CAT Strat
Comments 15

CAT Preparation: Changing The Default Settings

Every year a lot of young men and women toil away at this thing called CAT preparation. The most sincere and determined ones, come in full of energy and enthusiasm to do whatever it takes to ace this test and get into the hallowed portals of an IIM.

But do they come in with a blank mind ready to understand what this test is all about and attune themselves to it? The answer as we all know is, NO.

A CAT aspirant beginning his prep will be at the least 20 years old, long enough to start the test with a sizeable psychological baggage — a mental make up that stems from one’s experiences and successes with education & tests throughout school & college.

The baggage usually falls into two categories.

The first with respect to one’s ability:

  • I am good at Math since I have got good marks throughout school
  • I hate Math, I can never get my head around it
  • My English should be pretty good, I can speak the language fairly well
  • I am hard-working and sincere but I am not really sure if I am smart enough
  • I come from a vernacular background, so English is anyway going to be an uphill battle
  • I have never really been smart the way my friend/brother/sister is

The second is with respect to the reflex response when faced with a aptitude problem to solve:

  • Duplicating information onto paper as you read a question
  • Trying to solve the question incrementally as you progress reading
  • Trying to recollect the formula or the pattern or a similar problem you have done before

Well, whether your judgement about your ability is correct or faulty is besides the point. It is set against a background that has nothing to do with CAT.

Firstly, throughout school and college, we have primarily been tested on one thing — knowledge, which in turn translates into a test of memory. So being good or bad at school and college Math may not be a good indicator of your ability to crack CAT Math.

Secondly, have we ever been taught to solve problems at school? We are taught concepts, a bunch of formulas and solutions to the problem. Has anyone ever taught us how to approach problem-solving irrespective of the area to which the problem belongs and the concept that it tests? Not really.

For the better part of our school life, we are not taught this.

And the CAT, if anything, is unlike anything you have done in school in terms of what it demands.


The dictionary meaning of the word aptitude can be captured in many words. But the words closest in the way it applies to CAT and other tests such as the GMAT and GRE, are competence, skill & ability.

If you really understand this aspect of it you will realize that knowledge ends up taking a back seat since the competence they are testing is not memory!

What they are testing are your reasoning skills in different contexts — Quantitative, Data, Logical and Verbal.

How does one learn a skill? Or rather what is the building block for any skill or competence? TECHNIQUE.

Any skill be it skipping, cycling, carpentry, stitching, drawing or singing, every skill is based on sound TECHNIQUE — a series of movements executed with accuracy and precision.

In the case of aptitude tests, these movements are mental.

The skill you have to develop is to solve problems, not plug numbers into formulas! To develop this competence you have to consistently follow the steps below.

Read the question once, read the question well

How many times during SimCAT analysis have you found that you could have scored at least 20-30 marks more had you avoided silly mistakes? How many of these mistakes are because of not reading the question properly?

The answer to both questions will be “often” for test-takers stuck in the 70-85 percentile range.

The first and foremost thing that anyone trying to crack an aptitude test has to learn is to read the question well. To do this, you have to get rid of all your reflex responses:

  • Duplicating information on to the paper as you read a question
    • You do not need to write since the information is already there in case you need to refer
    • Copying the information is not taking you closer to the solution
    • Writing is not thinking
  • Trying to solve the question incrementally as you progress reading
    • You never know what is being asked till you reach the end of the problem
    • You start solving as you are reading and then do not read the last part properly, resulting in silly mistakes – LOWER ACCURACY
    • You realize you are not getting anywhere and re-read the problem and get it right on the second try — HIGH AVERAGE TIME
  • Trying to recollect the formula or the pattern or a similar problem you have done before
    • You are not reacting to the question in front of you but to a question from memory
    • You fail to see the small twist in the tale
    • You get another answer, which will be there in the options, and move on thinking you have got it right – LOWER ACCURACY

This initial part is probably the most crucial part of problem-solving.

They are similar to the initial movements of a batsman. The best batsmen in the world, watch the ball, pick up the length and take a clear decisive step forward or back. Reading the question once and reading it well is nothing but keeping the head still and watching the ball and taking a decisive step towards playing it.

How the well the shot is executed completely rests on this initial movement. Those who remember the early days of watching Sachin play would recollect the way Gavaskar used to gush about him — look at the balance, look at the head position, look at how straight the bat comes down. It’s all about technique.

So the first step is to change your default settings, your reflex response in terms of reading the question.

Do  not be on autopilot, solve the question in front of you

Remember you need to think about a new problem in front of you, not reproduce an old one

You need to actively process the information in a problem.

You are not solving a stereotype.

CAT is not R.S.Agarwal. R.S Agarwal is the worst thing that you can do to your aptitude prep.

You end up looking for a type rather than solving the unique question in front of you.

You also end up developing the habit of trying to remember every new question as a type rather than learn an approach.

You end up collecting fish instead of learning to fish.

Let us take the example of a problem to understand this better.

A box contains 6 books on Mathematics, 8 books on Economics, 5 books on History, 4 books on Philosophy and 7 books on Politics. What is the minimum number of books one should take out of the box to ensure that at least one book on each of the five subjects has been picked up?

  1. 27
  2. 5
  3. 23
  4. 29.

The moment they read this test-takers who have been preparing for a while quickly jump to the solution by identifying the type. This is the adding-everything-but-one-subject-and-then-adding-a-one-at-the-end type. So we need to add 4+5+6+7 plus 1 = 23.

But is it really that type?

This question is similar to the pair of socks question —

If they are 12 different pairs of socks, all mixed up in a bag, what is the minimum number of socks one should take out to ensure that you have at least one matching pair?

The keyword is to ensure, that means whatever happens after this you will have a pair.

So one looks at the worst-case scenario that every time one picks out one, it is from a different pair.

So in this way, one can pick up 12 socks, each from a different pair.

The 13th one, when picked up, will definitely form a pair with one of the 12 ones picked previously. So, in this case, the answer is 13.

What you need to remember is the approach and not the type! We looked for the worst-case scenario with the socks, even here we need to look at the worst-case scenario.

The worst-case scenario is when we end up picking maximum books from the same subject before moving on to another subject.

Which subject has the maximum books? Economics with 8.

So we should be starting with that subject and then move on to the next subject with the maximum number of books. So the solution is 8+7+6+5 plus 1 = 27.

This example illustrates the common reason for silly mistakes and low accuracy, the tendency to replicate an old problem rather than adapt the approach to a new problem.

The only way to avoid this is to remember that you are not supposed to be on autopilot but actively solving new problems every second of the 3 hours of test-taking.

This part is similar to the playing of the shot well — play it close to the body, play it right under your eyes.

Your brain  is still plastic, you can still make major improvements

More than all of these, the most important thing to believe is that you can still learn and get better. Sure there were kids at school or in your family who seem to be naturally better at these things but that does not mean that you cannot learn these things.

Different people are good at different things naturally, that does not mean that ONLY they can only do those things. Everyone can learn to get better.

The brain is relatively plastic till age 30. It is only after that it starts hardening and it becomes tougher to learn new things. This is one of the reasons why we find that our parents are sometimes resistant to change and reluctant to pick up new things. At the same time, we find children attending multiple classes at the same time — music, sports and what not — without much difficulty picking up stuff.

So most of you can still very easily improve upon your current levels, provided you are willing to believe that you can learn, provided you are willing to change your default settings.

And it is no wonder that it is Rafa Nadal, maybe the hardest worker on and off the tennis court, who summed it up beautifully — If you don’t feel that you can improve, then you don’t know nothing about life, because nothing is perfect in this life.


  1. Thank you so much Sir for this one! Really insightful post for better strategy and waiting for the analytics like last year, it was simply second to none!


    • Glad you found the post useful.

      Your analytics are going nowhere, you will get them by the second SimCAT 🙂

      All the best!


  2. B Himashree says

    Good Afternoon, Sir
    It’s terrible to learn about the gas leak tragedy in Vizag. Hope this message sees you and your family in good health. Thank You, Sir.


    • Hi Himashree,

      I was based out of Vizag only till the end of my graduation, even my family has now relocated; so, no impact of the gas leak.

      All the best!


  3. Neha says

    Hi Sir,
    I loved your insight and I think you’re right that for most of my education life I have been tested on knowledge rather than skills. Throughout my school life, I have learned to solve questions by the ‘type’ method as you’ve mentioned. A practice of so many years still affects my prep for CAT. How do I unlearn what I have been doing all these years?


  4. Mr1808 says

    CMAT 99.66 percentile with an AIR of 244, do I have a shot at Sydenham MMS/PGDM by DTE cap round 4? I’m a Maharashtra domicile General Category HU guy if that helps


      • Mr1808 says

        A little more room this time because XAT, MAT, ATMA are out of consideration for AI seats in the DTE process, Sir?


      • I don’t think so from what I gather. I know it is an uncertain time but there is no choice but to wait it out.


  5. Anupam says

    I am a 2016 engineering passout. I couldn’t get Tier 1 this year, planning to repeat. Will I be loosing out on Profile due to 5 years gap? I have 3 Years of IT workex and decent acads.


    • Hi Anupam,

      With 5 years of experience, your work-ex will be on the higher side.

      While getting an admission might only be marginally difficult (interviewers might as you why not the 1-year program) you will have issues with respect to recruitment.

      The bulk of the recruiters for a 2-year program visit campuses to hire people in the 0-3 years of work-ex. To recruit candidates for senior roles, they go to ISB and the 1-year programs.

      So given this, the number of roles that will be aligned to your profile out of the total number of roles available at a 2-year program might not be very high.

      So nothing wrong in repeating and you should be able to get good roles in IT with the work-ex.

      You should take the GMAT and apply to good 1-year programs as well just so that you do not put all your eggs into one basket.

      Hope this clarifies,

      All the best!


      • Anupam says

        Would you rather recommend taking admit this year in a decent college for MMS degree? For eg. Welingkar
        Thanks for the advice.


      • That depends on Anupam whether these colleges deliver the outcomes that you want — do the firms you want to work for recruit from these colleges, and do their packages fit your bill — if they do go ahead and join, else look at another shot at 1-year programs.


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