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CAT: There's no substitute to reading
Sidharth Balakrishna
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September 26, 2008

Before we embark on a strategy for tackling the English/ Verbal Aptitude section in CAT, it is important to understand that the norm in this section today is fewer but tougher questions with comprehension and understanding being the order of the day.

There are only three or four Reading Comprehension passages with the test being on the ability of the candidate to draw inferences from the given paragraph, rather than just find the answer within its text. The candidate is now expected to exercise his mind much more and think about what the author is actually trying to put across, his attitude or tone towards the issue being discussed etc.

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Similarly in the rest of the English section, the CAT has moved on from testing the knowledge of words and the rules of grammar to a more contextual usage of the English language.

Thus the candidate is expected to be more proficient in the usage of English; he can no longer simply mug up rules and word-lists and hope to crack the English section. He must be able to understand passages thoroughly and be able to metaphorically put himself in the shoes of the author of the passage he is reading.

Reading Comprehension
Reading Comprehension (RC) has become by far the most important part of the English section. It is also this part that requires the most time during the test and the most effort during your preparation as well. And it is in this section that problems generally arise for student. Candidates feel that some questions were ambiguous, the options were too close, parts of the passage were not really clear etc.

So how does one go about RC? First, get the basics absolutely right! There is now no substitute to reading a lot to be truly comfortable with this section. The more literary books you read, the better it is.

Secondly, the candidate, while reading, must train himself to stop periodically and ask himself as to what the author wants to indicate by the usage of particular phrases, is there an implicit meaning in his words, what is the impression he is trying to convey etc.

The other skill that candidates must develop is to analyse the author's style -- is the author optimistic, is he being sarcastic while referring to a particular issue or person, is he analytical by presenting both sides of the picture etc. Candidates have to train themselves to make proper inferences from the picture the author paints. Questions such as "the author is most likely to agree/ disagree with which of the following statements" are increasing in frequency, with the answer having to be inferred from then given paragraph.  

Besides reading books, you could practice reading passages on a daily basis. There is no short-cut for RC, and it requires sustained effort -- it is advised that you read around five passages every day while preparing for CAT. You must remember that the passages which appear in CAT are from a wide spectrum of topics -- such as science and technology, economics and business issues, politics and current affairs, biographical sketches, psychology, art and architecture, social issues etc.

Thus, it is essential that there is a variety in what you read -- do not only read about topics that you are already comfortable with or that you have studied during your undergraduation! Do read the editorial columns of a daily newspaper on a regular basis-this is likely to help you not only for Reading Comprehension, but also at the time of your Group Discussions. 

GMAT/ GRE material and books are also good for practicing for this section. Candidates are advised to carefully go through the explanations of the correct answers that the GMAT books provide -- why is a particular answer correct and others incorrect?

Preparing for the Grammar/ English Usage section requires some knowledge of the rules of grammar and then regular practice to understand the contextual usage of these rules, certain phrases used in English etc. Get hold of good study material and practice diligently, without getting overconfident.

The basics of Grammar are given in books like Wren and Martin (High School Grammar and Composition). This is a time-tested book, good for making a start and for revision. Subsequently, while reading passages or books in English, try to make mental notes of what kind of prepositions, adverbs, phrases etc are appropriate in different situations.

Try also to familiarise yourself with the kind of questions that appear in various B-school entrances. For example, questions on sentence correction appear regularly. Try to understand what you should look for while choosing a correct sentences, such as properly places 'modifiers', correct 'parallelism' in the framing of the sentences, 'subject-verb agreement' and so on.

Although the emphasis on Vocabulary has been declining in CAT, it still is important for some of the other B-school entrance examinations. In CAT, the focus now is on the contextual usage of fairly common words, rather than on the knowledge of esoteric words which you may not use in daily conversation.

There are broadly two strategies for attacking this section. One is to sit down with a long word-list and try to learn a certain number of new words daily. This is a time consuming exercise and you need to make sure that you do not forget what words you have learnt a few days back!

The other strategy is to try to understand or infer the meaning of words by knowing their 'roots' or origins. Is there an interesting story behind the origin of a word? You are far more likely to remember interesting stories rather than a long list of words! For example, the word 'Herculean' is derived from the famous character by the name of Hercules (remember the 12 tasks or labours of Hercules?).

'Word Power Made Easy' by Norman Lewis is the preferred book for those wishing to improve their vocabulary, with plenty of exercises for practice and plenty of anecdotes about words and their origins. Do one chapter at a time and try to enjoy reading about these interesting words and their origins!

One of the suggested methods to remember words or their roots is through the use of "flashcards". Write about 5-6 words on a card pr piece of paper and carry it around with you. Whenever you are traveling on the way to work or college, you can quickly glance through the words on your card. Got a few seconds to spare during the day? Refer to your words on the flashcard again quickly! You will find this to be a fairly effective method to learn new words.

Remember, however, that there are many methods to 'learn' words, but they sink in only when you use them. Try to incorporate the words that you learn when you talk to friends, write anything etc. If you make a genuine attempt to use your newly learnt words frequently, you are likely to see your verbal scores improving considerably!

To sum up, doing well in English does require practice and the right preparation strategy. Do read a lot -- there is no substitute for that! At the same time, it is important to realize that English cannot be mugged up, nor can you improve much by studying for many hours over a short period of time. Instead, you will require regular (as opposed to highly intensive) work over a longer period of time, making sure that your aptitude is indeed improving!

The author is an MBA from IIM Calcutta and is employed with a management consultancy. He has also been a visiting faculty with MBA coaching centres in New Delhi [Images], and can be contacted at

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