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:

  • I disbelieved in the relentless focus on the shortcuts and tricks in the quantitative section. The institute, somehow, believed in devising a shortcut for every conceivable kind of question ever asked in CAT and then, asking us to remember that. It was just too much for my memory and my mind was sort of giving up trying to remember all those shortcuts. Since there were hundreds of types of questions that had been asked in the CAT by then, there were an equivalent number (almost!) of shortcuts.

    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!

  • I also disbelieved in the lack of time philosophy, propagated by the institute. The institute kept telling us that there was very less time available in CAT and we needed to use time-saving techniques and shortcuts for solving questions. Though I agreed that 150 minutes for solving 75 questions was less (I am talking about CAT 2007), I never really agreed that I was going to attempt or solve 100% of the paper. Even a 100 percentiler was not going to score more than 60-65%. That would translate into around 3 minutes per question. Given that grammar questions of VA section could be done in less than a minute each (you either know the answer or you don’t. You can’t think through the syntax of language), I knew I had around 3.5 minutes to solve each question if I were to target 100 percentile ( I am not assuming 100% accuracy but 90% accuracy, which is anyway required to reach anywhere near the cut-off. You can’t spend so much time arriving at the wrong answers). I believed 3.5 minutes was not too less time.

    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.

  • Lastly, I also disbelieved in the test taking strategy offered by the so-called test taking experts. I was told that if I had spent more than two minutes on a question without considerable progress, I should not waste any further time on it. When the strategy was given, none bothered to define the word ‘considerable’, which happened to be the most significant word in the statement. In any case, I didn’t believe in any such suggestion. I decided that I would be the one deciding when to continue or drop a question. While taking a high stress test like CAT, with varying difficulty level across questions and across years, I reasoned, only a test taker could decide when to drop a question after having spent some time with it. This helped me by giving the power to handle the situation to my mind. Since there was no stringent time limit per question, I could decide in as less as 10 seconds to drop the question or I could continue the question beyond 5 minutes. My mind was calm in both the situation since I was not exceeding any time limit (because there was no time limit per question!)

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:

  • Empower your mind: Believe that your mind can solve questions. If the questions are designed to test your thinking abilities, believe that you can think through the questions. This might be difficult to start with but will yield much better results in the long run.

  • Be a tortoise in the beginning: First, hone your thinking/understanding ability, and then work on saving time. Actually, your speed will improve automatically as your comprehension and problem-solving abilities increase. But note that I am asking you to work on your thinking abilities, not on your memory. If, from the start, you are just memorizing shortcuts and spending time to figure out which shortcut applies in which situation, then your speed may not improve with time.
    By working on your thinking abilities, you’ll observe that, gradually, your speed will increase to a point where you would not find 3 to 3.5 minutes per question, too less a time. So, be a tortoise in the beginning and quietly work on your mind. Ever wondered why, in a tortoise vs hare race, the tortoise wins the race?!

  • Go for the test with an open mind: Just follow your heart and mind in the test room. This is one of the ways to stay calm. If you keep checking that you have spent more than x minutes on a question, you’ll keep skipping questions you could have solved and lose your much-needed calm in the process.

  • Work on your strengths: Weaknesses should be worked on. However, given the level of difficulty of a CAT exam, a few but honed strengths are better than working capability on a large number of questions.

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!

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