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The real reason why your QA scores are below par

While the previous three posts on Accuracy, Selection, and Speed are more than comprehensive in terms of what is needed to push your score north, I still keep getting messages from students who are unable to come to terms with QA. They say they have done concepts and enough practice as well but none of it seems to be pushing the scores up and the confidence levels are pretty low.

It was only a few years ago, that I figured out the core issue with these students when I was sitting with one — he was preparing for the GMAT and had a decent amount of work-ex and by the time I had met him he was already through with two attempts spread over two years with sub-par scores. He was willing to put in another attempt and a year more if required to get a par score.

I gave him some broad guidelines and assigned a personal mentor to him, and met with him regularly on overall prep strategy, some specific pointers, and test-taking strategies. But at the end of another year the score was the same.

I could not figure it out — the guy was very professional, super-committed (something you would have figured by now), doing reasonably well in his job, and super-positive despite everything.

It was when he came to meet me again that I threw a few questions at him, questions that I had solved in class and he had attended multiple times, and his reaction to them and the way he reacted when I told him the solution — Oh, ya, ya, ya, ya! — that I figured the core problem — he was mugging up Math!

Do you learn Math the same way you did for your X & XII exams?

This I realise is a bigger problem than what is assumed. Students whose only interaction with Math has been for their X and XII exams, who have never prepared for an aptitude test before, and took extensive tuitions for their school exams, do not even know that the Math they did then and Math they have to do now is the same but the way it is tested cannot be more different.

Those papers needed parrots, parrots who could replicate things step by step and with good handwriting.

And nothing could be more different from that than a CAT paper.

So ask yourself that question, do you mug-up concepts or do you actually understand why ax.ay = ax+y

If you do memorise and have always done so then you need to really start from scratch and it is not easy and you will definitely need to do approach it more holistically.

I suggest doing this free course by Barbara Oakley — she had a BA in literature and worked in the defence services before taking up engineering later than others — https://www.coursera.org/learn/learning-how-to-learn

Read this book by her as well — A Mind for Numbers

Another thing to keep in mind is that even if you somehow mug stuff up, get a bit lucky, and manage to get into an IIM, the first-year course will be as tough, if not tougher than CAT Math — you will be graded relative to others and the others is everybody who has cracked the CAT (the only reprieve is that time is not a constraint). A lot of the students who are unable to complete the MBA Program or finish it over a longer period — would have failed in the first-year Math subjects.

Do you know basic concepts but have no clue how advanced concepts came about?

Do you know how the formula for the number of total factors of a number — am.bn — (m+1)(n+1) — came about?

Those who know how this came about will know how to solve this question discussed in Part-II of this series:

How many factors of 1080000 are not divisible by 40?

I am sure there are many who know the formula but yet not know how to answer the question. If they happen to read the solution they wonder why it did not strike them.

It need not be that you have this issue in the whole of QA. It can be that you have this problem only in some areas — Numbers and Geometry or Geometry and Modern Math. — or only on specific topics such as P&C and Logarithms.

If you are in this bucket then you need to focus on understanding how formulas came about so that you develop the ability to solve such questions.

Do you try to memorise patterns?

The last category is test-takers who are good at Math but their approach to prep is to memorise as many different patterns and endless sub-formulas (formulas derived for an endless list of special cases) as possible.

The problem with the approach is that whenever they are faced with a problem the first instinct to try to map it to a formula or a pattern they have solved before.

It is not that there are no patterns, there are patterns and in recent years CAT has become more pattern-based than before. But all that needs to happen is for 8-10 problems that do not fall into a pattern but are otherwise solvable to appear in the paper and these test-takers will not be able to handle them. If a few of these problems turn up at the beginning of the section then the confidence can take a major hit.

Another issue with mugging patterns is that you need to keep a lot of your brain space free for all of these patterns and sub-formulas. Those who have exceptional storage and memory between their ears can afford to follow this approach. I prefer to have only the bare minimum of formulas and patterns in my head and go by pure logic — the lower the fuel in the car the faster it can go. I think the golden mean between the two where you know the patterns but are willing to look at a problem first up with fresh eyes is crucial.

Always visualise yourself in front a problem as a doctor faced with a patient. What does a great doctor do? Listen to you fully, ask the right questions; suggest the right tests, if required; figure out the exact problem; and suggest the least medication possible.

The different kinds of mugging listed above are reasons behind you truly not solving a problem.

If you are truly honest with yourself about this part of your prep then you will be able to make the changes necessary to achieve a good score on QA and as I mentioned before it is not just CAT QA that is on the line but also Quant in the MBA Program.

You need to always start with the WHAT and move to the HOW

Some students have written saying that when they try to not copy-paste patterns they find that their mind is blank and they do not know what to do.

Imagine a F1 driver going to drive on relatively unknown tracks every time he goes out to drive — the key word is “relatively” not completely unknown. He or she will draw upon the experiences but still drive as if it were new.

It is exactly like sport, you practice in the nets but every pitch, every match, every ball is different.

This is exactly what makes the Big 3 matches in tennis so interesting, they have played each other million times but they know that every match can be won by either of them. this despite knowing everything inside out.

And what is different?

Each and every time the questions asked of them by their opponent will be different.

WHAT is being asked is different.

If Nadal is hitting the ball closer to the lines, Djoker knows he is being asked a different question and he knows that has to find a response in real-time while drawing on the past.

If Federer is just creaming winners off the forehand then Nadal knows he is being asked a different question.

The first task always is to figure out the WHAT and the move to the HOW instead of thinking about the HOW.

When students say nothing strikes them it is because they are thinking that the HOW will come and strike them. Nothing strikes you if you are not looking for it, except lightning!

Let us take a question to see what I mean by figuring out the WHAT and moving to the HOW.

Question 1

If all the factors of 5040 are arranged in descending order then which will be the fifth factor?

We know that the greatest factor of the number is the number itself — 5040.

WHAT — But we need to factorise this first since we need to find the top 5 factors.

HOW — 5040 – 24*32*5*7

WHAT — If this is the highest one then what is the one after this?

HOW — I need to remove the smallest possible factor from this?

What is the smallest possible factor that I can remove? 2

So, the next factor in descending order will be 23*32*5*7

For the third one, we remove a 3 — 24*31*5*7

For the fourth one, we remove a 4 — 22*32*5*7

For the fifth one, we remove a 5 — 24*32*7which is what the question is asking us for.

What if the question is tweaked?

Question 2

If all the factors of 5040 are arranged in ascending order then which one will be the 56th factor?

When I read this with fresh eyes, I know that this seems crazy, am I really supposed to write all the factors from 1 to 55? Surely, you must be joking Mr.Question-man!

There must be another way — they won’t be paying an average salary of Rs.25 LPA at IIM-A for someone to do such donkey work!

WHAT — Before I go ahead I need to know how many factors are there and where does 55 stand?

HOW — To find out the number of factors I need to factorise the number

5040 – 24*32*5*7

The number of factors — what you will know from all your of previous practice — 5*3*3*2 — 60

There are 60 factors and they are asking me for the 55th, so, instead of going from 1 to 56 I can come down from 60 to 56.

From here the problem becomes the same as the previous one.

For some this might be a huge change since you have to undo all your previous mode of dealing with Math, for others it might turn on a switch that they never thought they had, but for everyone there is no other way.

The weird part is that even those who have made it to the IITs do not seem to get this. I had a student from IIT-Ropar in one of my GMAT classes and he was like — you must know all the patterns by now, so you can answer all questions!

It is like saying Kohli knows to play all shots, so every time he goes out he will make a 100! It does not work that way.

Yes, teaching helps, but every teacher does not get a 100 every year in QA right?

On good exams, one gets rewarded for thinking nor regurgitating!

So, stop mugging, start solving!


  1. Philip says

    3rd last line.

    “Yes, teaching helps, but every teacher does not get a 100 every year in QA right?”

    Scrabbler : Hold my beer

    *Gets a 100 percentile frequently*


  2. Hello SIr!
    I am highly anticipating your views on SIMCAT 6’s VARC and how to tackle such a section henceforth.
    I ended up scoring 7 marks (11A, 4C) vis à vis 35 from my previous test given just a day ago and it was devastating for me to see.
    Big fan 🙂


    • Hi Jwalin,

      I was wondering about when Sim 6 got launched! I knew 5 was tough.

      Well, if you did the classification of the passages as I described in the videos of SimCAT 1 and SimCAT 4 and in the SimCAR Strategy videos on the Channel TAB of myIMS; you would have rated all of them below 7. In that case you would have attempted all the VA first and then done only the easiest of the RCs.

      The point I am trying to make is this — everyone follows the school method of preparing and attempting questions only from areas where maximum questions come from — in this case RC — and VA is left to the end — and there is little or no effort to master the technique.

      If your VA technique was good you could have scored 12 marks in half the time! Think about it.

      All the best!


  3. Ruchita Ghinaiya says

    Hello Sir..!
    Sometimes I ended up with negative marks in VARC section around 14 attempts and only 3-4 questions Correct. Need your guidance sir.


  4. Vighnesh Pai says

    I am a student currently in my final year of Btech from NIT Calicut. I have 9/9/8 in10, 12, grad. I started my preparation in June. I am scoring about 80-85 percentile in simcat. Is it advisable for me to take a year drop and appear for CAT 2022 in case I do not get into older IIMs this time. Does taking a year off affect my chances? What are possible things I can do to improve my profile in case of taking a drop


  5. vaishali says

    as you mentioned that we need to clear our basics. but do u think the time left for cat is enough even if we start from the basic. i feel like its possible to score good in verbal and LR but for maths i cant even solve a single question in simcats. i feel like i am participating in a race and i dont even know how to tuck in my seatbelt. sometimes i even have to ask my friends that how would u divide this equation. this phobia is litreally haunting me. one day i do maths for 3 hours but on the very next day i have to start from the very start. no clue what i did before . its stressful even when im doing everything my teachers asked me to.so please sir tell me what could be the smartest idea right now considering we only have months left


    • Hi Vaishali,

      I will not lie and say that I know what you are going through since back in the day I sucked at Math but was not scared of it. Even so, I need to make changes in my mindset that helped me clear the CAT the second time round — it goes without saying that Math was the reason behind my disastrous first attempt.

      I have tried to cover what I did and how to learn Math in the Learning to Learn Math webinars (I do not know if you have gone through them) that you will find on this page — https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLZLYq7TWue8lNn1U5ZkRqnNtj7X-jxKot

      All I can say is that as long as you see it as Math, Verbal, DI & LR, you will be at some level in a sub-optimal space, when you start to see it as reasoning first and foremost, you starting getting better.

      You will see that there are no tons of concepts — profit percentage is the same as interest — return on money invested — speed is just a ratio (you will see all of this in the webinars).

      Do not go for the whole mountain at one go — start with mastering Arithmetic, the rest will follow.

      All the best!


      • subinmsubairisred says

        Sir, Literally I am fed up with my preparation. I have started my preparation in the month of January. I have written all the basic concepts of Quant in my notebook. I have watched Quant basics from my regional language – MALAYALAM to understand the concepts better. But now, I am in the final lap, There’s roughly only one month to CAT. My overall scores were very low, Very low means, not 40 or 50, I am scoring overall in the range of 0-25. I have dedicated all my time for CAT from January and now I am very much tensed about my failure and wastage of one complete year -__-
        And one more thing, My friend always tells like you from the initial preperation, You’re NOT SOLVING quant sums LOGICALLY, You are only thinking of HOW TO GET Answers, But at that time, I didnt mind his words. And recently also I talked with him, He tells me the SAME. However, One day I have started solving QUANT Logically, But it is NOT working for me. I have sit an entire day on solving LOGICALLY.
        Now what should I do sir, Please help me. I am really exhausted and drained. I am putting 110% effort, Result is the only thing doesn’t coming 😦


      • Hi Subin,

        The truth is that this is a test of logic and given that throughout schooling one is made to mug up patterns and just blindly replicate them without thinking it becomes tough for students to even understand what logically means.

        If you are an IMS student you can watch recordings of the two sessions I have done called Learning to Learn Math, which can be of some help.

        Hope this works,

        All the best!


  6. Abhishek says

    Hello, Sir hope you are doing well…
    Sir, I was having a lot of problems with the VARC section, but gradually with constant practice I improved my RC’s little bit, but this is not the case with VA. My accuracy in VA is very poor. What should I do sir?


    • Hi Abhishek,

      If you ask me VA is way easier than RC provided you follow a water-tight technique every single time instead of going by gut-feel.

      I have demonstrated this in the video solutions of SimCATs 1 and 4. I will be doing a Masterclass as well later and video solutions of Sims 8, 12 and 16.

      Hope this helps,

      All the best!


  7. Abhishek Singh says

    Hello Sir,
    I appeared for CAT 2020, but my score was horrible(65). I joined whitehatjr in the month of October 2020. I am still working. I want to appear for CAT 2021. But I work for some 10 to 11 hours that too at night, US shift hours.It’s tedious. It becomes very difficult to prepare for the exam. I am thinking of resigning at the earliest now. I want to give my heart and soul to the upcoming CAT exam. Will that be a wise decision? I am quite familiar with quants concepts. The only problem is VARC. I scored around 5 marks in CAT 2020 in this particular section. It’s no less than a nightmare but I am ready to toil and improve the same. Could you please guide me with the same sir? as of now my profile looks like: 10th-10 CGPA
    Grad-5.8 CGPA
    Work ex: approximately 10 months.


  8. Tanya Gupta says

    Hi Sir, hope you are doing great.
    I wanted to ask about my fluctuating scores. I have been facing fluctuating scores in all sections (the least in DI-LR though, as it ranges from either clearing the cutoff, or just below the cutoff).
    VA-RC fluctuates a lot yes, and i also considered your point about not being able to maintain the technique along with the difficulty level of the paper, which i realised was the case with me, however after a lot of analysis, i also realised that i tended to do better in a 3 hour test as compared to the 2 hour test (maybe it is about the momentum not being created).So what do you suggest in order to do better in the 40 mins test, as the time gets over in a blink!
    Apart from that, another point i noted was that its very easy for me to pause and frame answers and follow the technique when the language of RC is easy to moderate, but when the language becomes difficult (like aeon science or philosophical messages), not only does the comprehending time increase, but also i tend to lose focus in between the difficult phrases and words (even if I try to chase the main idea, not focusing on difficult sentences seems like a task. So i just wanted to know how to ease the comfort level in terms of comprehending difficult to read passages? should i try and read more such passages or work on vocab skills?

    another think I wanted to ask was about my QA sir, no inherent problem really, i dont hate maths (despite not being from the science background), but i think the way i look at the question in the test versus the way i look it during my practice is different. also, another problem being that despite thorough analysis, i am not being able to figure out my weak and strength areas. if suppse i have done good in arithmetic in one test, the next test shows me that is not the case, sometimes i manage to clear the cutoff, but i really need to have a strategy in terms of what to attempt first. so what do you suggest should i do to find out my areas of strength and weakness, consodering i do equally well and good in all areas (except p n c) but i am trying to focus more on arithmetic and geometry right now…is that okay?

    sorry for such a long query sir, i hope you answer

    thank you!


    • Hi Tanya,

      I think for the Verbal in 40 minutes you need to be absolutely certain with your time-allocation.

      I would suggest setting one RC aside and dividing the time between RC and VA in the ratio of the number of questions in the remaining RCs and VA — 35 minutes for 3 RCs and 15 minutes for 8 VA. If only two RCs are easy then you should switch to VA earlier and leave two RCs for the end.

      Alternatively, you can spend 10 mins upfront on VA with a target of 15 marks and spend the rest of the time on RCs.

      Even here, if an RCs is tough, you are supposed to return to VA if you have questions left!

      As far as the tough RCs go, SimCAT 5 is a type that will never show up on the CAT, all Philosophy passages! It was meant to scare students into upping their VA game. In any paper leave such passage(s) for the end, after VA, and do not even bother attempting all such passages. In SimCAT 5, if you had or could solve all VA and a couple of passages only (not even looking at the rest) you would have easily crossed a 95 since 19 marks was an 85.

      I do not honestly think it is possible for anyone to improve to the level to solve such passages accurately within 10 minutes in three months time — one has to become someone who thinks in English, reads and enjoys reading such passages.

      Could you have scored 95 without being a champ at such passages purely by better selection and VA skills, absolutely. The challenge is not to hit the Bumrah yorker for a six, it is to not get out to Bumrah and hit the rest out of the park.

      As far as QA goes, it is very obvious that you are not following the first principle of selection — one selects for difficulty not for the area — this is why when Arithmetic is easy-moderate, you do well, and when it is moderate-difficult, your scores plummet.

      The task is to be above average in all 5 areas so that one solve all easy medium questions, identify the tough ones and skip them.

      Watch the SimCAT Strategy videos on the Channel Tab of myIMS, it has the selection & time-management strategy for all sections. That is what you precisely need right now.

      All the best!


      • okay sir, will surely implement and let you know!

        Thank you so much..!


  9. Mannya Katyal says

    Hello Sir!
    Hope you’re doing well!

    I am facing problems in the Quant section. I can solve most of the questions on the mock when I am taking them as passive mocks or when I am analyzing the mock. However, when I take them in an active test mode, I am not able to solve them.

    Basically, using the ABC Strategy, if I cant find A’s in the first 5 questions, my mind goes into the panic mode. How do I make this better sir?


    • Hi Mannya,

      I wish I had solutions to panic attacks.

      The only thing you need to remember is that if the first five questions are time-consuming and/or tough and are thus not As, then it is the same for others.

      You should move into active enjoying mode of solving than test or non-test mode.

      Hope this helps,

      All the best!


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