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Join an IIM. Here's how

September 29, 2005

Amit Kumar, Nishchal Manhot and Abhishek Gupta are all at business schools. Okay, we agree there is nothing remarkable about that; it's the most sought after form of higher education in India these days.

The three of them are at three different Indian Institutes of Management -- at Ahmedabad, Calcutta and Bangalore respectively. Nothing very jaw-dropping about that either. There are about 750 other students like them, studying management theory to make that big break into the corporate arena.

What is worth a gulp or two, however, is the fact that Kumar, Manhot and Gupta are among the handful of CAT candidates who took the famous IIM entrance test -- the Common Admission Test -- and emerged among the 'top percentile' scorers.

Nobody scored more marks than they did. If anybody should be talking about cracking CAT, it should be them says Sandeep Manudhane, who runs PT Education, the prep service that claims some credit for their success.

Fair enough. So what do the three have to say?

CAT fundas

Kumar and Gupta make an upfront disclosure: they're both engineers from the Indian Institutes of Technology, getting into which involves squeezing through the world's most tightly manned gate. That's a huge advantage on the 'quant' front (quantitative aptitude, or QA, the math part).

The trio also say they knew what they were good at and in which areas they needed to improve. All three said QA along with Logical Reasoning/ Data Interpretation were their areas of strength, and verbal skills their principal weakness. Kumar realised early that 'the English language section would be a tough nut to crack.' Gupta was worried about 'the personality assessment stage' more than the test.

Their actual test strategies?

This is what Manhot had to say: "My strategy for CAT was to score as many marks in QA, and then the individual section cutoffs for all the rest."

Gupta used "fixed time limits for all the sections," but made the best of his strengths -- QA and LR/ DI.

Kumar's strategy was even more elaborate: "I attempted QA and LR/ DI first, giving roughly 35 minutes to each section to try and clear the cutoffs. I tried to do around 20-22 questions in QA (cut-off was 16-18) and 28-30 questions in LR/ DI (cut-off was 23-25) in this time. Then I went on to English Usage, and tried to attempt 40+ questions in the remaining 50 minutes, since this was my weak area. If time remained, I planned to come back to QA to maximise the gains here."

That makes it sound like a breeze. In reality, the preparation was rigorous. "I worked hard on the softer skills," says Gupta, "and read a lot of books as well as newspapers." Manhot adds "functional and non-functional novels" to that list, while Kumar adds "books recommended by the PT Education faculty."

GD mantras

What about the part after the test, the Group Discussions?

On this, their advice is varied. To Gupta, it's all about "content" -- about making valid points. "Believe in yourself," he advises.

Manhot remembers the GD case studies at IIM-A ("an entrepreneur running a garments factory whose venture runs into trouble after a production lot is rejected.") and IIM-Lucknow ("should voting be mandatory in India?"). "There was plenty of time for everyone to speak," he says. "The thing which mattered was who could throw up the most unique points." Gupta and Manhot did well enough to make the cut.

Kumar says. "First and foremost, I would like to mention that one should always remain calm in a GD. It is very easy to get into one-to-one situations with people who do not agree with your point of view. However, one must remember that a GD is all about the group. The more you become part of the group and help bring out new, innovative points and perspectives to the topic under discussion, the better chance you have in the GD.

"It is equally important to listen to what the other members of the group are saying because you may be asked by the panel to summarise the discussion, either orally or on a piece of paper. If you are busy thinking about what your next point should be, you might miss the flow of the discussion. Another member of the group might give the topic a whole new dimension and by the time you come back to your senses, you will be totally clueless about the point under consideration."

PI strategy

And the panel interviews? "A totally unique experience," according to Kumar. The topics varied widely.

"While the IIM-A panel spent a considerable amount of time testing my creative skills, IIM-B was more focused on my work experience. The IIM-C panel quizzed me about the goings-on in Iraq; we also discussed the functioning of American democracy in this regard. Totally opposed to all this, the IIM-L panel spent a considerable amount of time on my hobbies."

Does this match the experience of others? Manhot says the interview at IIM-A was largely about banking since his father is a banker. At IIM-B, it was about extracurricular activities and why such a sound technical mind wanted to be a manager. IIM-C laid "a lot of emphasis on social responsibility." At IIM-L, the exchange was about all sorts of things -- the Indian economic scene, hobbies and opinions on all kinds of current issues.

So clearly, to make it through the gate, you've got to get a hang of more than just the QA/ LR/ DI alphabet soup. Already under criticism for churning out batchloads of homogenous manageroids, the IIMs can be expected to diversify these interactions even further. In other words, get as much exposure as you can to varied subjects. It will do you good.

Have you taken CAT? Write in and share your tips. Don't forget to add your name, age, your percentile, the name of your management institute, the year in which you passed out and where you currently work.

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