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Prepare well to tame the CAT

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POST-CAT RELIEF: Students after writing the CAT at a centre in Bangalore.
POST-CAT RELIEF: Students after writing the CAT at a centre in Bangalore.

The countdown has begun for CAT 2006. What will be different this year?

The Common Admission Test (CAT) for entry into the Indian Institutes of Management will be held on November 19. The notification to this effect was published in major newspapers and the sale of application forms has also started. CAT has always managed to trigger hyperactivity among the aspirants during the run-up period. This year also, it promises exactly to be the same. An increase in the test timing has only served to fuel this. The CAT notification says that instead of the usual time-honoured two-hour window for the test, this year's CAT will be for two-and-half hours. This has set off a series of discussions among aspirants, on various platforms, on issues such as adequacy of preparation, need for change in strategy for the examination, etc.

Examination time

An increase of 25 per cent in the time would mean that students would now need to consciously build mental stamina to say at their peak for a longer duration. This may seem trivial. But we are talking about an examination that could well be attended by two lakh students. In such a competitive scenario, failure to be at your peak for the entire duration can cost you dearly. But there is no need to go overboard with the implications of this elongated testing. The fact is every single test taker has exactly the same time to acclimatise him/herself with the longer duration. In an examination with relative grading, what ultimately matters is how you perform with respect to the competition. Also focusing for two-and-half hours is no big deal either. Just consider this: Students, around 17 years of age, who appear for the IIT-JEE are subjected to six hours of testing on the same day.

Number of sections

If you read the notification closely, you will find a mention about the number of sections in CAT 06. At least in two different places, the notification talks about CAT 06 being a three-section paper. The CAT bulletin also specifies that the examination is going to test the students in the areas of verbal, quantitative, data interpretation and logic. The bulletin clearly specifies that students are expected to perform well "in all the three sections." For formulating a test strategy, it would be better not to hazard a guess on how the areas might be grouped into three sections. The way a test is grouped will throw up a skewed performance from a student whose skill level in all test areas is not evenly polished.

Sectional cut-offs

For the first time, an IIM has stated clearly in the admission bulletin the required sectional cut-offs. IIM Ahmedabad has maintained that the sectional cut-offs in each of the three sections would not be less than 25 per cent and the over-all cut-off not less than 33 per cent for the general category students. IIM-A goes on to say that the actual cut-offs might be more depending on the performance. This means that if CAT 2006 happens to be a three-section paper with a grand total of 150 marks equally distributed among the three sections, then the required sectional cut-offs would be 12.5 marks in each section. The overriding requirement here would be to score a net of 50 marks overall. Although other IIMs have not specified the cut-offs explicitly, you can assume that the requirement would not vary much from that of IIM-A.

The strategy

So this brings us to the crux of the issue. What is the general strategy required to ensure that these stipulations are met? You surely would agree that here, the choice of the questions would be paramount. It does not mean the choice of questions to attempt. You are actually referring to the decision of what all questions to leave. Obviously, when you are trying to reach a net score that is less than half the total score possible in the test, the decision is more like what to leave than what to do. Do not assume that the increase in the total testing time will give more time per question. For the number of questions could increase proportionally. Do not also assume anything about the difficulty level of the questions. The actual number of questions in CAT examinations of 2003, 2004 and 2005 were 150, 123 and 90. Did this make the last year's CAT paper easier? For once let us forget referring to the level of difficulty from an absolute frame of reference. Let us just understand one thing - there will be enough "workable" questions in the CAT paper. Without these, grading close to two-lakh students is going to be an issue. Borrowing from military jargon, your job is to carefully pluck those easy questions that are embedded in the much-hyped about CAT paper. With every positive ID, you would further your cause as the bandwidth for gradation is absolutely thin.

Tackling surprises

To sum it up, let us quickly recap on the variables. The known variables are the duration of the test, the test areas and their equal importance in the overall ranking. The unknown variables are the number of questions, differential grading that could be adopted within one section, and the fundamental grouping of the test areas to form the possible three-section paper. So just like a practicing manager who will never have 100 per cent information required to carry out a decision, a test taker needs to be prepared to accommodate different possibilities within this framework. Please be careful in making blanket assumptions also. For example, it is known that the answers are recorded on the OMR sheet by darkening the bubbles. So you can safely conclude that the skill required will be to pick up the correct answer from among the choices and then record the response as a perfectly marked bubble. Of course, that is what the CAT bulletin says - it talks about darkening a circle as the correct response to every question and that the answer sheet for CAT 06 is likely to be similar to the one use in CAT 05. Now, just for the sake of preparing you for the unexpected, consider the possibility of the following scenario - There is differential marking - i.e. different questions within one section can have different weightages. Some questions with higher weightage may require you to actually find out the answer - may be a two digit number or the first two letters of a five letter word - and mark that on the OMR by darkening two bubbles for one answer. This is just a scenario to help you cushion a shock if you were to find the unexpected. In the meantime, take all the mock papers seriously and do analyse twice - one immediately after the mock paper and one after the results of the mock paper are declared. Good luck.

AJAY ANTONY

T.I.M.E.
Triumphant Institute of Management Education Private Limited


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