Sejal Sahni is a student of the PGP 2021-23 batch at IIM Ahmedabad. Brought up in Bangalore, she pursued the Integrated Program in Management at IIM Indore, where she graduated with a B.A.(Foundations of Management) degree. She attempted CAT 2020 during her final year of graduation, and scored a stellar 99.67%ile, with a 99.97%ile in the VARC section. She also secured 99.13%ile in the XAT examination. Subsequently, she was offered admission by IIM Ahmedabad, IIM Calcutta, and XLRI Jamshedpur (BM Program). She loves playing basketball, and has a keen interest in calligraphy and hand lettering.
My decision to give CAT was a natural one. A student of the Integrated Program in Management at IIM Indore, doing an MBA was the logical next step for me. But competing with over 2.2 lakh candidates, many with multiple years of experience, can give anyone jitters.
My CAT 2020 Story
I started my preparation during the summer vacation, right before my final year began. Upon advice of my seniors, my first step was to attempt the previous years’ paper – with zero preparation. To check where I stood, and where I needed to channel my efforts.
I understood my strength – VARC, what I could work on – DILR and my nightmare – QA. I barely got 30%ile in the QA section of that first mock. I was devastated.
But this process helped me identify my strengths and weaknesses. To this day, I am certain that that first mock structured my preparation strategy, and is the reason I obtained the score I did.
For the next two months, I focused all my efforts on clearing my concepts in Quants. I borrowed the TIME Modules from a senior and made a chapter-wise timetable for my preparation. For each chapter, I read through the formulae in the book, made a note of them in a Concept Notebook, and then solved the exercises. If I was struggling to solve questions of a particular chapter, I watched YouTube videos to clarify my concepts, and then re attempted the exercises. I did not take any coaching classes. Being a college student, my timings for classes and exams were unpredictable. I did, however, identify 3 friends who were also preparing for CAT, and made a small study group with them. We shared questions we were stuck on with each other, and that gave all of us exposure to more diverse types of questions.
Once college began around June, I enrolled for the AIMCAT Test Series by TIME, and the Test Series from Career Launcher. Each week, I attempted the AIMCAT on Sunday, and analyzed it in depth when the results came on Thursday. I made sure that I kept the consistency going, regardless of exams or extra-curricular activities happening in college. During the week, I would attempt and analyze Sectional Tests and Mocks from Career Launcher. I would also focus on working on the weaknesses I had identified during my analysis.
Since Career Launcher mocks can be given at one’s convenience and do not give an All-India score, I used them to experiment with various strategies. Some strategies worked for me. Some went disastrously wrong. But it was essential to experiment with them all to understand the perfect one for me. For the DILR section, in particular, it took me a long time to understand how to identify the right sets which would be easy to solve.
Midway through this mock-taking process, it was announced that the duration of the CAT exam had been reduced from 3 hours to 2 hours. This shattered all my strategic preparation, and I had to devise new strategies from scratch. It was a very demotivating process, making weeks of effort seem futile. But I didn’t let that change my rhythm. I consistently attempted and analyzed mocks, even though my scores were dropping drastically. Eventually, the scores got back on track.
As the exam approached closer, around late September, I began attempting mocks more frequently – 3 or 4 a week. I would write a mock (preferably in the same time slot as the actual exam – 4.30 to 6.30) and analyze it on alternate days. Simultaneously, I began revising the Concept Notebook I had made through my preparation and mocks.
Three days before CAT 2020 I stopped giving mocks. I knew that if I scored slightly low on them, my confidence would be impacted. Instead, I just re-read my Concept Notebook and spent time with my family.
On the day of the exam, I was extremely nervous. The first section – VARC – which had consistently been my strong section, seemed slightly longer and that made me nervous. I was just able to complete it in time.
I entered the DILR section fatigued and worried. 25 minutes in, I hadn’t been able to solve a single set. I thought this was the end. I felt my IIM dreams crash.
I shut my eyes for a minute and told myself that I still half the paper left. I took deep breaths, sipped some water and began attempting sets again. In this calm mental state, I was able to solve 1.5 sets just before the Quants section began.
During this last section, I kept all thoughts of previous sections away, and focused on robotically following the strategy I had devised, as if this was just a mock.
I later realized that the DILR section had been difficult for everybody and that my calmness during the exam helped me ensure that I did not let my worry or nervousness impact my performance.
My Test-Taking Strategy
This is the strategy I devised after taking multiple mocks. However, this is no way the right strategy, there is no right strategy. Different tactics work for different people. This worked for me.
I attempted the Reading Comprehension questions first, since I was confident of my reading speed. Usually, I was done with the RCs in 25 minutes or so, and then attempted the Verbal Ability questions in the last 15 minutes. However, if I wasn’t done with the RCs by the 30th minute, I left the RCs and moved to the VA section.
I spent the first 7-8 minutes scanning through the sets and the options, marking them as Easy, Medium and Difficult (based on my intuition, and the nature of options – questions with options such as ‘Cannot be Determined’ are usually more difficult to solve). Then I attempted the questions in ascending order of difficulty. If I was stuck on a set for too long – more than 15 minutes, I left it and moved onto another.
I read every question, and if the steps for the solution struck me immediately, I solved it. If I knew that I could solve the question, but it would take some thinking, I Marked it for Review and moved to the next one. If the question seemed impossible to solve, I left it. Once I was done solving all the simple questions, I revisited the questions Marked for Review and attempted as many of those as I could.
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Key Preparation Tips
1. Identify your strength and weaknesses right at the start of your preparation. This ensures that you focus your efforts where they are needed and do not waste any time.
2. Maintain a Concept Notebook with formulae, tips and tricks, and update it regularly. This eases last-minute stress and helps in revision.
3. Do not confuse yourself by accessing too many resources. Focus on buying one set of books, and 2-3 Test Series’ and solving them thoroughly. That keeps your preparation focused and ensures you don’t miss out on any important concept.
4. Make sure your basic concepts are strong. CAT does not test you on extremely high-difficulty questions. It is an exam of time-management and strategy.
5. Make a small study group with friends. This keeps your motivation high, and gives you exposure to diverse types of questions.
6. Analyze each mock thoroughly. Spend as much time analyzing the mock as you spend giving it. Go through each question, its solution, and revisit your thought process while attempting that question. This will help you understand what went wrong and work on it in the next mock.
7. Do not get demotivated by low mock scores. Just maintain consistency in attempting and analyzing. This sounds easier than it is to implement, but remind yourself that mocks are made for you to learn. Everyone has low-scoring mocks. It is better to fail in a mock than the actual exam. CAT preparation tests your consistency, and those who keep their spirits high, succeed.
8. Do not be afraid to experiment with new strategies in mocks.
9. During the exam, be calm. This is not the end of the world. If you find it difficult, so do so many others. Treat it like a mock, and don’t lose confidence halfway.
10. Throughout the process, remember to stay happy. Eat well, drink lots of water, get good sleep, and talk to friends and family whenever you feel down. Happier people always perform better!
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Advice To Aspirants
My advice to CAT aspirants is simple – keep at it. There will be days where you feel like giving up, disappointed with consecutive low scores in mocks. Those are the days that define your journey. CAT is not a difficult exam. It is a test of resilience, strategy and consistent smart work. Keep yourself happy and motivated – take breaks, talk to family and friends, develop hobbies and enjoy them. If you are happy in general, it will reflect in your productivity and performance. I’m sure you’ll all do fabulously!
Best of luck!