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CAT strategy for individual sections
Rahul Reddy
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October 19, 2006

The Common Admission Test, scheduled for November 19, needs not just a lot of preparation but also a lot of smart thinking. Strategy -- a set of choices you make in terms of your approach -- plays a key role here, because CAT is heavily dependent on time; you need to maximise your overall score, while clearing the cutoffs or qualifying scores in each section.


Although your overall strategy should be unique and custom-made for you, there are some general principles that need to be applied. Keep these in mind.


General tips


You get the question paper at least 10 minutes before the start time of 10.30 am. Use this time to check the paper structure, number of sections and sub-sections, questions in each section/sub-section and any other possible surprises. Now, let's create a strategy assuming the paper is a three-section paper with two sub-sections (1 and 2 marks), which is the most probable pattern.


Divide the available time among all sections. I suggest 45 minutes per section or a combination of 45 minutes for two sections and 50 for one. In both cases, you are keeping some time in reserve -- a buffer time. This buffer is necessary for three reasons.


For one, students invariably have a tendency to overshoot time limits. A buffer ensures that the last section does not suffer. In case of a poor performance in any one section, the buffer allows you to recover some ground and hopefully cross the cut-off. In case all sections are okay and you have some buffer time remaining, you can allocate it to the section that lets you maximise your score. This can be done best at the end since, by then, you have already seen all sections and know where you may get some quick marks.


Start with a section you are good at. A bad start lowers morale and, eventually, sections where you are good also suffer. You may experiment a little with various combinations before deciding what works best for you.


Quantitative Ability


The cutoffs in QA for the last four to five CAT papers may never have exceeded 11-12. It is a low scoring section. Accuracy is generally high in QA as there is no ambiguity (unless you are guessing a lot). This implies that questions worth 15-18 marks well attempted will put you clearly above the cutoff. The key is to pick which questions to attempt.


Going by the CAT 2005 pattern (10 X 1 and 20 X 2 marks), spend a good amount of time, say 20 minutes, on the one-mark area and see if you can pick up 6-8 marks. You then have about 25 minutes to attempt a selected five odd questions from the 20 two-markers available. Do understand that searching for the right question to attempt will take time, but it is well worth the effort. There are some common errors students make, that affect their scores:


1. Not looking at some questions: What you haven't looked at will invariably contain some sitters. So spend a little time to look at all questions.


2. Not giving up a question when you can't solve it: Please do not spend too much time breaking your head over one question. After a minute or so, if it appears that no progress is being made, quit and go for another one.


3. Not using the answer choices: CAT is a paper with four answer choices per question. Use them. According to my friend ARKS Srinivas, TIME director, Mumbai, every CAT paper that he has seen has at least three questions that can be solved by intelligent substitution of the answer choices back into the question. Similarly, substitution of carefully chosen numbers can help you solve a number of questions.


Data Interpretation/Logical Ability


This, again, is a low scoring area, with past cutoffs ranging from 9-12. So, again, it is about choosing questions carefully. The difference, of course, is that DI questions come in sets. Carefully select the sets that appear possible. About two sets in the 1-mark category and one set in the two-mark category can give you the cutoff. Start with the 1-mark questions and get some marks on the scoreboard before you attempt the two-markers. In case things do not work out well in the 2-markers, you can still scrape past the cutoff with six to seven one-mark questions and two to three 2-markers.


However, given the trend of logical DI, these easier sets are not obvious. You may need to spend two minutes carefully reading the problem before deciding whether you should attempt it. You also need to have an exit policy for difficult problem sets. After about five minutes, take stock of the situation. If you find yourself making progress, continue; or else, quit. Do not throw away good time. Also, never make any question an ego issue. Go after other questions in the paper.  


Reading Comprehension/Verbal Ability


RC-VA is traditionally an area in which you can score, primarily due to the fact that VA questions take less time. However, over the last couple of years, this section has been toughened up and cutoff scores have decreased.


The key to this section is to remember that, in VA, you need to make a high number of attempts with a good speed. Time is wasted mainly when you try and choose between two close-answer choices; do understand that spending additional time (beyond, say, 1 minute) does not improve your chances of getting the question right. So, mark any one choice and move forward. With 1/3 negative marking, probability is on your side.


So, attempt a maximum number of VA questions in about 20 minutes and you will still have 25-30 minutes for RC. You could attempt two RC passages. If you wish to be conservative, attempt one 1-mark RC and one 2-mark RC.


Accuracy levels in RC/VA will generally be lower. It is very difficult to consistently maintain high accuracy rates like 85-90 per cent. So, compensate with a higher number of attempts. 30 marks attempted at an accuracy of 70 per cent is still a net score of 18, which is pretty good.


In RC, try and gauge your success levels and accuracy rate (past Mock-CAT performance) based on different subjects like economics, art, philosophy, etc. This will help you understand what passages you can best attempt.


The last word: Know your limitations as well as your strengths, plan well and reap the rewards. All the best!

Have you taken CAT? Post your CAT strategies. Mention your name, percentile, institute and profession.

-- The author is an alumnus of IIM-Kolkata. After working with Hindustan Levers and Merck Electronics, he set up TIME's Kolkata branch.

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