New CAT, new strategies

Three one-hour sections, onscreen calculator… the exam has changed with the times. Some preparation tips.

The IIMs have changed the format and structure of CAT this year. Specifically, there have been four key changes. First, the exam will comprise three sections instead of two sections as seen in CAT 2014. Second, the duration of the exam has been extended to 180 minutes (from 170 minutes last year) with the time split to one hour per section. Third, a basic onscreen calculator will be provided to students. And lastly, a few questions will require answers to be entered directly, instead of the traditional multiple-choice format. These changes are but tweaks that should improve the test-taking experience for students and are not a dramatic overhaul.

“Quantitative Aptitude, Verbal Ability, Data Interpretation and Logical Reasoning tested in a competitive exam that is objective and conducted across the country” This is how one would have described CAT in 1990, 2000 or 2010. This statement remains the same in 2015 as well. The core tenets remain the same; the CAT has merely decided to use a few of the inherent advantages that online testing offers.

The features introduced this year are not new to CAT. From 1990 to 2012, CAT had three or more sections every year. The two-section format was seen only in the last two years. Previously, we have also had fixed time limits for individual sections (in CAT 2013).

CAT is now effectively three one-hour exams and this is a blessing in disguise.

Counter-intuitively, the time allotted per section being fixed is a boon to students. Although the change in format appears to have taken some flexibility away from students, the freedom of allocating time across sections was illusory anyway. Students used to spend a lot of time fretting about section cut-offs and going for a ‘balanced’ score across sections. The only adjustment students will have to make is to think of CAT as three one-hour exams instead of one three-hour exam.

No place to hide

In a traditional two-section format, students had the option of treating Data Interpretation, Logical Reasoning or Reading Comprehension as less important and ‘hiding’ in the other segments. For instance, one could go in hoping to get 14-15 questions correct in Logical Reasoning and completely skip RC. These imaginary luxuries are out. Students need to have more balance in their preparation and cannot afford to have glaring weaknesses.

Computational pressure is off, which is a big relief and a great leveller.

The one unambiguous takeaway here is that the on-screen calculator is a boon. Students no longer need to worry about knowing 45×35 or computing 34.6 per cent of 72 quickly. Computation speed is not really important in the 21st century, and CAT has quietly acknowledged this fact.

Students should resist the temptation to use the online calculator for every single computation. Relying on an external computational tool for all computations dulls numerical intuition, and, so, the online calculator should be prudently used. My suggestion would be to use it for the Data Interpretation section and not really bother with it for the section on Quantitative Aptitude.

CAT has moved with the times and test-takers should follow suit. The test-setters have utilised technology well and picked a format that focuses on knowledge of the fundamentals and de-emphasises computation-speed. Students should make three small adjustments.

Learn from first principles: Ignore shortcuts, speed-math related gimmicks and focus on basics.

Read, read, read: The single-most important factor for excelling in the verbal ability section is reading comfort. Students with a consistent reading habit have a massive advantage in this section. Students should aim to read for at least 90 minutes every day.

Take plenty of ‘mocks’: Students should aim to take at least 20 ‘mock’ CATs in the new format. They should aim to take these tests from different providers so as to be exposed to different question styles.