What helped me crack CAT?
I wrote this article a few years ago. I am reproducing it here, hoping that it might help test takers, especially ones who are taking aptitude tests such as CAT and GMAT.
Let’s begin with a bit of background. I sat for CAT 2007. By the time I took CAT, I had been enrolled in a national level CAT coaching institute for almost a year and a half. Since many of my friends were enrolling in such institutes, I also joined one.
One interesting thing occurred on the day of my enrollment, which I have not forgotten since. The institute asked all the new joiners to take a Mock CAT Test to assess the level of water we were in. The Mock CAT Test was either CAT 2004 or CAT 2005, I don’t remember exactly. I scored in the 40s. I did not know what to do with this score, until I was told by one of the ladies there, that I had done really well and had rather missed the cut-off for IIMs by half a mark! Quite near! Though she praised me, she didn’t bother to tell me the irrelevance of coaching for me (I know this is expecting too much honesty from her).
However, not all people are dishonest (take this word a bit lightly, here). Only a couple of months into my enrollment, one of the math faculties at the institute, told me, in front of the class, that I did not need any coaching. Obviously, this was a bit too late, to take or reverse any action (probably, the faculty knew this and thus could afford to be honest!).
So, I kept attending classes (whenever I found time) and finally took CAT and scored 99.98 percentile. Looking back, I think the following factors helped me immensely to rank within Top 50 in CAT ‘07:
First and the most important factor which contributed to my success was that I never disbelieved my mind. I listened to all what the institute was saying about CAT but if my mind disagreed, I followed my mind. There is an old saying “Suno Sabki, Karo apne man ki”. Let’s see how my belief helped me in acing one of the most difficult tests:
It was then I decided that I shall not be pressing my mind to learn shortcuts. But then, shortcuts do help by saving time. So, what I did was that I started figuring out where those shortcuts were coming from (their mathematical derivations). If the sources were few, I could focus on the sources and could devise the shortcuts during the exam. For example: When I was told a shortcut for multiplication of numbers, I quickly figured out that the shortcut was coming from the formula:
a^2 – b^2 = (a+b)(a-b)
When I was told a shortcut to calculate square of a number between 31 to 50, I figured out that the shortcut was coming from
n^2 = (50-b)^2 = 2500 -100b + b^2 = 100*(25-b) + b^2 (n is a number between 31 to 50 and is represented as 50-b)
So, for n=32, we have b=18, thus 322 = 700 +324 = 1024.
Similarly, I figured out the background of many shortcuts like ncr , power cycles, why we can check divisibility by 3 or 9 by just checking the divisibility of sum of digits etc.
All this background understanding greatly helped me since now I had to remember only the basic mathematical formulae (which I remembered anyway), instead of a plethora of shortcuts. This freed up my mind, which could now focus on understanding questions, rather than wondering which shortcuts to fix there. Thus, the power balance was restored in favor of the mind from the memory. This understanding helped me in one more way: it helped me devise my own shortcuts, not only during the preparation but also during the exam, customized shortcuts for the questions!
This disbelief in the lack of time ideology greatly helped me. While the rest of my fellow students were focusing on building their speeds from the beginning, I only focused on developing my understanding ability. I worked really slowly initially. I knew if I developed my understanding ability, speed would come naturally. I disowned most of the shortcuts, since they tried to short-circuit my thinking ability. Gradually, as my understanding increased and my mind started grasping mathematical questions easily, speed came naturally. However, in the initial period when I was considerably slower than my peers who relied on shortcuts, I had to resist taking their approach.
Second important factor after empowering my mind was that I focused on my strengths. There were a couple of areas, including geometry, in which I was not as strong. Though I practiced these kinds of questions, I never gave any special attention to these. This is because I knew that the combined strength of these two areas could never cross 20% in the quant section, and that too in the worst scenario. Since I never wanted to be the first person to score 100% in CAT, I could ignore these sections. As someone has said, “Focus on your strengths”; it actually helps to build on your strengths since these yield much quicker results. Further, in a difficult test like CAT, where one needs to have a really high caliber to solve each question, a few strengths are better than having working knowledge of all types of questions.
Of all the strategies which worked in my favor, the most important was to focus on my thinking abilities rather to memorize shortcuts. One of the main disadvantages of following a short-cut based approach is that in this approach, one is moving against the tide. By this, I mean, that one is moving against the objectives of the IIMs, which conduct CAT. Their purpose cannot be to select people who are masters of shortcuts; they would be requiring people who have thinking abilities and who can think through problems and devise solutions in complex situations.
A shortcut based approach moves exactly opposite to this objective and thus yields little results. This exact opposite approach is one of the main reasons, IIMs don’t like coaching institutes. At times, IIMs decide to take this approach head on by changing the kind of questions. This wreaks havoc on students trained on shortcuts, which solve only previously asked kind of questions.
Thus, my suggestions to the CAT Aspirants are:
I sincerely hope that after reading this article, you follow “Suno sabki, karo apne man ki” approach and not follow 100% of anything that I have mentioned. Rather, you use the above knowledge to figure out the best approach for yourself. I wish you all the best for your CAT preparation and I wish that you always believe more in your mind than any other external source. Happy Preparing!