CAT Strat
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How to prepare for a CAT retake – Part I

Most of the institutes have given out their calls (or at least most of you know your chances) and many of you might be planning to retake the CAT. For some of you, it might be a case of almost getting there but missing out because of one poor section or just missing out on the overall percentile. For others, the CAT-day might have been a bad day at the office and you knew straight away that nothing much was going to happen. On my first attempt, I fell into the latter group — I knew I was out of my depth when I saw the Quant paper, there was no way I was going to clear the cut-offs. This despite consistently doing very well in the Sims leading up to the test. I decided to take another shot since I was very clear that it was not out of my league.

This post, in three parts, is for all those re-takers who are NOT hoping to get lucky next time around but want to ensure that they leave no stone unturned to make the cut in their next shot at CAT.

Do not use percentiles to evaluate your ability on a section

One of the ways by which test-takers evaluate their performance on a section is by looking at their percentile on the same. They rate their ability on a section depending upon what percentile they scored in that section. The CAT is a non-standardised exam with question types and level of difficulty varying wildly from year to year. If we evaluate CAT-18 with respect to CAT-17 there were significant changes

  • The Quant section was definitely trickier than on CAT-17 as well as the preceding years, making speed & accuracy less of a factor than it was on CAT-17

If you got a 90 this year on Verbal & Quant and lost on DI-LR, which was as tough as it was in the previous year, then can you rest assured that your VA & QA are strong and you will need very little prep?

What if next year, the RC passages next year go up a few notches? What will you do if the Quant section poses trickier problems and LR becomes easy? This has happened to quite a few students in the past, percentiles getting reversed in the second attempt.

Nothing can be more dangerous than evaluating your ability solely on the basis of your percentile when planning a re-attempt! This is especially true when your sectional percentiles are in the 80-95 range.

Only those with percentile above 98 on a section can rest assured that their ability on a particular section is pretty solid.

Evaluate the quantum of effort you put into preparing for each area

Instead of evaluating your ability solely on the basis of your percentile, evaluate it based on the amount of effort you put into the particular area. When I started preparing for the CAT for the first time my core strengths were VA-RC and DI-LR, QA (relative to my ability on the others) my weakest area. In my prep for my first go at the CAT, apart from classroom sessions, I did the following

  • VA-RC: Solved the entire material of two brands including IMS, covering RC, Vocabulary (including foreign phrases and the book by Normal Lewis) and Verbal Reasoning; the only area I excluded was Grammar
  • DI-LR: Solved the entire material of two brands including IMS
  • QA: Solved only material pertaining to Arithmetic, Algebra and Geometry completely excluded Numbers and Modern Maths (I hated them :-))
  • Tests: I would have taken about 50-60 full-length tests in total

Malcolm Gladwell has famously put a number to the number of hours of training put in by those who become high-achievers in their field — 10000 hours of deliberate practice. There has been a lot of debate around this number that seemed to suggest that all you needed to do was deliberate practice and you would succeed. But be that as it may we know that the best sportsmen are the ones who put in more than the others into their practice — it was true of Michael Jordan, it was true of Sachin Tendulkar, it is true of Sardara Singh (one of India’s and the world’s best hockey players).

So the first step is to start with an honest evaluation how much practice you put into each of the areas —  RC, Vocabulary, Reasoning, Grammar, DI, LR, Numbers, Arithmetic, Algebra, & Modern Maths.

Do not prep by percentages, prep to increase the range of your abilities

While I enjoy teaching a lot there are times when some questions from students really get my goat, especially this one — Sir which topics are most important for CAT?

We are so used to guide-book preparation for the better part of our lives that we cannot think of an approach beyond it. I have no problem with this but then one should not aim to get into elite institutions and secure high-quality jobs by playing the percentages.

Firstly, you will be taking not just the CAT, but other tests such as the XAT, IIFT, NMAT and SNAP. Across these five tests, your ability across all areas will get tested to various degrees.

More importantly, do not look at it through the narrow lens of test-prep. Ask yourself the following questions

  • Will possessing a good vocabulary not be of any use in your life (I know Dhirubhai Ambani would not have had a great vocab, but then he did not do an MBA either :-))?
  • Will the ability to quickly read and process content in English, be it articles from the Economist or the latest management books not come in handy?
  • Is the ability to quickly crunch numbers irrelevant just because you have a calculator on your phone?

Until you are looking at all of these things in terms of weightage on CAT and view areas as things to be endured to get into a great institute, you will always be a resource who will be used by others.

The day you start looking at these things as core skills are necessary to succeed in life and thus expected of any high-quality individual, then you start becoming — to paraphrase Marlon Brando from On The Waterfront   — a contender, a contender for taking up leadership roles.

Make a list of the skills you want to acquire, the areas you want to master

Not getting through is dispiriting, to say the least, more so when after you have put in a lot of effort, it was no different with me. I thought I had the QA section covered since I was comfortable with Arithmetic, AlgebraGeometry. I was not playing the percentages but something about topics such as Functions, Probability, Inequalities, Numbers made me averse to trying them.

One mentor who otherwise was really helpful in showing us the best way to solve DI and Arithmetic questions told me that there will be enough questions from my favourite three areas, on the test day it turned out the other way.

Before my second attempt I asked myself some really hard questions — why did I shy away from f(x) questions, is probability that tough to understand, am I selectively intelligent and specifically dumb?

One big reason behind my reluctance to tackle these questions was the fact that these topics were not really covered extensively in the ICSE syllabus of that time. So the first barrier was a certain unfamiliarity.

The second and more important reason was that I made no attempt to understand them and get comfortable with them — they were black boxes and I let them remain black boxes. When I cleared the cut-offs in the Sims leading up to the test, I never bothered to try to learn the solutions to questions I had ignored.

In my first attempt I focussed more on getting better at what I knew rather than learning what I did not know and thus did not expand my range of scoring opportunities. So my single point agenda in the lead up to my second attempt was to focus on really getting the better of my pet hates and increase my range of scoring areas.

Each one of you will have your own Achilles heel or heels (An Achilles heel is a weakness in spite of overall strength, which can actually or potentially lead to downfall. While the mythological origin refers to a physical vulnerability, idiomatic references are to attributes or qualities that can lead to downfall are common).

Make a list of those things and you will find that the quantum of practice you put into your first attempt as far as those areas go was proportionally lesser than what you put in for your stronger areas.

The more detailed you make this list the better your prep will be — calculation DI, Venn Diagram LRs, Time Speed & Distance etc.

Learn to learn better not just for the CAT but for IIM Interviews as well

Most of the time I feel that the way we learn holds the key to how much we actually learn. Our focus has always been on memorising and as a result while we might know a concept in terms of definition we rarely manage the application.

The students who made it to the WAT-GD-PI rounds are being peppered with math questions. As I am writing a student posted his MDI-Gurgaon PI experience on the What’s App group and one of the questions he was asked was to solve xˆy + yˆx = 999. Other questions posed to other students across institutes include

  • difference between discrete variable and continuous variable
  • for what sort of data will you use mean, when will you use median and when will you use mode
  • what is the square root of -1

What is really important is that you move away from learning to remember but learning to understand and thus remember once and for all.

For example in the simple equation y = mx + c, what are each of the terms? How is it related to x/a + y/b = 1 and ax + by + c = 0?

What happens to the curve ax² + bx + c when a, b & c are changed?

The letters are not just alphabets but symbols used to represent logic. Try to get to the logic of things, this is the single biggest tool to improve your aptitude.

The same curiosity has to apply to Verbal as well — what is the difference between disinterested, uninterested and indifferent, are all the three the same, are all three different or are two of the three similar?

Your entire prep has to have one motto — I am going to learn new skills and get better!

This is important to keep in mind since most people prepping for a retake do not focus on the quality of their prep. They go in with full enthusiasm, energy and drive with the motto — I am going to nail this test this time!

The problem with the second approach is that it is very energy-intensive and somewhere leads to burnout. To a certain extent the difference between Federer’s game and Nadal’s game.

You will end up over-preparing, not really get better in terms of your aptitude and ability to handle questions from a wide variety of areas but only get better in terms of speed.

Also, the big danger with such an approach is that for some inexplicable reason you can come unstuck on D-Day! I have learnt this the hard way since it has happened to me once during an engineering exam on my favourite subject. I believe it happened because I was so intense about the prep so much I went overboard with it.

I wanted this first post to be primarily about the approach and mindset that you should build for your next attempt. Without the right approach and mindset, most efforts are misdirected.

In the next post, I will deal with the specifics about what content to use to practice for each of the areas and how to plan your prep for the retake.


  1. Thanks for this article sir.

    I scored a pathetic 73, percentile in CAT ’20(my first attempt) , not because I didn’t know the concepts, but because I was pathetic in execution. I panicked after picking one question, which although easy, but I took the lengthier route which ultimately led to a domino effect . I was also writing a lot. I also realized very important topics like Time Speed Distance, weren’t prepared properly when it came to solving the questions as quickly as possible

    I have started my CAT ’21 prep,(with Time speed and distance only) I am tring to solve the questions entirely in mind and only when I am not able to do it, do I use pen and paper.

    I used to solve around 12-13 questions during mocks(3 hours and 2 hours format both) ( and in the same number in CAT ’20). I want to increase the attempt to at least 30 Questions. Apart from no pen and paper method, what else can I be doing?


    • A minor typo correction. I got 73 percentile in Quant section and an overall percentile of 87 in CAT ’20 and the number of questions that I have mionednis regarding QA section only. Thank you


    • Hi Ad,

      Wait for the remaining posts and try reading slightly faster — by 10% — and you will see that you can still comprehend.

      Initially, it can seem uncomfortable but you will get used to it.

      The best thing is you know the exact issue and you have time to develop good habits — the important one — reading the question only once.

      That is the task, doing it faster and still concentrating hard enough to do it once.

      All the best!


  2. Draxler says

    Hello Sir,
    I scored 97.6 percentile in CAT(all sectionals cleared)! However, since I am a GEM I have only the new/baby IIM calls, apart from which I have MDI, SPJIMR and IIT calls.
    I have converted Nm Mumbai.
    If I get through SPJIMR/MDi I am very clear that I will take the admission.
    However, If not then I am in a dilemma whether to retry or settle for nm Mumbai.
    I am not someone who craves only for ABC(in fact I want SPJIMR more).
    What should be my lexicons to be considered while making a decision?
    I have 20 months workex in a consulting firm as of today.
    Thank you for always motivating!


    • Hi Drax,

      Well, it is a slightly tricky call but all I can say that NM, while a tad below SP and MDI, still gets the job done in terms of placements if not the overall experience. So if placements are the only criteria join NM.

      If you really want the overall experience and feel you have it in you to crack BLACKI in another attempt, go ahead and give it another shot after reading my post ​about whether to retake —

      Hope this helps,

      All the best!


  3. Shubham Sujit Pote says

    Hi Sir,
    I scored 51%ile in CAT’20(my first serious attempt). The thing that bugs me the most is even after preparing VARC section so well I messed up big time on D-Day. I was scoring good in IMS’ sectional test with an accuracy of 65-70% but couldn’t replicate this success rate in CAT.I still don’t understand where I went wrong with my prep regarding the VARC section at least. What can I do to improve my VARC,
    I am a GEM with more than 2 years of experience in an IT company and thinking of giving another attempt but I am low on confidence due to such a low score in CAT. Have there been cases where an aspirant has jumped from 50%ile to 99%ile?
    What would you suggest for a student like me?(I couldn’t score well in exams that are par with CAT like XAT or IIFT but have a decent score in exams like SNAP or NMAT). Your valuable opinion would be appreciated. Thanks.

    P.S: I have always loved your posts and enjoy reading them as it motivates me to study.


    • Hi Shubham,

      The thing with the CAT is that sometimes the level is amped up so much that the percentiles do not really give an accurate account of your ability.

      The whole VA-RC section was so tough that the only things that got measured are what candidates cannot do and not what can do.

      It is like, placing a really heavy weight and selecting only this who can lift it; nobody knows how much they could actually lift.

      I suggest going in for another shot by focussing on the exams you know that are aligned very well to your level in terms of being able to ace it; prioritize them over the CAT — take the NMAT before the CAT — and prepare for the CAT and other exams as a bonus.

      Focus on the career options that an NMAT and SIBM throw up, which are quite good, and do not get bogged down by specific exams.

      Hope this helps,

      All the best!


  4. Chiranjiv Aggarwal says

    Hello Sir,

    I need your guidance with something really urgent. I am thinking of enrolling myself in the Digital marketing course offered by MICA, but what I am really worried is what if during my MBA interviews next year, they ask me why didn’t you pursue the course of XYZ college or own our(As lots and lots of institutes offer DM course including IIMC and XL). I just want to understand whether this question is practical and does is posses a real threat of them thinking that I preferred MICA’s DM course over their. Basically I want to understand whether it will be difficult to justify taking up a course of MICA and not the institute I am interviewing for(If they have one).

    I am more inclined towards MICA’s DM course because it seems like the option out there to choose from.
    Waiting to hear from you soon.

    Thank you in advance sir!


    • Hi Chiranjiv,

      The big colleges will never ask why you did not choose them and even if they do you can answer honestly giving them clear pointers as you the rationale and it makes sense.

      So, go ahead and join.

      All the best!


  5. Sudarshan says

    Hello sir,

    This was my first serious attempt at CAT. (VARC : 94.4 | DILR : 87.99 | QA : 99.13 | Overall : 98.43)
    My profile is quite poor.
    GEM 10/12/UG : 77/77/8.75 (West Bengal State Board)
    If I opt to give CAT in 2021, I will be reaching 3.5 years of work-ex.
    The calls I got this time around were IIM CAP (Average/Good interview), SP Jain (Marketing, WL-24), IIT Bombay (Average interview), MDI (Poor interview). I have XLRI BM and HRM remaining (98.83 in XAT).
    Should I consider taking CAT the next year considering that my profile is somewhat of a ceiling and I am nearing an amount of work ex where marks get deducted.
    As of now, I am of course solely focused on my XLRI interviews.

    Your inputs would be welcome sir. Thanks in advance.


    • Hi Sudarsan,

      Great job with a 98.43 on your first serious attempt.

      I think you need want to know the backup plan in case things do not pan out the way you want to.

      For another shot, I would suggest doing the GMAT first and applying to the best 1-year programs and then taking the CAT.

      If you get an ISB, you should choose that over everything else (X, XII marks do not matter for ISB, only grad marks and that can be offset with a great GMAT score but you have an excellent GPA and thus a 720 should suffice).

      In the meantime prep for the XLRI interview expecting the worst, non-stop, in-depth grilling.

      Do watch the PI session I took as part of the IMS NAW.

      Hope this helps,

      All the best!


  6. Deepanshu Laddha says

    Hello sir,
    I scored 52 percentile in CAT2020 (an energy intensive attempt). What went wrong ? I panicked and time takes off. I was so panicked that it felt like my brain got swollen resulting in worst performance in “MY areas”. Mocks were fetching me 75-80 percentile and i thought it will only increase on D-DAY. what can be my strategy for CAT’21 reattempt? please guide, sir.
    I made the decision to retake even after such a horrendous result.

    P.s: Your blogs motivates me and inspires me to be more upgraded then previous self.


    • Hi Deepanshu,

      One of the big things about a CAT attempt is that one takes enough mocks, around 40 over two attempts that one gets used to all sorts of variability and one get rids of test-taking blues.

      The rest fo the posts will cover how to prepare but make sure that you start taking Sims right from SimCAT 1 and take all 16 proctored SimCATs.

      Hope this helps,

      All the best!


  7. Abhishek Arora says

    Hi sir,

    #LongPostAlert but please padh lena Mata rani Kripa barsayegi! ??

    A bit about me:

    – 10th (84.57) and 12th (82.2) from an ICSE board
    – BMS (71.92) from DU with a specialization in Marketing (2016 Graduate)
    – Worked in the sports industry for 3 years (2 years full time and 1 year as a freelance content writer with Sportskeeda)
    – Have a 1-year gap
    – Looking to pursue an MBA in Marketing
    – SIBM Pune was my dream college but I got 95.8 percentile and didn’t even get a call :/
    – Honest reason to pursue MBA – Get a 20 LPA+ package

    I gave CAT 2020 got a 90.85 percentile but have failed to convert any good college till now.
    I have only converted SIIB and IMT – Dual Country Program. I had scored 255 in NMAT and have been waitlisted for NMIMS Mumbai (which I initially thought would be my backup XD).

    IMS Mentors also gave positive feedback in all 4 mock interviews I have given till now.
    However, the actual interview process has been mentally taxing as despite having good interviews I couldn’t even convert IMT Ghaziabad (core). Maybe due to a subpar percentile and maybe as I am from the General category and the competition is intense :S

    A few results are still pending but I am really looking for a good backup option now. I have to do my MBA this year itself and giving CAT again is not an option. I have been shortlisted for IIFT and that is my best bet now.

    I am also seriously considering a GMAT attempt now. I have given a few mocks and have got scores in the range of 640-660. I want to push them up to around 700 and apply to schools such as the Rotman School of Management. However, I am a desh premi and my first choice would be to continue living in India and contribute to our economy. Also, as my sister will be off to Kannedaa (Canada) this year anyway so I want to stick around in India and be in close proximity to my parents.

    Meanwhile, I have also started looking for a job opportunity and cover the upcoming IPL. Additionally, I have also started doing some online certifications.

    Is it possible to conduct a morale-boosting session for someone like me? I was initially all pumped about the process but the energy has fizzled out and I am a little shattered. I really don’t want to lose confidence and let it affect my upcoming interviews. I sincerely hope you can take out time and conduct a session for people like me who are a bit lost now. Seriously aapse bohot seekha hai sir, bas thodi aur guidance and advice chahiye hamari zindagi ke iss ain mod par :p

    Also, what is your honest opinion regarding BITSoM? Is it worth applying there as it will be the first batch?


    • Abhishek Arora says

      Hi Tony Sir,

      Please share your opinion regarding my query as well. Thanks 🙂


      • Hi Abhishek,
        You asked the query in the Comments section of the “How to build your profile for an MBA” post and I had replied there itself 🙂


  8. Hi sir,
    I scored an 83.21 percentile overall. VARC was my strongest section but this year I don’t know for some reason when I saw that the number of passages were more than what we had practiced for I panicked in that panic I messed up my strategy, my speed naturally reduced and I immediately in the first 10 minutes inadvertently thought this attempt is doomed. I managed to get through VARC somehow ( scored 93+percentile in VARC) but in DILR the format had changed and the number of choices were reduced plus I was not super confident about DILR anyway. I messed it up so bad I could barely attempt 1 passage ( Which is definitely not my potential but I lost my calm that day and messed it up, ended up scoring a pathetic 35 percentile) I tried to salvage whatever was left of it in quants which was my weakest section but that wasn’t possible either. ended up scoring 85+percentile in it.

    sir I am super confused as to what should be done in my retake. I am eagerly waiting for your next blog but you could you guide me as to what should be my approach in DILR and Quant ( I have a set target of top 3-5 IIMs only. not very keen on other exams either.) Will this kind of rigid target be harmful or hinder my mindset during exams or preparation? also I am going to start working with an investment bank while prepping for CAT21 any tips on that front?

    Thankyou for always motivating us and sorting out our problems!


    • Hi Akshil,

      As I discussed in one of the posts last year, your aim should be in line with your profile.

      If your profile is such that only the top 3-5 IIMs make sense — you are from an old IIT and/or are earning in excess of 12 LPA.

      If not it makes a lot of sense to widen the net since the end goal is to have a great career and a college is just the means to the same.

      I would suggest applying to all colleges that give you a chance to take your current earning (or earning potential) to 2.5X times.

      Otherwise, you will be trying to thread the eye of the needly unnecessarily and putting a lot of pressure on yourself.

      As far QA prep and DI-LR prep goes, you should open the blog on your desktop and look at the pages titled DI-Lr Strat and QA Strat.

      This should be the first starting point for DI-LR (as well as QA) —

      Start with prepping for your weakest area in QA and then move on to other areas; the first task is to be able to solve an easy question from any topic.

      Working and prepping for CAT is not going to be easy — you would have to ration your time out, have a clear plan for the day, and manage your energies well.

      Hope this helps,

      All the best!


  9. Amol Sawant says

    Hi sir,
    First of all big fan of your blogs. Love it!
    Coming to the point,
    CAT 2020 -first attempt- fresher- Slot1 -(VARC- 64.25 | DILR- 97.09 | QA-97.54) – Overall 95.85
    I know VARC is my weakest area but I have never scored this low even in my SIMCAT mocks.
    I am also a voracious reader. I even practiced your technique (para to question) to solve RCs but still not able to improve my RC solving skills. I even used to read articles daily.

    If you can help me out here. Thanks!


    • Hi Amol,

      The Verbal section of CAT 2020 put paid to the plans of many a CAT aspirant who thought he or she had the section under control.

      The reason is that the level on some of the passages was so high that it was almost impossible for test-takers to make that leap on test-day; also everything seems tougher on test-day.

      I do not know if there is anything new that I can suggest since the processes remain the same but one reaches the limits of one’s comprehension.

      The only additional practice I can suggest, just to change things up, is practicing GMAT or LSAT passages, especially LSAT since they are quite tough (you can practice for free on Khan Academy).

      Hope this helps,

      All the best!


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