How to Prepare for CAT 2021


May 22, 2021

CAT 2021 is around six months away. If you are planning to join a two-year MBA program in an elite B-school in India, it is high time you start your preparation.

I took CAT ’20 (99.32 percentile), XAT ’21 (99.67 percentile), and IIFT ’21 (99.65 percentile). In this article, I am going to share my preparatory experience (the things that worked and the things that did not), which might help you achieve your goals.

It is often assumed that the syllabus of CAT is such that only engineers from the top engineering colleges can ace it. To burst this bubble, there are non-engineers and even engineers from lesser-known colleges who have belled the CAT through sheer hard work and dedication. Moreover, all top B-schools consider diversity as an important part of the B-school experience. Therefore, in a bid to discourage an engineering monopoly in B-schools, they lower the cut-offs for other academic disciplines by a significant margin.

Since we have already established that scoring well in CAT and translating that score into a B-school call isn’t impossible for you regardless of your academic discipline, the most important question is how to achieve this feat. Analyzing your current situation is the most important task if you want to perform well in any competitive exam. So, before you start preparing, just take a mock test to see where you are and what you will be facing. If you get a bad score, do not think much about it.

In my first-ever mock test, I scored a 65 percentile in LRDI (I scored lower than this too in a later test). This happened in March 2020. I had a half-decent idea of all the concepts of QA because I had started my preparation early—by the way, you should not be doing that. If you start early, start taking tests early too. Just attempt the chapters you are done with—but this was the first time I took a test and it was a severe blow to me. I performed poorly because I prepared for QA, LRDI, and VA but I never really prepared for CAT. We often fail to realize that technical know-how and test-taking are two different skills. And CAT is primarily about the latter. Therefore, start your preparation by taking a mock test and take as many as you can.

How to Prepare for CAT (Irrespective of the Subjects)

Create a Test Schedule: I initially took one mock a week, on Saturdays. Later, I started taking two or three mocks a week and I had a fixed schedule for that too (mostly). I would take my mocks on a specific day at a specific time. This sets in motion a habit and decreases your likelihood of skipping a mock even when you are fatigued or do not feel like taking a test. Taking tests under all circumstances (fatigue, fever, or noise) also helps you adapt to varied situations.

Analyze, Realize, and Capitalize: Analyzing your mocks is the most effective way to prepare for CAT, even more than solving practice questions. Ideally, if your test is a three-hour-long one, the analysis must be six-hour long, which involves solving the questions you skipped, understanding whether they should have been skipped, if so, “why?” and if not, “why not?” CAT is all about selecting the right questions. If you develop the ability to skip the right questions, 99 percentile is an easy target.

Apart from this, you also need to solve the questions that you could solve during the test to find optimized solutions. After re-solving the paper, go through the actual solutions. Make a note of the solutions that are better than yours or that you were unable to come up with (even while re-solving) if you notice a common type of question across multiple tests and revise those questions at regular intervals. For example, every time you take a mock. By your second or third revision, you will internalize the solution.

Once you are done analyzing a test, you should be able to solve a similar question in the least time-consuming method.

This, of course, is an ideal situation which you will read in this article and forget about ten days later. What will happen is that you will take a test, you will see your score, and take a break. When the solutions are out, you will go through the questions that you got wrong or skipped in the first place but were categorized as “Easy” by the test-giving agency.

After going through multiple mocks, you will start seeing recurrent questions and optimal solutions will become intuitive.

Practice Weaker Parts: In the first three to four months, more time should be dedicated to improving weaker areas and one must familiarize oneself with all kinds of problems regardless of the problem’s frequency. Time-consuming questions are not to be attended in the test but must be practiced otherwise. It helps you practice attempting complicated questions in a structured format that will help you a lot in LRDI.

Practice Stronger Parts: In the latter half, one must keep revising their strong areas consistently as they are the ones that will drive the percentile score. Weaker areas can still be improved upon, but the primary focus must be on strong areas and identifying questions.

Chill: DO NOT stress yourself. If you are not doing well, remember it is just a mock. Your actual percentiles shoot up considerably depending on what your mock scores are. Regardless of how your test goes (mock or the actual), take some time off after them. Three hours of problem-solving puts your mind under incredible stress.

How to Prepare for Verbal Ability and Reading Comprehension

VARC in CAT is not a test of your vocabulary or grammatical knowledge. It is more about your logical ability to comprehend information (even when you are not completely familiar with the language). To excel in VARC, you need to read. No shortcuts. Read as much non-fiction from as diverse backgrounds as possible. Twenty-two out of the 34 questions in the VARC are comprehension based.

Passages in CAT are primarily excerpts from:

       ●    Newspaper editorials
       ●    Philosophy books/articles
       ●    History books/articles
       ●    Science journals

Reading from diverse resources familiarizes students with concepts and, therefore, reduces the chances of misunderstanding a sentence. VARC, however, is the holy grail of negative marking. People very rarely feel that they do not know the answer. Most of the times, they are confused between two options and end up marking one of them, purely based on intuition.

Hence, reading from various resources is necessary. Reading newspapers is the sine qua non for scoring well in verbal (and they help you in your interviews as well, so win-win). Read quality newspapers (The Hindu, The Indian Express, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Economist, etc.), and read them cover to cover, including editorials.

Try out different attempting strategies in the VARC section to find a sequence suitable to your strengths. My strength was RC (comprehension), so I used to invest as much time in it as required even if I had to leave one or two VA (grammar) questions. Most people, I know, prefer: Summary -> Misfit Sentences -> Parajumbles -> Reading Comprehension.

Some read the questions before and then the paragraph so they know the relevant parts of the passage beforehand and just skim through or skip the other parts.

I suggest reading at a normal pace and then going for a question to avoid lack of coherence. Reading too fast is counterproductive as you are likely to misunderstand and tick the wrong option or read a particular part of the passage again after encountering the question.

The VARC paper consists of 34 questions and the duration is 60 minutes. While the amount of time is sufficient to read and possibly attempt all the questions, understand that if you are hesitant about the answer after thinking for more than a minute, you do not know the answer and regardless of how much time you spend on it, you will not arrive at a definite conclusion. So, avoid wasting time once you realize you do not know the answer.

Mark them for review if you feel you are close and then, perhaps, come back to it later. Remember that you do not have to solve the entire paper. To get a 99 percentile, scoring even 50–55 percent is sufficient (in the entire test). To get 99 percentile in VARC, one has to score around 70+ out of 102. This, however, varies from year to year and is a safe estimate for a target score.

There is no perfect way to attempt the paper, and which approach is the best depends on your strengths and weaknesses. Getting one-on-one guidance from an expert in the preparatory field can go a long way in effective preparation and substantially improve your chances. They can explain where to read from and what to read. If someone can provide you with good reading material and explain wherever you get stuck, they are your best bet as that is by far the most important part of VARC preparation.

How to Prepare for Logical Reasoning Data Interpretation

Ah! My arch-nemesis. The Anti-Christ.

LRDI section consists of 32 questions divided into 8 sets. Just solving 4 to 5 sets can comfortably get you to a score of 99 percentile+ in this section.

However, unlike other exams, CAT LRDI pattern requires you to commit to a set. Once you read the problem, it can easily take you a good 5–6 minutes before you get your first breakthrough. After the first question, the other 3 are generally easier to solve and do not require much time. However, you do not want to waste the 5–6 minutes and end up leaving the set.

As someone who is supremely LRDI-phobic, I hail you if you find LRDI easy. Lucky for me, most people do not. The best way to approach LRDI, if you find it difficult, is to practice a lot. Some problems have appeared every year and there is a good chance it will continue to happen. These sets include a Sudoku-based set, a matrix-arrangement problem, and two very common DI sets.

Practicing these goes a long way as you have already familiarized yourself with the problem. The key to solving an LRDI problem within the desired time is to arrange the data provided properly and the optimal method to arrange data is different for different types of questions and hence requires experiential learning.

Take as many LRDI mocks as possible, as those are the only good resource to practice LRDI questions, ideally with a timer counting down and the pressure mounting up right in front of your eyes.

There are two ways to approach LRDI.

      ●     For those who find it to be easy (I hate you to the core but congratulations on being God’s                 favourite children):

                   o    Take 5 minutes to go through the whole section
                   o    Roughly divide the amount of time you want to spend on whichever                                                   set you plan to attend
                   o    Read all sets, and attempt the straightforward questions
                   o    Move to the next set if you have solved half a set and are stuck in the                                               next two questions

The idea is to maximize the number of attempts by not wasting time on lengthier questions.

       ●    For the LRDI-phobic:

                    o    Take 5 minutes to go through all the sets
                    o    Notice the problems you are familiar with
                    o    Mark the sequence according to your familiarity and how easy or difficult you find                              it to be
                    o    Rate a set between 1 (least likely to attempt) to 5 (most likely to attempt)
                    o    Attempt the questions according to the plan and do not deviate from it

The idea would be to attempt fewer sets, around 3 to 4 (which is in the range of 95 to 99 percentile), but solve all of them correctly. All the sets you solve should fall within the following range:

How to Prepare for Quantitative Aptitude 

Unlike the other two sections, the QA section consists of 32 individual questions. Remember that name of this section is Quantitative Aptitude and not Mathematics, and rightly so.

This section is not about your mathematical ability. Anyone in their right minds would not ask you 9th or 10th standard mathematics to judge your mathematical skills or your management ability. This section is all about your presence of mind and much like real life, it is about knowing your strengths while picking your battles. Difficulty levels of QA throughout the years have been the most inconsistent amongst the three sections, with 99 percentile scores ranging from 75+ (2017) to 56+ (2018).

Scores of 2020 have not been considered because a two-hour paper is very different from a three-hour paper. Therefore, there is no specific target number of questions you should be attempting. The breakdown of QA questions is generally along the following lines:

      ●   Arithmetic: 12+
      ●   Algebra: 9+
      ●   Geometry: 5+
      ●   Modern Mathematics: 2 to 3
      ●   Number System: 1 to 3

What becomes clear is, Arithmetic, Algebra, and Geometry are the key to a good QA score. If you are a non-engineer/non-science graduate, do not fret over the lack of knowledge of Permutations and Combinations. You will not encounter more than three questions from this area.

Knowledge of Number Systems and Permutation-Combination, however, may also come in handy in solving other questions from both QA and LRDI sections; if you have time, please practice. However, the first three are the obvious priority.

Again, taking feedback from mock analysis is what is going to help you figure out your strengths and weaknesses. On the D-day, you only play to your strengths and knowing that is the key.

To score well in Quantitative Aptitude, you need A LOT of practice and A LOT of analysis. Knowing and practicing tips and tricks are essential. If one solves the questions, following the actual long-form methods, it will take a huge amount of time. Making assumptions, such as “x=0 or 1,” “CP=100,” goes a long way but the ability to understand what assumptions can be made or will they help you solve a problem requires strong knowledge of fundamentals and experiential learning. Another thing that helps is using options provided.

While these are some general ideas that, I hope, will help you, having an expert personalized mentor will not only help you analyze your mocks but help you choose the best way to solve a problem according to your skillset. This is bound to give you an edge in the race for that coveted B-school seat that can turn your life around.

Other Management Exams

While CAT is the primary target for most Indian aspirants, GMAT, XAT, IIFT, SNAP, and NMAT are also options many people consider.

SNAP and NMAT are of an easier level and allow re-takes. Preparing for CAT diligently would be more than enough to help you sail through these. However, the LR questions are a bit different and, therefore, might require some familiarization.

XAT is a more difficult exam in every aspect: English as well as Mathematics. However, you can invest more time on a question and with interchangeable sections, you can play more to your strengths. The DM section of XAT is a very relevant skill-test for an aspiring manager and requires good practice to understand the situation provided in the question as well as the psyche of the examiner.

GMAT is an adaptive test, which means the difficulty level of each subsequent question depends on whether you solve the current one correctly. It is more English intensive and, therefore, requires a good grasp of the semantics and nuances of the English language.

As long as you prepare well for CAT, the other exams do not need a lot of extra effort. Just some mocks would help you adapt to the format.

All the best!


The author is joining the class of XLRI 2021-23.

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