Jauntily Jostling For Joka – Tanmay Srivastava’s Journey To IIM Calcutta
I’ll lay down the objective of writing this piece right at the outset to save you the effort of going through all of it before you ascertain its utility for you. From the way I look at it, this piece should be quite useful to those grappling with bad grades in their undergraduate/postgraduate life and aiming to get into an IIM sooner or later, fairly useful to those who look at CAT as something potentially exciting and worth acing, and probably just about worth the while of those who are starting out and are simply curious to know what another aspirant’s journey was like. The others too are, of course, most welcome to read this, even if not from a purely utilitarian perspective. That said, I’ll now proceed to narrate my story. (This is going to be slightly elaborate. Please bear with me.)
Going just as far back in time as is relevant here, my 14 years of schooling between 1998 and 2012 were distributed across the cities of Lucknow (8 years; my birthplace), Kanpur (4 years) and Porbandar (2 years). I (would like to think I) did fairly well in school and was usually among the top 3 in class, but without really making any waves. I was never the studious type, but usually found either the competition in class or genuine interest in certain sections of the syllabi motivation enough to put in just about as much effort as seemed necessary to me (an attitude that would return to haunt me in my UG years). (I’ve unabashedly divulged long-forgotten indicators of my academic performance in the rest of this paragraph and you may choose to skip to the next one, unless you wish to gauge how easy/tough it was for me to make it to the IIM shortlists that have these numbers among their criteria.) I scored a CGPA (Cumulative Grade Point Average) of 9.8 on 10 (CBSE 2010; the first year in recent history that no percentages were given) in my Class 10th board exams, which placed me atop the merit list of my school (Birla Sagar Higher Secondary School, Porbandar). In sharp contrast, just 2 years later, my score of 92.33% (ISC 2012) must’ve probably placed me at the 40th rank in my then school (City Montessori School, Gomti Nagar, Lucknow). Fortunately, an All India Rank of 1544 in IIT-JEE 2012 rendered both these numbers irrelevant for the immediate future and gave me the chance to enrol for the B.Tech. program in Aerospace Engineering at IIT Bombay. I gleefully accepted the offer and joined IIT Bombay in July 2012.
Roughly 3 years down the line, August 2015 was when I started taking mock tests and preparing for CAT 2015 (my first attempt at the test) in some earnest. The 3 years in the interim had most prominently featured my CPI (Cumulative Performance Index) plummeting from a respectable 7.46 on 10 at the end of the 1st year to a dismal 6.08 at the end of the 3rd year, an enriching year-long stint as the Institute Literary Arts Secretary that I thoroughly enjoyed and a research internship in the UK (May – July ’15) that helped crystallise my vague thoughts about switching from my niche discipline (which I honestly couldn’t envision a career in, given my bad grades and a rapid diversion of interest) to the broader field of management/business studies. I already had Scrabbler a.k.a. J (if you’re an IIM aspirant and haven’t heard about him yet, it’s just a matter of time) as a close friend and mentor when I began my preparation, and I consider myself really fortunate to have someone of his CAT pedigree to draw inspiration from. He made me believe I could target the 100th percentile right from the outset – and I had no reason not to. I have no qualms about confessing at this point that CAT, for me, was to serve as not just a pathway to the IIMs but also as a source of redemption in my own eyes. Languishing in the bottom quarter of my B.Tech. class, having to fight hard in the final year to fulfil my degree requirements in the stipulated time and battling low self-esteem were all unpleasant firsts for me, and I wanted a good CAT performance to break the shackles. I believed I was good at the stuff CAT tested and was eager to see myself meet my own expectations in the test.
Between August and November 2015, I appeared for 28 mock tests of 3 hours each (details of scores etc. can be found here just in case you’re interested). If you were to ask me how I decided how many to attempt, I will struggle to find a convincing, the-shoe-that-fits-all answer. I know people who attempted just 2 and as many as 130+ mock tests respectively and did almost equally well (and really well even in an absolute sense) in the test. Given that CAT is an aptitude test, ‘targeted preparation’ is surely not the single largest factor that determines one’s performance. If one is good, (s)he stands a chance of doing really well even without having attempted any mock tests. All that these mock tests do, in my opinion, is that they ensure one doesn’t do too badly even on a bad day. For the cricket fans among you, this is akin to sufficient practice/conditioning ensuring that even an out-of-form and struggling Dhoni of yore, up against a potent bowling attack and with wickets falling all around him, would somehow manage to eke out a crucial half century, rescuing his side from a spot of bother and leading them to victory from a seemingly hopeless situation. To sum up, I feel it’s ideal for an aspirant to decide for oneself the amount of practice that suffices to give him/her enough confidence to do decently well in the test even on the odd bad day when nothing seems to work.
29th November 2015 was when I got done with my first shot at CAT. Barring the fact that my exam centre was located some 70 kilometres away from my city, things went smoothly and I felt I had done well. I didn’t have much time to dwell on it, as the final placements for our batch started in a little over a day’s time on 1st December. With a CPI of 6.08 and no dedicated placement preparation, I wasn’t too optimistic and didn’t expect to get anything at least in the first week. But, contrary to my own expectations, I got a few shortlists on Day 2 and Day 3, and got placed fairly early in the placement season much to my delight. It was around 3 am on 4th December when I landed myself the role of a programmer analyst at the Citi Technology Centre in Pune and was thrilled to bits at having made my way into one of the most prestigious firms visiting the campus. The winter break that followed was almost entirely devoted to cricket and word games – two things that are very dear to me, and before I knew, it was already January. My last semester in IIT got underway and just a few days into it, the CAT 2015 results were declared on 8th January 2016. My scorecard looked as follows:
I was delighted at having done well enough to be among the top 100 in the applicant pool. I was also a little disappointed at having narrowly (wasn’t as whisker-close as I’d initially thought back then; had later found out that I needed another 18-19 marks) missed out on the much fancier 100-percentile mark. This CAT performance and the job in hand reinvigorated me and boosted my self-esteem and confidence, as I’d hoped for. Whatever little resentment I harboured (pertaining to the 0.05 I missed out on) was instantly dispelled when I got shortlisted for IIM Ahmedabad’s interview, out of nowhere (IIM A’s preference for people with good academic track records was no secret, and I didn’t think I stood a chance with an undergrad CPI of 6.08 on 10). IIM A for me was (and still is) the premier business school in the country and getting a chance to visit the campus (my interview venue was IIM A itself) in a bid to secure an admission offer felt awesome.
I appeared for 3 interviews during January – February 2016 : IIM A’s on 31st January (a 20-minute interview that I felt I fared quite well in), IIM L’s on 10th February (a short, 8-minute interview with what seemed like a very cordial panel) and IIM C’s on 27th February (disastrous from the word go; was found wanting in the domain of current affairs and without a convincing reason for my dismal academic showing at IIT, in a 20-minute ordeal). I knew tough times lay ahead, but was hoping to get into either IIM A (despite my natural unsuitability for its unforgiving academic rigour) or IIM C (where I was totally reliant on all the criteria other than the score of the interview, given how terribly I’d fared in it).
The month of April brought more woe than joy, as the results started trickling in one by one. None of my 3 interviews yielded a straight convert and I was left to bear with the unenviable and uncertain wait for others to decline their offers and pave way for my admission. I was waitlist no. 27 in IIM A, waitlist no. 108 in IIM C and without an offer from IIM L (which doesn’t release a waiting list). Eventually, waitlist no. 12 in IIM A’s list and waitlist no. 90 in IIM C’s were fortunate to be the last ones to get into the 2016-18 batch, and my CAT percentile of 99.95 ended up fetching me nothing at all from the admission process. I was initially distraught for a brief while, but quickly put this setback behind and began gearing up for my first job that was to begin in a couple of months’ time. I realized that I was probably not ready for getting into a business school yet (I used to find it tough articulating exactly what I’ll miss out on if I didn’t make it) and decided to give the process another shot the following year having gained some work experience (read: maturity and exposure). Meanwhile, the results of my final semester had been declared by mid-May and I finished with a CPI of 6.25 on 10. Finding out that I had completed my degree requirements in the stipulated time and that I’ll receive my degree in the convocation ceremony with the rest of the batch was a source of great relief.
I joined Citi on 18th July 2016. The first month-and-a-half went like a breeze, what with an enriching and fun-filled training program that culminated in a superb boot camp in Mumbai. The sustained delightfully lavish pampering of our batch of joinees made it an exceedingly enjoyable time for us, and before we knew, we merged seamlessly into the organisation, marking the beginning of our corporate lives. I loved the firm from my first day there, and the fondness only grew with time. I joined my team on 9th September and began work in the exciting and relatively novel domain of Robotic Process Automation (RPA). My team was very cordial, welcoming and helpful, and their warmth made life simpler for me as a non-computer-science graduate trying to find his feet in an IT role. Amid all this, I had my convocation on 13th August and I’ve got to count it among the happiest days of my life. The joy and pride writ large on the faces of my family members was a sight to behold, and the thrill derived from receiving my IIT degree is something I’ll forever treasure but can never explain.
In the meanwhile, it was around late August when I resumed thinking about CAT. The prior experience of having prepared for and attempted the test helped since I knew exactly how I needed to go about doing things. I decided to keep it simple and attempt just one mock test on each Saturday and Sunday (both holidays, given the five-day work week), without putting any undue pressure on myself. Not setting myself any unrealistic targets helped, and I managed to attempt 34 mock tests this time in the lead-up to CAT, by just sticking to the two-mock-tests-a-weekend plan. Around 5 hours of time investment (including travel) on a Saturday/Sunday didn’t rob me of spare time either and I could sustain my preparation without having to either neglect work during the weekdays or abstain from unwinding on the weekends.
I had my second tryst with CAT on 4th December 2016. I was lucky not to get a faraway centre, unlike the previous year. I was satisfied with how the test went, and my own assessment of my performance was that it was similar to that of the previous year. I didn’t have to wait too long for the official endorsement of my gut feeling, as the CAT 2016 results were declared on 9th January 2017, with my scorecard looking like this:
Bettering my own performance was a source of great elation, but I was guarded in my celebration of the moment. I was wiser with the experience of the previous year and knew the challenge that lay ahead. I’d again earned myself an IIM A interview call and a visit to the institute I have great reverence for. I’d missed out on the 100 percentile yet again (this time by an even smaller margin of less than 2 marks), but it didn’t feel half as bad as in the previous year, essentially because of redemption, revival of self-esteem etc. weren’t the ends I’d sought from CAT this year. This time, CAT was indeed a means for me to get interview calls from the IIMs and nothing more, and I was satisfied with it fulfilling its purpose.
I again appeared for the same 3 interviews during January – February : IIM A’s on 28th January (another 20-minute interview that I thought I did moderately well in), IIM C’s on 11th February (the best interview I had in my 2 years of trying to get into the IIMs; answered everything confidently and surprised even my own self with how smoothly it went) and IIM L’s on 14th February (a long-drawn-out 30-minute interview replete with both very high and very low points). I didn’t really have very high hopes of converting either my A or my L call, but was confident of my chances in IIM C.
10th April 2017 was the day both IIM A and IIM C decided to declare their results, and it played out exactly as per my expectations. While the morning and much of the afternoon was spent wallowing in self-pity (while putting on a facade of indifference towards the results for my family to take a cue from and quit worrying) following another rejection from IIM A, the evening belonged to the moment I had dearly waited for:
Jubilation prevailed thereafter. 🙂