Getting Higher, Getting Stronger & Getting Faster in Verbal Ability - Vishal Bondwal, IIM K
Vishal Bondwal is a serial entrance test cracker with a 99.90 percentile in CAT and a score of 770 in GMAT. He completed his MBA from of IIM Kozhikode in 2007, post which, he worked with Asian Paints followed by Accenture Consulting. Currently, Vishal is following his passion of helping young aspirants create bright futures by working in the Leadership team at ChalkStreet, an online marketplace for quality affordable courses.
When you want to climb a mountain, you can take multiple paths to the same peak. Some are easy but long, others are steep but short. Sometimes the paths intersect and you can switch from one to the other. CAT preparation is the same. To get into the Everest of IIMs, you can choose multiple strategies, in both quantitative aptitude and verbal ability. As you get stronger, strategies may change, and paths that were too steep earlier would become accessible. In this article, we’ll discuss one path that takes you to the verbal peak.
Before we continue, a quick introduction. I took CAT in November 2004. My overall score was in the 99.90th percentile, with the verbal component in the 99.99th percentile. I went to IIM Kozhikode and graduated in 2007 after two remarkable years. I had also secured admission to FMS, which again was a verbal-heavy exam at that point. More recently, I took the GMAT, and got a score of 770, with both the overall and the verbal scores in the 99th percentile (the exam doesn’t reveal decimal level data). The strategies I am going to describe have helped many people get into the IIMs. Now let’s return to the path discussion.
So to climb a mountain, you first need strength and endurance. If you have these, you’ll eventually reach the top. But if there is limited space at the top and others are racing you, then you need speed along with strength. If you are fast enough, you could even be the first to plant the flag. We will discuss strength-building methods first, and then speed.
Some people are lucky enough to have both a love of reading and access to books since childhood, and have grown up reading novels, non-fiction books, and magazines. They already feel comfortable with the language, and have a good vocabulary base. However, by the end of graduation, most of us usually don’t have large enough vocabularies for exams like the CAT. In Reading Comprehension passages as well as verbal reasoning questions, you can still encounter words that are unfamiliar to you. How do you address this?
English has evolved over millennia from other languages, with the vast majority of root words coming from the classical languages of Greek and Latin. Greek was the language of the ancient city-states of Greece, from where much of modern Western civilization developed, while Latin was the language of the Roman Empire, which ruled most of the Western world for centuries. Etymology (the study of word origins) is the key to understanding multiple words by studying just one root word common to them. For example, ‘pater’ means father in Latin, which leads to words like paternal, patriarchal, patronymic etc. Patriarchal has pater + arkhein; the latter means ‘rule’, so patriarchy means a society where fathers or elder males hold power. Those who feel this is the way society should be, hold ‘patriarchal’ beliefs. Similarly monarchy is mono + arkhein, mono means single, so the whole word means rule by one person, which implies rule by one king or one queen. Patronymic comes from pater + nym, nym means name in Greek. So the word means the name gained from your father, usually used as the surname in many Indian states and other countries, such as Russia (for example, the son of Ivan would have the surname Ivanovich. We also find the –nym suffix in antonym (anti+nym), synonym (syn+nym) and many other words. Once some key root words are figured out, what were a long list of words to memorize become an interconnected web, and it becomes easy to understand and remember them. One very good book to learn words using this root-word strategy is How to Increase your Word Power by Norman Lewis. If you are serious aspirant, you most likely already have this book. Go through it at least once and preferably twice, till you are comfortable with most of the words discussed in the book. Also install a dictionary in your phone, or make it a habit to check an online dictionary when you come across an unfamiliar word, and scroll down to the word origin, to understand the root words. Smartphones make life easier. Earlier, people had to carry around thick physical dictionaries. Some good dictionary sites are m-w.com (Merriam-Webster’s site), and dictionary.com.
After vocabulary comes grammar. Grammar is best learned via wide reading, rather than by trying to memorize hundreds of rules (each of which has many exceptions). If you have several months or more time to your exam, cultivate a reading habit. Read books that interest you, read an interesting newspaper daily, read magazines, read good blogs. The keyword here is ‘interest’. If you find something boring, the brain simply wouldn’t engage with it enough to give you deep insights. Your eyes will move over the page but the brain would be off, not absorbing the meaning. Don’t read The Hindu just because it is ‘supposed to be’ the best newspaper. There’s not much point if you find it boring or difficult. While I later became a regular Hindu reader, till my CAT preparation days, I was very happy with the Times of India, which is a much more friendly newspaper for learners, and tends to have more interesting phrases and stories. If you don’t have time to read the paper every day, read the opinion columns every week in the central pages of the Sunday Times of India, which are by experienced columnists and are well-written.
Keep in mind that newspaper reporters are short on space and have tight deadlines, and tend to write very short, descriptive reports. For example, “A bomb blast occurred at XYZ place. N people got injured. Group ABC is suspected.” They don’t have the time or the space to analyze things in much detail. Also, a newspaper comes every day and not everyone has the time to follow it regularly. Due to this reason, magazines are a very good way to build a reading habit.
Magazines have longer and more eloquent articles, and the correspondents have more time to craft an insightful story. Choose a magazine in an area you like. If you like a newsmagazine like India Today or Outlook, that’s great, because it builds your general knowledge along with English skills. GK comes in handy in GDs, WAT and interviews. But if you are not very interested in these magazines as of now, that’s okay, read whatever magazine you like, as long as it’s in English. It can be Readers’ Digest, National Geographic, Sportstar or even Filmfare, just get in the habit of reading articles that are a few pages long, and are written in good English. Once you get comfortable with 3000 word articles, 800 word CAT RC passages won’t seem as daunting, and you would be able to maintain concentration through long reads. When you can read a passage with full concentration, you need to do fewer rechecks over the passage when you are answering questions, because more information is retained in your head. Try to read one magazine a week, either at one stretch or at the rate of one or two articles a day.
Of course, if you have time, the best way to build strong English is to read books. Have no bias against fiction books. Some people insist that you should only read non-fiction because fiction doesn’t improve your general knowledge, is a waste of time etc. Keep in mind that Nobel Prizes and Bookers are given for fictional works. They are some of the greatest achievements in the English language. This doesn’t mean you should read only Nobel-winning books. It is far better to start and finish the Harry Potter series than to never go beyond the first 3 pages of some famous fiction or non-fiction tome. Eclectic reading is the best possible way to be comfortable with a variety of RC passages and other verbal questions. However, reading books takes time. Also, like the paths mentioned earlier, which books you should start with depends on what you have already read. The usual reading journey starts with Enid Blyton’s books in childhood, followed (in today’s world) by books like Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Artemis Fowl, and Roald Dahl’s works as one gets slightly older. Teenagers progress to classic detective stories like Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes), pulp thrillers like Robert Ludlum (the Bourne series), and the easier classics (such as Tom Sawyer). As you get a bit older, you can fully savor grand fantasies like Lord of the Rings, and subtle humor like PG Wodehouse. Once you have covered this progression, you can read practically everything except highly technical or philosophical books. If you are new to books, start with the Harry Potter level. If you find it too hard, go to a younger person’s book like Enid Blyton. If you can read Potter easily, progress to Sherlock Holmes or the Bourne Series or farther if you are already comfortable with these. If you had already read all these by the time you finished school, then you don’t need me to give you book suggestions, for you would already have your favorite authors and the means to discover great new books.
There are hundreds of book suggestions online for all age/learning levels. In all kinds of reading, keep referring to the dictionary wherever needed.
Reading is important because it teaches you not just vocabulary and grammar, but collocations & idiomatic usage. This is tested in the tougher questions. Cramming words through flash cards, and learning grammar by following rigid rules won’t help you answer such questions. When you have a strong reading habit, wrong sentences will ‘feel wrong’ and you’ll be able to eliminate them, even if you can’t pinpoint what the grammatical error actually is.
For example, consider the sentence, “He was engrossed by the Facebook ad.”
The word ‘engrossed’ means to be immersed in something, to be totally lost in it (in a good way). A Facebook ad is too small an experience to be engrossed in. It is much more accurate to say, “He was engrossed in a book.”
Also note that ‘engrossed in’ is more correct usage than ‘engrossed by’, because you are generally immersed in something, not by something. Similarly, saying “I was perplexed with the problem,” is wrong compared to “I was perplexed by the problem.” Reading gives you an unconscious database of thousands of such words that go well with each other, greatly increasing your speed in the paper.
Along with reading, if you want to know some exact grammar usage, the Manhattan Prep GMAT book on Sentence Correction is quite good. It is aptitude exam-focused and written in a friendly tone, making it better for exams than old formal academic works like Wren & Martin (which tend to cover Victorian-era style English).
One excellent exercise to strengthen your English is to get in the habit of summarizing ideas. After you read a magazine article you like, try to spend 5-10 minutes summarizing it in a short paragraph, WITHOUT looking at the article. It is your choice whether you want to write down the summary or do it mentally in your head. You might find that you fumble often, and have to struggle to find the best words. This exercise will be challenging in the beginning, but would greatly improve your fluency and expressive ability (which is of immense help in interviews, as well as in life), and also make you faster with English analysis in general. If you don’t manage to read anything concrete on a particular day, spend 5-10 minutes in summarizing your day in your own words, like a mini diary entry.
Getting faster means increasing you reading speed. Once again, there is a path intersection decision here. If you believe you are strong in English, and have some evidence for the same (such as good marks in school and college English, and getting appreciated by people for your writing or speech), then you can begin working on speed from the initial days of your CAT preparation. But if you feel you have a weak vocabulary and it is difficult to read a page without reaching for the dictionary, it is more important to build strength before you start working on speed.
Reading speed is of incalculable help in exams like the CAT. It naturally helps you finish reading comprehension passages faster, and with less errors as you are not under time pressure, but it also helps you go through the entire paper faster, including in logical reasoning, data interpretation, and quant. Of course, it cannot be blind speed alone. Velocity has to be accompanied by accuracy. So how do we build accurate speed?
Norman Lewis is famous for his word power book, but he has also written an excellent guide to speed-reading which is not as famous. It’s titled How to Read Better and Faster, and is a must-read. Again, focus on reading this book only after you have a good basic vocabulary and enough comprehension to understand most of the books and articles you read.
This may seem tangential, but the ability to think fast is critical to reading fast. It is pointless if only your eyes move faster over the page. Your brain should be able to process that information at an equal rate. Thus you need to develop your thinking speed, so you can keep mentally processing as you are reading, and the words keep making sense in your head.
Have you heard the word ‘prehensile’? Prehensile means having the ability to grasp. For example, some species of monkeys have a prehensile tail. They can grasp bananas and other objects with their tails. The stronger ones can even hang from branches with their tails. Why am I telling you about monkeys? Because the word prehensile comes from the Latin root prehendere, which means to grasp or seize. The word apprehend comes from the same root; it means the police grabbing hold of an offender. And the word comprehend comes from the same root. It means understanding something, grasping it with the mind.
To comprehend as you are reading faster is key, which is why I stressed building strength before speed. Comprehension would build automatically with practice, but it helps if you generally boost your mental processing power. Apps like Lumosity and Elevate consist of several fun games and puzzles that gradually help you think faster. A general habit of solving puzzles or paying keen attention to things also helps.
After reading Norman Lewis’ book, there are some computer applications too that can aid you. AceReader is one of the best. It has multiple eye exercises and practice drills that get you in the habit of reading rapidly and processing words faster. Using the book and AceReader together, one can double one’s base reading speed, especially in short bursts (as needed for comprehension passages). I almost tripled it, and that helped during MBA as well, where a student is routinely expected to read more than a hundred pages a day across various subjects.
This brings us to the close of this essay on improving your verbal ability for competitive exams like the CAT. May you become ever faster, higher, and stronger. Citius, altius, fortius.