IIM - CAT Coaching: Experts' Insights

IIM - CAT Coaching: Experts' Insights: November 2010

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

CAT can now be taken through the year - What does this mean?

Now, it is more or less official. The CAT exam is set to be conducted through the year. If not from 2011, this is set to happen from 2012 onwards. This is a significant shift from the CAT, and coming close on the heels of the shift to computer-based exam, this changes the CAT market substantially.

Why have the IIMs done it?

The IIMs have tried to make three transitions over the past 3-4 years - paper-based to computer-based, once a year to round the year and to try and create a separate entity to run the exam. All three suggest that the IIMs want to make this a broader standardized test, rather than being purely viewed as an entrance exam for the IIMs. Historically, more than 100 universities have used the CAT, but many among these have used multiple exams (CAT, GMAT, GRE, JMET, etc) for selecting students.

The IIMs are eying a larger share of this market and want to remove the timing constraint in taking the CAT exam. Last year, 2 lakhs students took the CAT. If it is made a round-the-year exam, that number could easily go up another 30-40%. Add to this the fact that there would be many students that would be attempting the CAT more than once a year, this is great news for CAT. A large number of professionals find it difficult to plan for the CAT. Now, with more freedom to choose the dates, a large number of these will start writing the exam.

How are things different for test-takers?

Freedom to select dates on which you can take is always a boon. One can account for everything from foreign assignments, exam schedules and superstitions when selecting the correct dates. But, in every competitive exam, any change is likely to be a zero sum game. This change, I believe will be a disadvantage to freshers and a boon to experienced candidates.

Experienced candidates are usually the ones that struggle to plan well in advance, struggle to set aside 10-11 months to prepare for the exam, and generally end up not putting in enough preparation for the CAT. Now, anyone shifting jobs will want to take a 6-week break, prepare for CAT and take it at the earliest (somewhat similar to the GMAT). More importantly, the CAT scores will get de-emphasized even more and profile, experience will matter more.

Scoring 99.94th percentile in a once-a-year CAT might more or less guarantee a seat in one of the top 10 univs, but scoring a corresponding score in a round-the-year CAT will be less of an achievement. This de facto implies that profile, experience, academic background, etc matter more. Indian schools might become similar to the global ones in that, they will start with a CAT cut-off and then shortlist based on profile, rather than shortlist based on CAT scores. This will be disadvantageous for fresh graduates. This will also be disadvantageous for candidates with a standard profile (such as an Engineer with 3 years of experience in Patni/Polaris).

More experienced grads will prepare for this, more of them will prepare better, and for many of them the experience will count for more. So, freshers might not be the happiest bunch due to this change. Having said that, India is probably the only country that allows so many freshers to do an MBA. Globally, students with zero experience doing an MBA is the exception rather than the norm. So, this shift towards selecting more experienced candidates was also always coming, I guess.

How does this change the preparation pattern?

The content does not change at all. One needs to prepare for the same quant, DI and verbal. But, a 12-week intense routine will probably be the preferred route, rather than a 15 month course of low intensity. Till 2000, students used to prepare for less than 4-5 months for the CAT. Only after these coaching institutes realized that getting college students early is very lucrative, did the cycle of preparation slowly expand to 15 months. This is probably an overkill. Students will start opting for the short burst rather than the low-intensity momentum-killing build up. More experienced candidates will want to prepare over a 12-week cycle, more diverse candidates will want to give it a crack. Fresh grads will probably still prefer the 12-month routine, mostly because this will ensure the ground work is done if ever they want to take the CAT 2-3 years down the line. Hopefully, some newer players will emerge in the test-preparation space :)

All in all, this is good news, one can plan for CAT better, the IIMs are set to make more money, and quality of paper should improve further. Who knows, the CAT might begin competing with the GMAT outside the Indian market as well. I am among few people who believe that the quality of the CAT exam is excellent (barring the few errors). If they manage to cut the error-rate, we could have an excellent test on our hands. Probably worth marketing it globally.

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Thursday, November 25, 2010

CAT - In defence of the CAT

As CAT 2010 draws to a close, we will soon be hearing a lot of feedback on the quality and consistency of the exam, the technology, organization, etc. It is about the same time that we will hear people saying that the CAT is a pointless exam, an exam that tests unnecessary skill sets, and an exam that is needlessly too difficult. People will tout examples of various calculation-intensive questions friends of friends of theirs saw in the paper and feel vindicated about their claim that the CAT is a very computation-heavy random exam designed to test unnecessary things. You will probably also hear the inevitable "Why is it necessary to do 24.5 * 35.4 in 10 seconds to be a good manager".

Most of the people who say this know little to nothing about the CAT, and at any rate have not spent enough time either thinking about the paper or evaluating it. They are happy to accept the established stereotype and help it along.

My colleagues and I have been taking the CAT almost every year and can state unequivocally that the quality of the paper has improved with time. There are 3 key myths that people have been spreading about the CAT

1. It is a calculation-intensive exam: On an average, about 5 out of 40 questions in Quant + DI are of this type, and one can skip this and still score 100th percentile in CAT. CAT was calculation-intensive in the late 90's, it has tested application heavily in the past 10 or so years.

2. CAT does not test relevant skills to be a manager - also stated as "Why should someone know Set theory to be a good manager?": At some level, CAT is an entrance exam designed to test basic intelligence. Any academic performance is a signal that the student can potentially do well. So, the CAT is looking for a signal of intelligence. Around two lakh students of diverse backgrounds take this exam every year. One needs to find something very basic to use it as a proxy for intelligence. Testing numerical ability, problem solving ability and comprehension ability are probably the best proxies available. What would you rather test - general knowledge, science, subject-knowledge? Anything else pales in comparison. Also, remember, CAT is not an entrance exam to be a manager. It is an entrance exam to get admission into a school that will train you to become a manager.

3. Some questions in CAT are too difficult: This is a problem that has come about because of a specific characteristic of India - one of large numbers. CAT needs to make a distinction between the average and the good. But if this were the only distinction that CAT needed to make, a consistent and simple paper would suffice. But the CAT also needs to make the distinction between good and really good and really good and exceptional. Remember, they need to devise a mechanism to distinguish the top 0.2 percent within the top 1 percent. This suggests the need for creating "men and boys" questions. Questions that demarcate the exceptional from the merely very good. Any paper where the really good students can attempt 55+ out of 60 students within 135 minutes clearly indicates that this is not too difficult. If the paper is peppered with simple questions, the exam just tests just speed, and not understanding. A slightly tougher paper that requires a high level of application is required for getting the top 0.2% from a sea of applicants.

Most people will agree that it does not require a genius to crack CAT. It just requires loads of application, good decision-making ability and adequate preparation. Sounds like a good test for finding managerial talent to me :)

Now, finally to the point that irks people the most, why should calculation-speed be a factor at all? When the whole globe does not really rate calculation-speed, why does India (CAT) cling to this notion? The answer again, is straightforward. India still believes it is a critical skill set. And the CAT is trying to find the best proxy to select smart Indian kids. Why should the CAT not test what India finds important. If anything, the CAT has been doing a lot to de-emphasise this feature. Over the past 10 years, the number of number-intensive questions have fallen sharply, and rightly so. India is moving on, and the CAT is setting the pace. CAT cannot move on all on its own, then they will end up getting all the wrong candidates.

So, there goes my defence of the CAT. I am sure the IIMs wont care much about giving their viewpoint. So, here is my version of how they might have done it.

Having said all this, some things irk me a lot. The complete lack of consistency in the paper is an issue that CAT needs to address. More importantly, the CAT needs to be error-free. Especially now that they have multiple sessions. The CAT was not error-free this year. Far from it. And god knows how they treat the wrong questions. I cannot think of a single fair way of treating error-filled papers. Hope they improve on this.

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