If there is anything that has the potential to upset the confidence of the maximum number of the CAT aspirants in any given year, then it would be the very mention of ‘Quantitative Ability’. This area of the CAT has, over the years, managed to evoke a formidable image in the minds of most serious aspirants vying for admission into one of the prestigious IIMs or some of the other top MBA colleges in the country. As we delve into the details of how to tame this monster of an area, let us first try to get a perspective on what exactly QA is all about and how it is relevant for an exam like the CAT.
To begin with, we need to understand that the name ‘Quantitative’ Ability can more appropriately be thought of as ‘Problem Solving’ Ability, something which, intuitively at least, everyone of us can relate to, without having to conjure up a gory mental image of complicated mathematical formulas, abstruse equations and a scratch paper that looks more like a mini battlefield, albeit doused with ink!
Yes, problem solving is something we all do, most of the time, the only exception being we use facts, common sense and our judgment instead of mathematical formulas, concepts and equations.
Now, the kind of expertise an exam like the CAT requires when it talks of Quantitative Ability, is very unlike the dry, academic and vague kind, which one would have encountered in their bulky mathematics text books during their school days and perhaps even later.
The questions featured in an exam like the CAT are mostly application-oriented and test one’s grasp of the fundamentals in areas like arithmetic and algebra and, more importantly, one’s ability to use information/concepts in an integrated manner, i.e., questions can sometimes be based on more than one topic and need a combination of concepts to crack them. For example, a question may simultaneously involve concepts of both ‘Geometry’ and ‘Time & Distance’. The questions usually do not get very technical in terms of the concepts but they are definitely challenging in terms of the manner in which one can
- comprehend the information or the circumstances given in the problem
- correlate them to known concepts, and then
- find the solution to the problem.
The third aspect, i.e., the actual solving process, is rarely lengthy or complicated and it is the first two aspects that are the most critical to cracking the QA section in an exam like the CAT.
Now the next logical question one would have is, ‘How important is it that I know Quantitative Ability well?’ or, more directly put, ‘What is the weightage given to Quantitative Ability in the CAT?’
The exact weightage of this area in the various management entrance exams varies between one-fourth to one-third of the total marks. The CAT, for more than a decade now, has accorded close to one-third weightage to Quantitative Ability.
Most of the premier institutes have a cut-off for the QA section of the CAT that could be as high as 85 percentile or more. Given the fact that QA is a separate section by itself, one really has to manage a decent performance in QA (i.e., figure among the top 10 to 15 per cent of the test-takers in terms of their overall score in the QA section) to ensure that one clears the sectional cutoff to qualify for the next stage of the selection process. Intimidating as this may appear, it is in fact not as bad as it looks.
After having, thus far, gained an appreciation of what exactly QA in the CAT is all about, we will now be looking at what exactly it takes to manage a good performance in this area. We will focus on some tips on getting the right perspective and maintaining the right mindset during your preparation for QA, a broad plan of action for the coming months, some tips for preparation and a few test taking strategies for maximising your performance during the actual exam.
Overall Approach and Attitude
With just a few months to go for the CAT 2017, there is just enough time for you to lay down a good foundation for yourself in QA and then to go on to build a sound strategy for tackling it in the CAT with a view to maximise your performance.
To begin with, you would already have started the ground work required in terms of covering some of the basics in the classroom and also practicing the concepts at home. If you are not doing either of these, then you are either not serious about your CAT prep OR you are probably new to the CAT and are planning for a serious attempt in the next year or two – in which case, I would seriously recommend that you enroll yourself for a structured training programme, keeping in mind the tremendous competition you would be facing.
However, if you are actually targeting this year’s CAT but are not feeling very excited about it and are not putting in any proper effort toward it, then to begin with, I suggest you do some serious ‘soul searching’ until you find your purpose and motivation to move ahead.
What follows is a suggested approach that you could take to ensure that your mind stays focused and tuned-in and your preparation is optimised for maximum efficiency and effectiveness.
Develop a Sense of Purpose
Have you ever tried accomplishing a task, especially something not very easy or something that does not come naturally to you, without really being fully convinced as to why it was necessary for you? Well, let me tell you that to have to do something that you are not really convinced about, in other words, something that you do not have a sense of purpose for, is amongst the most difficult things one could ever endeavor to accomplish.
The key point to note is that the real difficulty does not lie in the task itself; rather it lies in your lack of motivation and clarity as to what the task really means to you. They say, you can drag a horse to the water but you cannot make it drink! I do not mean to say that someone else has dragged you into preparing for the CAT (or did they?!) but what I mean to say is that you should not be so lacking in motivation that you end up dragging yourself (figuratively speaking) into preparing for the CAT, in this case, more specifically into preparing for QA.
Of course, if the horse itself is thirsty then no one needs to even drag it to the water in the first place, for it will not only find the water on its own but will also not lose a moment in quenching its thirst. So you need to develop a thirst for learning and mastering QA. This is especially true for those who do not consider themselves to be very good at QA, those with non-math background and those with a phobia of anything that is even remotely related to QA! Now, if you do not happen to fall into any of the above types of people then you must be already good at math, if not a complete math-freak outright. However, even for such of you, what is required is to put your QA preparation in perspective and to visualise how it will help you achieve some of your greatest ambitions in life, or at least in your professional life. Now, you need to see and appreciate the big picture and understand that the primary purpose of all this hard work and prep is to help you crack the CAT and make it to a top b-school. This, in turn, will be a great spring board from where to launch your career, for which only the sky would then be the limit! Besides this you need to internalise the fact that a sharp and analytical mind with good problem solving skills (not always QA problems) is a great asset in real life, be it the corporate world or personal life. Working out QA problems and practicing good quality questions is a great way to flex those otherwise atrophying grey cells of ours – let’s admit it, most of us get away in life using only a fraction of our mental capacity – and develop a sharp and incisive mind that can see through to the core of the problems we come across, be it real life issues or just business and numbers related. All these advantages should help you to regularly keep yourself motivated and maintain a sense of purpose that will drive your preparation and keep you going through those tough times of doubt and despair, which are bound to come in more than once over the next few months.
Let Commitment and Hard Work
be your Fuel
Thomas Alva Edison, one of the greatest inventors in history, once said: “The three great essentials to achieve anything worthwhile are, first, hard work; second, stick-to-it-iveness; third, common sense.” Now, I want to emphasise the importance of commitment and hard work when you set out to accomplish something.
Commitment is believing in something and the willingness to single-mindedly devote yourself to whatever it takes to accomplishing it.
Hard work, in turn, can be thought of as the actual hours that you will put in and all the midnight oil that needs to be burnt. Depending on where your skill levels in QA stand, you will need to proportionately plan for anywhere between one to two hours per day toward your QA preparation. If making time every day is not feasible for you, then you should at least plan for one or two marathon sessions of four hours or more on the weekends. Also, resolve not to get distracted or lose focus during your study time, for an ill-focused study time cannot really help you to learn and build on your concepts. You will only end up studying fruitlessly, in a fragmented manner, just because you have to and most likely end up frustrated with it all.
Also, attend as many of your classes as you can and do not miss out on them without proper reason. Ensure that you regularly practice at home whatever you learn in the classroom. This kind of commitment and hard work will definitely multiply your chances of fulfilling your ambitions of making it to an IIM, or at least one of the other top b-schools, manifold.
Be Confident and Persevere
The second thing that Edison had mentioned, i.e., stick-to-it-iveness, can, in other words, be understood as perseverance. Edison himself was one of the most unsuccessful of inventors before he turned into the most successful. In one of his attempts, where he was trying to improvise on the light bulb, he is said to have failed more than a thousand times before he could succeed!
The reason I mention this is that since the AIMCAT season is now underway, you may, from time to time, encounter some stark and not so encouraging reviews (read AIMCAT results) of your levels of preparedness, and along with that are bound to come moments of despair and discouragement. When that happens, my advice for you is not to look upon it as a portent of doom but to rather take it positively, in your stride, as honest, and more importantly, valuable feedback and an opportunity to identify your weak areas and to improve your level of preparation.
The importance of persevering despite seemingly insurmountable difficulties cannot be overemphasised. Persevering in times of hardships and seeming failures is the hallmark of successful people. Remember what Oliver Goldsmith said: “Our greatest glory consists not in failing, but in rising up every time we fall”.
The point to be noted is that the only aspect that is under your control in a competitive exam like the CAT is your own performance and maximising it is what is required, without letting the competition discourage you. Remember that the competition (reflected in terms of poor percentiles in your AIMCATs), is your enemy only on the D-Day and on every other occasion before that the competition is actually your best friend and your failures, your sure stepping stones to success! So you need to keep your confidence levels high and spirits soaring till you achieve what you’ve set out to.
Prefer Quality over Quantity
The third aspect that Edison mentioned, i.e., common sense, can in this case, be understood as the quality of your effort. Quality of preparation is something that is really underrated by many CAT aspirants. But in fact, the real difference between a serious aspirant with high chances of cracking the CAT and other aspirants who end up as also-rans is quality, i.e., smart work rather than mere hard work; for many work hard but only a few work smart. We all know the famous proverb that says that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results qualifies as insanity. So when you are putting in hours of commitment into your preparation every week, then you must ensure that you are spending those hours in the right manner. Many students just ‘complete’ all the study material that they can lay their hands on and then are out on a perennial search for more practice material, only to rush through it and ‘finish’ it as soon as they can get hold of it! This is probably the most unproductive way of spending your precious time.
The learning lies not in solving as many questions as you can but in maximising your understanding from each question that you solve. You need to dissect and analyse each question that you solve, especially the more difficult ones, so that you may understand the nuances of the topic and improve your skill and knowledge.
It also helps to revisit your exercises and test papers, a few weeks or months after you first cover them, to pore over them afresh and see if you remember the previous take-aways and also if there are any new ones that you may glean from them. You need to try to figure out alternative approaches to solving the same questions, develop an ability to identify patterns / peculiarities in solving different models of questions and identify steps / concepts where you tend to falter often and fix them. Also, it is advisable to discuss your approaches with faculty or friends and see if you missed anything. The quality aspect of your preparation is so critical that it may in fact make or break your chances of success.
Pacing your Preparation
Let us now look at a broad, month wise study plan, using which you can pace yourself over for the coming months.
Basic Study Material: Your Basic Study Material covers the basics and practice exercises for all the topics in QA relevant for the CAT. Ensure that you work out the exercises for each topic that is covered in class. In fact, you would have already covered most of the topics in class with only a few topics to go. Aim to finish the basics of all the topics by end of August.
QATs: For each topic covered in class, work out the QAT related to it.
Online Practice Tests: Work out all the basic level QA sectional tests available on your student home page related to the topics which you have covered in class. Also work out some of the intermediate level tests that are available.
AIMCATs: Take the AIMCATs that are conducted every week, without fail. For each AIMCAT taken, ensure that you assess and analyse your performance in QA giving yourself sufficient time for this purpose.
Basic Study Material: Complete any remaining topics that you may not have completed yet.
QATs and TGs: Work out the QATs related to the remaining topics and the Test Groups.
Online Practice Tests: Complete all the basic and intermediate level QA sectional tests available on the student home page. Work out at least a few of the advanced level tests also.
Advanced level SM (101712): Start working out some of the exercises from the SM.
AIMCATs: Continue to take the AIMCATs regularly, always following up with proper analysis of your performance.
Advanced level SM (101712): Continue to work out the exercises from the SM.
Online Practice Tests: Work out more of the advanced level tests.
AIMCATs: Continue to take the AIMCATs regularly. In the second week of October, do a comprehensive, topic-wise review of all the QA questions of the AIMCATs that you have taken so far.
Advanced level SM (101712): Try to complete all the exercises from the SM.
Online Practice Tests: Work out the remaining advanced level tests.
AIMCATs: Continue to take the AIMCATs regularly. In the first week of November, do a comprehensive, topic-wise review of all the QA sections of the AIMCATs that you have taken since your last review.
CAT: Crack the CAT!
Test Taking Tips
Finally, let us look at some test-taking tips for maximising your scores during tests.
When it comes to a test-taking approach, one of the most important aspects you should remember is that there will always be a certain number of direct or simple questions in the QA section that are easy and doable, and identifying and cracking such questions is a major part of the challenge. Here are some practical tips that will help you during the exam time.
First, be disciplined and focussed in your approach, as it will help you maintain a cool head and give you much required control and confidence during the CAT. Often, a lack of discipline is the greatest negative factor that could pull down one’s performance.
Second, remember that there are no marks for trying and neither are there any extra marks for solving more difficult questions. Hence, make sure you do not waste your time on questions that seem either difficult or unfamiliar – you can always return to such questions, time permitting.
When you are tackling the QA section, approach the questions in a group wise manner. This means that you first read through a group of four to five QA questions at a time, by using the ‘next’ and ‘previous’ buttons in the online interface, before actually delving into any of them. This will help you choose the right question(s) to attempt, and thereby help you optimise your time and number of attempts. Out of about five questions, consider attempting just around two or three questions. Consider attempting more only if you find them really easy.
Also, while attempting any question, first put down all the given information in a structured manner, after which you will be in a position to decide whether you can proceed further or whether you should leave that question and move on. Try to check for alternative approaches like elimination/substitution of choices, which often save a lot of time and pay rich dividends. These can be mastered only through practice. Further, an important aspect of the CAT is the on-screen calculator provided during the test. While the utility of the calculator in a section like QA would be much less when compared to a section like DILR, there may still be some questions where using the calculator would help save time, if not completely solve them. In order to make the most of the features, you should ensure that you get enough practice with it.
You should also actively mark questions for review, if you think that you may be able to solve them with some more effort, so that, time permitting, you could come back to look at them. This way, you would be working through the 34 QA questions in around seven groups of about five questions each. And each group should take you about 5 to 6 minutes, on an average, thereby completing one round of the section in 35 to 40 minutes. And by then you would have attempted anywhere from 14 to 18 questions already, with at least another 20 minutes or so to return to the questions marked for review. In fact, this strategy of managing about 15 to 20 minutes of spare time will work wonders for you if you implement it well, wherein the extra time at the end could also bring another 8 to 10 questions into play.
At the end of the day, you need to remember that a level- and cool-headed approach will make all the difference. So, give it your best and do not worry too much about the result, at least not while you are taking the exam!
Best wishes from all of us at T.I.M.E.!
The QA questions featured in the CAT are mostly application-oriented
and test one’s grasp of the fundamentals.
The real difficulty does not lie in the task itself; rather it lies in your lack of
motivation and clarity as to what the task really means to you.
Depending on where your skill levels in QA stand, you will need to proportionately
plan for anywhere between one to two hours per day toward your QA
The quality aspect of your preparation is so critical that it may in fact make or break your chances of success.