CATalysis – 1

A lot of people keep asking me “How should I analyse a SimCAT?” so I felt I should do a post on that.

My observation is that most people write a test, then quickly check the answers/solutions to the ones they got wrong, and move on. They then wonder why the score doesn’t magically improve over time – after all, they are working so hard and taking so many tests! The thing is, taking a lot of tests, by itself, is not enough – one needs to identify areas of improvement and consciously work on them. So how does one proceed to do this?

The first step is the easiest (and consequently everyone does it mindlessly) – take the test, within the prescribed time limits. See the score if you like (but don’t check the correct answers just yet!)

Then, after a short rest break, attempt the test again without time limits. This will tell you which questions you were genuinely clueless about and which ones you lost out on solely because of the time constraints (in other words, it will help you identify the bottleneck in your preparation – conceptual clarity or speed). It will inform the first phase of your analysis below. After this exercise, go to the answer and explanations. And do the following 3 phases of analysis (in any order):

Phase 1: The ones you left (within the timed test)

The results obtained by taking the test a second time without time limits would guide you in this analysis. Identify which questions turned out to be easy, but which you ended up leaving for some reason or another. The two main reasons a question would go unsolved are

(a) You never got round to seeing it: in this case, the blame is squarely on your shoulders. Leaving questions unseen is extremely bad practice. Make sure that, during the 170 minutes available, you have managed to at least read every question and consciously decided whether or not to attempt it on its merits.

Understand that the broad, superficial topic should not be the only criterion for attempting or leaving a question. Don’t leave a question just because “it is from Probability” or “I hate Parajumbles” – you should be capable of attempting a simple question in any and every sub-field within the syllabus. Conversely, don’t attempt a question beyond your skills just because of some flawed logic like “I must do all TSD questions in every paper” or “I will attempt all the LR or die trying”. In analyses, I often found that people skipped questions from an area of discomfort in 3-4 seconds (even with a phenomenal reading/comprehension speed, there is no way they would have read, understood and decided rationally about it in that span of time!), while in other cases the same people spent 6-8 minutes or more struggling with an intractable poser, just because it was from a topic they considered themselves experts at.

(b) You found it incomprehensible or just downright scary: in this case, your analysis needs to identify whether it actually was a tough problem or just masquerading as one. In a 100 question test, chances are that there will be a few questions which are really gruelling; the only intent of these is to test whether you have the presence-of-mind to leave them and move on. But these will be few in number. A larger bunch of questions will look extremely difficult without being nearly as bad as they appear; exams like CAT, XAT and IIFT specialise in these. Identifying these might make a key difference in your scoring patterns and provide a 10-15 mark boost.

Phase 2: The ones you got wrong

Find out, among those, how many of them you goofed up because of silly mistakes, how many were because of misreading the question (as in you failed to understand the English of the question, what it was asking you to find) and how many were because your concepts were unclear (you understood what needed to be found but were unable to hit upon the right logic/formula/concept).

(a) There were lots of silly mistakes: work on focus, on avoiding those lapses of concentration (in one way it is a good thing – it means you can achieve significant score improvement in a short time as your concepts are sound). Examples of this would be taking the diameter of a circle as the radius, forgetting the factor of ½ in the area of a triangle, taking the sum of n natural numbers as n(n-1)/2 instead of n(n+1)/2, writing 3 x 3 = 6, etc.

(b) Understanding was the issue: learn how to identify the language cues in the question, so that in future you would be better equipped to notice the subtle traps and shades of meaning inherent in a well-set question. For example, if the question uses the phrase “non-negative integer solutions” then it should ring a warning bell in your mind; why hasn’t the examiner used the simpler “positive integer solutions”? And immediately the answer should strike you – you need to watch out for the zero as well.

(c) Conceptual clarity was a problem: revisit the relevant topic in your Basic Reference Materials and textbooks and internalise the concept thoroughly so that in future you will be able to apply it properly. For example, if you lost 3 easy marks because you forgot the volume of a sphere or the concept of a dangling modifier or the number of ways to put identical objects into distinct groups, you should chastise yourself mentally and ensure that in future you know everything you need to.

Phase 3: The ones you got right

This is the part of the analysis most people ignore, even the serious ones. I mean, it is right, right? Why bother analysing it? seems to be the thought here. However, there are crucial lessons to be learned here as well. After all, these are the question types you are surely going to attempt on the D-day as well, so it behooves you to be as efficient as possible in them.

(a) Questions you got right by a fluke: ensure that, in the future, you will know the correct logic for these. You don’t want to rely on luck in the real thing, do you?

(b) Questions you got right by a valid logic: it is always great to get 3 marks, no doubt, but if you spent 7-8 minutes on them then that takes off some of the sheen; the price is a little too high. Try to seek a better, more efficient way to do them, reduce the effort and time spent. And what of those which took only 2 minutes? Even there, see if you can reduce it to 1.5 minutes? 1 minute? 40 seconds? Because that will give you more time to spend on the other, tougher questions. Start with the assumption “However good I am at this, I can always get better”, let that be a cantrip guiding your preparation.

In my next “strategy” post I will try to look at a broader analysis; how to find your strengths and weaknesses and use them to optimise the order of attempting questions.