This post is about “how to handle pressure effectively” and why handling pressure well during CAT increases your CAT score beyond imagination/expectations, and is based on a real life story 😉.
I took CAT in 2010, 2011, 2012 & 2015 (later in 2018 as well).
First Attempt at CAT
My first shot was a full-fledged, one year of classroom training, final-year-student-has-lots-of-time-to-prepare attempt. Scored 85th percentile overall with decent sectional scores. I did prepare well, competing with my classmates from engineering. Was never expecting anything in the high 90’s. Though the score did disappoint me a bit.
Second feeble attempt
Second attempt was when I had entered corporate life. I was in a tough job that drained me completely. Went into the exam with one evening of revisiting formulae, with no conscious reading prior to that. Scored 66th percentile. I did not expect to get a great score to be honest. I did apply and write, because I did want to not lose out on an opportunity to attempt this exam.
My Best Attempt
The third attempt was my best shot at CAT. Prepared with help of another CAT coaching center. Was still in the same Job and had enormous pressure to perform. This was my “ticket to glory”, way out of the job etc. Got a middling 89th percentile. I also remember that I had spent a good 15 minutes inside the exam with a brain freeze. It was completely due to the enormous pressure I added into the system. In 2012, CAT was 90 minutes each across Quant & DI and VARC & LR sections (erstwhile CAT had only 2 sections).
I did get calls from 6 new IIMs, NITIE, IIM Indore through CAT 2012. Converted all six new IIMs and NITIE. Didn’t attempt Indore interview due to personal reasons. Did not take up any of the colleges (later in 2016, did my MBA from IITM, based on CAT 2015 attempt). Fast forward to Feb 2015, got an opportunity to work with 2IIM Chennai. I had wanted to be in the educational space for a long time. Once the opportunity came, I couldn’t have refused it even if I wanted to.
Preparation for CAT 2015
I started taking classes for CAT, TANCET and XAT. Taught basic classes in Quant. I did not really prepare for CAT Quant. Reading became a part of my everyday schedule. Read vigorously during the last three months prior to CAT. On any given day, I spent considerable time on three different books. My reading schedule comprised one Fiction, one spiritual/non fiction, and old editions of economist. Learnt DI from 2IIMs Online Course. LR was my favourite part in CAT. Did not prepare at all. Took one mock the Monday before CAT.
Fortunately (or unfortunately as others might call it), got CAT exam center allotted in Pondicherry (I am from Chennai. Pondicherry is about 170 kms from Chennai). Everyone else I knew had their exam centre in Chennai. Went on a biking trip on Nov 29th. It was two days before the infamous Chennai floods. Had a raincoat, waterproof bag and a Royal Enfield! Reached Pondicherry, happily riding through rain. My CAT exam was in the afternoon slot. I had a pleasant time talking to parents who were waiting on their kids attempting CAT in the morning slot. We spoke on B schools, CAT training, and several other related topics.
Inside CAT Exam hall
I went in completely relaxed and happy. Slept inside the exam hall between 1.15 and 1.50 pm. Exam began at 2.00 pm.
Verbal section was okay-ish. I always used to have doubts between last 2 options. This time, surprisingly, very few questions ended in a coin toss (4 to be precise). Had ten minutes to spare at the end of the session. Thoroughly checked through all questions and unmarked 4 doubtful questions.
Then came the nightmarish DI LR. Spent 5 minutes going through all questions. Couldn’t decide if any question was doable. Time pressure started. So had to start somewhere. Fifteen minutes (overall 20 minutes) into Data interpretation questions, I had completed only one set. Next ten minutes went nowhere. It was already 30 minutes, and I had to start Logical reasoning. Took two puzzles, solved them completely in 22 minutes. Had 8 minutes remaining. Wanted to try my luck at a Non mcq based DI puzzle. Did all 4 in that set. In total 16 questions. What started as a nightmare had actually ended pretty well.
I had close to zero preparation for Quants, hence could attempt 13 questions (all from the topics I was used to teaching). Any questions that I noticed on Number theory, Geometry or Permutation Probability was ruthlessly ignored.
Attempts vs Score and Percentile
In total I attempted 57 questions (28+16+13). My guess from normalised scores is that 22 questions right (with 18 in RC), All 16 right in DI LR, and 10 correct answers in Quants. Overall scaled score is 144.55 and percentile is 95.1.
VA-RC – 95.26 Percentile , DI-LR – 97.66 Percentile, QA – 79.21 Percentile.
Key Takeaway on how to Handle Pressure
The takeaway from this experience is that, removing pressure off the thoughts play an enormous role in scoring well. I had exposure to how CAT looked and felt from my prior attempts, however the most serious attempts had that element of pressure built in to the system. There were times when I went into exam hall after eating Munch/Perk, expecting them to kick in after sometime so that I would get sugar rush. But without all that elaborate planning and expectations, the exam felt more enjoyable. I believe even Rajesh would reiterate the same.
Sometimes it is very tough to be result agnostic. We are all humans, and do end setting up lots of expectations on the outcomes. One way to reduce the expectations (thereby reducing the pressure on the D-Day) is to focus on Input metrics compared to Output metrics.
Input Vs Output
If you are not scoring well in your mocks, tell yourself that you will scramble for time, read aggressively everyday, practice few hundred questions and will take 3 mocks in the next week and a half. Do not set outcome expectations that look like the following: I want to cross 85th percentile in the next mock and 90th in the following mock. Fix factors that are well under your control (in this case, input metrics).
Sense of Joy
The sense of Joy, lets you enjoy the exam better than taking it under enormous pressure. I know it is incredibly tough to remove all pressure when you are taking a competitive exam. More you learn to handle pressure, better the outcomes are. Taking lots of mock tests to condition yourself to handle pressure better, helps your CAT Scores. It is vital to de-emphasize the pressure aspects as much as possible and to enjoy both the preparation and the exam-taking part as much as possible. All the best for CAT.
Abhishek Mukherjee works for 2IIM. Apart from solving interesting math questions he likes to eat biriyani and watch movies.