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Test taking strategy

If I were to tell you that there is JUST ONE RIGHT STRATEGY to write the CAT exam, I would be lying through my teeth, ARKS Srinivas.

india Updated: Aug 26, 2008 13:40 IST

If I were to tell you that there is JUST ONE RIGHT STRATEGY to write the CAT exam, I would be lying through my teeth! However, there are many students who meet us and say that such and such candidate has used this strategy and got into the IIM hence I am using the same. This approach to CAT would be disastrous. In fact, almost every student who has cracked the CAT paper and got into the IIMs has probably used a different strategy to get there. Then, does this article even make any sense? Decidedly so! Read on to understand why?

That CAT is Uncertain is a No brainer. But at the same time, there definitely is a CERTAIN way of approaching the CAT exam. It is quite normal that many students falter in CAT as they have never understood CAT correctly. Once you do, automatically, you will find that this is not a Wild CAT but a perfectly domesticated CAT appearing in the guise of the former!

Let's take CAT 2007. This had 75 questions (25 questions per section) and a total of 150 minutes to spend. Clearly we are talking about 2 minutes per each question. Then what can you expect about the difficulty of the paper. Undoubtedly there will be difficult questions. You don't go into the CAT exam hoping that the paper will be simple.

You expect the paper will be difficult and then if the paper is difficulty where is the problem? The problem is clearly is in the mind. Reckon this; the Cutoff for getting a single IIM call was as low as 105 marks out of 200 in CAT 2007. If this is true (incidentally it is!), then the question of a difficult or easy paper does not arise. You are looking at solving about 50% of the questions in the paper with a reasonable degree of accuracy.

Before looking at the strategy one must understand the variables involved in the game. We are not talking about the areas in which questions are asked. There are two variables which help you maximize your score viz Attempts and Accuracy. Your ability to play with these variables in the CAT exam (probably differently for different sections) is the key to cracking this exam.

To use these parameters, there are basically two tactics.

Tactic 1: If the paper is tough then go slow and concentrate on accuracy

Tactic 2: If the paper is easy try attempting as many questions as possible so that you can maximize scores.

English Section
For two years in succession this section created all the problems for the CAT aspirants. For two years in succession this section was controversial in the fact that the key given by the IIMs to the questions were at best ambiguous in some cases and at worst plain simple illogical if not wrong.
Even English experts disagree with the key that was provided by the IIMs.

Having said that, there are some issues that we still tend to forget. Even though there were close to 7 questions (out of 25) for which the answers were ambiguous, the other 18 had no such devil in them. Consider this, If you had got just about 50% accuracy in these 18 questions and 1 question correct out of the other 7 (ambiguous) questions, then your net score would be 25 (10 correct and 15 wrong : +4 for a correct answer and -1 for a wrong answer)

25 net score was 95%ile + in CAT 2006 as well as in CAT 2007 and was incidentally the cutoff for none other than IIM Ahmedabad. Why was this then so difficult and why did a lot of students miss the cutoffs?

Both these tactics fall flat in the face of a paper as difficult/ambiguous as CAT 2007. There is also no reason to believe that CAT 2008 would be any different except the normal changes that one expects in CAT.

Problem 1: In tactic1, it is assumed that if we go slow then there is a greater chance of accuracy. On the contrary, since the paper is difficult/ambiguous, there is little chance that your percentage accuracy will go beyond 60% and hence it makes no sense to go slow and even at the cost of accuracy you have to attempt as many as possible. As can be seen from the calculation above, even with a strike rate (accuracy rate) of just 40%, one can get a net score of 25 (which incidentally is also the required cutoff for IIMA for CAT 2007 as we have seen before) if the attempts are maximized.

Problem 2: In tactic 2 it is assumed that if you go fast in an easy paper then we can maximize the marks. But in reality, for an English section it is prudent to go slow in a paper which has more easy questions as the accuracy percentage in an easy paper (for the easy questions) would be higher and hence taking unnecessary risks (there will still be difficult questions) in the paper would reduce this overall accuracy thereby making your score relatively lower than others' scores.

Hence neither of the two tactics IS really apt for the English section. In contrast, what I suggest is that you do exactly the opposite of what the two theories suggest.

If the English section is difficult, then try to maximize the attempts and if it is easy, then concentrate on accuracy.

Quant Section
The Quant section is totally different from the English section. Here the tactics work perfectly. The only reason why they do is that in a Quantitative section the chance to guess an answer (unlike RC or Verbal) is very little and you can only answer when you know the concept/funda behind the question.

Here using the tactics would work perfectly. Let's take CAT 2006 as an example. The quant section in CAT 2006 was pretty simple. But if we look at the history of CAT, then attempting around 30% of the questions with a high degree of accuracy would have done the trick. But since the paper was pretty simple it called for greater attempts.

As was proved, the cutoff was close to 40 marks (out of 100) and that would mean 10 questions right out of 25. This is 40% of the questions. And it is prudent to budget for some negatives and then the asking rate would go up to 15 questions (attempts) in that time. Hence the speed would become very important and you cannot be complacent even if you have attempted 10 to 12 questions.

However, in a very difficult paper (like that of CAT 2007), attempting less questions and concentrating on accuracy would be more than sufficient to get you the cutoff. In CAT 2007 the cutoff was a low as 24 for some of the IIMs and only IIMA and IIMC had a higher cutoff for the quant section.


DI/Logic section
Here the theories don't work perfectly. However, the basic strategy for DI would be to divide your time by the no of sets that are given and give equal time to each of the sets. What is of utmost importance in a DI/Logic set is the decision you take to continue or discontinue the set after the initial 3 minutes. It is almost sacrosanct that you give about 2 to 3 minutes of reading time for each set and then decide whether you should attempt that set.

One key reason why DI looks difficult for quite a lot of students is the lack of formal learning in this area at any stage of formal schooling/college. Hence, unless someone has natural aptitude to look at graphs and understand and/or is very comfortable with logic puzzles, it is going to be difficult to score marks in this section. It goes without saying therefore that if a set looks familiar and if you have already done something similar then it makes sense to try it.

Also, if the next few steps are obvious then you should allot another 9 to 10 minutes for that set. In this manner you can give about 12 to 13 minutes per set (total of 39 min) and hope to solve 3 sets at least. The remaining time (6 minutes) would probably go in checking and reading the 2 other sets. In this way, there is a minimum guarantee that you would attempt 3 out of the 5 sets.

One important but obvious strategy to be adopted is that if you are able to get only 3 or 4 out of the 5 questions given in a set, don't waste more time in the fond hope of getting those other questions right too. It is prudent to set your sights on other sets than grappling with the same set (however tempting it may be) if you find that your time is getting wasted for that particular question in the set.

Overall Strategy
If the CAT 2008 paper has all the three sections with equal marks allotted per section, then it would be prudent to give almost equal time to each of the sections. However, a word of advice may be in order. You should allot time also according to your strengths and weaknesses. It may be useful to give more time for both the strength and the weakness area and give less time to that section which is neither your strength nor your weakness.

For example, if you are strong in English and weak in Quant. Then the time allotment can 50, 50, and 40 min for English, Quant and DI respectively.

Also, it is better to consider that there are only 135 to 140 minutes for the exam and divide your time accordingly so that you would get a buffer of around 10 minutes to maximize your scores in the overall paper or at least salvage any section that might have gone bad during the exam.

Finally, what is required, apart from aptitude, is a RIGHT ATTITUDE for the CAT exam. To the extent that a certain amount of Disdain towards this exam may serve you to get through this paper easily. You can never go into the exam hall deciding the number of questions you are going to attempt and/or the marks for which you will gun for. Prepare thoroughly so that all the demons of any section are in control and enjoy the exam!

(ARKS Srinivas is an alumnus of IIM Calcutta and is the Director of T.I.M.E. Mumbai)