How did CAT Exam transform over the Decade? How does this affect / alter your CAT Exam Preparation Strategy?
At the time of writing this blog post, I have taken 7 out of the last 10 CAT Exams since 2010. Some information might not be 100% accurate due to the number of years between the events happening and being recollected, however, the overall picture should approximately be correct indeed. This is going to be a longish article with lots of vital information. Buckle up for the ride!
Prepared with a Classroom coaching, spent a full year on attending classes. Had loads of classes on DI, LR, Reading Comprehension, Synonyms, Antonyms, Sentence Correction etc. Math was also heavily biased towards number theory and permutation probability. Geometry and algebra followed suit. The rest were arithmetic, tested for the sake of it being part of the paper. Also you could book a slot from across 20 odd days. They decided the morning or afternoon slot, but you could give a date of your own preference.
CAT 2011 & 2012
I did not prepare well for 2011, and have a hazy picture of the exam in general. 2012 was a serious attempt and I remember very clearly having skipped geometry, t’was indeed a bloodbath with a lot of questions appearing from geometry (close to 10 is my guess). I lost my Quant and DI section to that. I should mention at this juncture that I generally suck at math big time, and have a keen sense of aversion for anything related to numbers. Having joined 2IIM for the crash course and had indeed prepared well for CAT 2012, I ended up getting an okayish percentile in that attempt. My Quant score tanked because of reasons mentioned above.
RC Still had some form of vocab, synonyms, sentence correction as a part of the Exam, alongside few LR puzzles (16 questions across 4 puzzles to be precise). Remaining 34 questions out of the 50 were from Reading Comprehension and Verbal Ability.
Similarly the Quant section had 16 questions from DI and the remaining 34 was from Quantitative Aptitude. Also CAT was held in 2 sessions across 20+ days.
I had missed CATs 2013 and 2014 on account of my job in Delhi. Cut to early 2015, I had convinced Rajesh to offer me a job at 2iim and started working as a student counsellor while donning several other roles owing to the fact that there were three employees including Rajesh and me. We all wrote the exam so we know how the exam is, and that helps us help students better. This time the paper was split into 3 sections, but the overall questions, or the number of questions did not change per se, for instance 34 in Quant, 32 in DI and LR put together and 34 in VARC stayed the same. But they were split into 34, 32 and 34 questions into 3 sub sections, each lasting an hour.
Somewhere between 2012 and 2015 the sections had split into 3 from 2 sections which lasted 90 minutes each.
CAT 2015 also started off the trend where the distinction between DI and LR started converging.
CAT 2015 was held in a single day, across 2 slots (Morning and evening).
I had joined my MBA from IITM in 2016 and passed out in 2018. I came back to 2IIM to run the business with Rajesh. Once again CAT threw a curveball, and we had a super tough Quant section. This is what Rajesh said post the exam:
The story of CAT 2018 was the level of difficulty of the Quant section. I (Rajesh Balasubramanian) have taken 8 of the last 10 CATs and I can confidently say that this was the toughest Quant section I have seen thus far.
Quant was onerous; every question was multi-layered and time-consuming. To give a comparison with CAT 2017, I would estimate that a score of 60-65% of the corresponding 2017 score would fetch the same percentile.
VARC was similar to 2017 in terms of difficulty level. Between 2015 and 2018 somewhere VARC section changed from having 16 RC questions (from 4 passages) started having 24/34 questions in VARC were from RC. About a 50% increase in the number of VARC Questions in the CAT Exam.
Quant was easier than 2018 but far tougher than the levels seen in 2017, 2016 or 2015. It had a much much tougher VARC Section. Let us again hear it in Rajesh’s own words.
The elephant in the room was VARC. The passages were tough, the questions reveled in double-negatives.
The RC section was relentless. Passages were non-obvious, choices were long, quite a few had 2 close choices and we had to read and re-read the choices all the time. Our reading is that the overall error rate in VARC is going to be much higher than it has been for a while. Too many questions had ‘weaken the argument’, ‘support the author’s beliefs’ – on a couple of occasions, we couldn’t even sure what the author’s position was. Attempting a lot of questions might not be the prudent strategy in this section.
CAT VARC went to the next level with CAT 2019.
DILR was comparable to the previous years. Quant was similar or slightly easier than the previous year. VARC stole the show. Completely. Comprehensively.
CAT 2020 was odd, because of Covid and lockdown restrictions. Due to seating capability restrictions, two slots of CAT Exam became 3 slots. 3 hour exam was changed to 2 hours. Each section was respectively cut down to fit a 40 minute testing window (or so it was told).
Quant section had 26 questions. VARC also had 26 questions. DILR had 24 questions, adding up to 76 questions. In the DILR Section there were 2 sets with 6 questions each, and 3 sets with 4 questions each. In the VARC section there were 18 questions from the RCs and 8 from Verbal Ability. Within the verbal ability section, there were 3 para jumble questions, pick the odd questions and para summaries (3 and 2).
In addition to the overall paper being different and weird due to Covid and time changes, DILR was super tough compared to the other years.
With this we have a decade’s worth of experience with CAT. Now how do we put it to good use to help us find a good CAT Exam Prep Strategy? Let us find the overarching themes across the decade first.
CAT Exam pattern:
The overall CAT Exam pattern has stayed almost the same, with about 100 questions, and about 3 hours remaining the same. However, the nuanced changes are through demerging of DI and Math, and LR and VARC section into 3 sections. Previously students can hide under Quant if they were not great at computing Data. Likewise, if someone was strong in Verbal, even if they were not good at solving logical puzzles, they can still get away with it. Somewhere it changed. It was separated into a separate DILR Section to make sure, people could not hide under their strengths and let go of Data analysing or Logical thinking ability.
As a structural / administrative change, CAT stopped from conducting the test across 20 odd days, and go through the pain of normalization across several days and 2x slots. From 2015 CAT became a single day exam, likely the last sunday of November, across 2 slots, morning and afternoon. This is more cosmetic, and is not very relevant to cat prep in my point of view.
Changes across the years and CAT EXAM Prep Strategy
The first big change started with DILR. And that happened in two parts. First part was merging DILR into one section, the second was removing the distinction between DI and LR Puzzles. From 2015, DILR became super tricky. I remember one conversation where we had guessed about 24 questions correct would fetch a 95th percentile in DILR (based on 2014 paper), later I scored about 98th percentile by answering 16 questions right. Such was the difficulty level.
It was not just about the difficulty level, but also about the type of puzzles tested. Prior to 2015, puzzles were standard. You learnt a family tree here, a grid puzzle there, a tournament based puzzle here and there and you practiced loads of similar puzzles and you were good to go. Not anymore. Likewise DI tested hardcore computational skills before this, and I believe the removal of this computing skills was taken care by introduction of an on screen calculator in CAT, and that also made the DI puzzles to be less challenging from a computation point of view.
Up until 2014 if you had practiced all the standard template puzzles well, and did loads of manual computation, you were good to go. But not anymore. In my opinion, that was the first big change in this decade of CAT.
IIMCAT made gaming the DILR section close to impossible, at least that was the focus/target.
Also mathematical shortcuts, tricks to multiply, divide, take root of, all of that was helpful prior to this era of DILR. But in this new age CAT, it is really not of any help to your Common CAT Aspirant. This means a lot of change to your CAT Exam Prep Strategy, especially DILR as you need to look at the solution / puzzle through the eyes of the puzzle setter, and not just solve 80 different types of puzzles. If you solve 100 different puzzles, CAT Exam is ready with 101 to 108th puzzles in your Exam.
If CAT 2021 will also continue to be a 40 minute DILR paper, then Puzzle selection becomes everything in the DILR Selection.
First big change in VARC was demerging with LR so people who were strong in Logical Reasoning could not get away with solving simpler questions in the Verbal section. The next big change was when the Reading Comprehension became 150% of what it was before. This meant the other parts were de-emphasized. Vocab based questions were thrown out of the window and reading and reading based questions took the center stage. The VA questions are indirectly based on reading too. The final change happened in 2019 where the questions started becoming more double negatives, critical reasoning, and having longish statements and super close options in 2019.
All these changes point to building a good reading habit in the long run, and rewarding that appropriately. There was no quick fix available. You could not memorise a bunch of words (Text completion, word usage, Synonyms, Antonyms), understand and remember a bunch of grammar rules (Sentence error/corrections, Grammar based questions) and get a good score / percentile in the Verbal section.
Now all you need is a long standing great reading habit. You should check out Bharath’s reading list, if you haven’t already. You will need to clock about 400 hours of reading to get to the level of CAT VARC Section. This is a critical change in your CAT Exam Prep strategy for VARC.
Some Important Myths in VARC Prep Strategy
Memorising 1000’s of words using GRE word list is useful. Reading Word power made easy is super useful. Using Wren and Martin to understand and learn Grammar is super useful. Having a reading speed of 400 wpm is great.
All the aforementioned things, standalone are good practices, but in the context of CAT does not help you get a better percentile. If anything, you need to understand the words in the context and do not need to know the exact meanings, understanding the structure of the statement is enough than understanding the underlying grammar.
Similar to the Other two sections, demerger was the first step in evaluating math skills better. Then came the de-emphasizing of Number theory and Permutation and Probability. Tougher, obscure, but can use my mathematical intuition to solve questions are now not available. Same goes for tricks and shortcuts based Quant questions. Since 2019, the emphasis is even more on Arithmetic. In 2015 arithmetic questions took you to 80th percentile. Now in 2020, arithmetic can take you close to 92nd percentile. That is such an enormous growth in contribution to the final percentile. The questions are not straight forward, have some twists and turns, but they can’t be fixed with shortcuts.
CAT Quant has started testing the understanding of the subject underneath a question rather than just the mathematical intuition. For people who suck at math in general (like me) or non engineers (self proclaimed math weak aspirants) this is a big step in normalizing and making a level playing field. Mathematical intuition is an art. Similar to singing or dancing, not everyone is blessed with the skills, or have the opportunity to develop it. If you are not one amongst the blessed one’s, do not fret, CAT is there to rescue you. The better your understanding of ideas underlying arithmetic questions, better your chances of a great CAT Quant percentile. Your entire Quant CAT Exam prep strategy is based on the idea of understanding well, practicing a lot, taking enough mocks for topics in the following order:
4. Modern Math
Some Important Myths in Quant Prep Strategy
Speed math is super critical, knowing shortcuts are the best way to nail CAT exam. It is not true. If anything, for someone who is naturally strong at math, shortcuts might indeed be helpful. But if your foundation is not great, but you are trying to build a super tall building called shortcuts and tricks, the house of cards will fall sooner than later. Watch the following video to understand more about this.
Should I Prepare for CAT?
Yes, You should. If anything the exam has levelled the field for most CAT Aspirants over the years. Though it could have happened consciously or otherwise, I want to believe that this is a conscious move in the right direction. This makes CAT Exam Prep strategy to be very straightforward.
By doing all that CAT has did in the last decade or so, they have made it more approachable exam. Learn your basics, do the grind, take loads of mocks, and expect the unexpected. If you follow these 4 steps religiously, then you are indeed good to take on CAT!
Game of mind?
CAT also has become a game of the mind. The temperamentally sound are usually better going through excruciating levels of anxiety and nervousness, and still have their head over their shoulders, and grit through this exam. The lesser pressure one takes into the exam, better the results are. Also the Score Vs Percentile keeps changing across sections year after year, where there is no right benchmark available, nor is any predictions good enough. So if you feel let down (for eg, 1 puzzle is 2019 DILR would have been a crime, but a fantastic percentile in 2020) and then moving on to the next section, and nailing it, irrespective of how you feel from the previous section is another important deciding factor in this exam.
One Critical Idea for your CAT Exam Prep Strategy
One last Super important thing to remember is that, it is very very very likely for the CAT to throw a curveball and surprise the Aspirant. This is one thing that has not changed over the decade of CAT exams that I have taken. So “expect the unexpected” should be your mantra, and prepare for dealing with the uncertainty that this exam can throw at you.
Have your wits with you, Signup for a good CAT Companion (if you feel you need one), spend about 400+ hours, prepare well, practice well, test yourself well, Nail CAT Exam!
Abhishek Mukherjee works for 2IIM. Apart from solving interesting math questions he likes to eat biriyani and watch movies.