How Should I Allocate My Time On CAT 2014

This is a big question and so this post will be a bit long. So settle in for a long read.

The biggest change in the new CAT 2014 pattern, as everyone would agree, has been the removal of sectional time-limits. The thing about this change is that for some test-takers it is the best thing that could have happened and for others, especially those who were ‘set’ and have taken the CAT in its previous avatar, it is the worst kind of change. There will be the fence-sitters of course, those who are yet to see if it is a good thing or a bad, well the sooner they embrace the change the better.

In an earlier post we had mentioned that this change will change the skew the test from being a test of competence — the number of QA-DI or VA-LR can you solve in 70 minutes — to a test of strategy — the way you manage 170 minutes, your strengths & your weakness in such a way that you clear both sectional and overall cut-offs.

From our experience, most test-takers have the mental ability to be able to ace the Quant or Verbal questions in isolation but what lets them down is their ability manage time and clear the sectional cut-offs. In a sense through the CAT you have to prove that you have the potential to be manager and not just a worker (problem-solver) before your do your MBA.

What You Need To Manage — Not Just Time But Also Unpredictability

The CAT has been a notoriously unpredictable as a test. Since its inception only two years have passed where it did not spring a surprise on unsuspecting test-takers. So given that they have given the format a major overhaul this year test-takers will do well if they go in prepared for at least a few novelties.

The surprises can primarily come in two forms —

  • Changes in question types: no more parajumbles, return of FIJs or data sufficiency, fill in 3 blanks
  • Changes in the number of questions from each type: more LR or RC than usual.

Another part of the unpredictability is that we cannot predict how the difficulty-level of each area is going to be on test-day —

  • Quant can be much easier than usual (which is a sign that cut-off will be higher and not a reason to rejoice)
  • Logical Reasoning can turn out be tougher than usual and you might be required turn to Verbal to clear the VA-LR cut-off.

You should allocate your time in such a way that you have the flexibility to deal with any unpredictability and not let it jeopardise your ability to clear the sectional cut-offs.

Small Is Efficient

We always do well when we have limited resources because we then maximise every penny. And on the CAT, the most important resource is time. So does it make sense to divide it into two big block of 85 minutes each? Absolutely not! It is like having just one pit stop during an entire race.

Dividing it into smaller units based on the proportion of questions you will see from each area is your best bet to manage your time in the most efficient manner. So the idea is to break down this large mass of 170 minutes into small units with specific targets to achieve.

Five Areas Instead Of Two Sections

So the first thing to do will be to move away from the dichotomy of Quant & Verbal and look at the test as comprising five areas : QA, DI, VA, RC & LR . Why five areas? Since doing well on all five is a must to ace the test.

Area # Questions # Attempts
QA 30-35 18 – 20
DI 15-20 12 – 15
VA 15-20 12 – 15
RC 15-20 12 – 15
LR 15-20 12 -15

DI, RC & LR will comprise at least 45-50 questions on the test. Can you afford to ignore any one of them. Also every area will have a certain number of difficult questions. The task is to pick out Easy & Medium questions from each area. The reason most people do not cross a particular threshold is because they choose a favourite area and try to attempt even the tougher sets which are better left alone. One LR Set might be better left alone under test conditions, a few Quant problems are better ignored altogether. Focussing on five areas will ensure that your attempts are higher as well as better chosen.

How To Divide Your 170 Minutes

Area Time Attempts Accuracy
QA 45 minutes 14 – 18 12 – 15
DI 25 minutes 12 – 15 8 – 10
VA 20 minutes 12 – 15 12 – 14
RC 25 minutes 12 – 15 8 – 10
LR 25 minutes 12 -15 8 – 10
Buffer 30 minutes 8 – 10 6 – 8

What does such a division ensure?

Ensures That You Clear Sectional Cut-Offs: The table below shows that the minimum sectional cut-off is 80 and the maximum is 90.

Ahmedabad 85 85 90
Bangalore 80 90 90
Calcutta 85 85 90
Lucknow 85 85 90
Indore 85 85 90
Kozhikode 80 80 90

The time division and attempt-accuracy defined in the previous table will ensure that you will get around a 90 percentile in QA-DI and way above it in VA-LR at the end of 140 minutes. You can use your buffer time at the end to not only clear the sectional cut-off but the overall cut-off but maximise your overall score as well.

Ensures That You Do Not Miss Out On Easy Questions: How many times have you gone back home and analysed a SimCAT only to find that there was an easy set or question that you could have done but did not since you did not really read it. This division ensures that you take a look at all areas and pick out easy questions from them.

Ensures That You Can Gauge the Difficulty Level of Each Area: If you consistently use this strategy in all your SimCATs, come test-day you will be able to gauge the difficulty level of the section-based on the number of attempts at the end of the defined time-limit. This will enable you to define what you need to achieve in the next time-slot. For example, if you attempt fewer than usual in Quant at the end of 45 minutes, then you will know that you need to amp up your performance in the DI time-slot. If you have a really good day on the Quant then may be instead of tackling DI next you can do VA and RC and then come back to DI later.

Ensures Timely & Better Performance Tracking: It is quite common for test-takers to realise towards the end of a test that their performance was below par. This is not because they performed poorly towards the end of the test but because they did not keep track of the deficits that were building up during the course of the test. By measuring yourself over smaller time slots with specific targets, you will be able to clearly know how your test is progressing and formulate your strategy in stages depending on your performance in the previous time-slot.

Why The Buffer

Anything can happen on test-day, for some reason an LR Set you might have otherwise done might pose a stubborn problem. Quant might throw up more questions that usual from your least favourite area, Geometry or P & C. How do you deal with this? Can you allow these minor setbacks to jeopardise your entire test?

The buffer is to help you deal with test-day uncertainty. It is that safety net at the end of 140 minutes that helps you ensure that you deliver to you clear sectional and overall cut-offs despite any setbacks during the 140 minutes.

The division suggested above has shown great results for a few students. One student saw his score shoot up from 134 to 166 (SimCAT 8 to 9) after he implemented this strategy. He felt that it really pushed him to achieve more on each area than usual. But he also added that what really helped was that he kept the time-limits sacrosanct.

You can customise the plan by changing the time-limits here and there by 5-10 minutes but you should not let your buffer time go below 20 minutes. More importantly you should stick to the plan.

We will be coming up with a follow up post on the various things that can go wrong in the 170 minutes and the strategic blunders you should watch out for.

Until then embrace the change and keep an eye on the timer!

CAT 14 Strat – Should I give equal time to each section?

In the old days, when there were no sectional cut-offs in many exams, some people would choose to be “specialists”. In other words, they would strive to be really really good at one section and devote most of the time in the paper to that section, thus clearing the overall cut-offs despite a negligible score in one section.

However, colleges quickly realised that by such a criterion they ran the risk of getting people who spoke impeccable English but could not do a back-of-the-envelope calculation to save their lives (or their jobs), or others who could be human computers yet could not string together two consecutive grammatical sentences. Either type would go on to be less-than-ideal manager material. So nearly all the top colleges have moved to a scenario where there are sectional cut-offs; thus ensuring that one needs to spend a significant amount of time on each section.

Having said that, one can still choose to be flexible about time allotment. Very few people are equally proficient in both sections; and it is an established fact that the overall cut-off exceeds the total of the individual or sectional cut-offs (the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, after all!). So it is generally necessary not only to clear the cut-offs in each section but also to totally ace one section. You need to create a strategy which plays to your strengths; one of the most important things benefits of the SimCATs is that they allow you to experiment with different strategies and work out what suit your style.

For example, let us assume that practice tells you that your stamina is average, but your preparation is solid enough that you are tolerably confident of clearing both sectional cut-offs. You could start with your weaker section, planning on giving it a little less than half the time (say 70 minutes) and then taking stock after that time. If you are confident that any reasonable cut-off would be crossed, then you could shift to the other section and give it your best for the remaining time, thus ensuring that your overall score will be maximised. If you are not confident, give the first section a little more time to be safe!

Another strategy which a lot of people found handy in the old paper-based days could also be adapted to suit here. Initially, give maybe 70 minutes to each section. If at the end of that you feel sure that you have done well in both sections (and confident of clearing realistic cut-offs), then devote the remaining 30 minutes to your strongest section and aim to maximise your total score. If, on the other hand, you feel that you haven’t done justice to either one of the sections, then go to that section and ensure that you clear its cut-off. An advantage of this strategy is that it doesn’t require you to modify your existing strategy much, as you are already used to giving 70 minutes per section initially.

Note: all the above assumes that the test-taker has adequate ability and preparation in each of the sections! Without that, all the strategy in the world will avail nothing.

In the next couple of posts, my friend T will delve deeper into time-allocation at a micro level, rather than the broad generalisations I have made here.



CAT 14 Strat – Series or Parallel?

An important question to ponder is “should I attempt one section completely and then move to the other? Or should I switch between sections?” To decide this, once again, let’s do an experiment: first take 2 section tests each in QA and VA. Do two QA first and then 2 VA. Then take another set of 2 section tests each and do 1 QA, 1VA, 1QA, 1VA.

 If the score in the latter experiment is significantly lower than in the former, then you probably have a “switching problem” as in your mind takes time to get into top gear when you switch from QA to VA and vice versa. If the two performances are comparable, then your mind is probably adept at shifting from one section to another without requiring a warm-up time.

Another way to recognise this is if you find you do better within a section when you do all question of a given type one after the other; say all RCs or all VA or all LR – your analysis when writing Sim tests should help you to recognise this kind of pattern if it exists.

 If you do have a switching problem, do ensure that you do not make frequent shifts just because the option is provided. Decide on which section to do first (as discussed above) and allot a certain minimum amount of time to be given to that section; once that time is done, move to the other section and stick with it. Towards the end, perhaps, you can return to the earlier section if you have budgeted some time for it, or if you feel absolutely confident that you would have cleared any reasonable cut-off in the second section.

 If, however, you find that switching is not a problem per se, then you can be fairly flexible in how you attack the paper. You might choose to, for example, do all the quick-shot singleton questions first, then do all the sets (DI, LR, RC) then if time permits attack the rest of the questions. Or you might choose to first attack certain pre-decided question types (say “vocabulary, parajumbles, arithmetic, logs, LR”) and leave the rest for later.

 Either way, another question which should arise is, how do I divide the time across sections? My next post will address that.