In the previous post, we discussed the mindset with which one should approach a CAT retake; in this post, we shall look at a few more aspects with respect to a successful CAT retake. Since each one of you readers will have a different back story with respect to your first attempt and there will also be some non-IMS students among you as well, the focus of this post will be a bit wider.
To take up classroom coaching or not
The first voluntary disclosure from my side is that I took up classroom coaching for my first attempt. I attended classes regularly but I would put my regularity more down to the fact that I liked spending half an hour after classes chatting with a couple of my fellow aspirants who are still my closest friends. Another added factor is that I was not working and distances in a small city like Visakhapatnam were barely a hindrance.
In recent times though there is a discernible trend — given the distances in metros, in some cases the work schedule, and in others the perception about the level of difficulty of the CAT — towards self-preparation.
Well, firstly I feel that unless you have scored well in excess of 95 percentile and have taken classroom coaching (and attended sessions regularly), some form of classroom coaching will always be helpful. It need not be a full-length program, you can choose the duration depending on your aptitude and how much effort you put into your first attempt. Here are a few reasons why:
There is nothing like a well-designed class sheet to learn from
When my colleagues and I design class sheets, we were looking at not just the CAT of the last few years but at the very nature and essence of the test as it has filtered through the various avatars it has taken over the years.
A well-structured program with well-designed class sheets will relieve you of the headache of having to scour various sources to design a comprehensive program for yourself.
If you know how to solve all the problems in the IMS class sheets that you will be given, you will have covered all the concepts and patterns that you will need to learn to ace the test.
A good teacher always brings something new to the table
While there are enough books with concepts, questions and shortcuts there is always something unique that a good teacher brings to the table. Whenever I discuss a problem with my fellow teachers, I always find that each of us takes a very different approach to the problem and it is not always the same one who comes up with the best method.
One huge baggage that we carry is the traditional long-form of problem-solving. Written content because of its very nature ends up using the long notational method whereas the spoken way of solving can use logic. So one of the ways of going beyond your usual default settings in terms of approaching and solving a problem is to learn from others.
I remember how during the time I was preparing I looked at the way my teacher solved the problem and I thought — I want to be able to do it like him. It did not matter that I too had got the answer (in almost the same or slightly longer time) I found that his method was more efficient, more elegant.
This is not to say that all teachers everywhere are like this but there will always be something that a good teacher can show you.
There is a lot you can learn from a good peer
It is always great to have a good peer or peer group for your prep. I know the same is available online through various forums and social media groups but isn’t it better to have someone to immediately in person to discuss the doubts you have while solving a particular question that is part of the same syllabus that both of you are following?
Also, I have found that at times some students come up with better ways of solving questions than the instructors. I used to observe the guy who always used to top the tests during our prep and want to solve questions the way he used to — with minimal writing.
Online resources — Commentary is not coaching!
Things have changed a lot since the days of my prep and one of the biggest changes has been the emergence of forums and online communities on FB. While they are necessary — a great way to gather information, share content and build a peer network — they are by no means sufficient.
It is important to note that what forums offer is similar to commentary — the people doing it might be ones with credibility and their advice and observations genuine but can a batsman going through lean patch only listen to commentary and get better? Do they not usually work with specific batting coaches and bowling coaches to fix their game.
During the SimCAT season (and otherwise), I spend time meeting students in the evening. When students come to me and say that their scores are not going up and they have done this and that, I usually throw them a problem and see how they approach it — do they have a problem with concepts, are they reading the question properly, do they have a tendency to make silly mistakes, if yes, what is the source of the same.
Most of the time each student has different skill sets and different problem areas — it is both a question of kind and of degree. It is equivalent to watching a batsman in the nets and observing where the bat is coming down from, the way the feet are moving, and the way the head is positioned.
So, relying purely on online forums is in my view something that will not help you maximise your score. While a peer can help you to a good percentile, a mentor who knows the CAT inside out can take you to your best percentile.
I hope all IMS classrooms students are aware that they are entitled to 1-1 myPlans and free repeat classroom coaching!
The quality of your practice material is as important as your practice
Given the plethora of free options abounding on the internet, a lot of students easily fall into the trap of accumulating all the free content they can get their hands on. While the tendency is understandable, it is something that should be strictly avoided. Having worked at and headed the IMS Academics Dept. I more than know what a good question is and what goes into the making of a good question.
A small anecdote just to throw light on the art of question making. When entrants to the Academics team were given a question-making assignment, they usually tried to impress those of us who were already there, by trying to make a really, really complicated question. They tried to fit two or three concepts into one question and introduce a trick as well; the effort usually ended up being clumsy (and sometimes very funny, I remember a colleague maintaining a word document of bloopers churned out by newcomers).
So when one such newcomer presented me with one such clumsy effort, my advice to him was to imagine himself beginning to train to be a chef. Would he on the first day itself try to make an elaborate biriyani to showcase his skills. I told him that what he should be trying to make was the perfect idli with a perfect chutney (unlike in Chennai, in cities north of the Vindhyas, it is really tough to find good idlis itself, a good chutney — no way!)
A good question need not necessarily have to be a tough question. A good question is one that is articulated in English without ambiguity in the most straightforward words and is designed to elegantly test the application of a particular concept. One of my favourite questions to demonstrate this is the GMAT question below.
If s and t are integers and s/t=64.12, which of the following could be the remainder when s is divided by t?
It is deceptively simple. It tests the most basic of concepts and yet many good students stumble trying to get a handle on it.
Good questions cannot be rolled out of an assembly line just like that. Just like any other skill, the art of making questions is something that one learns from a mentor and perfects over a period of time. It goes without saying that brands that have been around for a while and hence have well-established academics teams are the ones that produce the best content.
As far as CAT Prep goes, the oldest players in the industry are the established classroom brands and not online brands and hence it makes sense to use content from any of the established classroom brands. It does not matter how convenient or how fancy the software is if the question is not reflective of the CAT. (In fact, when it comes to the GMAT I do not even advise the use of any brand, Indian or international, except the official questions and tests released by the GMAC since I feel none of them replicates the nature of questions posed on the GMAT).
Whichever brand you choose stick to it and finish the material, there is no point in accumulating material and then scratching your head about what to do in which order, becoming overwhelmed and posting queries of online groups, and ending the discussion with some good emojis and lols having forgotten that what you got was feel-good and some amateur advice from those who have never cracked the exam!
I wanted to focus on these two aspects since I feel that the fact that many students fall short of what could be their best percentile by 3-8 percentile points, is due to an agglomeration of material from various online sources. I am not against the use of the web and of technology.
It is just that I genuinely place a premium on two things — the quality of practice content and a great mentor.
I am taking some time with these posts since we need not rush into an action plan. We can focus on the larger things and slowly drill down to the specifics.
In the next post, I will deal with preparation strategies for each of the three sections.