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The step-by-step approach to 99+ percentile in Common Admission Test (CAT)

Updated: Nov 6, 2020

This is by far one of the longest posts I’ve written on this subject. But, if you’re a serious CAT aspirant, I suggest you read it in one go and revisit whenever you transition from one stage of preparation to another:

Stage 1 - Making Up Your Mind

The question you should be able to answer at the end of this stage is whether or not you wish to prepare wholeheartedly for CAT and give it your best attempt. Before you begin, the following questions may occur to you. I’ve tried to create a repository of the best answers already written by others to guide you through these:

My 2 cents: Apart from being clear on these questions, you should have a very strong purpose in your mind to do an MBA that gets you up in the morning (this reason may not be the one you feel comfortable sharing with an interviewer). During my time, I was so disheartened by not getting into the undergrad college of my choice that I really wanted to not let the same happen with the B-school of my choice.

Stage 2 - Knowing the Basics

A good preparation journey begins with mapping out what all you need to cover and where you wish to reach. For the same, understanding the syllabus of CAT and the eligibility criteria of different B-schools is imperative. Here is a list of all you’ll need:

  1. IIM-A: Admission/Selection Process

  2. IIM-B: Admission Process for PGP 2020

  3. IIM-C: Admission Procedure for Domestic Candidates

My 2 cents: I also spent a considerable amount of time on Quora to read more about these topics. But, for any significant piece of information, it is suggested to refer to the official websites only, else it may cost you later.

Stage 3 - Testing the Waters

This stage requires you to answer two questions for yourself -

  1. Which sections do you feel uncomfortable with?

  2. Will you need to take coaching for them?

No amount of matter written on this subject can help you unless you test the waters yourself. So, what you should do is to take a week or two and attempt questions in each of the 3 sections to understand where you stand on the level of preparation.

You can use the following resources, which have 1,000+ free questions for practice:

3.1 Need for Coaching

If you find the need to take coaching, the following questions may help you:

My 2 cents: I enrolled myself with T.I.M.E. Hudson Lane (north campus) because after trying out the sections, I figured my Quants was weak. Even though T.I.M.E. CP centre was more renowned for its faculty, I decided to save my time in traveling and putting in more effort to compensate for the faculty’s quality. Later, I realized that it paid off by not traveling hours in the metro and instead utilizing that time somewhere else.

3.2 Self-Preparation

If you feel comfortable with the syllabus to prepare on your own or have ample time in hand before the exam to prepare before you join the coaching, the following sources will help you find the right answers:

My 2 cents: I self-prepared for 6 months before the coaching (which was of 10 months) to work on my Quants, which I knew was weak. I used Arun Sharma’s book and found it to be very useful. The theory built my concepts and the question bank helped me practice specific areas that needed to be worked upon. Later, I also bought 3 other books written by him - for Logical Reasoning, Data Interpretation, and Verbal Ability. But, I found Quants & Logical Reasoning to be of the most use.

Stage 4 - Finishing the Basics

Now that you’ll have the material in place, you’d be in a better position to chart out what to complete when. Whether you’re preparing from self prep books or using the material that your coaching centre has given you, it’ll contain two kinds of questions - basic and advance (in Arun Sharma, they’re referred to as the level of difficulty 1, 2 and 3). Start with the basics. The plan should be to cover the basics in the next 2–6 months depending on the time you have left as well as your prior preparation level.

The approach should be to understand the concepts and build a strong base. Timing your answers at this stage is not advisable. Solving as many kinds of questions as you can is a better idea. Familiarize yourself with each topic so that before you start attempting the mocks, you know which ones are a part of your comfort zone.

4.1 Section-Wise Focus

Now, let’s see what each section requires and demystify some wrongly held beliefs regarding the toughness of this exam:

4.1.1 Verbal Ability and Reading Comprehension

If you look at the pattern of this section, there are 24 questions on Reading Comprehensions (RCs) and 10 questions on Verbal Ability (VA) (generally comprising of 4 Para jumbles). You should note this because it impacts where you put more effort while preparing for this section.

Para jumbles, as you will encounter soon, are the trickiest to solve because of 120 possible combinations. The majority of students get them wrong despite spending (rather wasting) too much time. Left are the 6 questions of VA to have a shot at.

This leaves one important area of preparation in this section - RCs. Here are a couple of answers written in regards to RCs that will help you prepare in the best way:

My 2 cents: I didn’t focus on vocabulary building as I found it unnecessary. Similarly, I didn’t read any novels during my preparation simply because I didn’t find them relevant to the kind of RCs that are asked in CAT. The best source to prepare, according to me, was the editorial column of The Hindu and Livemint. Apart from that, I tried to read (but it was too hard, so I stuck to 2 articles a day) from Brain Pickings. These pieces were at par with the CAT passages and since they were online, I also developed comfort with the interface (scrolling to map the passage). My VARC strategy has been shared here.

4.1.2 Logical Reasoning and Data Interpretation

This is considered to be one of the sections where no academic background is at an advantage, hence it was my favorite. I always treated LR and DI as two separate sections while preparing as well as attempting, even though they shared a clock.

I’ve written a detailed post on the preparation of this section, so sharing that for your reference: How to prepare for DILR for CAT? You can also follow some daily activities to boost your DILR skills.

My 2 cents: Try to make this section a strength because, in the past couple of years, it has been one of the toughest sections to crack. Scoring more in this section can allow you to compensate for silly mistakes in the other sections (as happened in my case).

4.1.3 Quantitative Ability

I was weak at Quants like I said. Another misconception I had was that engineers are bound to do well in this section. They have an advantage for sure, but not all of them. The test takers also understand it, hence what I have observed in the last couple of papers is that either this section is easier to attempt or some other section turns out to be so difficult that a level playing field gets maintained.

In regards to the preparation strategy, going chapter by chapter helps. Not starting with geometry and number system was another decision that worked to my favor (these topics are time-consuming and may demotivate you if you already feel scared of Quants section, so maybe start with Arithmetic - Profit & Loss, Percentages).

These answers written by others might help you prepare for QA strategically:

My 2 cents: Firstly, you can do well in this section with practice. I was scared of math, trust me, if I can, you can too. Second thing, while you are preparing for this section, don’t forget to create a formula book for yourself where you keep noting down the important formulas chapter-wise. This will help you during revision. My Quants startegy has been shared here.

4.2 Need to Remain Motivated

This is undermined but an important aspect of the preparation journey. This stage will be one of the most taxing time periods of your life. Getting up every day to work harder for a goal that is months away is a herculean task. There will be times when you will need motivation. Having someone (or more than one) to guide you at such moments can make the difference. I am sharing a couple of inspiring stories (some of them I read during my preparation time). Refer back to them whenever you feel low:

My 2 cents: I share a very close bond with my parents. They were always there for me, through all my ups and downs. I really looked up to my dad during the preparation journey and shared every news of improvement with him. You must find that someone you can talk to whenever you need encouragement. It helps. This is the strategy I used additionally to avoid lack of motivation for QA.

Stage 5 - Attempting the Mocks

Here comes the most dreaded part of the journey - when it is time to measure your performance. Notice that you’ll start taking mocks even before you jump onto the advanced level of preparation. This is because they start pretty early (around March-April). Though it wasn’t asked in the question to share the attempt strategy for each of the sections in the mocks, I’d try to cover it for the benefit of those who might be attempting the mocks right now.

5.1 Mock Test Series

The most important question is - which ones to buy. This answer compares most of the test series and helps you understand the factors based on which this purchase should be made. It is generally recommended to buy at least 2 series.

My 2 cents: I had the AIMCATs by T.I.M.E because I was enrolled with them. I found them tougher in general as compared to the reviews of my friends taking other mocks. I purchased CL mocks around September to increase the number of mock attempts. What I found was that CL mocks are comparatively at par with the actual CAT exam. Barring the interface quality, I liked everything about CL mocks. However, the toughness of AIMCATs prepared me for difficult sets, especially in LRDI.

5.2 Attempting the Mocks

Demystifying some of the frequently asked questions in this area:

My 2 cents: I gave around 40–50 mocks in total with an average score of 97–98%ile. I found a lot of material online on how to prepare for the various sections. However, when it comes to attempting the different sections, the techniques were not available. So, I wrote a post about it - How to attempt the mocks? You may also follow the timeline of mocks that I followed.

5.3 Analyzing the Mocks

These answers have been written by veterans of CAT, they will guide you:

My 2 cents: I started off with 1 mock a week (in July), but towards the end of my preparation (around October), I was giving two mocks a day on some days. The idea was to prepare for sitting 6 hours a day just for mocks and analyzing them for further 1–2 hours. The reason my time spent in analyzing was lower was due to this.

Stage 6 - Improving Your Score

After giving about 5–6 mocks, you’ll be able to get an average. Now, your task is to move this average upwards. This requires altering your attempt strategies from time to time. For example, if you’re attempting LR first than DI and consistently performing bad, maybe it’s time to try the opposite and see if that works. Tried attempting RCs with accuracy and low attempts, yet failed? Maybe, it’s time to attempt more without worrying about the accuracy and improve on accuracy once your attempts stabilize.

Sectional Tests and advance material plays an important role here. I used to take sectionals specifically for the topics where I wasn’t performing up to the mark in the recent mocks. I also solved the advance material very selectively by putting in more effort only where it was required.

You may follow the advice of people who have written about strategies to improve one’s score in specific sections:

My 2 cents: I followed a simple check after each mock that comprised of the following evaluation: did I get the questions right using the shortest way, did I get the questions wrong due to silly mistakes or conceptual errors, did I not attempt some questions that should have been attempted. And, this helped me improve my score.

Stage 7 - Days before the D-Day

This will be a crucial time. I’ve seen so many people lose hope at this stage who think of taking the next attempt wholeheartedly. Trust me, if you’ve reached this far, don’t give up just yet. It is only a matter of a couple of more days. This is where your strength (the guide) and your purpose (the unannounced reason) will play a big role. Keep your calm during these days and don’t let one or two mocks in which you score less cloud your vision. Focus on your consistent performance.

My 2 cents: I went home to prepare for the final stage. The calm atmosphere and my family’s support helped me play to my strengths. There were several moments when I felt scared of the end result, but having someone to talk helped in my case.

Stage 8 - The D-Day

People give/receive all sorts of advice here. I’d say, whatever you had to do to prepare for this day, you’ve already done. Revising one more concept may not help as much as calming your mind would. Just go in there, and give it your best.

My 2 cents: I discussed nothing before the exam with anyone around, nothing after the exam with anyone around. I gave my attempt, came back to my parents and told them, “If everything goes right, I should make it.” Here are some last-minute tips for the D-day.

I’ll restrict this post to just the preparation journey and not stretch it to the interview rounds. If you’re interested to find out how my interviews went, here is a snapshot:

Eventually, I scored 99.09 percentile and made it to IIM-Ahmedabad, where I pursued PGP 2018-20. I interned in the Sales & Marketing role at Mondelez International (formerly known as Cadbury).

IIM Ahmedabad during night time
IIM Ahmedabad

When I was preparing for CAT, I took help from several mentors. I felt that there were not many who had a similar academic background as mine as I hailed from the Commerce stream. So, I started taking queries on Quora and later shifted it to a Facebook Page called Non-engineers. Now, I have converted into a blog to write more often. Even though the page is named so, any engineer is also welcome to share his/her concerns. Just message me on the blog or any of the social media handles and I shall revert as soon as possibble.

I hope this helps as many of you as possible.

Remember to look how far you’ve come, and then keep going!

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