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CAT trends and what they mean
Sai Kumar Swamy
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October 15, 2008

The Common Admission Test is the gateway to the prestigious Indian Institutes of Management and no wonder it is considered to be one of the most difficult entrance tests anywhere in the world. Consider this little factoid: the world class Harvard, Stanford etc admit roughly 10 per cent of their applicants whereas in 2008 the number of students writing CAT numbered 230,000 of which only the top 1,600-odd made it to the IIMs! This represents less than 1 per cent of the total applicants -- this amply reflects the tough competition that one faces in getting an admission into these elite institutes.


The unpredictability of CAT is a very unique feature -- one that makes this test the 'mother of all tests'. The unpredictable nature of the CAT stems from the fact that the IIMs want to test the students' ability to deal with changing conditions and the surprise situations that one gets to encounter in the world of business in a regular manner.


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The unpredictability is seen in the number of questions, the number of sections, the marking scheme, negative marking, duration of the test and most importantly in the composition of the test. Let us now look at these changes in a more detailed manner.


Number of Questions & Sections

CAT in the early nineties was a very lengthy paper with more than 180 questions in it and having four sections viz. Verbal Ability, Reading Comprehension, Quantitative Ability and Data Interpretation. Thereafter the number of questions was reduced to 165 with students being tested across three sections namely Verbal Ability (which was a combination of the earlier Verbal and Reading Comprehension sections), Logic & Data Interpretation and Quantitative Ability.


In CAT 2004, the number of questions reduced to 123 and this came down further to 90 in 2005 and 75 in 2006. The implication of such a reduction was that students could no longer afford to leave any area out of their preparation nor could one find 'easy' questions to answer by searching through the paper. A paper with a lower number of questions obviously reduces choice that students have and would play into the hands of those who prepare really well and have left no stone unturned in their quest for excellence.



Prior to 2006, CAT was always a 120-minute exam and students were free to allocate their time across different sections in any manner they deemed suitable for them. This changed in the mid-nineties when sectional time limits were imposed on individual sections which ensured that students spent a meaningful amount of time across all sections. For the first time ever, CAT gave 150 minutes for students to solve the paper in 2006. This was on account of the fact that there were fewer questions and the difficulty level was quite high as compared to the earlier years.


The implication of this is that if one has a good idea of concepts and the methodology to be adopted to solve all kinds of questions then it would be enough to get a high score -- brute speed is not an essential prerequisite anymore.


Number of choices & Marking Scheme

CAT has generally tended to give papers with 'equal weightage' for all questions. However in 2004 the paper came with 2, 1 and half-mark questions -- this meant that the paper setters had actually identified the easy and tough questions for the students! In 2006 and 2007 the marks per question was four and all questions carried the same marks.


The number of choices in CAT was four prior to 2006 but they were increased to five in 2006 and 2007. The implication of this is that students would find the Verbal Section getting tougher as one has to read an additional choice, evaluate it and then select the right answer. Whereas in Quant, Logic & Data Interpretation where students solve the question first, arrive at an answer and then look at the choices -- the number of choices wouldn't matter at all.


Negative marking

The IIMs have always maintained a closed approach as far as revealing any details of the cut-off scores or the negative marking scheme being used by them. A thorough analysis of the scorecards prior to 2006 revealed that the IIMs had a negative marking scheme of one-third for every wrong answer. With the IIMs embracing transparency in the era of RTI one saw history being made when the IIMs disclosed the negative marking in the year 2005.


In 2006 when the paper had five choices the negative marking was clearly specified as 1 mark ie 25 per cent of the weight of a correct answer. A negative marking in this range is meant to discourage those guessing and students would be well advised to avoid guessing if they have absolutely no clue to the answer.


CAT 2004 -- Shock & Awe

The IIMs lived up to their reputation of springing major surprises in CAT by giving a paper where each section had two sub-sections. Moreover there was a differential marking scheme in place with some question worth 2 marks, some worth 1 mark and some worth just half a mark!


While CAT had never before given different marks to different questions, this pattern worked in favour of the students because the test-setters themselves were identifying the difficult questions. A proper approach for this paper was to select the questions on merit and try and maximise the score in the one-mark questions as they were easier than the two-markers. But one should have certainly gone through the two-mark questions to see if they were familiar and solvable.


The cut-off for this paper was around 9-11 marks for the Quantitative and the Logic & Data Interpretation sections and around 17-18 for the Verbal section. A score of 53-54 would have enabled a student to get at least one call and any score in excess of 60 would have fetched all calls.

The writer is course director at TIME, an institute that imparts training and career guidance to student aspirants for competitive tests like CAT / MBA / MCA / BBA / GRE / TOEFL etc. TIME is run by a group of IIM alumni and has the largest network of 159 centres in 81 cities in India. TIME students achieved 885 selections into IIMs alone in CAT 2007.

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