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It's not too late to crack CAT

Arnav Sinha
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CAT 2006: Tips, exam strategies...more
August 18, 2006

In my experience, it's possible to score well in the Common Admission Test and get calls from the best B-schools even if you start preparing now.

This year, CAT is scheduled for November 19. It's still not too late to get a headstart. All you need to do is keep these pointers in mind.

Ground rules first

Before I share how I prepared for the test, here are three ground rules: 

a. There is no one-size-fits-all method here. What worked for me might ruin your chances. So be careful before you follow anybody's advice.

b. You might have heard this one before -- CAT is a test of aptitude. Truer words have seldom been said. It takes a very basic level of proficiency in mathematics and English to excel at CAT, as long as you know how to use that proficiency.

c. Nothing works like hard work. Except, maybe, smart work.

Books are your best friend

I have always maintained I got lucky as far as CAT preparation is concerned. In a way, I started preparing for it much before I had any inkling those three letters together meant anything other than a cute, furry animal that meows, purrs and laps up any milk left uncovered. I always used to reading like there was no tomorrow, you see!

CAT is broadly composed of three sections: Quantitative Aptitude, Data Interpretation and Verbal Ability.

Nothing prepares you better for CAT (or even life, as I like to believe) than the company of good books. So, by the time I solved my first mock CAT paper, I was already well-prepared for the VA part. Being an engineer did help a bit with the Quant section, but not all that much, as I will describe later. The only novelty was the DI aspect of the paper, which I got used to in a short while.

Engineers miscalculate here

Coming back to my bete noire, QA. I made the same false assumption most engineers make, and many are forced to go back on. I was confident I would crack all DA questions left, right and centre (it is just Standard 12 mathematics, isn't it?).

I was in for a huge shock when I couldn't clear the cut-off in my first test. Given enough time, I could solve almost all questions in the QA section. In the time I was given, however, I could come up with only a morale-shattering performance. That's when I decided to pull up my socks, and take the bull by its horns.

I had not joined any coaching class for preparation. I would suggest you do the same (keeping rule (a) above in mind), unless you have problems keeping up motivation levels or feel you need to cover a lot of unfamiliar territory in the prescribed syllabus.

I began conscious preparation six months before CAT. I was comfortable with VA to begin with, and used to solve sectional tests occasionally. Ditto for Reading Comprehension practice.

 Sectional tests for DI and Logic were slightly more regular.

Bracing up for my bete noire

I needed to work on QA mainly, and I began by going through the entire syllabus during the summer vacation. Any standard reading material from one of the better coaching classes would suffice for that. Every chapter I finished was followed by fairly intensive sectional tests related to that portion.

I took pains to ensure I devoted at least one hour daily to this, and thus finished the 'Quant' syllabus in a couple of weeks. It's very important that you are familiar with the entire syllabus, or you will do no better than trying to get through a dark alley wearing dark sunglasses.

After I was done with the entire syllabus, I began with a (painful) series of test-paper solving-plus-analysis, which continued till November. I was solving three or four papers every week initially. But, by mid-September, I realised I was overdoing it. As a result, I was not enjoying solving the papers.

So I took a break for about a week and resumed with one or two papers on a weekly basis. My scores improved substantially. Which proves that you need to enjoy the process, and not treat it like a bitter pill being forced down your throat.

Serious mock tests

Take your mock tests very seriously. They make a world of difference. You can join any of the all-India level test series, but you need to be regular. Treat each test like the real thing. This will help you push yourself further, and will also reduce the anxiety you might succumb to in a high-pressure test like CAT.

Analyse each paper you solve earnestly. The number of papers you solve every week has no (positive) co-relation with your CAT performance. The effort you put in while analysing a paper, on the other hand, does. A two-hour paper (two-and-a-half, if we go by this year's CAT regulations) warrants at least four hours of careful analysis.

After you are done with your paper, take a break. Don't start analysing in a bored frame of mind.

Once you have relaxed, sit down with the paper and try to solve the questions you missed. Spend some time with the questions you solved, thinking of shorter solutions you might have overlooked.

Next, go through the solutions for each question, irrespective of whether you got that question right or not. Learn, don't just read. The mistakes you commit now should not be repeated again. The questions you missed now should be cakewalk for you if you encounter them again.

A good way to teach yourself to be more careful is to calculate the marks you lost because of careless mistakes, or because you overlooked easy questions, and try to see how much higher your percentile would have been if you had been a wee bit more careful.

Mock tests, at least the All-India ones, give a very good idea of where you stand on a relative scale. Make full use of this information. Don't feel intimidated if you see the topper score in 100s while you get a measly 40. You just need to score a little above 50 in a standard test to get calls. At the same time, realise that people scoring more than you are not more intelligent or more capable. They are just more careful.

I have deliberately avoided giving tips about preparing for VA. Someone, who was doing badly to begin with, and then overcame those problems, would be better placed to do that. The only thing I know is that, unlike fast calculation, high comfort-level with a language takes much more time to develop. But you don't have to win the Booker here. Getting a moderately high score in VA is enough.

Finally, the one thing I tell anyone who cares to listen -- CAT is an over-hyped phenomenon. Enjoy it, irrespective of whether you 'crack' it or not.

Arnav Sinha is a PGDM first year student at IIM-Calcutta. He scored a 99.98 percentile in CAT 2005.

Have you taken CAT? Did you feel nervous? What was your study strategy? Did joining a coaching class help?
Share your tips, advice and experiences

Don't forget to mention the name if your institute, CAT percentile and what you are currently doing.

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