Taking the CAT is like waging a war. Well, you won't exactly be shot dead, but you may end up with a far lower paying job, consequently less Lovely wife/Handsome husband which is almost the same thing as being shot dead. Anyway, like War, successful conquest of CAT requires strategy.
Know the terrain, understand the exam.
CAT is an exam, or more precisely a competitive exam. So it's not about how easy or difficult the exam is, nor is it about how many marks you get. It's about where you stand with respect to competition. If out of 100 you get 90 marks would that be great? No, if the whole world gets more than your score. And would 30 out of 100 looks ridiculously low? No again, if everyone else gets less that than score!
This is the philosophy of CAT. It is a exam which tests your relative standing and hence you probably have to do just better than the other guy. However, since there is no way of knowing how others are faring in the exam it may be prudent to check what best you can do to win this war nay seat in an IIM!
The pattern of CAT has been undergoing a continuous change over the years. But, the basic trends that can be seen are
· Reduction in questions and increase in the time available to do these questions. Clearly the emphasis is on more difficult questions.
· The questions are logical in nature; hence you would need to think. Memorization of formulae or standard methods will get you nowhere. Come to think of it Memory is damn cheap these days,
· The reduced number of questions plus the uncertainty makes it imperative that you do not neglect any area of study.
But, for all these changes, certain basic principles have remained the same right from the early days of CAT.
· Maximize score, but make sure you get a qualifying score in each section. That means while you need close to 99 percentile overall, you also need about 90 percentile in each of the sections. It is higher for institutes like IIMA and IIMC which take only the written score for shortlisting students for the next round (GD and Interview)
· CAT is mixture of easy, medium and difficult questions carrying similar marks. Are you smart enough to know which ones to go for? Pick the low hanging fruit before you clamber onto the tree and even then don't waste time or break your neck going for the lone fruit on topmost branch.
· You would need to perform under pressure. Courage under fire. Anyone can cross a three feet bridge over 4 feet deep canal. But, to do the same across a 1500 feet gorge, under enemy fire requires courage.
So now that we know the task ahead of us. Let's plan for the battle ahead.
First since you know you got to do well in all sections lets divide the time. I will explain the process for a paper of the CAT 2007 pattern, but it is applicable for any pattern.
The CAT paper last year had 3 sections with 25 questions each and had a time limit of 2 ½ hours or 150 minutes. Each question had 5 answer choices. Each correct answer was worth 4 marks and a wrong answer -1 mark.
The first rule is not to divide the entire applicable time. You need a buffer time of 20 minutes at least. The purpose of a buffer is
· It is impossible to stick to precise time limits. So if you plan a 50 x3 strategy, you could very easily end up with 55-55-40, which can be dangerous for the last section. Over the years, many students have complained of performing badly in the last section, irrespective of the order in which they solve the questions.
· Even with enough time there are times when performance in a section will go down. And since sectional cutoffs are critical, you need a second shot at that section, using the buffer time to improve scores and clear cutoffs.
· In case all sections are okay, then the buffer time can be allocated to that section which maximizes overall score. This decision is easily taken as you have already spent enough time in each section. However please note that you cannot allocate the time to a section like RC where, it takes a long time to really crack a passage. What if you have just about understood the passage and ready to take a crack at the question when the bell goes off!!
Please note that you are expected to clear cutoffs in each section. Where exactly you get the marks from within a section is immaterial. So go for the comfort zone, for example DI rather than LA depending on your strengths.
There are people who will tell you to scan the entire paper before attempting any question. Bad move! Imagine a situation where you have spent 20 minutes and the answer sheet is blank. Panic? Keeps the score board ticking or the pressure will get to you. In hostile terrain keep moving and when you can shoot, shoot.
There will be easy questions in CAT. Take it from me. This is a basic law of CAT. The IIMs are not looking at Mathematicians or Grammarians. They are clearly looking for would be managers. The golden rule is therefore to read every question that comes you way and just pick the ones that you can solve.
So attempt only those questions which take less time to solve or the ones that are very familiar to you. If you have time left for the section you can come back and do more questions of the next level of difficulty. Remember that just by solving a difficult problem you are not going to get an ABEL prize. You will still probably get the same mark as when you solve a very easy question.
I understand that it is not as easy as it sounds. It takes skill, it takes discipline, why else are you being given 20 AIMCATs at T.I.M.E.. Apply the technique, analyze your performance, refine the technique apply it again and again, until it becomes second nature to you. The two biggest issues are
· Leaving a question which you think is solvable but you know will take a lot of time. It's very difficult. I know. But leave it nevertheless. You will probably solve 2 easier questions in the time saved. In any case if there is time left, you can come back to it.
· You attempt a question which appears easy but as you try solving it gets complicated and you get struck. Cut your losses. Again very difficult to actually do so, but you have to! A question like that in CAT can take up any amount of time, 5, 8, 15 minutes maybe. Once you start solving a question step back and reassess after a min or two. If you are sure you are on the right track and the answer is around the corner, go for it. Else skip.
Remember, if you have a good look at all questions, pick them well and solve coolly, you should perform well in exam.
Now, lest discuss a few key points
· Order or sequence of sections: In an ideal scenario, it should not matter. However, you don't send Harbhajan Singh as an opener in a One day. Yes, you may as an experiment. Once the experiment fails, it is time to get back to a Sachin Tendulkar or a Virendra Sehwag. This is simply because if you have scored in the first few overs, the pressure on the subsequent batsmen is reduced. Similarly, start with a section of your Strength. Ideally, if you have one weak area and two strong areas, then the order should be in such a way that you sandwich your weak area between the two strong areas.
· Guesswork: Pure guesswork is of course pointless. However, in some cases when you have eliminated some of the options, it is good to guess. Say you are sure that the answer is either choice 1 or choice 3. In number of cases, (especially VA/RC), the choice is almost impossible to make. Now, guessing makes sense because the probability is on your side, but also because a guess in time, saves time and keeps you moving. Indecision paralyzes you, and hence any decision is better than none.
· But, on the flip side, don't over guess. You see probability is just that, an expectation. It works out over a very large sample. For example, if you spin an coin a million times, you get very close to half a million Heads. But, in 3 tosses, you may very well get 3 Tails.
· Learn to handle pressure: Those 2 ½ hours would decide your future. It's the culmination of a year's hard work. You would be inhuman not to have pressure. See, I told you it would be like war. That's why the discipline, the relentless practice. The more familiar you get with CAT, the less the pressure. While giving the exam, don't think about the result, the toughness of the paper, possible cutoffs. Just play the game, one question at a time. Anyway a tough paper is tough on everyone. There is no pan IIM conspiracy to custom create a tough paper and send it to your classroom and center.
· Lastly, mark the OMR sheet after every question. Don't leave it till the end. It does not save any time, and it is an absurd risk to take. Every year, I find at least one student who has lost out badly, because of trying to mark all answers at the end. There are no two ways about it. Even if you have been able to do the marking at the end in all the AIMCATs till now and have been finding it pretty good, I would give but just one advice. Mark in the OMR sheet the moment the question has been solved.
(ARKS Srinivas, Director, T.I.M.E. Mumbai and Rahul Reddy, Director T.I.M.E. Kolkata)