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Cracking the CAT

Vineet posted on 3rd September

By Vineet Khunger

September’s here –you’ve got just a month and a half to go for CAT. What do you do, Jack? What do you do?

If you’re harbouring dreams of getting into one of the better IIMs, you’ve probably been hitting the books for a few months now – so relax, we’re not here to tell you to study, study, study. Everyone’s always running short on time, so we’re going to give you some tips on how to maximise the return from the time you put in. The key is to now focus on your test strategy, rather than just studying the concepts and theory.

The first thing you should do is join a test series, if you haven’t already. The only metric you have to gauge your preparation is your ranking in the test series - it’s okay to start low, but then you need to drastically improve your rank with every test. You have a lot of good alternatives – just ensure that the test series you join gives you |
a)  Enough practice tests
b)  A large base of students to compare your results with
c)  Online testing practice

You should take at least one test a week from now till October. But also remember that the test itself is not as important as is analysing your performance.
When I took the CAT a few years ago, I did not take any classes - I just joined a test series. I did, however, ensure that I analysed every single test very, very thoroughly, often spending as many as five hours analysing a two hour mock test.

Analysing your performance very thoroughly is key to being successful in CAT – a lot of you who’ve already joined a test series might be able to tell us your overall score and percentile, but probably will not be able to accurately answer the following questions |
a)    What was my sectional score?
b)    What areas did I score well on, and what areas were my weaknesses?
c)    What concepts do I need to work on after this test, so that I’m better prepared for the next one?

d)   How many guesses did I make? Out of those, how many were right and how many were wrong?

This is a sign that you’re looking only at your net score, and then getting back to the books. Wrong approach.

Each test can tell you a whole lot about your weak areas and your strengths, and can tell you how to proceed with your prep. The key is analysis. If you analyse thoroughly, you can speed up your test prep and ensure that your score jumps from test to test.
All of you have limited time to prepare, and have other things to focus on – college, work, family, etc. The more time you spend analysing, the more time you actually save when going back to concepts.

How to analyse your performance |

Split your test results into three |

A)    Questions that you attempted and answered correctly. A lot of people have told me that every time they guess, they pick the wrong option. Well, there’s an obvious reason for that – most people only analyse the questions they got wrong, and conveniently forget that there would’ve been a certain amount of guesswork involved even in the questions they answered correctly. Take a careful look at each question that you marked correctly and ask yourself |

a.    Did I answer this question with absolute certainty, or was there any bit of guesswork involved? If you answered with absolute certainty, great. If you’re answering most questions of a particular topic this way, then you have good reason to be confident about this area and should move on and focus on other areas.

If there was any guesswork involved, then you need to check what the confusion was. You guessed correctly this time – you might not be so lucky the next time. Also, any hesitation is costing you valuable time during the test. This time could’ve been spent attempting one more question.

b. Did I take the right amount of time in answering this question, or could I have been faster? When practicing, do you take the same amount of time solving questions of this type, or are you faster then?

B)    Questions that you did not attempt. If you left a question unanswered, ask yourself the following |

a. Why did I not attempt the question? Were you able to figure out what kind of problem it was, but then gave up because you know you’re weak in that area? Or could you not understand the problem at all? Why not? Did you spend some time on the question, and then give up because your answer did not match any of the options?

b. Could I have spent lesser time debating whether to attack this question? Look at it this way – you spent maybe forty seconds reading a question twice, and then decided to skip it. If you’d better understood that this is a weak area, not to be attempted, then you could have saved maybe thirty seconds to spend on another question.

c. What steps do I need to take to ensure that I can attempt the question next time? You’re obviously not aiming at 60 attempts on the actual paper, but the more areas you’re confident about, the better your success rate will be.

C)   Questions that I got wrong. Categorise these questions into the following slots |

a. Conceptual problems. This is when you realise that you’re weak on the concepts. How do I handle permutation problems? How can I calculate the area of this kind of figure? If you’re facing a lot of theory problems in a particular area, go back to the concepts, and then practice a lot. These shouldn’t be very tough to resolve, after all, how many concepts are there in CAT?

b. Application Problems. Did you understand the problem, but went wrong somewhere while solving it? Did you correctly identify the conclusion in an RC “inference” question, but then got stuck between two options? Can you solve a probability problem, but generally err in converting a word problem into an equation? These are all application problems. Again, go through the concepts and practice some more.

c. Silly Mistakes. These are, without doubt, the worst kind of errors to make, and you should be very tough on yourself if you have even one of these on the exam. Look at it this way – you know the concept. You know how to solve the problem. You spent time on the question…and you STILL got it wrong. {And you ended up wasting a lot of time}. You should have precisely ZERO silly mistakes on the entire exam. This is nothing but a concentration problem. You’re not focusing enough! Remember – one silly mistake can push you out of the institute of your choice.

The key is to identify patterns in your performance. There are always patterns. Look at three tests and you’ll be able to figure out the topics you’re very strong in, the topics you need to concentrate most on, the percentage improvement you can expect if you eliminate silly mistakes, and so on.

Finally, a lot of people seem to have this mental block that CAT is some tall mountain that’s very tough to climb. That, to put it very succinctly, is complete bull. There are a limited number of concepts that need to be understood, and once you reach a certain rhythm and speed, a good percentile is very much manageable!

A Word on General Knowledge |

General Knowledge, unfortunately, is one area that most test-takers totally ignore. Most students seem to spend maybe 15-20 minutes glancing through the newspaper every morning, and then start reading the news seriously as and when they start their interview prep. This is not enough. One month of reading the news seriously is simply not going to give you perspectives on most issues that you might need to back up in the group discussion and interview. No interviewer will ask you what the previous day’s headline was; he will ask you your opinion on the use of nuclear energy, the current account deficit, black money, etc. Simply saying “I support the use of nuclear energy” is not enough.

Assume the topic of discussion is whether PSUs should be privatised. One person raises hypothetical situations, and talks about how, theoretically, the government could make a lot of money by selling off companies; how privatisation could lead to better management and how there could be cases of mismanagement in setting the sale price of the company. Another participant brings in relevant examples, talking about how Air India has suffered over the last few years, focussing on multiple CEO changes, a flawed merger, interference from the government and the need for multiple bailouts. Then he talks about how the price paid by Tata for VSNL is still being debated, many years after the deal. Which person do you think will make a better impression – the one talking purely in theoretical terms, or the one who understands the theory and also weaves in relevant examples with a good understanding of their significance? You know the answer.

About the Author | Vineet has, among other things, taught English to CAT and GMAT aspirants for four years, at many different MBA coaching centers across Delhi. He has also conducted multiple career counseling workshops for school students, and helped set up two CAT Prep centers in Gurgaon. Vineet made it to IIM Bangalore in 2003, and as he says "…which should be a lesson to you all - if I can do it, absolutely anyone can."

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