How to prepare for the VA section of the CAT

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CAT Strat / Motivation / Verbal Strat

When I took my first CAT paper, an actual CAT from the paper-based days, I felt I could easily crack the test. One of the big reasons for this was my outsized ability on the Verbal Ability section. By the time I wrote my first CAT Mock I had been reading three magazines a week for more than 6 years, had a vocabulary wide enough to crack the GRE without preparing for it and a question solving speed of about 1 minute per question. Even on last year’s CAT I needed only 30 minutes to finish the Verbal section. On the GMAT the time is marginally higher — 54 minutes for 41 questions to score the maximum on the Verbal Section.

Given this it is not easy for me to lay out a prep plan for the VA section of the CAT since I might not be aware of the specific comprehension problems faced by most test-takers.

But what I do know that despite my abilities I did practice a lot of Verbal Ability for my first attempt. Despite having high-speed and accuracy I was still looking at ways to get better.

In this post I will look at the skills you need to develop to crack the CAT Verbal depending on the level you are at.


How to prep for Reading Comprehension – Measure Yourself

Firstly, you cannot ace the Verbal section unless you are good at RC as long as the Verbal Section is a stand-alone section and not paired with LR like it was in CAT 2012, 13 and 14 where test-takers could get away with being poor at RC if they were good at LR.

So to start off you need to figure what your current reading & comprehension speed is.
I suggest you take this reading test on this site. I feel the numbers they have given to classify ability are on the higher side and are most relevant to native speakers of the language.

Since the passage is followed by 11 questions (most of which are detail questions), a comprehension ability of 60% or above is good. Below this level of comprehension you definitely need to read at a slower pace than at which you read.

So at a comprehension speed of 60% or above, your reading speed in terms of relevance for the CAT and other exams is

  • EXCELLENT if it is 300 WPM or above
  • VERY GOOD if it is 250 WPM or above
  • ABOVE AVERAGE if it is 200 WPM or above
  • AVERAGE if it is 150 WPM or above
  • BELOW AVERAGE if it is 100 WPM or above
  • POOR if it is 75 WPM or below

Reading Comprehension is a skill

Of all the question types posed on various aptitude tests, RC is one which is purely a skill with no knowledge required. All other question types require some knowledge before one can attempt a question, with Vocabulary questions being the one’s that need least skill and maximum knowledge.

Developing any skill requires only thing – practice, practice and more practice till one becomes a master.

The best analogy to understand this is the one about learning to drive a car. The what and how of it you can be told in 15 minutes flat. The driving school guy will finish off with you in a week or a fortnight. But between then and becoming an expert there lie miles and miles of real-life driving practice.

The initial days can be horrible and my own car is testimony to what I put it through (I learnt to drive the car after my dad bought a car with no one knowing how to drive!)

One needs to drive through crazy traffic, in cities where people abide by the rules, in cities where people drive as if the rules do not exist, in heavy rain, at night without street-lighting, and sometimes all of these out together. One needs to do all of this with good speed and control.

Mastering RC is no different. So there is no way other way to get better at RC other than by reading a lot and by practicing a lot of RC sets.

But depending on your reading speed, each of you might need different to do different things to a different extent.

200 WPM and above – If your current reading speed with a comprehension of 60% is 200 WPM or higher then what you need is just a lot of RC practice. You need not spend time to read editorials specifically for RC (you can read them just for GK) since what you need is test-specific application. You can find out how many RCs you need to practice in this post. Another thing you should try after hitting good accuracy levels is to deliberately read at a pace faster than your normal pace and see if you can still maintain your comprehension (that was I did to take my skill to the next level since we had no sectional time-limits and I wanted to push my RC skill to the limit by pushing the speed till the pedal hit the floor)

150 WPM and above – You need to do a bit of extensive reading for a while. I would suggest using the Reading List I outlined in this post to pick two books to finish within a month for the next two months or read any four books that you have been planning to read over the next two months, along with practicing RCs. I hope at this reading speed you do not plan to read Mr.Bhagat or any young Indian romantic fiction authors, the books are good neither for your RC prep nor for your mental development.

Below 150 WPM – You have to read 3 editorials a day from the Hindu or Indian Express (I do not know if what they publish in TOI on weekdays can be called editorials any more) and do 3 RCs a day. It will be a long drawn out process so I cannot really say for how long you should be doing both of these; I suppose till the XAT is done!


Invest time in building a Vocabulary

One the big mistakes that test-takers can make when preparing for Verbal Ability is to have a very narrow test-based focus. By this I mean preparing only for question types that appear on the CAT. For example, CAT no longer tests vocabulary so you might feel that there is no point wasting time learning so many words.

I feel this is counter-productive since tests such as IIFT and XAT have vocab-based questions. These questions yield the highest MARKS PER MINUTE since they are purely knowledge-based and more importantly they free up time to attempt the maximum number of questions from the other sections. Also you would not want to miss the sectional overall cut-off on a test just because of not knowing the meaning of a word or two.

The other thing to consider is the fact that CAT RCs themselves might have tough words that might deter your comprehension.

Investing in building a vocabulary is always good for the longer term since there are few skills that can beat great articulation ability in terms of their impact on long-term professional success in interviews as well as presentations.

One does not need to always use highfalutin words in real-life but one still needs to able to use words with the right connotation — if you use the word “mediocre” to mean “medium”, you might be misunderstood since more often than not it has a negative connotation to indicate something below par.

So everyone preparing for the CAT and other exams should invest 15 minutes a day to build their vocabulary using all or few following tools:

CAT100Percentile – Vocab Posts
Word Power Made Easy by Norman Lewis
All About Words by Nurnberg and Rosenbaum

So just do this, 15 mins of vocab a day and you will put yourself in a much better position with respect to achieving high scores across tests.


Solve enough VR sets

Another area that gets a bit neglected is Verbal Reasoning with most test-takers devoting so much time to Quant that they solve Verbal Reasoning questions only on tests and that too not using any specific strategy but using that slippery thing called intuition.

So make it a point to start VR by first reading through the strategies outlined in the IMS book and then practicing regularly, you should finish the IMS VR book and the area tests pertaining to VR.


90-120 minutes of regular practice will drive your Verbal Blues away

So based on the above plan all you would need to do is schedule Verbal practice sessions along the following lines:

– 15 mins of Vocabulary Building
– 45 minutes of practicing 3 RC passages with analysis
– 30 minutes of Verbal Reasoning practice

If you do this every day, in addition to whatever reading I have suggested depending on your current ability, then you can rest assured that your Verbal scores will improve.

Those who are in the EXCELLENT, GOOD and ABOVE AVERAGE categories can execute this practice session very alternate day.


A plan is only as good as its execution

The plan above is not something out of this world, it is something that most of you would know, like what we know about health and fitness — exercise regularly, eat right (fruits, vegetables and nuts), do yoga & meditation , get good sleep, have alcohol in moderation and avoid smoking.

But a plan is only as good as its execution. Even the most simplest plans executed with diligence can yield some results, in comparison with the best laid plans that stay on the shelf, so get cracking.

I had taken that reading speed test myself — it was 440 WPM and I got 8 out of the 11 questions right.

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