Answering a reasonable number of questions is not too difficult if you are prepared to keep your cool
Quantitative Ability is often the most “feared” section of the CAT. Most candidates also devote a considerable portion of their total preparation to this section of the paper. Learning to “crack” this section is an important part of cracking the CAT itself and securing admission to the top B-schools.
Quantitative ability is nothing more than solving problems based on mathematics. Candidates, especially those uncomfortable with mathematics, should bear in mind that CAT Quant questions require knowledge of mathematics only of Class X level. Questions are typically based on elementary topics such as Simple Equations, Ratio, Proportion & Variation, Percentages and Averages as well as on advanced areas such as Geometry, Permutations and Combinations, Probability, Functions and Graphs.
The most important point that a CAT aspirant needs to bear in mind is that cracking the Quant section does not mean being able to solve a number of questions. A cursory glance at past CAT papers reveals that a score of about 25 – 30 per cent of the total marks in the paper is often sufficient for a candidate to clear the cut-offs. In fact, answering a reasonable number of questions is not too difficult if you are prepared to keep your cool. The Quant section (like every other) contains a good mix of easy and difficult questions. There always tend to be a few easy pickings and your smartness lies in ensuring that you do not miss these. In fact, in CAT 2008, we found that about 7 - 8 question in the Quant section were very similar to questions we had included in the Basic Study Material that we gave our students. This should tell you that not all CAT Quant questions are very difficult.
The most important ingredient of a good performance in the Quant section is Clarity in Concepts. Clarity comes out of an effort to understand the basics and then to apply them in a large number of problem-solving situations. You would normally be advised to start at a low to moderate level of difficulty and slowly work up to the difficulty level of the CAT. Study materials of many training institutes contain a large number of such problems and can be a useful way to begin.
The next step is to improve your speed by working out a large number of problems, analysing them to identify patterns across problems and explore ways of using these patterns to shorten your problem-solving process.
The third step is to develop a sound approach to assessing problems quickly. Being able to do so will enable you to make better choices of which questions to attempt and which to skip in your actual CAT paper. The approach usually comes out of a serious attempt to analyse every question you solve and see patterns across questions. When you, for instance, see that questions of a particular type always tend to involve more steps and consume more time, you learn that such questions tend to drain your precious time and should be classified as “difficult” (at least for you). Of course, as you practise on more questions, those that started off looking “difficult” suddenly start looking “easy.” That's why practice is the key to success at CAT Quant.
The Golden Rule
All the above ought to have been a part of your CAT preparation and I trust that you would have been diligent enough till now. However, the best of preparation can come to naught if you do not follow a strategy designed to get the most out of the Quant section. The goal is to perform well irrespective of how difficult or easy the paper turns out to be.
The starting point of ensuring a good performance is to remind oneself of the Golden Rule of the CAT – “Read all the questions.” The principle is simple – To crack the paper, you need to select the easy questions and drop the difficult ones.
You do not, however, know which questions are easy and which ones are difficult till you read all the questions.
While it is therefore easy to understand and agree with the Golden Rule, implementing it is not that straightforward. It requires a lot of discipline and a sound strategy to be able to do so.
The first step in the strategy is devoting sufficient time to it. Normally, we advise an allotment of around 35-40 minutes to this section. The next step is to apportion this time to ensure that you read all the questions and answer the ones that you find the easiest.
A good way to do so is to divide the entire Quant section into 5 “sub-sections” with individual time limits. For instance, you could divide a “25 questions in 40 minutes” Quant section into “5 Questions in 8 minutes” sub-sections. This will help you push yourself towards the otherwise-difficult-to-attain goal of reading all the questions.
Within each sub-section, incorporate a “mid-course” review where around the middle question (3rd in this case), you check if you are on track. If you are, proceed as you have been doing. If you are behind schedule, decide whether you ought to skip a question or two to ensure that you do not overshoot the time limit for the current sub-section.
While tackling individual questions, remember that spending around one minute per question to decide whether to answer it or not is a necessary investment.
It is not a waste of time to try a question even though you may ultimately skip it. Instead, use this time to work out a few steps and understand what it is going to take to solve each problem completely. This will enable you to segregate questions as “easy”, “medium” and difficult”. Do the “easy” and “medium” questions immediately and patiently. You may reserve some of the “medium” questions for “buffer time.”
Skip the difficult questions quickly. Be prepared to skip any “easy” or “medium” question that does not get resolved even after 2.5 - 3 minutes.
Thorough preparation and a sound strategy implemented in a calm frame of mind is the key to cracking the Quant Section of the CAT.
(The writer is Director, T.I.M.E., Chennai.)