For those who consider VARC as their weakness, here are some tips that come in handy in the last 50 days to CAT 2019. It is a section that haunts not only engineers but non-engineers as well. In this story, we cover different aspects of the VARC section including Reading Comprehension, Odd sentence out and jumbled paragraphs, Paragraph summaries, and an overall preparation strategy to nail this section in CAT 2019.
Overview of the section
Considering that a majority of the test-taking population has very little exposure to reading and/or understanding technicalities when it comes to language and comprehension, it becomes difficult to adjust to the subtleties of the test. However, over the last three years, the level of difficulty has been moderate at best and many of the questions have been extremely straightforward – so much in a few cases that one might actually wonder if there is something that might have been overlooked. The good thing with this phenomenon is that, there is less self-doubt and one can attempt the section more freely than if there were too many speed breakers. The bad thing is that, it leads to a very steep curve and even a couple of incorrect answers can be the difference between a 90 percentile and a 95 percentile (the drop is higher at slightly lower percentiles). From the data that we have on CAT 2017, the percentiles corresponding to scaled scores or 75, 70, 65 and 55 were 99, 98, 95 and 90 respectively so, if the level of difficulty remains the same, you might want to target a score of around 65 – 70 marks to be on the safer side. Having said that though, simply attempting all the 34 questions should not be the sole objective and the focus should be more on solving questions correctly than attempting heavily.
Reading comprehension passages
The key thing in this part of the test would be to read the passages as carefully as you can and then try to answer the questions that follow. Making notes is a good idea (either physical or mental) and if you can identify the thought that went behind writing that passage, you should be able to answer most of the direct and inferential questions without any worry. Over the last three years, the passages have been from relatively easy-to-read areas and so, reading speed is not something that you should worry about. The more important bit is comprehension and the better you get at understanding the adverbs and adjectives, the better off you would be. A cardinal error that candidates make when they attempt the reading comprehension passages is that, they get stuck in nouns and unfamiliar words that they might not have heard before. This leads to a stutter while reading the passage and can confuse/irritate the candidate when it comes to answering the questions.
The passages have been typically of around 600 – 700 words and if one has even an average reading speed, the passage can be read in around 3 minutes leaving around 1 minute per question that follows. Given that reading comprehension accounts for roughly 70% of the VARC section, the time allotted should also be proportionate (roughly 40 – 45 minutes).
Odd sentence out and jumbled paragraphs
These have been the tricky ones over the last three years now and the fact that there are no options makes it even more difficult. The best way to go about these questions is to acknowledge the fact that no amount of theoretical competency will guarantee a 100 percent score on these questions and so, you have to simply mark the order you think makes most sense and move ahead without spending a lot of time on each question (1.5 to 2 minutes is sufficient in most cases). If you know the basic ways of forming links (pronouns, abbreviations, articles, tenses, chronology), you should be able to crack at least 50 percent of the questions (which is a fair return given the context).
In case of odd sentence out paragraphs as well, the decision making could get a bit difficult. In most questions though, the context will be pretty clear and you can identify the one that seems like it is talking about the central theme but in a different context. Forming a link of two sentences helps in these questions and then, it is a matter of checking for 4 combinations (say AB is the link that you know of, the order could either be CAB, ABC, DAB, ABD). Again, with a bit of knowledge about jumbled paragraphs, you can expect an accuracy of around 50 – 60 percent.
These have been the easiest questions from the Verbal Ability part of the section. The summaries are fairly different to each other and that makes your job easier. Typically, a couple of options will be way off and will even contradict the paragraph in a few cases. The last two options will have a few differences and it helps if you are reading these two statements and trying to figure out what does one statement have that the other doesn’t. Then you can weigh the shortcomings of each statement and figure out the answer. With a good understanding of the parent paragraph, it is possible to get an accuracy of 100 percent in these questions.
Overall preparation and strategy
The best advice I can give when it comes to the VARC section is to read a lot in terms of quality and quantity. If your brain is habituated to picking up fresh topics effortlessly, you will get rid of the shock factor when you start reading a passage. Being versatile helps to understand basic terminologies and concepts and so, can help muscle past the nouns that I had mentioned above (scientists’/experts’ names, theories, places, associations and so on). Given that you have roughly two months to do all this, I would recommend that you be a bit aggressive on this front and try to keep reading whenever you have gaps in your daily schedule. Novels might not be the best idea at the moment and so, you may go for newspapers (The Hindu, Mint, The New York Times, The Guardian) or websites/publications (Arts and Letters Daily, Project Syndicate, Economic and Political Weekly, HBR, The Economist) to improve your knowledge primarily and collaterally, your vocabulary. Mugging up word lists and going for vocabulary building self-help books might not help a lot as you can never be fully prepared when it comes to knowing words.
Mocks will help you time yourself well and you can achieve the ideal 45 – 15 split with practice. Starting now, a couple of mocks every week should suffice (even 1 mock per week is okay if you are finding it difficult to manage time) and should give you enough practice before the test. There are two key things that you might want to do when it comes to analyzing yourself. First, avoid getting lucky/unlucky in mocks. Attempting a lot of questions through guesswork when you have no clue as to why option A is better than option B is especially harmful and will hurt you in the long run. Mark only those that you are confident about and you will get a fair picture of where you stand. Extrapolation (if I attempt 20 questions, I am at 50 percent accuracy so why not attempt 34 questions and be 50 percent accurate) does not work in most cases and this factor of luck will result into unexplainable fluctuations when it comes to your mock scores. So, it is better to avoid that. Second, discussing questions with your friends/mentors/institute faculty members (which, unfortunately, is not done by a lot of good aspirants) generally helps in understanding why a particular option was incorrect and helps you build an independent thought process. VARC is as scientific as QA or LRDI in almost 90 percent of the questions and not as subjective as candidates might believe. And as is the case with a lot of things in life, the practice would make you near-perfect when it comes to the VARC section.
SDA Bocconi Asia Center accepts CAT, NMAT, GMAT for its International Master in Business. SDA Bocconi Asia Center has partnered with Dr Shashank Prabhu to write prep articles, to help aspirants in their test prep. He is a CAT 100 percentiler, CET Rank 1, IIFT 100 percentile. He had a scaled score of 249/360 in NMAT BY GMAC 2016 and 99 percentile in each of the sections and overall score.