A Perspective on CAT preparation and Business School Interviews - Riddhiman Dass, IIMC
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Riddhiman Dass is currently pursuing his final year engineering from IIEST, Shibpur. He cracked CAT 2014 with a score of 99.75 percentile and will be joining IIM Calcutta in their PGDM, 2015 - 2017 batch. He likes reading fiction, history, and enjoy quizzing.
This is a gist of the steps I took as I went through the business school application process. Note that your process of preparation may be slightly different from mine, and at the end of the day, you should follow the strategy that suits you best, keeping in mind your lifestyle and other commitments. On the whole though, this is more or less an effective set of guidelines that can help you be methodical in your preparation.
Start Early - I recommend starting at least a year ahead, in order to cover all the topics and familiarise yourself with most kinds of questions. I started preparing for the CAT a year and a half in advance. This gave me enough time to start from scratch, learn the basics of Quantitative Aptitude and Verbal Ability, move on to mock tests and at the same time, enjoy life and study for semesters.
Join a Classroom Program - You can opt for a correspondence course to prepare for the CAT, if you are disciplined and motivated enough to teach yourself all the concepts on each topic and solve the relevant exercises everyday. But just to be safe, join a classroom program at one of the coaching institutes. They teach you lots of quick and easy techniques and shortcuts to solving otherwise difficult or lengthy questions, and make sure you are never out of touch with the study material.
Be Regular with Your Practice - Perhaps the most important aspect of your preparation is the regularity with which you solve the exercises. Instead of going through sudden bursts of productivity and having a go at the most difficult problem sets possible, make sure you sit down everyday for a few hours with the study material. If you stay out of touch for even a week, it will be reflected in your mock test scores. This used to happen to me a lot, in fact. If I went for a few days without practice, my percentile dropped drastically in the next mock test. Then after practising again for a few days, my score improved substantially. Hence, make these few hours per day your top priority.
Take Mock Tests - Mock tests must be the centrepiece of your preparation. To build upon my previous point, one of the best ways of staying in touch with the study material is to take mock tests at regular intervals. I started taking mock tests around a year before the CAT. Initially, it was limited to one test per week. Over the months, I kept taking tests more frequently. The benefits of doing this are many. Firstly, it helps you strategize: you start figuring out how you should sequence the different sections to be solved, i.e. in what order you should solve Math, Data Interpretation, Logical Reasoning, Verbal Reasoning and Reading Comprehension. Secondly, it helps you build up your stamina. Thirdly, and most importantly, you get to analyse your performance. During analyses, check which questions you got wrong, how long each question took you, and look for better solutions to the questions that you answered correctly. If a question took you longer than it should have, mark it and figure out why it took you that long. In the process, you get to understand which areas need your immediate attention.
Topics of the Week - While analysing my performance in a mock test, I used to identify an area or two in which I got most of the questions wrong or that took up too much of my time. Those became my topic of the week, in the sense that I reserved two hours everyday for a week specifically devoted to those topics, other than continuing with my usual preparation. For example, if in a test I got a lot of parajumbles wrong, I practised those for one hour per day, for a week. The other hour was devoted to a math topic. After a week, I chose a new set of topics as my focus, and this went on, thereby ensuring that those never remained my weaknesses again. This shows the true potential of mock test analyses, and I suggest everyone try this technique.
Do not Ignore VA - A tendency that I have noticed in many is to ignore English and mainly practise Math and Logical Reasoning, even though English is just as important in securing a top percentile. Hence, allocate a substantial part of your time to English. Now, solving VA questions is often a matter of intuition. To equip yourself with that intuition, start reading newspaper editorials, magazines, short stories and if time permits, novels. This helps you stay patient and focused while reading long RC passages, trying to process all the jumbled sentences in parajumbles or thinking about the best possible last sentences for paragraphs. Additionally, to improve your vocabulary, read books like Word Power Made Easy by Norman Lewis. This helps you tackle unfamiliar words and usages that you may come across in RCs and VRs, other than the standard vocabulary questions.
Attempt Questions in Rounds - I always attempted questions in a test in two or three rounds. In the first round, I solved the most familiar questions. That gave me a lot of time and confidence, and I moved on to the next round, in which I solved questions that looked difficult but probably could be solved with a little effort. Then, if time permitted, I went for another round in which I tried solving the really difficult questions. I personally used this strategy for QA questions, but you can extend this to VA too.
Know Which Questions to Leave - While taking the CAT, if there is a question that does not seem familiar to you at all or that you know to be difficult, leave it. The penalty for a wrong answer is very high. The time wasted in attempting that question is better spent elsewhere. Besides, the people who set the paper know that many test takers fall prey to the mentality of trying to attempt all questions and design the test as such. Don’t play into their hands.
After taking and hopefully acing the CAT, you will realise that this was the easier half of the battle. The interview presents a bigger challenge for the simple reason that your performance there cannot be quantified. Hence, one needs to cover a lot of ground in a short span of time, so that no stone is left unturned. The interview preparation process ideally has four components:
i) Knowing Oneself
ii) Academics/Work Ex and Current Affairs
iv) Communication Skills
Knowing Oneself - Know why you want to do an MBA. You need to have certain attainable goals in life and need to know how exactly an MBA will help you in achieving that. The interview panel may grill you on your goals and ambitions a lot to see if you really know what you’re getting into. Also, figure out your strengths and weaknesses. Use anecdotes while describing them.
Academics or Work Ex and Current Affairs - If you are a fresher, choose a couple of areas from your field of study and prepare thoroughly. If you are working, have a detailed knowledge of your company like its products, its competitors etc. and talk about your accomplishments at the workplace. The panelists want to see if you take your studies/work seriously. Also, keep abreast of important news, be it regional, national or global. Panelists are impressed by candidates who know and are concerned about what is happening around them.
Extracurriculars - Use your free time to participate in activities that you enjoy, that you find meaningful. This can range from reading books to running your own startup or NGO. A person who has a rich and interesting background is a welcome addition to a bschool, and hence has an upper hand at the interview. That’s where extracurriculars help you the most: they help you differentiate yourself from your competitors.
Communication Skills - Smile. Be confident. Panelists love that. Have immense faith in your abilities. If you don’t believe that you are good enough to get into a particular bschool, neither will the panelists. Very often, interviewees go through a ‘stress’ interview, in which he or she is put in a spot and provoked. Don’t let yourself get intimidated or lose your cool. If you do, it would show that later on, you may buckle under pressure while handling crises in the corporate world. If you remain calm and composed, it will go a long way in turning things in your favour. Also, show that you are passionate about what you do and are committed to your goals.
Well, that’s it from my side. I’d like to finish off by saying that the entire process, comprising the CAT, the GD/WAT and the PI, ultimately tests you on your resolve, self-belief and discipline. The candidates who succeed in this are the most passionate ones, rather than the brightest.