The Common Admission Test has evolved over the years and papers across different years bear scant resemblance to one another either in their structure or content. This aspect of unpredictability is a very unique feature of this exam. The unpredictable nature of the CAT stems from the fact that the IIMs want to test the students' ability to deal with changing conditions that one gets to encounter in the world of business. The unpredictability is seen in the number of questions, the number of sections, the marking scheme, negative marking, duration of the test and most importantly, in the composition of the test. Let us now look at these changes in a more detailed manner.
Number of Questions and Sections
CAT in the early nineties was a very lengthy paper with more than 180 questions in comprising of four sections — Verbal Ability, Reading Comprehension, Quantitative Ability and Data Interpretation. Thereafter, the number of questions was reduced to 165 with students being tested across 3 sections namely Verbal Ability (which was a combination of the earlier Verbal and Reading Comprehension sections), Logic & Data Interpretation and Quantitative Ability.
In CAT 2004, the number of questions was reduced to 123 and this came down further to 90 in 2005 and 75 in 2006. The implication of such a reduction was that students could no longer afford to leave any area out of their preparation nor could one find easy questions to answer by searching through the paper. A paper with a lower number of questions obviously reduces the option of choice.
Prior to 2006, CAT was always a 120-minute exam and students were free to apportion their time across sections in any manner they deemed suitable.
This changed in the mid-nineties when sectional time limits were imposed on individual sections, which ensured that students spent a meaningful amount of time across all sections. For the first time ever, CAT gave 150 minutes for students to solve the paper in 2006.
This was on account of the fact that there were fewer questions and the difficulty level was quite high as compared to the earlier years. The implication: If one had a clear idea of concepts and the methodology adopted to solve all kinds of questions then it would be enough to get a high score. Speed was not an essential prerequisite anymore.
Choices and Marking Scheme
CAT generally gives equal weightage for all questions. However, in 2004 one saw a paper with 2, 1 and ½ mark questions in it. In 2006 and 2007 the marks per question was four and all questions carried the same marks. The number of choices in CAT was four prior to 2006 but they were increased to five in 2006 and 2007.
The implication of this was that students would find the Verbal section getting tougher as one had to read an additional choice, evaluate it and then select the answer. Whereas in Quantitative and Logic and Data Interpretation where students solve the question first, arrive at an answer and then look at the choices — the number of choices wouldn't matter at all.
The IIMs have always maintained a very closed approach as far as revealing any details of the cut-off scores or the negative marking scheme being used by them. A thorough analysis of the scorecards prior to 2006 revealed that the IIMs had a negative marking scheme of 1/3rd for every wrong answer. With the IIMs embracing transparency in the era of RTI, the IIMs disclosed the negative marking in the year 2005. In 2006 when the paper had five choices the negative marking was clearly specified as 1 mark i.e. 25 per cent of the weight of a correct answer. A negative marking in this range is meant to discourage students from doing guesswork.
CAT 2004 came as a complete shock for most students. The IIMs lived up to their reputation of springing major surprises in CAT by giving a paper where each section had two sub-sections. Moreover, there was a differential marking scheme in place with some question worth 2 marks, some worth 1 mark and some worth just ½ a mark. While CAT had never before given different marks to different questions, this pattern worked in favour of the students because the test-setters themselves were identifying the difficult questions.
A proper approach for this paper was to select the questions on merit and try and maximise the score in the one-mark question, as they were easier than the two markers. But one should have certainly gone through the two-mark questions to see if they were familiar and solvable. The cut-off for this paper was around 9-11 marks for the Quantitative and the Logic & Data Interpretation sections and around 17-18 for the Verbal section. A score of 53-54 would have enabled a student to get at least one call and any score in excess of 60 would have fetched all calls.