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Group discussions -- what you need to know
Rahul Reddy
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November 30, 2006

All those of you who have given CAT know that the IIMs, as well as most other top B-schools, use Group Discussions as part of their selection procedure. This article will explain:

Group discussions are formal, organised discussions conducted with the intention of evaluating a candidate in a peer group situation. The group may either be asked to discuss a topic or they might be given a case study. Lately, some institutes have also been coming up with 'Group Tasks', which involve a cooperative effort from the candidates to achieve a task.

But why have group discussions at all? After all, what do GDs test that is not tested in the written exam or during the personal interview? GDs are held because business management is essentially a group activity; working with groups is perhaps the most important parameter of success as a manager.

While different evaluators have different numbers and names for the parameters, a GD essentially tests four parameters:

1. Content
2. Communication skills
3. Group dynamics
4. Leadership

Content

Content is a combination of knowledge and the ability to create coherent logical arguments on the basis of this knowledge. Memorising facts is pointless. A GD requires an in-depth understanding of the various issues around the topic, as well as the ability to analyse the topic and build arguments.

For example, take the topic, 'Peace talks between India and Pakistan is useless/ useful.'

The candidate should be clearly aware this is not a jingoist test for patriotism. Nor should he forget he is discussing the issue with the purpose of getting into a good B-school (if very fortunate, IIM-C, my alma mater) and that his influence on India's foreign policy is zilch.

So an emotional response like 'Peace and Pakistan do not go together. So let's teach the Pakis a lesson. Nuke them!' would, in all probability, get you disqualified. A balanced response would be, 'While it is a fact that very little has resulted from talks with Pakistan, it is certainly good to see the talks continue. The people-to-people interaction as well as the growing maturity shown by both the leaders clearly shows there is a commitment towards peace.'

Please remember your opinion does not matter. The depth of your knowledge and the logical analysis that you show is critical. Unfortunately, such analytical skills are rarely taught at the school and graduate level. So, it is necessary for you to learn this skill and practise before your GD.

Communication skills  

Communication is a two way process, resulting in the transmission of information. You must always keep in mind that the role of the listener is critical.

Active listening apart, you also need to possess the following:

Group dynamics

A GD, as I mentioned earlier, is a formal peer group situation and tests your behaviour as well as your influence on the group. Formal language and mutual respect are obvious requirements. In addition to the above, you need --

Leadership

One of the most common misconceptions about leadership is that it is all about controlling the group. However, for the GDs that we are talking about, leadership means giving direction to the group in terms of content. It is about initiating the discussion and giving a path for the group to discuss. A good leader is one who allows others to express their views and channels the discussion to a probable decision or conclusion on the given topic.

Types of GDs

Topic-based 

Case studies

A structured discussion of a specific situation, given as a case.

Role plays

Specific case where each participant is allotted a role to play.

Group tasks

Extension of case studies where specific objectives are to be achieved as a group.
 
Conducting GDs

While there is a great deal of variety in the methodology of conducting a Group Discussion, let's discuss the methodology commonly used for B-school selections:

Normally 8-10 students are taken as a group, though in some cases, up to 16 people may be included in a group. A time of 10-15 minutes is commonly given for the discussion. For a topic-based GD, two to three minutes of thinking time may be given, though often the group is told to start right away. For case studies, however, about 15 minutes thinking time is given.

The evaluation is done by one to two experts, usually professors from the B-school itself, called moderators. Please remember moderators are experts with a lot of experience and can be counted upon to observe all the details of a GD, however chaotic it may be.

The candidates may be seated in a circle or rectangular arrangement, with or without a table. The seating arrangement may be prefixed or there may be free seating.

The discussion may be stopped at the preset time or even earlier. A conclusion or consensus may be asked for, though that usually does not occur. A written summary or an oral summary may be asked for at the end of the discussion from each of the candidates.

How to prepare

Content:

Practice

GD training programmes are conducted by various CAT training centres. It would definitely be worth joining one of the programmes, so that practice and expert feedback are ensured.

-- Rahul Reddy, an IIM-C alumnus, is the director of the Kolkata centre of T.I.M.E. He has over four years of experience training students for CAT in general, and GD and Interview training in particular. He has personally overseen the GD and Interview preparation of over 200 successful candidates for the IIMs alone. 

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