As a GEM Fresher candidate, an enormously overrepresented demographic at B-Schools, I was hounded from the beginning by all the people around me. I was told that you need to have an exceptional CAT score and stellar academics to make it through, given how cut-throat the competition is in your pool. And as someone who had 4 backlogs in his first year, this definitely did not feel like an appealing path to tread.
In the past two years, I've read plenty of articles here offering advice such as 'Do at least 50 questions daily from any chapter', 'Spend hours analysing your mock performance' etc. The truth remains that most students go into CAT preparation, based purely on hearsay and end up abstaining from all the things they'd have done otherwise - without realising their true calling.
Most people do not emphasize enough on how to balance your life with the preparation, especially if you're appearing as a fresher. So I'm trying to address how to balance your CAT prep with your academics (without sacrificing your ECA) and how to make the best out of your final year in college and excel at CAT at the same time?
Out of absolute peer influence (and a bit of FOMO), I jumped on the bandwagon and enrolled myself at a coaching institute in October 2019. Needless to say, I never found myself at comfort in these classes, possibly because of the timely vignettes of the traumatising JEE coaching days with the weekly worksheets, tests and mocks or perhaps because I lacked the self-impulse to pursue it passionately.
Being from Mechanical Engineering at DTU, there weren't ample on-campus opportunities for internships in my third year. Besides that, I always wanted to delve into research, particularly on the Operations Management and Statistical Modelling side. So for two whole months, I browsed through the different areas of research, the ongoing projects and almost all the faculties at the top IIMs.
I got research internship offers from IIM Bangalore and Kozhikode, and I chose to go for K, primarily because they were providing on-campus accommodation. The two months that I spent at the absolutely stunning IIM K campus were transformative. I was driven by excited accountability and was able to learn and apply a lot in a short duration.
Not only was I working on something I was genuinely interested in, as opposed to a superficial corporate intern, but I also got the opportunity to interact with so many PGP and FPM students, spending nights with them and spectating their first-month shenanigans. Staying on campus and witnessing the B-School life from such proximity gave me a very clear idea of perhaps everything that there is to know for an aspirant.
It was only after this realisation that I decided to make an informed decision and began taking the preparation and mocks seriously. I received a placement offer at PwC in August, and after that relief, I resumed engrossing myself in more activities along with the prep - writing, debating, poetry, quizzing, photography, and case competitions - all while improving my grades too.
Interestingly, just one week before CAT 2019, I qualified for the National Finals of a Case Competition hosted by XLRI Jamshedpur. I had plenty of mocks to attempt, a lot of syllabi to revise, plus my end semester examinations were starting just a day after CAT.
Would most people, in this scenario, choose to spend the next four days travelling from Delhi to Jamshedpur and devote two full days (and nights) working on the case against some of the top teams in the country?
I did - without any hesitation - for it was always clear that these opportunities are worth far more in the longer run. Despite being the only undergraduate team in the Finals, we emerged as the Winners edging out the teams from IIMs, XLRI and NITIE. Not only was it absolutely enthralling competing at the postgraduate level but living the XL life for three days and interacting with so many students and DTU alumni there was intensively enriching.
In the CAT 2019, I scored a 99.00%ile overall with a 99.90%ile in VARC. Once again, cracking Verbal was solely due to my regular reading and writing habit and not due to solving numerous RC sets. Here are a few tips from my side:
1. Just read whatever you get your hands on, but do spend at least a couple of hours reading every day. Everything from newspaper editorials to Aeon essays to The Atlantic articles to good quality Instagram captions - ranging in a wide variety of themes and styles.
The trick is not to read everything as an RC passage, but to read the exam passage as just another thing you're reading off the internet.
2. Try to gain in-depth insights about the fields you're remotely interested in, but don't force yourself to read something if you find it boring. Instead, identify triggers that interest you, because ultimately it is your level of understanding of a subject that aids comprehension and will help you in GDPI as well.
Familiarity, comfort, ease of reading - all these are offsets - your knowledge will take you through.
3. And I can't stress enough on writing regularly if you want to improve your reading ability and vocab. Even if it is half a page of your diary or just a 100 words on a Reddit thread, do write and express yourself as freely as you can.
Only once you get in those shoes, are you able to firmly grasp the portrayal of the ideas in text from the author's perspective, which is imperative to solving RC questions.
I had only applied to the top 6 IIMs, got a call from Indore and converted it. Strikingly, my interview also mostly revolved around debating, extracurriculars, my research at IIM K and my experiences of competing at various B Schools, which distinctively set me apart from other GEM Fresher candidates.
Post the CAT result as well, I won podium positions at IIM Lucknow, NMIMS and was the National Finalist at many more. And even besides these things, I was a part of 4 societies through this time, including leading 2 at the apex post and establishing one from scratch. I was participating in Parliamentary Debating Tournaments, Quizzes and undertaking Consulting Projects - and also taking final year trips with my friends!
Looking back, surely relinquishing some of these things to put in some extra effort on the prep might have made a difference. But there's not an ounce of regret in those decisions cause you can always give the CAT again next year, but you can't go back to being an undergrad and trying out these experiences. At the end of the day, in all honesty, it is these ventures that shape you as a person and condition you for the future - not the hours that you spend stuck to your modules or glued to your screens.
What each aspirant should understand is that CAT is fundamentally an aptitude test, not a knowledge-based exam. The prep should subconsciously be a part of your routine and not an enforced two-hour portion of your day.
You should be reading the newspapers, books, essays because you WANT to - not because you HAVE to. You need to have the zeal to tackle every DILR set as an acumen challenge - not as an obligatory task that your teacher assigned you to do.
TL;DR: Despite initially joining the CAT coaching as a herd follower, it was only after seizing these opportunities that I figured out an MBA is the right thing for me.
The bottom line is that you don’t always need to sacrifice one aspect of your life to succeed at another. If I can do it, perhaps you can too. :)