A 99.99 Percentiler’s Detailed Approach On Cracking CAT

How I started: Testing Waters

I harboured the idea of preparing for the CAT in early April (my CAT was on the 28th of October), and I sort of started figuring out what I had to do in May. I was in my 3rd year and interning, so until July, it was pretty random and I wasn’t doing much of my work and was probably just testing waters. This part may not have much effort but it helped me assess and identify what could be my major weaknesses and flaws and what could be my strengths. Doing a lot of questions helps, so I got a “sense” of what I was doing right and what I was doing wrong.

During this time, I realised that being good with English doesn’t necessarily amount to doing well at Verbal and being an IITian doesn’t imply you’ll do well at Quant. That said, having both of these are considerable advantages (in relative terms), and I would strongly suggest starting as early as possible. You may hear a lot of people “who don’t prepare and get in”. They are either lying or probabilistically lucky. What you have to do is ensure you qualify come what may, regardless of a good day or bad day. I think I started late, and because I had an internship side by side, I was more or less working for the day (here’s a sound out to the work-ex people for time management).

Stepping up: Enter Excel Sheets

I enrolled in both TIME and IMS. I personally believe TIME is good for Quant and IMS is good for Verbal in relative terms, and that they both provide excellent test interfaces. I didn’t attend any of the classes because I conceptually knew what to do/didn’t have that much time. If you feel you’re lacking somewhere, do go to classes, but do this early and probably not in the last three months. In my opinion, all you should be doing is testing yourself in the last three months.

I realised that I really needed to step up my game, and learn to manage time better. This was because I was also sitting for placements with excellent firms on campus, but I would have given any of them a miss for IIM A (which I eventually did). I decided that building an Excel file that monitors my preparation with hard data would be the best thing to do. It was probably the one biggest reason for my success and I managed my time much better. Below are some of the snapshots I have from a discussion with my friend (who got a 100 the following year), Unfortunately, I can’t find the file. Nevertheless, they should be instructive, and if you believe in Excel, building it yourself would be much better than using someone else’s sheet.

This image is the dashboard, which gave me the summary of what I did on a daily basis. The target was the number of questions per day (here 30 for Quant), multiplied by the number of days with the deviation added. The deviation was how much I was lagging up to that day, and the target increased by the [deviation/number of days remaining] incrementally.

It is good practice not to enter anything into your dashboard, and all the data used to come in from other sheets for the sections. The Quant sheet is attached below, and this is where I entered the data needed (like level, topic, questions done, right and time). The index was something I constructed using accuracy and time. Q/70 is the number of questions I could effectively do in 70 minutes, as that was the time given for a particular section in CAT 2013. As you can see, the index was sensitive to both my speed and my accuracy.

I also monitored my mock test performances very closely. You can see the results of my mock tests below, and I don’t think anyone ever kept data. The blanks are the exams I couldn’t give due to clashes with academic sessions or exams at IIT.

Hope this helps quell some fears and not exaggerate them. I never got my final percentile in any mock (except the CAT, my final “mock” where I scored my highest). I used to score higher in Quant, and never expected a 100 in Verbal, so what these give you is a sense of where you lie but not exactly.

One reason I thought for this is the lower number of people who give the mocks, but it turns out my All India Rank was the highest ever. So I can only speculate, but I know that I was extremely cool during the exam. I generally don’t bother much, in life.

I also monitored, dynamically, what my topic wise performance was in the exams. This is a snapshot of Quant. Both TIME and IMS generally provide the difficulty of the questions, so I categorised up to that granularity. As you can see, that helped me navigate ship very quickly.

Change is Good: Learning from Excel

Now that I had my data in place, I made it a point to dynamically learn and improve from the results from my excel sheet. This probably helped me to be highly efficient given the time constraints I had (I put in no more than 4 hours a day).

I was constantly identifying what I was doing right, doing wrong and pathetic at. I can basically break it down into 4 broad steps, and you can find the elaboration of this in my strategy for Verbal.

  1. Identify your sweet spot
  2. Identify your weak spot
  3. Improve and analyse both strengths and weaknesses
  4. Leave what you will do wrong

I think the last step is the most critical, and the more you work on it, the smaller the set of what you can leave will become. Hence, the earlier you start preparing, the smaller this will be. As I was constantly analysing and looking for trends in what I was doing, I started isolating my mistakes. What did I do then? I practised questions on only those topics. I used all the material I had, exhausted all the tests I had, left nothing that I had not done. The results showed, except in para jumbles – they were my arch-nemesis.


Developing a Winning Strategy: My approach to the CAT

Over time, because of giving tests, I became less “emotional” and more objective towards my questions. You need to treat your exams with the coldness of an object, and it’s very easy to curse yourself for bad performances and feel miserable. For me, it was here where I learnt that “failure” teaches you much more than “success”. For me, every bad test and every mistake were a learning that it was never to be repeated again. I style myself as a cold-blooded question killer.

Apart from the emotionlessness, giving numerous tests reduced my propensity to get bothered by the CAT. I also began to follow a strategy priming my mind and body for the CAT, an elaboration of which you can find here. The bottom line of this is to sleep well, simulate the test environment, study yourself and continuously strategize.

Finally, how did I approach the actual examination? Four steps:

  1. Quick read remaining questions
  2. Mark the easy and medium ones
  3. Attempt them
  4. Repeat loop

This helped me to get the easy pickings done earlier, and it also boosts confidence. I have noticed that they tend to put the easy questions towards the end, maybe it is to test this ability. This cycle helped me greatly increase my attempt speed, and I wish I had discovered it earlier in life.

I don’t want to go into the nitty gritties of how to tackle each and every topic because it would be pointless to elaborate that here. I have already talked about my verbal strategy, quant was no different.


Looking Back: What did I learn?

CAT is a game of speed and accuracy. It is not as conceptually intricate as the JEE, though it might be difficult in case you have been out of touch with quant or don’t read too much. But, you can practice hard enough and ensure a good score. The earlier you begin the better it is. Also, the exam is not easy, so it is necessary to find a constant source of motivation to continue to push forward like I did.

As the CAT is so sensitive to speed and accuracy, and one question here and there can swing percentiles, you need to be at the peak of your game. For that, focus also on building focus. Taking a football analogy (which I passionately play and follow), to be ready for a 90-minute match you must practice for 180. So, if you think reading is your problem, read for long durations. If solving is your problem, solve for long times. Practice makes perfect, and there’s no better exam to test this.

This story was first published on Quora.



About the Author:

aviral bhatnagar

Aviral Bhatnagar went to IIT Bombay and IIM Ahmedabad. He is a self-proclaimed geek, avid reader and a student for life. He made his first excel sheet when he was 8 years old, and he devoured encyclopaedias and atlas as a kid. He is currently working as an investment professional at Guild Capital.