probably these stories go around because there are far fewer people attending GDs than the CAT. Many are not aware of what actually happens in a GD. Moreover, the coaching classes probably want to psyche you out so that you fall back on them for a decent dose of GD tactics.

While it would be far from correct to say that these strategies are never going to help anyone perform well in a GD, I believe it’s senseless trying to apply some foreign knowledge and manipulate your natural self.

I am about to end my note. I would say that before you go to a GD, talk to the people present there. Show a GENUINE interest to be friends with them. Ask them about their calls, place, background, name and everything else. Don’t play tricks. Just be friends. It helps you in two ways. One, your nervousness withers away. Two, when you go the GD, it’s not a GD anymore. It’s just a canteen discussion among friends. Speak your heart out. Speak as if you feel for the topic and feel for your stand.

You would not realize when you cut someone short, when you talked for 30 seconds, when you argued hard, when you supported someone and when you summarized what you understood. Be in the discussion. Forget everything else.

Good Luck!

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