How to prepare for a CAT retake – Part I

Most of the institutes have given out their calls and many of you might be planning to retake the CAT. For some of you it might be a case of almost getting there but missing out because of one poor section or just missing out on the overall percentile. For others the CAT-day might have been a bad day at the office and you knew straightaway that nothing much was going to happen. On my first attempt, I fell into the latter group — I knew I was out of my depth when I saw the Quant paper, there was no way I was going to clear the cut-offs. This despite consistently doing very well in the Sims leading up to the test. I decided to take another shot since I was very clear that it was not out of my league. This post, in two parts, is for all those re-takers who are not hoping to get lucky next time around but want to ensure that they leave no stone unturned to make the cut in CAT 2016.

Do not use percentiles to evaluate your ability on a section

One of ways by which test-takers evaluate their performance on a section is by looking at their percentile on the same. They rate their ability on a section depending upon what percentile they scored in that section. The CAT is a very non-standardised with question types and level of difficulty varyies wildly from year to year. If we evaluate CAT-15 with respect to CAT-14 there were significant changes

  • The RC passages and other content on the Verbal were a lot easier to read than those on CAT-14
  • The Quant section was also easier than CAT-14 making speed & accuracy even more crucial factor

If you got a 90 this year on Verbal & Quant and lost on DI-LR, which was as tough as it was in the previous year, then can you rest assured that your VA & QA are strong and you will need very little prep?

What if next year, the RC passages next year go up a few notches to the 2014 level? What will you do if the Quant section poses tricker problems and LR becomes easy? This has happened to quite a few students in the past, percentiles getting reversed in the second attempt.

Nothing can be more dangerous than evaluating your ability solely on the basis of your percentile when planning a re-attempt! This is especially true when your sectional percentiles are in the 80-95 range!

Only those with percentile well above 95 can rest assured that their ability on a particular section is pretty solid.

Evaluate the quantum of effort you put into preparing for each area

Instead of evaluating your ability solely on the basis of your percentile, evaluate it based on the amount of effort you put in to the particular area. When I started preparing for the CAT for the first time my core strengths were VA-RC and DI-LR, QA (relative to my ability on the others) my weakest area. In my prep for my first go at the CAT, apart from classroom sessions, I did the following

  • VA-RC: Solved the entire material of two brands including IMS, covering RC, Vocabulary (including foreign phrases and the book by Normal Lewis) and Verbal Reasoning; only area I excluded was Grammar
  • DI-LR: Solved the entire material of two brands including IMS
  • QA: Solved only material pertaining to Arithmetic, Algebra and Geometry completely excluded Numbers and Modern Maths (I hated them :-))
  • Tests: I would have taken about 50-60 full-length tests in total!

Malcolm Gladwell has famously put a number to the amount of hours of training put in by those who become high-achievers in their field — 10000 hours of deliberate practice. There has been a lot of debate around this number that seemed to suggest that all you needed to do was deliberate practice and you would succeed. But be that as it may we know that the best sportsmen are the ones who put in more than the others into their practice — it was true of Michael Jordan, it was true of Sachin Tendulkar, it is true of Sardara Singh (one of India’s and the world’s best hockey players).

So the first step is to start with a honest evaluation how much practice you put into each of the areas —  RC, Vocabulary, Reasoning, Grammar, DI, LR, Numbers, Arithmetic, Algebra, & Modern Maths

Do not prep by percentages, prep to increase the range of your abilities

While I enjoy teaching a lot there are times when some questions from students really get my goat, especially this one — Sir which topics are most important for CAT?

We are so used to guide-book preparation for the better part of our lives that we cannot think of an approach beyond it. I have no problem with this but then one should not aim to get into elite institutions and secure high-quality jobs by playing the percentages.

Firstly, you will be taking not just the CAT, but other tests such as the XAT, IIFT, NMAT and SNAP. Across these five tests your ability across all areas will get tested to various degrees.

More importantly do not look at it from the narrow lens of test-prep. Ask yourself the following questions

  • Will possessing a good vocabulary not be of any use in your life (I know Dhirubhai Ambani would not have had a great vocab, but then he did not do an MBA either :-))?
  • Will the ability to quickly read and process content in English, be it articles from the Economist or the latest management books not come in handy?
  • Is the ability to quickly crunch numbers irrelevant just because you have a calculator on your phone?

Until you are looking at all of these things in terms of weightage on CAT and view areas as things to be endured to get into a great institute, you will always be a resource who will be used by others.

The day you start looking at these things as core skills are necessary to succeed in life and thus expected of any high-quality individual, then you start becoming — to paraphrase Marlon Brando from On The Waterfront   — a contender, a contender for taking up leadership roles.

Make a list of the skills you want to acquire, the areas you want to master

Not getting through is dispiriting to say the least, more so when after you have put in a lot of effort, it was no different with me. I thought I had the QA section covered since I was comfortable with Arithmetic, AlgebraGeometry. I was not playing the percentages but something about topics such as Functions, Probability, Inequalities, Numbers made me averse to trying them. One mentor who otherwise was really helpful in showing us the best way to solve DI and Arithmetic questions told me that there will be enough questions from these three areas for me to be able to clear the cut-off. Alas, on test-day questions from those areas were far and few in between!

Before my second attempt I asked myself some really hard questions — why did I shy away from f(x) questions, is probability that tough to understand, am I selectively intelligent and specifically dumb?

One big reason behind my reluctance to tackle these questions was the fact that these topics were not really covered extensively in the ICSE syllabus of that time. So the first barrier was a certain unfamiliarity.

The second and more important reason was that I made no attempt to understand them and get comfortable with them — they were black boxes and I let them remain black boxes. When I cleared the cut-offs in the Sims leading up to the test, I never bothered to try to learn the solutions to questions I had ignored.

I focussed more on getting better at what I knew rather than learning what I did not know and thus did not expand my range of scoring opportunities.

So my single point agenda in the lead up to my second attempt was to focus on really getting the better of my pet hates.

Each one of you will have a your own Achillees heel or heels (An Achilles heel is a weakness in spite of overall strength, which can actually or potentially lead to downfall. While the mythological origin refers to a physical vulnerability, idiomatic references to other attributes or qualities that can lead to downfall are common). Make a list of those things and you will find that the quantum of practice you put into your first attempt as far as those areas go was proportionally lesser than what you put in for your stronger areas.

The more detailed you make this list the better your prep will be — calculation DI, Venn Diagram LRs, Time Speed & Distance etc.

Learn to learn better not just for CAT but for IIM Interviews as well

Most of the time I feel that the way we learn holds the key to how much we actually learn. Our focus has always been on memorising and as a result while we might know a concept in terms of definition we rarely manage the application.

The students who made it to the WAT-GD-PI rounds are being peppered with math questions. As I am writing a student posted his MDI-Gurgaon PI experience on the What’s App group and one of the questions he was asked was  to solve xˆy + yˆx = 999. Other questions posed to other students across institutes include

  • difference between discrete variable and continuous variable
  • for what sort of data will you you use mean, when will you use median and when will you use mode
  • what is the square root of -1

What is really important is that you move away from learning to remember but learning to understand and thus remember once and for all.

For example in the simple equation y = mx + c, what are each of the terms? How is it related to x/a + y/b = 1 and ax + by + c = 0?

What happens to the curve ax² + bx + c when a, b & c are changed?

The letters are not just alphabets but symbols used to represent logic. Try to get to the logic of things, this is the single biggest tool to improving your aptitude.

The same curiosity has to apply to Verbal as well — what is the difference between disinterested, uninterested and indifferent are all the three the same, are all three different or are two of the three similar ?

Your entire prep has to have one motto — I am going to learn new skills and get better!

This is important to keep in mind since most people prepping for a retake do not focus on the quality of their prep. They go in with full enthusiasm, energy and drive with the motto — I am going to nail this test this time!

The problem with the second approach is that it is every energy intensive and somewhere leads to a burnout. To a certain extent the difference between Federer’s game and Nadal’s game.

You will end up over-preparing, not really get better in terms of your aptitude and ability to handle questions from a wide variety of areas but only get better in terms speed.

Also the big danger with such an approach is that for some inexplicable reason you can come unstuck on D-Day! I have learnt this the hard way since it has happened to me once during an engineering exam on my favourite subject. I believe it happened because I enjoyed the prep so much I went overboard with it.

I wanted this first post to be primarily about the approach and mindset that you should build for your next attempt. Without the right approach and mindset most efforts are misdirected.

In the next post I will deal with the specifics about what content to use to practice for each of the areas and how to plan your prep for the retake.


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