Thursday, October 16, 2014

CAT Preparation - Handling Pressure

CAT is a high pressure exam for many, and how to cope is probably a key determinant for cracking this exam. For a lucky few there is no great pressure and this is just another exam to have a go at. If you are one of that brigade, you should probably even skip this article and stay in that carefree bubble. No point thinking and reading about pressure and panic, and planting seeds into the brain.

Quite a few students freeze during the exam, a select few even entertain thoughts of not taking the exam at all. And a great many become slightly fearful and lose some of the 'josh' that needs to be present.

I am not an expert at handling pressure and am not going to give much by the way of prescription here. I want to showcase three well-written  articles on pressure - well, two on pressure and one on 'josh'.

As one of the pieces states "We live in an age obsessed with success, with documenting the myriad ways by which talented people overcome challenges and obstacles. There is as much to be learned, though, from documenting the myriad ways in which talented people sometimes fail."

All three are based on sports and are wonderful articles to help us understand what pressure does to people. Sportsmen need to do their bit in the presence of gazillions and which is why their chokes always provide us the backdrop for us to understand pressure.

The Art of Failure -

This wonderful piece focuses on Jana Novotna's implosion at Wimbleson. Quite a long piece but totally worth reading. The author distinguishes between choking and panicking, and from a student perspective, choking is probably a bigger threat than panicking in CAT.

Some interesting extracts are given below - But I would recommend that you read the entire piece.

She was crumbling under pressure, but exactly why was as baffling to her as it was to all those looking on. Isn’t pressure supposed to bring out the best in us? We try harder. We concentrate harder. We get a boost of adrenaline. We care more about how well we perform. So what was happening to her?....

Panic, in this sense, is the opposite of choking. Choking is about thinking too much. Panic is about thinking too little. Choking is about loss of instinct. Panic is reversion to instinct.....

Given below is the probably the most important insight. "I hope I dont mess this up" -  is not a good mindset to take into an exam.

What is it we tell underperforming athletes and students? The same thing we tell novice pilots or scuba divers: to work harder, to buckle down, to take the tests of their ability more seriously. But Steele says that when you look at the way black or female students perform under stereotype threat you don’t see the wild guessing of a panicked test taker. “What you tend to see is carefulness and second-guessing,” he explains. “When you go and interview them, you have the sense that when they are in the stereotype-threat condition they say to themselves, ‘Look, I’m going to be careful here. I’m not going to mess things up.’ Then, after having decided to take that strategy, they calm down and go through the test. But that’s not the way to succeed on a standardized test. The more you do that, the more you will get away from the intuitions that help you, the quick processing. They think they did well, and they are trying to do well. But they are not.”......

They failed because they were good at what they did: only those who care about how well they perform ever feel the pressure of stereotype threat. The usual prescription for failure–to work harder and take the test more seriously–would only make their problems worse..... (Dear students, take 3 days off if you are continuously agonizing about the exam).

That is a hard lesson to grasp, but harder still is the fact that choking requires us to concern ourselves less with the performer and more with the situation in which the performance occurs........ (Go in to have fun with the paper. Dont worry about letting down your Dad)....

The second article is also interesting because it is a team sport and relates to cricket.

Why the Proteas Choke at the Cricket World Cup 

South Africa choked in the most important cricket match since their return to cricket in the 90's, the semi-final of the 1999 world cup.

Again, some simple extracts

It is obvious that Klusener was so locked into the idea of winning the match for South Africa that he was unable to step out of himself.....

What they needed when the scores were equal was clear-headedness and the presence of mind to coolly look at where they were and what had to be done......

The Haal Of Pakistan

Having seen two long articles on pressure, let us go through one on adrenaline. This is a fabulous article on the Pakistan cricket team from one of my favourite writers. This one is about 'josh' or 'haal' as the writer calls it. One should prepare to reach this level where the senses are heightened before the exam,

Again, some extracts

And then there is total frenzy, so overwhelming and real you can almost hold it in your hands. Such is its force that it can be deeply moving even through the sensory dilution and sanitisation of TV, even on ball-by-ball commentary online...

Fielders start hitting the stumps and taking catches which, in other situations, we can easily imagine them dropping.....

Please try to go into the exam by telling yourself this

“And it is a tamasha. I swear to God, we used to say it, we used to talk about it like this. Chal para kaam, chaloji, pakro [‘It’s begun, come, grab on to it’], that kind of language in the middle.”....

Suddenly, jaan aajati he......

“You could say denial if the outcome ended in failure; but here the outcome is success. Most times that self-belief is latent, but it gets triggered by some unexpected circumstance. And once triggered, it feeds on itself and explodes. I guess another way of seeing it is that this self-belief has an activation threshold, and once the threshold is met, there’s no stopping it and it goes all the way......

All three are long(-ish) articles, but interesting ones to understand pressure and josh. Before a critical exam, all of us have anxiety and adrenaline. Figure out ways to tone down one, and kick in the other. and that alone is worth 200 hours of preparation. Truth is, we do not really know how to do this. Otherwise, sportsmen with their infinite array of analysts would not choke. But, set aside some time to think about this.

Best wishes for CAT.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

CAT 2014 Notification: What does this mean?

CAT 2014 notification is out .

First up, let us review the facts

Time duration: 170 minutes instead of 140 minutes
Number of questions: 50 per section, instead of 30 per section previously
Dates: Nov 16th and Nov 22nd, two sessions per day, instead of 40 sessions in the previous avatar
Change in pattern: Candidates can shift from one section to another, the time limit is 170 minutes for the overall paper. Previously, we used to have 70 minutes per section. Now, the time limits are not in silos and one can choose to spend unequal amounts of time on each section.

Thankfully, the IIMs have chosen to clarify why they are doing these changes. All these changes have been done to make the exam "aspirant-friendly". They might have changed the format dramatically, it is reassuring to know that the IIMs have at least retained their sense of humour.

How does this change preparation strategy for individual sections?
The study plan remains the same. The syllabus, framework remain the same. Practice the basics, build intensity and take lot of tests in the end. Do not pontificate too much on why these changes have been made. Be happy that the test has been made more aspirant-friendly, and continue preparation with the warm glow that comes from knowing someone is looking out for you.

How does it change the plan for CAT?
1. Stamina matters: Taking an exam for 170 minutes is tough. This is not a college exam that can be taken even with "day-dream spells" in the middle. This is an intense exam. The extra half hour can be sapping. I have been taking CAT in the past few years purely for the experience (the implication being that the pressure is less). I get drained out completely by the end of the 140 minutes. I am so tired that I can barely drive back home. An extra 30 minutes is going to kill applicants who do not have stamina. So, start building intensity and stamina from now on.

2. Time management needs to be better: Given the freedom to shift from one section to another, students might flit from one section to another too many times and kill momentum in both. Have a plan that broadly allocates time across the two sections, and have one buffer for going for playing it safe in case you are worrying about section cut-off. Do not plan to shift from section I to II once every 10 minutes. Just because the freedom has been given , it does not mean one has to use it. Till 2009, CAT gave students the freedom of shifting from one section to another. Those of us who have taken CATs in both forms will tell you that this freedom of shifting from one section to another is a double-edged sword. I used to consistently "steal"  a few minutes from quant and use this for verbal. This did not help my overall performance much. My best results came when this freedom was taken away from students. The pressure of worrying about section cut-offs sometime takes something away from the performance. So, be careful with this new found time-management freedom.

3. Students with one strong suit and one weak suit will have a small advantage: A student who is frightfully good in quant and just about average in verbal can now spend 95 minutes on verbal and 75 on quant and "balance" things out. Because this option is now available, students with sharp variance between the two sections can now plan with this in mind. Just a word of caution though, trying to be too cute can come back to bite you in this exam. Plan to have mild tweaks, avoid major overhauls.

Obviously, you will have to take a few mock CATs to get used to the new pattern. As always, the best place for getting the newer version of mock CATs is 2IIM.

Best wishes for CAT 2014.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Friday, July 18, 2014

When should one start taking mock CATs, how should one analyze them? A short video from 2iim to address these two questions.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

2IIM - CAT Online Course

2IIM launches its online course for CAT. Have a look at the two-minute introduction video to know about the course.

Why the 2iim online course is the best in the world?

The course has been built by a very small team, with ~85% of the lectures handled by Rajesh Balasubramanian. Rajesh is an alumnus from IIMB (2003) and scored 100th percentile in CAT 2011 and CAT 2012. 

2IIM's online course offers students three key freedoms
Freedom over location: Class can be taken anywhere. Course is 'light', i.e. should load even in places where internet speed is not that high
Freedom over time: The course cane be taken any time; and any number of times
Freedom over pace: This is the most important factor that should be a breakthrough for students. Each class is broken into modules and has been built with a mix of slides and videos. So, the course offers students the freedom to take lessons at their own pace.  Each class is of ~2.5 hours duration; but one that an exam-ready student can complete in 45 minutes, and a beginner can take 4.5 hours or longer. Each class has 8-15 short videos interspersed with slides, and is not one long 2.5 hour long video. 

What does the course offer?

  •  50 online classes – Each of 2.5 hours duration; but one that an exam-ready student can complete in 45 minutes, and a beginner can take 4.5 hours or even longer.
  • 10 books that cover all aspects of CAT preparation
  • 20 online mock CATs + 10-paper based mock CATs. Online mock CATs will come with video solutions for select questions.
  •  25 online section tests. 

New product, new idea. Obviously you are not sure 

Rajesh might have scored 100th percentile and think he is god's gift to mankind. But what if he teaches at a level that is way too high for you; or at a level that is way too low. Proof of the pudding is in the eating. Hit a few sample classes at .

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Is CAT punishing incorrect answers far more harshly?

Every year, after CAT results, we have students complaining about the scoring. Generally, it is just considered overreaction by students. However, this time there have been some funny patterns emerging from the scores. There are two key trends that we have seen

1. A few good students have not just underperformed, their scores have fallen off a cliff
2. Students with very high attempts have seen unusually low scores

Anecdotally, I have seen the following scores/numbers that I am not able to completely wind my head around with the current assumptions that we have made.

1. I had two students more or less equally good in quants. One froze in the exam and attempted 6 questions and ended with a score of 86th percentile. The other probably pushed himself too hard in the exam and attempted 19 questions to end with 78th percentile.

2. Another good student attempted almost equal number of questions in Quant and Verbal, and got 90+ percentile in one and less than 60th percentile in the other

3. We have heard multiple stories about someone getting 50th percentile+ with zero attempts in both sections.

All of these lead me to believe that one assumption we have made with the computation of the raw score is probably incorrect. We have all believed that a correct answer fetches a student +3, and an incorrect one fetches -1.  And then these scores are normalized to factor in level of difficulty.

My suspicion is that the IIMs have created a framework that punishes inaccuracy far more harshly than this. 

On a +3/-1 system someone who attempts 19 and gets 6 wrong would get 39 - 6 = 33 marks. Someone who attempts 6 and gets all 6 correct would get 18. Now, this giant difference in raw scores is unlikely to get bridged in the normalization process.

However, if the IIMs said each student gets -1 for the first incorrect answer in the section, -2 for the second one, -3 for the third and so on, then the person with 19 attempts and 6 wrong could get 39 - 21  = 18 which is same as the score of someone who got 6 out 6 correct.

Alternatively, the IIMs could compute the score, normalize it, scale it to 225 and finally multiply by accuracy level to get the final score. Under this assumption, the final score of the person scoring 13 correct and 6 wrong would be their normalized score * 13/19, which is a more than 30% drop in score. Whereas the one scoring 6 out of 6 would retain his entire score.

I have just given two outlines that punish inaccuracy beyond the +3/-1 framework. I am sure we can create many more. My guess is that the IIMs want to say that 10 out of 10 is way better than 14 out of 18. From a student perspective, the earlier you can wind your head around that the better.

In my view, the most important message sitting inside the scores this time around is this - Do not chase attempts, agonize over accuracy. This is the mantra most trainers have been screaming for many years now. The relevance of this mantra just shot up now. So, all of you who are preparing for CAT 2014, get into the habit of getting every attempt correct from now on. If you are unsure, leave the question. If a question seems too easy, have another read to verify. Do not live in this speed-world where attempting 10 questions in 20 minutes and getting 8 correct is considered better than attempting 6 and getting ALL of them correct.

Finally, a disclaimer. All of this is more of less just conjecture. We can never be sure of the method the IIMs use for getting the normalized scores for CAT. This is just an attempt to interpret based on anecdotal evidence. Research based on statistical evidence is often wrong, so take anything based on anecdotal evidence with a pinch of salt.

Best wishes for all students who are appearing for their interviews. I look forward to meeting all 2iim students at the GD/PI workshop.

The above piece is from Rajesh Balasubramanian, a director at 2iim who trains student for CAT and takes CAT every year. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Preface of the book on Quantitative Aptitude for CAT

This is a copy of the preface from the book on quantitative aptitude for CAT. The book can be bought on Flipkart here .

The CAT is a wonderful exam because it aims to create challenging questions based on simple frameworks. In recent years, the paper has become far tougher, but examiners have ensured that the syllabus is simple. This is an often-forgotten, but key, idea that should set the tone for your preparation.

To my mind, this gives us two key guidelines
  1. Learn from first principles to ensure that you do not ‘plateau’ out in some topics
  2. Do not bother with really tough questions; do not agonize over speed of computation

To have a preparation strategy that keeps these aspects in mind, I have followed some simple thumb-rules. I have adhered to these rules while building content; my advice would be for students to stick to it as well.

Ø  Start from scratch (and then increase difficulty level slowly): The first few questions are beguilingly simple. The plan is to provide a framework for students to handle tougher questions. The most instructive way to learn is by discovering ideas. Every chapter is broken into theory, exercise and CAT-level questions. The idea is to provide a framework with simple questions and ‘push’ students to discover some thought processes while handling CAT-level questions.

Ø  Focus on building the thought process, and less on getting answers: Let me illustrate with a simple example. There is a rule that goes like this – For a prime p greater than 3, p2 – 1 is always a multiple of 24. Many CAT aspirants might have seen this rule, but few might know the basis behind this rule. p2 -1 = (p -1) (p + 1). Now, if p is a prime > 3, p is odd. p-1 and p+1 are consecutive even numbers, which implies one of them will be a multiple of 4 and the other a multiple of 2. Or, (p-1) (p +1) will be a multiple of 8. Now, p-1, p, p+1 are three consecutive integers, implying that one of these has to be a multiple of 3. p is prime; so one of p -1 or p + 1 has to be a multiple of 3. This is why, p2 – 1 is a multiple of 24. If you have gone through this process and you see the next rule to be – If p is a prime > 3, p has to be of the form 6k + 1(where k is a  natural number), it becomes far easier to establish.
The entire book is built on the premise that it is the ability to figure out newer frameworks that distinguishes the best from the merely good, not a vast knowledge base that comprises many frameworks. Almost every question in the book has detailed solutions; in some answers, we revisit key bits from the theory in order to build the thought process.

Ø  Stay away from get-high-scores-quickly schemes: I have consciously stayed away from short-cuts and other over-simplifications to ensure a stubborn focus on fundamentals. Many guys who crack CAT will tell you that the exam is about speed and good time management.  They are correct. However, the ‘speed’ that they refer to is the ease with which you can zone in on the best method for a particular question, not necessarily the speed at which you can plug in a shortcut. I have appeared for the CAT multiple times and I can assert that if you ‘pick’ the best method as soon as you read the question, you’ll be able to approach all questions with time to spare. So, work on building that clarity. Many a time, this quest for speed is a distraction. If your fundamentals are sound, you will have time to burn.

Ø  Assess where you stand every now and then: Each topic ends with a set of CAT-level questions that acts as a benchmark for students. Innumerable books shoot either too low or too high when it comes to CAT preparation; I have taken enormous effort to ensure that CAT-level questions fall by and large into the band of difficulty that one is likely to encounter in the exam. If a student can confidently approach 80% of the questions in this category, he/she can be confident that this particular topic has been well covered. Barring the topic on combinatorics (where I have included a few tougher questions because learning by enumeration can be very instructive), almost every other question has been designed to be around the difficulty level one can expect in CAT.
I have made it a point to categorize questions into two levels of difficulty – Level 1 are questions that you should  see in a CAT paper; Level 2 are those that you should skip in the first round. I have limited the classification to two because when faced with a question in CAT, the only decision a student has to take is ‘now or later?’.  It is that simple. Also, to aid this decision-making, I have made it a point to provide the level of difficulty only in the solutions section, thus giving students practice in this decision-making.

Ø  Prepare with intensity, but enjoy the process: CAT tests intensity and stamina as much as it does application. Completing a 140-minute exam without concentration ‘drops’ is not easy. It takes immense practice. So, set yourself targets of 20 or 25 minutes for intense preparation and build up from there. Contrary to popular perception, this is not an exam that one should prepare for eight hours a day. If you study with intensity, it is difficult to spend more than two-three hours a day on CAT preparation. And, if you can do two hours a day with intensity for 90- 100 days, you will be in great shape for the exam. Focus on intensity, not time. Intensity can be built up without a feeling of being burdened by it only if you enjoy this process at some level. Looked at differently, CAT preparation can be seen as being similar to solving Sudoku or math puzzles along with some general reading. If your attitude is correct, this can be a lot of fun.

What does the book provide?

There are 27 chapters in math, with each topic containing theory with solved examples, exercise questions and CAT-level questions. All questions have detailed solutions. The level of difficulty of the CAT-level questions is mentioned where solutions are provided. This is supplemented with CAT papers of 2006, 2007 and 2008 (with solutions provided for the first two). There are also three mock CAT papers for the Quant section, again with solutions provided for the first two.

I enjoyed creating the content for this book. Although a fairly arduous task, what started off as just another interesting project soon became a labor of love. I have a lot of fun when I am in a class or when interacting with students. I realized that my maiden venture as an author for a publishing house was also very enjoyable! It is my hope and expectation that students will find it useful and also fun. Mathematics is best understood when learnt with a certain sense of wonder and joy.

Finally, to the caveat emptor – notwithstanding the meticulous efforts undertaken by the team in putting together this book, it is possible that a few errors have crept in. Kindly bring it to our notice in case you notice any. This will help us improve our next edition. I can be reached at

What does the book not provide?

I have always believed that it is crucial to know what is not in any book. This book provides a good framework and detailed thought process for a number of challenging questions. However, the book does not provide what I would call “The Grind”.

Students are expected to know the simple basics of the topics being covered.  In case you feel like a particular topic is too complex, please look into NCERT class VI, VII or VIII text books and get an understanding of the fundamentals.

While learning some topics, we are more receptive of tougher ideas after we have internalized the simpler ones well and practiced plenty of questions on these. The pace of learning is determined by the amount of “Grind” required to be receptive to the next idea. As my mentor K S Baskar never tires of saying, each person should do the level of “Grind” required for him/her (and not get carried away with doing only as many as the best student in your peer group requires). So, if you feel like you require more practice of simpler questions before going to CAT-level questions, please suspend pride and pick up the NCERT class VI, VII or VIII books and have a go at them.

Best wishes for the CAT and other competitive exams.


I would like to convey my sincere thanks to my colleagues, who painstakingly reviewed most of the content. Special thanks are due to Shivaram (faculty at 2iim Chennai who is now off to IIM-A for his PGDM); Naveenan Ramachandran (IIM-A alumnus, who runs 2iim Mumbai); Vimal Gopinath (XIMB alumnus, who runs 2iim Bangalore); K.S. Baskar (IIMC alumnus, who is the founder of 2iim);  Naveen (quant faculty at 2iim Chennai); and Mr. G R K Murthy (IIT Kanpur alumnus, who runs 2iim at Mylapore, Chennai).

I am grateful to Ranjini for her enormous help in formatting and verifying content. I am thankful to Mr. Periyathambi Srinivasan for ensuring that our office functioned smoothly enough when we were wholly occupied with the book.

I also acknowledge the contribution of Mr. Biju Kumar and his entire team at Access Publishing for the editing, proof-checking and general guidance they have provided. This has been invaluable.

Finally, I am indebted to Ms. Ranjeetha Shivakumar (alumnus of Great Lakes, Chennai) for verifying parts of the content. As the author’s better half, Ranjeetha had the unenviable task of having to get her hands dirty with what was not really in her comfort zone.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Three step process for CAT Quant preparation

The below is an extract from the article published on MBA Universe that can be found here

For each topic in Quant section, you must break the process into three steps - 

 1. Learn the theory from first principles: Make a conscious effort to learn theory from basic ideas. We have a tendency to ‘jump’ steps when we get familiar with a topic. Resist the temptation to use plug-and-play formulae and learn the theory with an open mind. Let me illustrate this with a simple example – 

Consider a class of 40 students with an average score of 60 marks. Two students leave this class and the average mark increases by ‘x’. If no student can take a negative mark, and x is a positive integer, how many values can the average of the two students take? One can write equations and solve this. However, someone who has learnt from basic ideas will follow a more intuitive approach.

Let us look at this approach. Let us start with a simple case where the average does not change when these two students leave the class. In this case, the two students should have scored 120 marks overall (average of 60). Now, since the average has increased, these two together should have scored less than 120.

If the average increases by 1, then they should have scored 38 marks less than 120. If average increases by 1, total should have increased by 38, or the two that left the class should have ‘taken out’ 38 less than 120. So, if they had scored 120 – 38 = 82, the average would have fallen by 1.

If they had scored 120 - 38 x 2 = 44, average would fall by 2. If they had scored 120 – 38 x 3 = 6, average would have fallen by 3. Three different possibilities exist. The intuitive method scores over the formulaic method in questions like these. It is very important to retain the more intuitive approach and not get consumed by the algebra .........more

Monday, June 10, 2013

What should you make right this CAT vis-a-vis your last CAT?

Category I: I am a rockstar in one of the two sections but have no idea whatsoever about the other.

Kudos! You have identified your strength.  Now, play to your strength.  If your strong area is, say, Section I i.e., Quant and DI, never even shoot to attempt (and get right) less than 26 questions.  Make this a habit right from your first mock.  Remember, this means you don't have the freedom of either focusing less on DI because you don't like calculations (Hi five! I am one among them) or focusing less on a particular chapter, like say Work and Time, because you don't deem it important/don't like it.  Doing this would ensure a 99.6x+ percentile in this section. Believe me, the gap between a 99.6 and a 98.5 percentile is wider than you think because the gap in the CAT score out of 450 could be much higher than the percentile difference suggests.  Since the interview call is based on the CAT score out of 450, the percentile number could be slightly misleading.

Fine. Got it. But, what do I do about the other section?

If you are a rock-star in Section I, then it is almost impossible that you don't understand anything of LR in Section II. Well then, that's your strength in Section II. I know of candidates who attempted just the 9 or 10 LR questions in Section II, ended up scoring an 80.xx percentile but maxed Section I by scoring a 99.9x and landed a seat with a top IIM. That's a smart strategy. But be cautious about the cut-offs for general/OBC/SC/ST categories. Of course, not many people would want to do this and you don't have to either. Anyone who is a rock-star in one section and has no idea about the other has just not tried enough. A person's skill sets for these two sections are not so poorly correlated, after all. Reading Comprehension is, by far, the best sub-section in Verbal that one can focus on. You know you would get around nine or 10 questions of RC and any candidate with a decent understanding of English (if you can max out Section I, you got to be decent in English) can attempt and get right four or five questions. While you are practicing RCs, do not focus on building speed. Focus on understanding what you read. Not being able to attempt enough questions is primarily a function of being unable to correctly answer a question in the first attempt; this happens because you can't understand the question. With this, you might be able to increase the count of RC questions to seven or eight. So, nine or ten LR questions plus seven or eight RC questions and you already have 16-18 correct attempts in your kitty. With a good understanding of passages, you will begin to get most of the answers in Sentence Rearrangement and Paragraph Completion/Elimination questions right. That's three or four questions more. A total of 20 to 22 correct attempts in your weaker section is brilliant. Again, this is something you should practice right from your early mocks.

Category II:  I am not a rock-star in either of the two sections but I almost always manage to get a balanced score.

Well, this is tricky. I know it is because I am one of your kinds. You always have this feeling that you are almost there, yet far. I have come to realize that being able to get a balanced score is actually not that bad. If you also know that you would always score in the range of 94.xx to 98.xx percentile in both sections with an overall of 97.xx to 98.xx, you should focus on accuracy in attempts. Only accuracy can take you from 98.xx to 99.7x and is important for any candidate (especially in the open category and with not-so-decent academics) to secure an interview call from at least a few IIMs. You know you are going to be capped at 22-23 question attempts in each of the sections and you cannot afford to get even a single one wrong.  And for that level of accuracy, besides the fact that you should read every question properly and not fall for common traps, you should not get anxious in the examination hall. Calm down your nerves before you hit Start.

Calm down my nerves!?! That's easier said than done.

True. There's no one way to do this. Even the most careless of all test-takers will have a moment of anxiety while entering the exam hall. However, there's one thing you might consider doing. I did this but I can't say for sure if it worked or not. Do not write only the CAT and be hell bent on joining only the top IIMs.  Broaden your options. There are so many other good B-schools in India, including FMS, XLRI, MDI, IIFT and the likes. If you are prepared for the CAT, you are prepared for pretty much any other exam. So write XAT and IIFT, for sure. You might want to add NMAT and SNAP too. Also, apply well in advance to B-schools that accept CAT/XAT scores such as SP Jain, MDI and FMS. Two reasons why this might help: One, if some of these exams were to happen before CAT, that's good exam-day practice. Two, by applying to so many B-schools, you end up knowing a lot of information about them, thereby realizing that you do have a larger basket of 'good' options to choose from. For all you know, you might end up with a BCG offer from FMS/XLRI than if you had been to IIM-A/B/C!

The author of the above piece is Shivaram, a graduate from College of Engineering at Guindy in Chennai, Class of 2010. He worked with 2IIM for a year before joining IIM-A in 2012. 

Friday, June 07, 2013

Common traps to avoid in the Quant section

For most candidates, Quantitative Aptitude is probably the most challenging section to crack in the CAT.  During your preparation, or at least during your full length test-practise stage, you would have developed an idea of what your strongest and weakest areas are (if you haven't, do it at the earliest! It is important to know your strengths as well as your weaknesses.).

The reasons why Quant can be the toughest nut to crack are varied. Most students have a sufficiently good grasp of fundamentals. But, when a challenging question presents itself, they are all at sea. Most students also have a problem with time management. Some would have lost touch with Quant basics after high school. Some don't have the raw speed of formulation and calculation that most “math whizzes” take for granted. Whatever be your tale of woe, remember that that whole point of the CAT preparation exercise is to understand what your weakness is, and work towards improving it.

In the following pages, a few common traps and pitfalls are detailed. Beware of these on the day of the exam. But don't fall into the trap of assuming that these tips have only to be glanced over once before exam day. You may need to go through these in the test practise stage (and possibly even during the preparation stage), so that you can identify and rectify your “favourite” mistake area.
Common pitfalls in the Quant section

1. Problem vs You
The test makers of CAT are experienced in the art of mixing up easy and difficult questions. When you take the CAT, you will find that there are a few absolutely easy questions that you could have solved when you were in 7th standard. You will also find questions that are extremely tough. This is not done to identify and select the math majors! The reason there is a mixture of questions of varying levels of difficulty is that it reflects real life situations. But, given that you have a deadline, you have to pick and target the lowest hanging fruits.

The CAT will definitely contain difficult problems, and there are good chances that you might start solving them and get stuck somewhere, only to realise eight minutes or so later that you aren't making any headway. So what should you do? Leave it right there and move on to the next question. But what do you do instead? Spend another three minutes just to try to solve the problem and show it who the boss is!

This is probably the most common trap – getting into a literal “fight” with the problem, where solving one problem becomes more important than getting a good sectional score overall. This is a definite way of losing good time that can be employed productively elsewhere.

So how do you avoid this trap? First of all, be aware of it when it happens. When you realise that you have spent more than reasonable time on a question and you are still nowhere close to finding an answer, it is time to consider moving on. How do you know that you are falling into this trap? 

Here are some indicators that might help you decide:
  • Your equations begin to get bigger and uglier
  • You have filled up half the rough-sheet and have made no real progress
  • None of the answer substitution or elimination tricks appears to work
  • You go back to reading the question several times
  • You see the clock ticking, and you realise that you still haven't even attempted a majority of the section.
  • Most of all, you have spent five minutes on this question already and you are still where you started.
What do you do in such a situation? Do you panic and give up? Doing so is going to give you a sense of failure, which will not only affect the rest of your Quant section, but also likely spill over into the Verbal section. At the same time, you can't continue spending time on the same question.

The best way to deal with this situation is to not let it arise in the first place. Make sure that you pick the easy questions first and dispatch them. Then, move on to the marked questions which you think can be solved with some effort. Finally, only when every easy or medium-difficult question is attempted, should you even consider taking up questions from areas you are not comfortable with. 

Remain calm throughout the section.

If you do find yourself in such a situation, identify early when to give up and move on to the next question. Your ego might hurt a bit, but it is definitely not worse than leaving questions unattempted towards the end.

2. Knowing a formula is not the same as Understanding a concept
A lot of students, especially in the later stages of preparation, say that they know all concepts very well, but when it comes to solving problems, they get stuck in the question interpretation or the formulation stage. For example, you “know” what the modulus of a number is. You have read and memorised all the definitions, and you even remember the textbook example well. You also know how to solve each equation type, and yet when you see an equation such as the following one, you get stumped:

|2x – 5| > 2

Now, ask yourself this: If you know all the formulae, theorems and definitions in a particular topic, does it mean that you really “understand” the topic? “Understanding” doesn't mean being able to reproduce or replicate a stated theorem or a solved example. You understand a concept when you are able to visualise it and, and then use your creativity to formulate and obtain a non-mathematical model of something as “dry” as a modulus equation, for example. In this instant case,  |a – b| would mean the distance from the point “a” to the point “b” on the number line. So the distance from the point “2x” and the point “5” is more than 2 units. Or, “2x” is either greater than 7, or less than 3. Aim to achieve a good visual parallel for as many concepts as possible. This not only saves time in solutions, but also gives you clarity of thought.

This is a trap students often fall into. Math problems on the CAT test more than your memory. They test how well you can adapt to situations, and apply simple concepts in complex problems. Be aware of this from an early stage in preparation. Spend more time on the basics. If you have trouble understanding a concept at first, reflect on it till it makes sense. This is more important than solving a dozen questions based just on formula application.

3. Poor time management

Another trap that most test takers fall into is lack of proper time management. Given that there are only 30 questions in a section, and more than two lakh students write the CAT, the difference between an extremely high and a low percentile could be a matter of just one question. You need to make sure that you have at least seen and attempted all the questions in each section, lest you should leave out easy questions towards the end. This calls for a lot of practise. Do as many full length practise tests as possible, and get used to the rigour of a full-length test. You need to sustain your concentration for the entire duration of the test, and you need to have the endurance to finish the test with almost the same energy and alertness as when you started.

Do not leave too many questions to the end. Doing so will only make you more nervous, and you may lose out on some really easy questions.

4. Improper reading of the question
Sometimes you solve an entire question correctly only to find out that you had made a mistake in reading the question. Even though you did everything right, your answer was wrong. Such errors in reading or interpretation show a lack of focus in the early part of solution.
  • You may have to slow down while reading the question, and maybe even read it twice to understand it completely. Do not try to save time in this stage!
  • Pay special attention to words and phrases in the question whose incorrect interpretation may change the answer drastically. Some examples of such words are:
     Distinct, Integer, Positive / Negative / Non-negative, At least / At most, Odds in favour / Odds against, Some / All, And / Or, Not less than / Never greater than
  • Also after solving the question, you can verify your answer by re-checking it with the scenario presented in the question. You may not always have time during the test to double-check every solution, but if you have a serious doubt, you can always exercise this option.
  • After getting the answer, read the question again because it may ask you to process the solution before arriving at the answer. For example, you may have solved an equation for x, but the question may ask you to find the value of x + 10. Re-read the question to be sure.
6. Silly errors

This is probably the most frustrating of them all. Everything about your solution was correct, except  that you made a silly addition mistake in the final step, and you lost everything because of that. Errors in calculation or solution happen to the best of us, and it is never good when it happens.
Can you improve your accuracy and reduce the number of silly mistakes? Absolutely, yes. Just slow down while solving equations, or be a bit more careful with calculations. Also, practise a lot. Learn the multiplication tables and ratio charts. Do the grind. All that is good enough preparation. But will that help you completely eliminate calculation errors? Unlikely.

Humans are prone to making errors in calculations. You cannot completely eliminate calculation or solution errors. But you can definitely improve your accuracy and reduce the time you take for calculations.

Here is what you can do:
  • Find out your strongest and weakest areas. Figure out where you need improvement the most? Is it multiplication tables? Is it quadratic equation solutions?
  • Work hard on improving your speed and accuracy in those areas. Keep working on it on a daily basis. You will definitely see an improvement in performance.
  • Practise, Practise, Practise.
  • On the day of the test, accept that you may still make mistakes. Allow for a margin of error, but be extra careful in areas where you know that you have a proven weakness. If possible, double-check your answers by working backwards from the answer options.
All these things are easier said than done, and it is always easier to rely on hindsight and compile a list than it is to log your errors and rigorously practise on a daily basis. But do remember that whatever your starting point is, you can always, always improve. And whatever be your level of preparation, a bit of caution on the day of the test will definitely pay large dividends.

7.  Build your Eye for detail

Relentlessly train yourself to pick anomalies. If you did not notice, we have jumped from point 4 to point 6 on this list! Every time you let something like this pass you by, make a mental note to look or detail. Just becoming more ‘switched on’ makes a big difference and can be built with practise.

The above article was contributed by Vimal Gopinath, an XIM Bhubaneshwar alumnus who runs 2IIM Bengaluru. The article also features in the CAT Quant book authored by Rajesh Balasubramanian.   

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Under what circumstances is it a good idea to quit your job and prepare for CAT?

Under what circumstances is it a good idea to quit your job and prepare for CAT?


This is one of those essay topics that can ideally feature in competitions seeking ultra-short contributions. The one-word response would be, ‘None’!  However, having told my boss that I definitely want to comment on this topic, I cannot get away with the ultra-short version. So, here goes.

Thanks to my earlier avatar as an investment research analyst, I have acquired this habit of getting my disclaimers in early. I am not going to sit on the fence. It is NEVER a good idea to quit your job. So, if you are among the group of people that has decided to quit and you do not want to hear anything against that decision, skip this article and move ahead to the next one.

Every week, I get at least two enquiries from students who are keen to take a step up by focusing exclusively on the CAT preparation. This roughly translates to, “I hate my job.  I want to have a decent-sounding reason to quit”. Beware! there are two major pitfalls in quitting a job to prepare for CAT.

  1. The personal interview phase becomes trickier: You will lose scores for work experience, and might face uncomfortable questions in the interview. Sample this
    1. “Quitting a job at an MNC to prepare for CAT makes me doubt your ability to weigh risk-reward.  I think I would be fueling your foolhardy decision-making if I gave you a seat here.  What are your thoughts on this?”
    2. “I met eight candidates before you, all of whom have managed busy work schedules and squeezed in CAT preparation while you have focused exclusively on CAT. All other things being equal, why should I select you over them?”
    3. “So, you cannot hold a job and prepare for a competitive exam at the same time?  After MBA, you will have to multitask at an even greater level.  You are basically telling me you are not equipped to handle that.  Thoughts?”
Do not think that it is a smart idea to say that you have not quit your job but taken a break to pursue your passion of working in industry X and therefore joined your cousin.
As a general rule, professors do not think it is a great idea to take a break for the sake of CAT preparation and will interpret any shift to a ‘small company in a preferred industry’ on your resume as a proxy for this.

  1. Pressure increases: Bear in mind that if you take a break in June, you do not take a six-month break for CAT preparation, but rather a nearly 12-month break.  CAT is not an exam that one needs to prepare for 50 hours a week; it calls for intensity over two-three hours a day.  A longer preparation time could easily lead to a plateau in results performance.  A large number of candidates run out of practice material that really tests them but can never cross 90th percentile. This is essentially because the intensity disappears from preparation.  If you set yourself a target of preparing for eight hours a day for 180 days, you are creating a recipe for losing intensity within weeks.  All these factors will intensify the pressure on the day of the exam.  Importantly, this plays a role in affecting decision-making after CAT as well.  If you do not have a viable plan B, the temptation to join a college ranked 60th (because this is the only decent admit) will be high. The assurance that comes with having a viable plan B is vital for cracking this exam.
There are many other reasons for not taking this decision, but the two mentioned above are the most important.

Compared to 10 years ago, the admission processes for the IIMs have changed dramatically. When I took my CAT in 2000, the admission process was extremely CAT score oriented. If you had a decent CAT score, all else was pretty much forgotten (particularly true for IIMC).  In the current era, the CAT score is taken as but one metric in a broad basket of input variables. Ten years ago, it might have been a decent (if still risky) idea to trade 2 percentile points for one year of work experience.  In the current era, the trade-off is not even worth the discussion.

Do not try to use CAT as an excuse for getting out of a taxing/boring job.  Even after your MBA, odds are that you will go through a few bad jobs (and bosses!)  If you must quit, do so in August, have a job in hand that you plan to join by Nov 1st.  Take a six-to-eight-week break, have a go at CAT in this time window and hope for the best. 

Monday, February 04, 2013

IIM's shortlisting process - Transparent and daft

Back in the late 90's and early 2000's, students had a very simple way of knowing whether they had aced CAT. If you get a call letter from one or more of the 4 (or 6) IIMs, you can take it that you had done well, else you would not know whether you had got 98th percentile or 42nd percentile. One could happily assume one had just missed out and continue with life.

Thanks to increased transparency, one now gets a percentile score, and a detailed description of the short-listing process. And in most of the cases, the shortlisting process has been spectacularly absurd. Most of the B-Schools give enormous weightage to undergrad scores, 10th standard marks and 12th standard marks. IIM Indore apparently gives 30%, 35% and 35% to these three.

India probably has more than 30 different boards, so how does 85% in one compare with 90% in another. The year-on-year fluctuations alone are huge. Back in the mid-90s, the cut-off for entering into BITS Pilani used to be a good indicator for how easy/tough that year CBSE boards were. In 1996 one would have secured admission into BITS with a score of 457/458 in CBSE class XII exams; in 1997 the corresponding number for 471/472. That is nearly 3% score inflation in one year there. Yours truly was among those who got a gloriously inflated score in 1997, which has helped me in all these admission criteria ever since. A year earlier and my score would have most certainly been lower than the 90% benchmark that gives one extra points.

In Tamil Nadu, it is difficult to score less than 92-93% in the class XII board exams if you are a serious candidate. So, a 93% here probably translates to a 80-85% level in CBSE exams. I am sure there are plenty of other states that follow score inflation as official policy.

As far as undergraduation goes, a CGPA of 8.5 (of 2000 vintage, just to be clear) in Computer Science at IIT Madras is worth way more than a 10 in most other departments. Back in the late 90's, only the top 50 JEE ranks could secure admissions into IITM Computer Science (the department had only 20 seats), and finishing as a median performer (theoretical CGPA of 7.0, practical CGPA of 8.4-8.5) in this group of 20 would be many notches above most other things. I was never even in the same league as these 20-odd guys, but I could tell by merely interacting with them that most were at least a notch or two ahead of all other IIT junta.

A CGPA is a relative metric, necessarily conveying a notion of rank rather than of score. So, comparing CGPA's across years/departments/colleges is fraught with risk.

So, this fetish for transparency has led these IIMs to frame daft shortlisting frameworks. The biggest gripe I have with the IIMs is that they know of all these nuances, they know that marks across boards are not comparable, they know that even marks across different departments in the same college mean different things. This is why they used to trust their own processes more. This is why we have CAT. The fact that they are willing to run roughshod over this CAT score is inexplicable.

Some of the IIMs take the CAT score on a percentile basis. This tells us that they see the difference between 99.9th percentile and 98.9th percentile as same as that of between 98.9th percentile and 97.9th percentile. And this is daft. There are few ideas that are more stupid than this.    In one way, they are communicating that they now care far less about their entry processes than they did before. This might not matter that much for the big boys - IIMs A, B and C (though they might lose out to global universities). Because they will continue to get first picks. But this dont-care attitude is still unfathomable.

The admissions committees understand Indian realities very well. They realize that there will be huge variances. They are smart enough to understand the unrealiability of the metrics they generate. As opposed to this sludge composite metric, they have a CAT score that conveys way more than it did 10 years ago.

Why have very smart people chosen to prioritize vague, unrealiable metrics over a refined metric they have created? This will probably be one of the great unanswered questions of the selection process. It defies reason.

Given a choice, I would take the late 90's process any day. At least one would not have this feeling that the process was frightfully unfair. We could all assume that they had their reasons, and that would be it.

Monday, January 21, 2013

What next after CAT

This piece was published in the Education Plus, The Hindu. The author, Rajesh Balasubramanian, is a director at 2IIM. 

Post CAT, candidates will go through a second round of testing, the most important component of which is the dreaded personal interview. Now is a good time to revisit some aspects of the interview, with particular stress on the key mistakes.

I don’t know what I want to do in life, let me just say I want to be an entrepreneur.
The staple answer to “What is your long-term goal?”, the entrepreneurship card seems like a wonderful answer, but could be a risky gambit as well. If you have a clear idea of what you want to do, have done some research about the industry, have a sense of how you can differentiate yourself and have something resembling a business model; then anchor your long-term vision around a new venture. However, an answer along the lines of “I want to start a new business and contribute meaningfully to society by providing employment to the deserving” is pure waffle.

In case you don’t know how to read, I can recount everything my CV says here.
Faced with the standard “Tell me about yourself”; too often answers recount all the facts of life, down to the 86.4 per cent scored in Class X. The interviewer has already seen your CV, he is buying some time before coming up with the next question by asking a ‘filler’ question. He is bored after interviewing all day and wants to hear something interesting. The last thing he wants to listen to is a re-recording of your resume. The personal questions are wonderful opportunities for you to make a case for your selection. Do not waste them by restating facts.

I got this far by being good at multiple choice questions, I can answer all questions with Yes/No.
In a post-match conference, an eager commentator asks the player of the match “They missed the run-out chance in the 37th over. You were playing scratchily till then, but really clicked on after that. Was that the turning point of the match.” The cricketer gave a deadpanned reply, “Yeah”, and stopped at that. The commentator has not really just asked a question; he is keen to start a conversation. And the ‘yeah’ killed that. Your interviewer’s approach is going to be similar. Bin the ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘good’ and other monosyllabic answers; and take some of the questions to show that you have a personality beyond your resume. You should take effort to drop into a ‘conversation’ mode in the interview, and not fall into the Question-Answer mode where you just rattle off answers.

I am smart and funny, just not so in an interview.
Even the most experienced candidates have interview-anxiety. The better interviewees are the ones who can conquer their anxieties within the first few minutes, have a dialogue with the professors and wear a smile even while exiting.

The interviewer wants to know whether you can articulate, and will test whether you can respond when put under pressure. Practise well for the interview, but do not lose your spontaneity or your wit. An ability to think on your feet and a polite smile can open the doors that hours of studying cannot.

Practise extensively prior to the interviews. Have a series of mock interviews done by experienced people. And bear in mind that, notwithstanding all this preparation something could still go wrong in the interview. Shrug off one or two bad answers and get back on track.

The writer is director at 2IIM, a coaching institute for CAT. He scored 100 percentile in
CAT 2012 and CAT 2011.

Monday, January 07, 2013

CAT Results - Best wishes from 2iim

CAT results are out this week. To begin with, best wishes for all the students who have taken up this exam. Over the past few days, we have got a few calls from students who are facing results-anxiety. So, this is probably a good time to get some perspective. A few thoughts -

1. The biggest business houses in this country were built by non IIM grads. A degree from one of the IIM's  is a great route to take a big leap, but is not a necessary (nor is it sufficient) condition for success in business.

2. There are probably 40 good colleges in the country now. When we guys wrote CAT 10-12 years ago, there were probably 6 worthwhile colleges to do an MBA from. Now, the anything in the top 40 can give you a boost. If you get 99th percentile and get a call from 4 IIMs, great. If you get 95th percentile, you should still feel good that you are in the top 5 percent in the country. Shoot for the best, but best to be pragmatic as well.

3. If you miss the bus now, there is always next time: India now has plenty of options for doing an executive MBA. This option is open for candidates with 5-6 years of experience. Now, there is also a chance that CAT might be conducted more than once a year. So, there is always next year. Some of our students have cracked CAT at the fifth attempt. So, if you are in the close-but-no-cigar category, probably best to lick your wounds and come back next year.

Once again, best wishes to the guys.  

Monday, October 01, 2012

Get CAT Savvy - From the Hindu

Have given below the article published on Education Times of the Hindu. The piece was written by Rajesh Balasubramanian, director at 2iim. The article can be found here

Get CAT Savvy

Everyone gets nervous before a key exam. I took my 5th CAT last year, 11 years after my first CAT and 9 years after finishing my MBA from IIM Bangalore. And, I was nervous. You are not alone in having that vague anxious feeling. The key to a high-powered performance is to convert this nervous energy into positive adrenaline rather than just something that bogs you down. Plan to fly off the blocks.
If you get consumed in the paper in the first 10 minutes, then chances are that you will remain switched-on throughout. Don’t think about the overall paper; or even the section for the first 20-25 minutes. Think like Virendra Sehwag. He is the kind of guy who might be beaten three balls in a row and hit the next three for boundaries.

Take one question at a time. If you want to imagine someone who appears even cooler under pressure, think Usain Bolt.

In the last few weeks prior to an exam, the biggest challenge facing students concerns balancing the several demands placed on them. It is easy to lose focus and feel overwhelmed by it all. One needs to guard against this, while simultaneously working on the many moving parts without. Let us focus on a few key competing demands and realign our priorities.
Learning & consolidation
Now is the right time to give up on some of the vague topics. In the last few weeks, plan to optimize your performance. Do not spend too much time learning new stuff from now on. Picking obscure questions from non-descript websites and obsessing over them should be avoided. How you optimize your performance in the exam is far more important than getting some odd detail right. To give you an analogy - If you are an opening batsman about to represent India in the world cup and realize that your follow through after a cover drive needs correction. What would you do? Enroll yourself for a six-week session with batting guru or forget about it and focus on more immediate things?
Now is the time to plant seeds so that your brain can pick standard things much quicker. Don’t load it with new information. If you can train your mind to pick standard spelling errors, standard Pythagorean triplets in the actual exam, you will be better off for it than if you studied about the Oxford comma.
This is where practice exams come in very handy. They teach you to become exam savvy without agonizing over every detail. Take plenty of practice exams, and fill the gaps in learning based on the feedback you get from these.
Taking tests
A simple thumb-rule to keep in mind - Spend at least as much time reviewing a mock CAT as you spent taking it. And when you are reviewing a test focus on these three things — what are the ones that I skipped that I have attempted, more importantly, what are the questions that I have tried that I should have skipped, and what is the solution to these questions that I have missed? Do not analyze percentiles, rankings, etc.
Never take two tests in a day. Do not plan to take more than four tests per week. Your mind is not a machine. It needs time to recover. If you are ready to take a mock CAT within 4 hours of having finished one, the simple truth is that you have not thrown enough into the mock CAT.
Intense learning vs. Taking rest
You cannot prepare for 12 hours a day for CAT. This is not an exam where low-intensity-warfare type of preparation pays off. This is an exam where how sharp you are when you take an exam matters more than how much you know. There is no point increasing the knowledge base if your brain goes AWOL for 15 minutes during an exam. And you can take CAT for 140 minutes with intensity only if you are well rested.
Sleep a lot. Eat well. Drink a lot of fluids.
The day before the exam
The day before the exam, find a routine that relaxes you well. Do not get too many inputs from any 'expert'. Put your feet up, watch some sitcom or sports on TV, sleep early and be physically and mentally ready.
The odds of learning something in the last 24 hours that will be of use in the exam are very low. On the other hand, a sharp mind might bail you out in three questions, which might make a difference of four percentile points. 

Optimism vs. Pragmatism
Carry the belief that you can crack this into the exam hall. But have the prudence to have a plan B and the maturity to know where you stand. Getting 98th percentile might not get one a call from the IIMs these days, but if you rank in the top two percent in the country that is something to feel happy about. It is important to keep your expectations reasonable.
Other options
Another aspect that will keep you relaxed is the belief that everything does not ride on this one day, one exam. Don’t burn your bridges at office; do not throw away a job offer because you are anyway going to do an MBA. Do not ignore XAT after CAT gets over. Apply to colleges beyond the IIMs.
A great many things that I have mentioned here are easier said than done. As a student, I had forgotten to apply to FMS, had taken up XAT in an overconfident daze, had slept during an exam while doing MBA and have generally committed all the mistakes stated above at some point of time or other. Don’t put undue pressure on yourself. If CAT 2012 goes well, great. If it doesn’t, keep in mind that a majority of the successful businesses in our country are run by people who did not do their MBA from an IIM. 

Best wishes for CAT