CAT 2014 – My Take

Here’s my take on the CAT as I perceived it (16th morning slot). Note that the opinions expressed are entirely my own 🙂 Also it is slightly long…not that that will surprise anybody!

Overall Structure: There were 4 sets of 4 questions each of DI, LR and RC. 34 singleton questions in QA and 18 in VA rounded things off.

QA: As many people have noted already, the QA was pretty easy. However, it was not the cakewalk some have made it out to be; there was the typical emphasis on testing the basics with deceptively simple but very precisely worded questions (and as always there were a few elegant traps in the finest tradition of CAT). The topics covered all the usual suspects (Geometry, Algebra, Arithmetic, Numbers, Modern maths all had significant representation) and no really unusual ones (no, after 40 years CAT has still not seen fit to ask a questions requiring Pick’s theorem or Fermat’s Little Theorem. Much to the sorrow of those who have been studying such stuff faithfully). It would seem CAT still rewards those who stick to the basics, but do those really thoroughly.

DI: While not exactly difficult, most of the sets would have troubled those who had only learned to handle standard data presentation forms; they required quick analysis and structuring of significantly non-standard data formats. Time-consuming, for sure, but a pleasure to attempt if you like that sort of thing.

VA: Much to my chagrin, direct Vocab-based questions remained elusive for the second year in a row. Instead, Grammar, Parajumbles, Critical Reasoning (Inferential), Incorrect Sentence in the Para, and Summary questions made up the numbers. I felt that a little over a third of them were pretty straightforward (a pleasant surprise after last year’s VA where nearly every question gave me a headache).

RC: The RC section was surprisingly pleasant, passages of a very reasonable length and on topics which did not put on to sleep (philosophy, I’m looking at you here!). The questions, too, were not as ambiguous as they have typically been in recent years – in many cases I could arrive at an answer without doubt or hesitation, which is unusual, at least for me! Those people who neglected the RC section in this one out of habit are probably going to live to regret it – this could have been a good scoring area even for someone who is not an English maven. Given the level of LR, the CAT RCs were catharsis, you might say.

LR: Even more so than in DI, the LR sets were non-standard. Only one of the 4 sets could be described as straightforward – unfortunately that was also the longest and had the most conditionalities and hence a good number of people ignored it totally. Two of the sets were quite impressively tricky to grasp. I found them refreshing and challenging, and unusually, even after solving them I was not confident of my answers (which rarely happens to me in LR). Certainly the most daunting area in this slot.

Overall, the DI and LR together called to mind the heyday of CAT’s DI and LR (during 2002-2008) in terms of the precision of wording, the skill-sets and the quick thinking required, while at the same time being entirely new in the specifics (which obviously I cannot talk about here!). The closest comparison I can draw is CAT 2006, where the Pathways set and the Erdos number set, while relatively quite easy, confounded most test-takers by being totally unlike anything they’d seen before.

In the QA and DI section, my personal take is that a score of between 65 to 75 would probably be an acceptable performance. (This would probably require 30+ attempts with a pretty decent accuracy, quite achievable under the circumstances). In the VA section, a score of 60-65 should prove sufficient; possibly as low as 50, since a lot of people who were relying on LR underperformed horrendously.

Now to address some of the interesting statements I’ve been encountering, the FAQs you could say:

FAQ 1: The paper was so easy, 98%ile cutoffs will go to 200, I have heard

No. Really, people, no. Easy or not, 150 would be a fair score and 175 an awesome one in any paper. 98%ile means close to 4000 people; even in the easiest of the Sims after all, you rarely saw a 200 – the idea that 4000, or even 400 people would be able to hit that level seems very improbable, to be frank.

FAQ 2: But so many people are posting scores like “84 attempts with 90% accuracy”…

Yes, they are. So are they more foolish for posting those, or are you more foolish for being gullible enough to swallow those estimates? People are notoriously bad at estimating how well they have done – and over three-fourths of people tend to overestimate (in public, at least). Ask yourself these questions:

  • Whenever you have written SimCATs in the past, after you submitted, but before the score appeared, you must have made some kind of estimate of what you expected. How often was this accurate (or even in the same ball-park, really?)
  • How many people do you know who can actually manage a 90% accuracy reliably? (I can’t. And I have been doing this stuff for over a decade and a half). In QA, perhaps. But given the subjective nature of VA, even 80% there requires some luck.
  • Assuming that your friend is speaking the truth and actually is sure that his 84 attempts have 90% accuracy. He must therefore have known that 8 questions were wrong. Why did he mark them then, I wonder?

If you are still not convinced, try a little experiment. Chances are that some of you who are taking the test on Saturday will be taking a last practice test today or tomorrow. If so, do me a favour – after the time is up but before you submit, write down on a piece of paper your attempts and your estimate of how many you got correct and wrong in each section and overall. Then submit and see how accurate you were.

FAQ 3: So then what about those people who are getting 99.99 in percentile predictors?

Percentile predictors, even if accurate, (and that’s another kettle of fish) depend on the accuracy of the input you give them. Garbage in, garbage out. And as pointed out above, most people’s estimates of their accuracy are greatly exaggerated.

And while some percentile predictors at least try to give an honest opinion, most are like fortune-tellers; they tell you what you want to hear. They rely on the human tendency to be flattered; if one tells you that you are going to get 88 and the other says 97, and you actually get an 89, you will still remember the latter one more fondly despite it being wildly inaccurate. As a result, you have loads of people who are joyfully shouting from the rooftops that it has been predicted that they will get a 99.99 or similar (never mind that they haven’t actually crossed 90 in a single practice test so far).

However, stop a moment and think – if 2 lakh people take the exam, only 30 people or less will actually achieve a 99.99 or more.

FAQ 4: But isn’t 150 too low? QA cutoffs will go to a 100, surely?

You would think so, but it probably won’t even come close. What most of us seem to forget is that the majority of people are scared of maths. Even easy maths. They come in with an aim of “20 good attempts” and even faced with an easy paper, they rarely go beyond 30, if that. The textbook example which is the closest comparison would be of CAT 2006, which had a tricky DI/LR section, but featured a QA section which was at least as straightforward as Sunday’s (and what’s more, 2 minutes per question, on a paper-based test; more than what we have here). Yet the QA cut-off for a 95%ile score was under 40 out of 100. Assuming that people haven’t miraculously gotten smarter in the decade since (a safe assumption) I don’t see a comparable cut-off crossing 70 this time.

FAQ 5: I’m writing the paper on 22nd? Will the level and breakup of questions be the same?

Short answer: we don’t know J

To the best of our knowledge, the level and breakup varied slightly between the two slots on Sunday – the LR was noticeably easier and the QA was almost certainly a bit tougher, for example. And a sub-area which featured 3 questions in the morning had none in the afternoon. So for all we know, the papers on 22nd might feature vocab or DS (or maybe even Pick’s theorem, though I’m betting against that). You try to predict the CAT at your peril!

My gut feeling is that the overall level of the paper will not change too much. However, the “difficulty distribution” might well undergo a drastic revision – for all you know the LR might be easy-peasy arrangements while the RCs might feature Spinoza, Kant and Freud. Or even good old Derrida. My only advice on this (and that hasn’t changed in its broad essence over the past ten years) is “don’t carry any pre-conceived notions with you”. As C. P. Cavafy says in his lovely poem “Ithaka”
      Laistrygonians and Cyclops,

      wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them

      unless you bring them along inside your soul,

      unless your soul sets them up in front of you.”

If you go there expecting easy QA, and it turns out tough, then you might panic and end up missing the easy LRs that accompany it. Or the easy RCs. As happened on 16th, with those poor souls who had pre-decided “I will do all the LRs and not look at the RC” and who, even now, are probably regretting their rigidity. Have a plan by all means, but be prepared to change it at a moment’s notice if necessary. Flexibility might be crucial to survival. As I am fond of quoting “no battle plan survives the moment of first contact with the enemy”

And of course, don’t forget that most invaluable piece of advice from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:




10 Things You Need To Do On CAT-Day


Now that you are done with doing everything you can prepping for the CAT what matters most is how and what you execute in the 170 minutes on D-Day.

What are the things you should do?

What are the pitfalls both strategic and psychological that you must avoid?

Here is a list of the 10 Things You Should Do On CAT-Day.

1. Beat The Waiting-Time Blues
The first thing you need to tackle on test-day is the long wait before you get to start the test, at least a good 45 minutes will be spent twiddling your thumbs. There is a very strong chance that your brain will go off into sleep mode during this period. So you need to ensure that the system stays sharp during this period.

One way to do this is to keep yourself mentally occupied with the any of the following things — mentally go through the solutions of good problems you have encountered in your prep (old CAT problems, alternate solutions to problems etc) , go through the tables or values of fractions and decimals or remind yourself of the other 9 things mentioned in this list :-).

Do this at a slow and relaxed pace. Imagine sportsmen practicing their warm ups – cricketers facing tennis-ball throw downs or footballers stretching.

2. Be Quick Off the Blocks, Do Not Get Stuck Anywhere In The First Ten Questions
Given the baggage of engineering exams that we carry we tend to start slow — the I-will-do-every-question-properly-attitude — and finish in a hurry.

We do this because we are greedy to get marks under our belt, but if you have time under your belt you will have more marks at the end of the test. I would rather have gone through 10 questions in 5 minutes and not attempting anything rather than spending 20 minutes, to get 3 right and 2 wrong.

Tell yourself that you are going to choose your questions decisively. Be quick off the blocks and do not get stuck anywhere in the first ten questions.

3. No Question Is Worth More Than 4 Minutes
Do not throw good money after bad money. Do not restart solving a questions after you have already spent 4 minutes on it. You might think you can get 3 marks if you spend another 3 minutes but there are always plenty more fish in the sea, especially easier fish. Remember all those SimCAT questions you discovered you could easily solve only after you went home. No question, not even ones from your favourite areas, are worth it.

4. Strategically Leave 30-35 Questions
It is always better to leave a question/set than to play and miss. From our previous post on scores and percentiles you will see that you can leave more than 30-35 questions and still get a 99 percentile. You should not spend more than 15 minutes in leaving these questions. This will leave you with enough time to correctly solve the questions you select.

5. Time-Limits Are Sacrosanct, Do Not Exceed Them
The most precious thing on an aptitude test is time. So if you have set some basic time-limits for yourself then you should stick to them. Even an extra 5 minutes here and there can jeopardise your sectional cut-offs and hamper your chances of getting a call.

IIMs take sectional cut-offs very seriously, right down to the decimal. Remember it is a computer that will generate the list of candidates to be  sent a first call based on the input parameters and not people sitting and evaluating your application qualitatively. So a 79.9 instead of 80 on a section will mean that you will not get a first call.

So if you feel you need to give 10 minutes more to a section, do that later not immediately. We had discussed a timing strategy here.

6. Skip questions within a set in DI and LR
Within a particular DI or LR set (more DI than LR), there will be one question which might end-up being time-consuming. This can be the first one or the second one. So first estimate the number of steps involved in solving a question or the precision of calculation required (close options), if both are high then quickly move on to the next question. In many cases it does turn out that solving two questions of a set in 4 minutes is a much better option than getting stuck for 10-15 minutes with 3-4 questions.

7. Do Not Let Your Favourite Area Jeopardise Your Test
Very often test-takers go in to the test thinking that they have to score heavily from a particular area be it LR or Quant. Sure you have to, but only if the questions permit you to!
For example, I would rather do two/three solvable LR Sets in 15-20 minutes and leave the seemingly tougher ones after trying for 3-5 minutes rather than spend 35-40 mins trying to solve all the LRs. Always exit when your prescribed time-limit for an area is done.

You should also be prepared for your favourite area to be less rewarding than usual. When I solved SimCAT 12, I spent very little time solving LR, despite LR being my strong suit because I realised they would sink my time. How do you realize this? By taking your blinkers off! If after 5 minutes you have got no hang of a set unlike on easy sets, then that is your biggest signal!

VA and RC might not be your strength but there might be easy questions lurking there, finish them first and then come back later to try your hand at the tougher LRs.

8. Remember, unfamiliar does not mean unsolvable!
How many times have you left a DI Set just because it is unfamiliar looking only to discover later that it was actually quite simple? I am sure quite often.

We are wired to be wary of the unfamiliar, it helps us survive. But on aptitude tests this can be your undoing. Very often DI Sets where the representation is not a regular one or LR sets that do not seem to be the standard arrangement types might not be difficult to solve once you invest 3-4 minutes trying to understand what they mean.

In fact the converse is also true, familiar looking sets can lull you into investing time to solve them, only to realise much later that they should have been left alone. The LR Sets in SimCAT 12 are a case in point , the tough sets were very standards arrangement type of sets.

9. Do Not Carry Baggage From The Previous Section, Think About The Question In Front Of You 
Your ability to crack a question depends on your level of engagement with the question. It happens quite often that based on the number of questions they are able to attempt in a section, test-takers’ performance on the second section is affected. Test-takers go in to the test having a fixed number in mind and if the do not hit that number on that section, they attempt the second section with nervousness, lower confidence and concentration levels. Please remember that on test-day your ability will not drastically fall or rise. So if you were able to attempt fewer it just means that the section was tougher as a whole. Do not carry baggage from one question into another section!

Also, often when you are doing questions from areas that you are not really fond of, you are thinking about questions from areas your are fond of. Does this really help? Think only about the question in front of you.

10. Take Only Your Brains To The Test, Leave Your Feelings Outside The Lab Along With Your Other Belongings
Most things are won or lost as much by aptitude as by attitude. When Roger Federer plays Nadal you know that somewhere (despite Nadal relentlessly pounding heaving topspin forehands to demolish Federer’s single-handed backhand) Federer lacks the belief that he can beat Nadal. When Djokovic beat Nadal in a final last year, after losing a few matches to him previously, the newspapers said that he displayed a monk-like focus. Both of these examples indicate that half the battle is won or lost in the mind.

Your performance on aptitude tests is dependent on how well your brain processes the information in front of you. So if you let all the myriad things around the test — if I do not get it this time I can’t imagine myself continuing in this job, if I do not get it this time my parents will get me married off and so on and so forth — affect your ability to process the information in the question and execute your timing strategies, it will result in you not performing to the best of your abilities.

I know this might seem to be easier said that done but people truly have bigger problems — not knowing where their next meal is going to come from, not having money to pay their child’s fees, being there with a loved one fighting cancer and worse — none of your problems are really bigger than these.

So do not let your emotions get the better of your abilities. Take only your mind to the test, leave your feelings along with your other belongings outside the lab.

And the most important thing that that cannot be part of a numbered list: DO NOT GIVE UP AT ANY STAGE OF THE TEST. 

This is perhaps the most important thing that will be demanded of you. Fight till the very end, despite the fact that your favourite area did not go well, despite the fact that you find the paper tough, because every mark counts. This will ensure that even if you do not make it to your dream college you might make it to a college that you have applied to and will give you the career break you are looking for. Giving up at some stage of the test can cost you an entire year!

That was may be one of the longest posts I have written but I know that if you can do these 10 things and do not give up, you will have performed to the best of your abilities.

So here is wishing all the readers of this blog all the very best for your CAT! Go forth and maximize your score!


How To Set A Target Score For CAT 2014

The CAT is a week away and one question we keep getting asked is what score should I target. While percentiles are all that matter, the question is not entirely invalid in terms of its relevance to setting score-based milestones to evaluate your performance during the 170 minutes come test-day. The best way to go about it though is by looking at what the numbers from this year’s SimCATs tell us. We will be looking at data from SimCAT 8 onwards from when the new pattern fully took effect.

What is the SCORE RANGE that a 99 percentile can take?

Crossing the 99the percentile overall is a pre-requisite for general category students aiming for a call from the old IIMs. So what is the range of scores translated into a 99th percentile on SimCATs 8 to 13?

A range of close to 74 marks! Even if we discount SimCAT 8 since the pattern had just changed and test-takers were yet to find their feet, the range is still 50 marks. On SimCAT 12,which was the toughest of the lot, it was was low as 127. The average score for a 99 it turns out is a 150.

Lets us look at the range at other percentile levels (excluding SimCAT 8).

Percentile Score Range Average
99 127-177 150
97 115-163 136
95 105-150 126
90 91-133 112
85 83-120 102
80 77-108 93

Sectional Scores and Percentiles

What do things look like at a sectional level at the various percentile ranges.

Percentile QA – DI

Score Range




Score Range



99 78-111 90 62-86 75
95 63-90 74 53-73 63
90 55-77 64 45-64 55
85 49-68 58 40-58 49
80 44-61 52 32-54 45

How Do You Set Targets For Yourself?

As you can see the score required for a particular percentile depends on the paper you get. One of the benchmarks you can use is the average scores at various percentiles as per the
data above. From the scores you can calculate the number of attempts you would need to achieve your desired percentile.

How Not To Use Target Scores

While the average for a 99 in QA-DI is a score of 90, it does not mean that on test-day, if at the end of your QA-DI section you you estimate your score to be less than 90, you panic.

Quite often test-takers go in with a number in mind and when it does not happen they panic and they end up either allotting additional time to the section thereby jeopardising the other section or go into the other section with a negative mindset and perform poorly. Once the results are out that they realize that they had in fact performed well on the section they attempted first and a good performance on the second one would have meant a 99 plus percentile instead of a 98. More importantly they might miss out on a potential FMS convert and we don’t need to tell you how much that would cost!

So use the data above only as a reference, like the average score on a particular pitch. It does not mean that if you reach the average score in the 45th over you are going to take singles in the last five overs! Nor does it mean that you give up trying to save every single and bowl yourself to victory if you end up with a score slightly less than the average score.

I know it is the last week and most of you might be neck deep in prep but go watch Interstellar some time before your test-day, just to take the weight off your shoulders and shoot off into space.

All the best!

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.



CAT 14 Strat – How do I build stamina?

Concentrating for 3 hours at a stretch can seem quite a daunting task, given that 2 hours 20 minutes seemed like forever in the previous format. But to be brutally honest, it is far less than what our minds are capable of (even in these days of T-20 and twitter and ten second attention spans). After all, tests like the GMAT last for over three hours and people manage perfectly fine.

If we are honest with ourselves, we will realise that our brains are basically extremely lazy chaps – so when we sit for a “140 minute test”, knowing that we have to concentrate for 140 minutes, by the time about 100 minutes are up, our brain is already thinking longingly about what to do when it gets over. And when we try to get our brains back on track, they tells us “look dude, I can’t concentrate for so long at a stretch. Give me a break already!” Effectively, we rationalise the laziness as incapability.

Another acquaintance of mine, who faced this issue, took a rather extreme approach to solve this issue. He sat down one day with a whole bunch of mock tests (2 hour full length tests of those days), with the stated intention of writing 3 in a row (i.e., he planned to sit for 6 hours at a stretch!). He lasted for over 5 hours before he had to give up. But his result was rather interesting. Normally, he used to see that his concentration (and scores!) would drop drastically towards the last 45 minutes of a test. But when he had committed himself to sitting for that long, he stayed fully focussed for more than 4 hours because his brain no longer was in anticipation of release. He scored excellently in the first two hour test – and remarkably, he exceeded that score in the second test! And of course, he never again faced a problem of stamina again – when one has once concentrated for 4+ hours running, one cannot very well perceive 2 hours as a significant strain!

While this was probably a rather extreme solution, it is certainly a good idea to at least get used to concentrating hard for three hours at a stretch. Next time you sit for a test at home, firstly eliminate all distractions (keep your phone, gmail, twitter, facebook etc off!). Secondly, make sure that you have no commitments for at least the next 5 hours. Thirdly, plan that immediately after finishing the test, you will take a section test. Give your mind as little opportunity for distraction as you possibly can. Just maybe, you will find that you can concentrate for 3 hours at a stretch after all.

In my next post, I’ll address a related question – should one do the sections in series or in parallel?



CAT 14 Strat – Which section to do first?

In the last few years this decision, for good or for bad, was not in your hands. This year, however, you have the freedom to choose. But if you don’t choose wisely, this can prove a liability. So then, do you start with your strongest suit? Or should you instead choose to do your weaker section (assuming you have one!) when you are still fresh?

Let’s do a little experiment to inform our strategy: take 4-5 section tests of similar type and level, and write them continuously one after another, sticking to the time limits in each. Note the scores. If the scores are nearly the same across all the tests, then stamina is not much of an issue and you are able to maintain a similar (and hopefully high) level of performance throughout the test. But if, as more often happens, you notice a sharp drop-off in performance as time goes by, then chances are your stamina is not what it should be and that nervous exhaustion is taking a heavy toll (this might also explain some of the instances where people with otherwise good VA skills scored a depressingly low section 2 percentile in the past few CATs).

If you find that you have a good stamina and no appreciable drop in scores over a 3 hour stretch, then it might make sense to do your strong section first, totally annihilate it, and then aim at clearing a cut-off in the other section. An advantage would be that you would most probably have performed well in the first section and therefore there would be a morale boost, a feel-good factor, which would stand you in good stead when attempting the relatively weaker section.

However, if stamina is an issue and you find that your concentration tends to drop sharply over time, a safer strategy might be to get your weaker section out of the way while you are still fresh (so that you can at least ensure the cut-offs), and then do the stronger section. (The assumption being that you can do your strong section in your sleep, so to speak!).

Flexibility should also be part of your arsenal of course. Let me give you an example of an acquaintance of mine: when he was an aspirant, English (and especially RC) was his strong point. Stamina was not a major problem, and his concentration could easily hold for 2 hours (CAT was then a 2 hour test with 3 or 4 sections!). So in practice, he used to attack the verbal section/s first and aim to get almost everything in RC and VA and then clear cut-offs in QA and DI. However, on the day of his test he was recovering from a fever and was consequently quite weak – so he made the spot-decision to do the QA / DI first (as that required more concentration) and then moved to VA and finally RC (as those were relatively straightforward for him – to quote him “I can do those with my eyes closed!”). He scored lower than usual in VA, but a bit higher in QA so it still ended up as a very respectable score.

Whichever approach you take, if your stamina drops off too fast, then whatever you do later is going to suffer. So a valid question at this point is, how can one increase stamina? In the next post I will attempt to throw out some suggestions to tackle this…



CAT 14 Strat – Dealing With Change

In recent years, the CAT has had sectional time limits. Consequently, many candidates – especially repeat takers – tend to see those limits as an integral part of CAT. So when it was announced that CAT ’14 would not have such limits, a lot of people were confused (or upset). The older and more experienced people, who have met the CAT in its various avatars over the years, would take it in their stride though; in CAT, as in real life, the maxim “change is the only constant” has been an abiding truth. So let us look at this change and see how it would affect a test-taker.

Firstly, the longer perspective: in the long run, sectional time limits in the CAT have been the exception rather than the rule. Before 2011, the last time there were such limits was in the last millennium (1997 to be precise). In fact, the lack of such time limits better serves the purposes of a test like the CAT; it also tests skills such as “optimal utilisation of limited resources”. In the words of a colleague, when there is a sectional time limit, the candidate just has to do 2 separate maximisations, rather than an overall optimisation. So it is not particularly surprising that the CAT might choose to do away with it.

Note that such a change is not intrinsically good or bad. Whether the CAT chooses to have 60 questions in 140 minutes or 100 questions in 170 minutes (or, as they once used to, 185 questions in 120 minutes), the competition is still the same. At the end of the day, the number of aspirants has not changed due to this. Neither has the number of seats available. So if someone gets hurt by this change, by the same token someone else will benefit. The more things change, the more they remain the same! What it means is that one should understand the implications of the change, and accordingly devise strategies that make the most of one’s own peculiar strengths and weaknesses under the new paradigm. This brings up some obvious questions, a few of which I shall attempt to address in the next couple of strategy posts:

“Which section to do first?”

 “How do I maintain my stamina for 3 hours?”

 “Do I attempt the sections in series or in parallel?”

 “Should I give equal time to each section, or more weightage to one of them?”



How Many Questions Should I Attempt In CAT 2014?

This is possibly the most frequently asked question among CAT FAQs. Whether the year be 2005, 2009 or 2014 this question has always been THE ONE question to answer and perhaps rightly so.

The simplest answer to this question, as I have always told my students, is — as many as you can. It might seem deceptively simple and quick-witted but at the core of it, is that not the task? But since test-takers are at different abilities you might ask – what is a good “as many as I can that will fetch me a 99 percentile on CAT 2014?

What 99 percentile meant on the past CATs

CAT 2013 (the toughest of the computer-based CATs so far) — answering approximately 16 questions correctly in each section resulted in a test-taker getting a 99.89

CAT 2011 & 2012 — according to fellow professionals in the field, correctly answering around 17-18 questions in QA-DI and around 21-22 in VA-LR, a total of 40 questions correct usually garners a 3-digit percentile.

Based on my own experiences with the CAT and those of others we can safely say that on average attempting 55-60 percent of the questions correctly, or a net score that is 55-60 percent of the total score will get you a percentile in excess of 99. This is something that even our students taking the SimCAT will attest.

The above 99 percent category is like a 100 metres dash at the Olympics, there will be a Bolt who is way ahead of even his fellow 100 percentilers but barely few questions will separate the rest. So we can say that a 60-65  percent net score will ensure a percentile higher than 99.5.

What it might mean on CAT 2014

So on CAT 2014 what will be the magic number? A net score of 55-60 percent will ensure a 99 plus percentile. Let us see how this is possible.

If we look at the SimCATs which are on average tougher than the CAT, answering 33-36 questions correctly out of 60 will always guarantee you a 99 plus. Since the CAT will be slightly easier than this, the number can be revised upward to 38-40. On CAT 2014 you will have 30 minutes more and also possibly more questions per set. So this means that on average you will be able to attempt 10 questions more. So this again brings the total number of correct questions to the 55-60 range.

There is no magic number 

Ask yourself this simple question, what happens if CAT 2014 is easier than the previous CATs —can you attempt 55 questions correctly, submit the test and leave? What happens if its tougher than what we have seen in the last 5 years — will you be able to answer 55 questions correctly in 170 minutes? In both cases, the answer is no.

Last year a student of ours who was re-taking the CAT finished the QA-DI section only to find that he could attempt fewer questions that he did in CAT 2012. He concluded that he had performed poorly and with that mindset managed to under perform in the VA-LR section.

When the results came out he found that he had scored only slightly lower than the did in the previous year —the high 98s as opposed to the early 99s — and felt that he could have gotten a much better percentile than he got in 2012, if only he had kept his head together (he is currently in a premier b-school, so all’s well that ends well).

This is a very important thing to remember. Unless you are like a colleague of mine who always has time to give a good shot at all 60 questions, there is no precise number of attempts. There will always be a give and take of 5-7 questions here and there depending on the degree of difficulty of the paper. So you cannot go in with a fixed number.

How many questions should I attempt in CAT 2014?

As many as you can. But this is not as simple as it seems as there are two things that can prevent you from achieving this —

  • poor time-management and
  • poor question selection, which becomes even more important in CAT 2014 with 40 more questions and only 30 more minutes.

The posts that follow will cover these topics so that you are able to do the best you can on CAT 2014, till then stay focussed and keep prepping.

All the Best,