A year ago, I was one among the numerous aspirants of Common Admission Test - CAT as we popularly know it. Now, I have final admits from IIM Ahmedabad, IIM Bangalore, and IIM Calcutta for their PGP class of 2017-2019. This has been a great journey for me, filled with many ups and downs. It's an experience that I would like to share with my fellow aspirants. I'd be extremely satisfied to know if the strategies that had worked for me, work for you as well.
To put things into perspective, CAT 2016 was my third attempt at the test. My respective scores in CAT 2014 and 2015 were 95.4 and 95.26 percentiles. After having taken 2 semi-casual attempts, I decided to invest more time and focus on my third attempt. (the key over here is to avoid procrastination as much as possible). The motivation to ace CAT stemmed from my desire to get a formal business education from one of India's best B-schools. To that end, I began my preparations.
CAT Preparation Strategy
Step 1: Assess Your Weak Areas: Diagnosis Helps Chart A Better Strategy
Since the pattern for 2016 had not changed from 2015, my score in CAT 2015 gave me a broad overview of my weak areas. To start with, my VARC percentile was close to 85. DILR and QA were close to 95. I believe that the biggest problem with a low score in VARC is that one doesn't know what one needs to improve. It's subjective, right? At least, that's what I thought at first. Okay, so VARC was a definite problem for me. Noted. What about my performance in DI, LR and QA? Those weren't exceptional either. I thought hard about the underlying cause for each of these sections and came up with this list below:
VARC - I was able to attempt almost all questions. So, my speed was not an issue, but I answered a lot of questions incorrectly that ended up contributing to negative scores.
DI LR - I was not able to read through all questions in this section. First takeaway: I needed to work on my speed. In addition, I spent a huge amount of time solving difficult questions. Second takeaway: I needed to practice more sets so as to be able to understand which questions are doable and which ones would potentially involve more time (and therefore, should be skipped in my first iteration through the section)
QA - I could only get through ~15-17 questions out of 34. So, both my speed and technique needed a lot of improvement.
With this initial diagnosis, I understood that I needed a lot of practice. Essentially, my aptitude needed polishing (training the brain cells, as some would say). What worked for me was that my basics were in place - thanks to my engineering background - but I lacked speed and real-time test execution. To hone these skills, I purchased an online test series and started taking mocks July onwards. Also, these are some of the scoring topics in QA that you shouldn't miss out on.
Step 2: Work Through Mocks: The More, The Better
My next big advice would be to continue taking mocks no matter how you're performing. Something to keep in mind here, and I followed this diligently - Never give up after a bad percentile - Believe me, I've had my own share of 85s and 90s. Rather, one should analyze the questions that went wrong. I maintained an excel sheet that kept my error log in check.
There's no shortcut to improving your percentile: the sooner you start taking mocks, the better it will be for your preparation. I was not able to take all the mocks that my test series provided owing to my job responsibilities, but I never missed analyzing the mocks that I took.
Step 3: Getting From 97-98 To 99+: Work On Your Biggest Liability
Steps 1 and 2 had definitely helped boost my percentile from 95 to 98+, but I was still unable to cross the 99 threshold. That's when I analyzed scores of all the mocks I had taken thus far and observed VARC to be my biggest liability in most of the mocks. In not even a single mock, had I scored a sectional percentile above 93 in this section. That's when I realized: VARC was holding me back from scoring 99+. To really tackle VARC section, I turned to GMAT study material. I bought GMAT books and read through them. To my surprise, I found numerous mistakes that I had been making in my mocks up till now. I spent ~1 hour with GMAT books each day for a month and saw a drastic improvement in my sectional scores, specifically my accuracy in RC.
Step 4: Relax: Keep Calm And Execute
Before the D-day, it is very very essential to calm down and not worry too much about the paper. I tried to catch a good night's rest and reached my test center a little early with required documents to avoid the last-minute rush. I would strongly suggest that you have a good breakfast that can power your 3-hour peak performance. You may also carry water if allowed. Hydrated brain cells work better :)
As the timer starts, focus on getting each question you attempt, contribute to a positive score. Do not be afraid of move on from questions that take time to solve. Remember, it's about getting questions right and NOT getting difficult questions right.
I hope these tips can help kick-start your preparation for CAT. I wish all the aspirants success in their endeavours!
I'd be more than happy to answer any queries you may have. All the best!