CAT preparation strategies - Nikhil Kajaria, CAT 99.78 percentile

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    Nikhil Kajaria is currently a business analyst employed with EXL Service, Bangalore. He has graduated from R. V. College of Engineering, Bangalore completing his B. E. in Industrial Engineering and Management, 2014. He scored 99.78 percentile in CAT 2014 with 99.03 in QA and 99.82 in VA and is rearing to join IIM A. Nikhil is a movie enthusiast and is also interested in quizzing and football (Manchester United, 11 years and running).

    I have taken notes from my own preparation for the CAT exam, and sensible things I've picked on the way to my score. This is not, by any means, a comprehensive guide to preparation for the exam and each individual must strive to find his/her own unique mix of strategy and strengths. Think of these more as some rules of thumb which can help you along the way. Most of these things I might not have done myself, but from what I've gathered, they could be useful to you. I hope anyone reading this piece can take back something from it, enabling them to find success in their own endeavors.

    Here are my two cents.

    Get yourself in the right frame of mind - Most of us out there think of the CAT exam as one insurmountable hurdle that only a "chosen" few can surpass. Let me assure you. It isn't. If you want to do an MBA, think of it as just the first step that will enable your career. Don't work towards clearing the exam, work towards climbing the first step to the rest of your professional life.

    Identify your weaknesses - You have lots and lots of time to prepare for this exam, and you can start first by ID-ing your weaknesses. Your natural instinct might kick in to just move ahead with your strengths and ignore your weaknesses. God knows I did it. But you don't. Tackle your weaknesses first, and once you take care of them, all topics are balanced out for you. Then you can work to bring up your levels across the board by lots and lots of practice.

    What I learnt through my preparation was you have to combine smart work with hard work. You can't just put blinders on and keep practicing and filling in notebooks if you want to excel in the exam. You have to be aware of yourself, your circumstances, your strengths, your weaknesses, your speed, your decision making, your ambitions and your realities.

    You have to learn from your mistakes and keep getting better. You have to realize whether your efforts are actually bringing the desired results. If not, then you have to ask yourself why not and make changes accordingly. There's only so much knowledge you can gain while preparing for the exam. Its efficient and effective application is what will really set you apart.

    Improve your calculation speed - In no particular order, you could do the following things to improve your speed for the QA section

    • Throw your calculator away. It's your enemy and has no place on your desk or in your bag.
    • Learn square, cubes and multiplication tables and percentages/fractions. More importantly, just knowing them isn't enough. Start to consciously use this knowledge in your calculations instead of calculating the results every time.
    • Learn to approximate when possible and practical. Many questions can be solved by eliminating options through arriving at the approximate answers.
    • Use speed math techniques. You'll find these techniques wonderfully listed out in the speed math booklet by TIME, which is what I used. It really helps in improving your calculation speeds as many of the calculations in the QA/DI questions are simpler than they appear.
    • Use a timer every time you're practicing math. This will help you realize if you're actually making an improvement in your speed.
    • Keep practicing. There's no substitute for the sheer volume of questions you can solve on every topic, so that every kind of solution is at the tip of your fingers. You instantly know which question has what approach and also, you can judge whether you want to leave a question for later or not attempt it at all.

    I can also tell you what I did, to tackle lengthy DI problems. I simplified. Massively!

    • Whenever I encountered long numbers, I would shorten them by rounding off. I would take approximate ratios instead of computing the actual ones. I would eliminate factors instead of using the whole numbers.
    • Whenever I encountered long calculations, I would use approximations again. If I didn't have time and I absolutely HAD to attempt the question, I used approximations unabashedly. However, questions with long calculations I usually avoided or left for the end, when I could do those calculations manually and do them right.
    • So if you can leave a DI question for the end, leave it. If you can't, try simplifying it. The clues to simplify are always there. People setting CAT questions don't expect you to do rigorous calculations most of the times. They want you to be smart about your calculations and approach, and that's what really being tested.
    • A word of caution, such simplifications can lead to approximate answers, and can get confusing when the choices offered are close in values. Therefore, you must be very good with this in order to implement it in the actual exam with certainty. Otherwise, just do the questions manually.

    Take mocks (lots and lots of mocks) - This I DID do. And I think this is the single most important factor in my "cracking" the exam. Once you start taking mocks, you familiarize yourself with the testing pattern and range of topics covered (with the approx. number of questions topic-wise). You understand how to manage your time and which parts to give more importance to. Also, a very, VERY important point I must bring in here is that you need to identify, through these mocks, the questions that you CANNOT attempt. Find these questions. Block them. Don't waste your time.

    There are several things you could do with your mock CATs. Here are some of them listed for you:

    • Look at your final percentile scores. They tell you where you stand among the entire crowd. And usually, your actual score is underrepresented on a mock CAT because these mocks are taken more often by serious candidates who have better chances of doing well in the exam. If you're doing, say 80%ile, on your mocks, you could very well hit the 90+ mark on your actual exam. (These figures are not linear)
    • Look at the stuff you attempted, look at what worked for you and what didn't. In an ideal world, you should have a success rate of over 85-90%. That means, if you attempt 70/100 questions, you should get 60-63 correct. However, your mocks aren't the ideal world. They're a chance for you to get to the ideal scenario, which is the actual exam. What you can do is see what you're successfully solving over and over and see what you're failing at repeatedly. These must either be eliminated, or be made strengths - depending on the time and effort you're ready to put in.
    • Now look at the stuff you haven't attempted. See their answers. Do you find things you could've done? If so, make notes of these topics/questions to be attempted the next time. If you couldn't have done them, try going back to the basics for them.
    • Look at bundled questions (RCs, LR, DI) - did you get all of them correct or one or two of them wrong or all of them wrong? If all are correct, good going! If some are wrong, you could either be making silly mistakes or not be paying enough attention to detail. If all are wrong, you've failed drastically at grasping the question(s) altogether. Go back to the core of the question.
    • You must look at all solutions of all questions irrespective of whether you got them right or wrong. There could be better ways to do what you did correctly. Always strive for efficiency. Ideally, you should be spending more time analyzing a mock than actually taking it. That means you're making full use of the mock and its analysis.

    Read boring stuff - Dull magazine and newspaper articles, editorials etc. or even non-fiction reads help you adjust to the RC passages in the exam. The RC passages can get really drawn out and might suck the life out of you, but if you have the hang of it, you'll retain and understand much better. (Added bonus - helps you later when you want to knock those IIM GDPIs out of the park)

    • Non-fiction over fiction - To improve your RC ability, I suggest you ignore fiction altogether. Fictional reads can only help with improving reading speed, and don't do much else when you look at them from the CAT perspective. Now non-fiction books, on the other hand, can do a great deal for you. Firstly and most importantly, they help you get used to dull things - which is what an RC passage in CAT usually is. You get used to reading long, boring sentences and paragraphs and essays without losing concentration or interest. Also, the vocabulary used is much broader in non-fiction reads, so that's a bonus. Another thing about non-fiction is that the grammar is usually perfect, whereas in fictional reads, the grammar can get distorted by the context of the book. Instead of reading fiction books, go more often for non-fictional reads. They can be anything ranging from books, magazines, newspaper articles, editorials, online blogs etc. And also, try stepping out of your comfort zone. It's very important to get used to reading stuff that does not interest you, because chances are, that's the stuff you'll get in the RC passages in CAT.
    • Opportunities lie in the mundane - We read newspapers in the morning, books all day long and our friends' texts in the evening and night. We watch American and British films and television shows. We absorb SO much English every day and yet, we look for books to help us improve our English language. That's what the section essentially is, isn't it? A test of our command over the language. Take these mundane things from your everyday life and treat them as opportunities to improve your English. Stumble across a new word? Check its meaning right away. Hear a phrase you don't quite understand? Ask a friend. I hope you get what I mean.
    • Practice what you preach - I'd like to stress the importance of writing and speaking. When you start writing and speaking in English, you'll know where you're going wrong and you can put everything you learn by reading into practice. Without practice, it's almost as if you're trying to memorise a new language. You must practice writing, I can't stress the importance of that enough, preferably on the Word editor or something of the like so that it gives you dynamic feedback about spellings, syntax and grammar.
    • It’s just a number – People ask me how many books should one have read till the time they’re taking the CAT exam. The number is all it is, really. A number. It only matters if it's in the single digits, then you have some problems. What you read, how well you absorb it and even how quickly you absorb it matters more than how much you read. Of course reading more will help you, but reading well will help you more. Doesn't matter what you read, as long as you like what you read and read what you like. And oh, one last thing. I don't want to sound like a jerk but don't read books because CAT requires you to do so. It doesn't. Read because you want to read. Life requires you to do so.

    I did all of this very sincerely, mostly by habit and not by force. It's worked wonders for me and hope it does for you, the reader and aspirant, as well. :)

    Don't doubt yourself - I relied a lot on my instincts while taking the actual test and mocks too, and it usually served me well. Doubt creates confusion which leads to wrong attempts. If you're not sure of something, don't attempt it. If you're attempting something, don't doubt yourself.

    Join classes if you can - I know that ideally, one doesn't need classes and self-preparation works for a lot of people. I would, however, advise you to join classes if you can. Find the right mentors and learning will be so much more fun and interesting. Also, it'll keep you in the loop and act as a check on the effort you're putting in. You'll meet like-minded people and can discuss your problems/setbacks/strategies/ideas with them, making the process a whole lot easier. I know it did for me.

    Have fun - The operative word in CAT is "Aptitude". It tests your aptitude. Not your command over fancy topics or fancy words, but your natural ability to deal with simple problems. I always had fun while studying and testing for the CAT, and I hope you will too. It's the best way to deal with it.

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