plan for CAT

The Common Admission Test (CAT) conducted by the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) will be held on November 18. The IIMs collectively...

The Common Admission Test (CAT) conducted by the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) will be held on November 18.

The IIMs collectively use a very competitive selection process. With close to two lakh candidates competing for a little more than 1,500 seats, the competition is stiff. Appearing for highly competitive examination such as the CAT of the IIMs needs a lot more than bookish knowledge. Sometimes, it is the entire mindset that needs to undergo a change.

Various sections

‘The CAT consists of questions that evaluate a candidate’s quantitative, verbal, logical and data interpretive abilities.’ – as laid out in the CAT bulletin.

For many years now the CAT has been testing a candidate on similar lines. A test-taker can no longer rely on memorising standard formulae but has to have a strong conceptual understanding, coupled with the ability to apply his/her mind in an innovative manner to challenging questions. This is true for all the sections and this is where the exposure to a variety of challenging questions can help the test-taker in deciding on the thought process that can lead to the final answer.


The CAT Bulletin this time again gives an indication about several sections and the various groups of questions in each section. However, there is a clear direction that the test-taker is free to work on the different sections in any order.

Optimal allocation

CAT requires you to ‘demonstrate your competence in all the sections;’ it is important that you learn the skill of optimal allocation of time across the sections. Similarly, it is clearly not advisable to spend unnecessarily longer time on any one question and waste time

But then, which section should one tackle first? Should you do more of reading comprehension or less of it? Should a person strong in English spend more time and attempt more questions in English?

Or is it that since a test-taker is weak in quantitative ability, the stress should be on just managing to clear the cut off in that section and maximising the overall score? There are many factors like these and more that have an important bearing on gaining or losing precious marks.

Over the years

From a plain-vanilla CAT in 2003, the examination format has seen changes year after year. With a normal – easy, medium, difficult – classification of questions possible in 2003, speed turned out to be the clear differentiator – identify the easy questions, skip the difficult ones and maximize the gain from the ‘solvable’ ones at a lightning speed – the ‘strategy’ was clear.

With differential marking, mastering the art of rejecting the difficult / tricky ones took the lead in 2004. Chances of a direct correlation between marks and difficulty level puzzled the test-takers. Those who had familiarity with pattern questions and had done several mock examinations to prepare themselves found the going relatively smoother. They had trained themselves to develop an ‘instinct’ on how to stay clear of the tricky ones and solve the hand-picked ones.

Exam duration

The stress on speed kept reducing over the years and in 2005, the paper saw greater level of importance being placed on comprehension skills and the power to infer from a given situation in order to reach an optimal solution. The examination duration remained consistent for two hours for many years. However, the duration was changed to two-and-a-half hours in 2006 (with the format remaining the same this year again).

CAT 2006, in addition to the change in duration, witnessed a clear change to a situation where analytical thinking, comprehension skills and the power to logically infer and extrapolate from a given situation took the lead. More time to attempt lesser number of questions, absence of differential marking and a five option paper with very easy questions hard to find, was palatable to only a few and a rude shock to many.

Visible shift

If one has a look at the previous year papers, there is a clear and visible shift away from tedious and time consuming calculation based questions. The stress is more on interpreting a problem / group of questions and zeroing in on the best ‘logic’ to ‘crack’ the ‘set’.

The Element of Surprise and what’s in it for me?

Year after year, CAT has been successful in creating hype with some elements of surprise in the exam; be it the exam format or the evaluation criteria.

The number of questions in each section and for the entire paper at large has seen a decline over the years. Does this mean that there is a qualitative shift in the focus to giving out challenging questions with a reasonable time limit rather than testing merely the skill of the candidate to churn out a number of answers at a lightning speed? The truth, however, remains that the CAT has to be effective in grading more than 2 lakh students; the paper would still have a good mix of ‘workable’ questions.

Differential marking was yet another deviation from the usual format. Sections got divided into sub-sections with different set of marks awarded for the different sub-sections.

Does it mean that a two mark question in comparison with a one mark question would consume more time to solve OR that it would be more tricky and intriguing? Establishing any direct correlation seemed to be difficult.

Possible ‘surprises’

Let us now look at some possible ‘surprises’.

Questions may have more than one correct answer – throwing a situation where the students are forced to be doubly sure about all the possibilities for the given question. The strategy of “elimination of choices” may not work in this scenario.

Progressive negative marking explicitly stated – here the extent of negative marking would keep increasing with the number of questions that you have got wrong. Introducing this would mean that the test-takers would have to exercise a high level of prudence while deciding on whether a questions needs to be attempted or not.

Mark the grid – test-takers may be expected to “actually find the correct answer” and then darken corresponding ovals to denote a numerical response like 12.6. One would have to go down to the last step to work the answers as approximations will not hold good in this scenario.

Should the test-taker be really worried about the surprise element packed in the exam? It would be better to say that one should be confident enough and prepared to deal with the surprise. Just like the hardness of the pitch, the level of moisture in the air, the pace of the outfield, the weather forecast, etc would have bearing on the strategy adopted by the captain of a cricket team winning the toss; a well-prepared CAT test-taker would have to be flexible to use the right mix of strategies as the situation demands.


To quote Ed Macaulay, “When you are not practising, remember, others are practising elsewhere and when you meet them, they will win.” It is especially true for CAT. You need to continually benchmark yourself with the best and practice continuously to help you perform better than others

A serious test-taker at this stage should focus on:

Exposure to a number of questions / exam formats and patterns by preparing with a number of pattern papers / mock exams Benchmarking oneself with the best across the country

Identify one’s strengths and weaknesses – this is important in order to develop and fine-tune one’s course of action for the exam and

Developing the Best Fit strategy for the different possible scenarios based on one’s strengths and weaknesses– No single pre-conceived strategy can work wonders for an exam like CAT that can contain an element of surprise.

Here it is important to simulate as many different scenarios as possible, find out the strategy that fits each and overall be flexible enough to zero-in on the strategy that best fits the given paper



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Higher Study : plan for CAT
plan for CAT
Higher Study
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