(Photo: Official US Navy Page)
Practicing mock tests forms an important aspect of preparation for CAT candidates, who often work their hearts out when it comes to practice. Some attempt up to three dozen mocks in a single preparation season. Many CAT takers often discuss with me their performance in these mock tests on the basis of the number of attempts, the overall accuracy and then ask me for advice about how to improve their scores. I advise them to do a very comprehensive analysis of the mock test results to improve performance and in this article I have tried to list down all that advice for the benefit of you, the readers.
Myth: More the practice, better the preparedness
This would have been true if one had been lifting weights at a gymnasium and preparing for a body-building contest. When it comes to CAT, the adage ‘practice makes a man perfect’ does not apply in its plain vanilla form. The syllabus for the CAT involves the application of concepts one learns in high school – how long does one really need to practice to improve the ability to apply these concepts? The truth is that beyond a certain point of time you will get bored. There is only so much longer you can sustain that ‘pressure cooker’ mode and keep practicing mocks. After reaching your limit, you would feel the exhaustion and boredom setting in. And once this fatigue comes in, even the simplest of questions will appear challenging – leading to demotivation and further dip in performance. It is advisable that you stay away from “over practice” and do not get into this vicious circle.
Practice, Analyse, Practice: The smart way
Hence, the smart way to practice is to constantly analyse your mistakes and then move on to practising the next mock. This is much better than exhausting yourself with mocks and gaining nothing out of it. This is something that I have emphasised at a number of forums, discussions and in a lot of my articles. The question that now arises is that how does one analyse the mocks properly.
My self-analysis technique
When I took the CAT for the final time (the year I ended up getting through IIM Bangalore), I realised that I only needed to improve my exam-taking strategy. And knowing my strengths and weaknesses was important to forming an impeccable strategy to perform better.
When I started taking sectional tests I used to go right down to the ‘sub-sub domain’ level to understand my weaknesses. I started by taking sectional tests (Algebra, Arithmetic, Geometry, etc.). I took multiple sectional tests for each of these domains, both timed and non-timed. This exercise gave me two key takeaways,
1. When I took a timed sectional test, I was able to draw out the accuracy versus speed trade-off for each of these domains and was able to identify the domains where I was performing better than a benchmark accuracy level.
2. When I gave a non-timed sectional test, I again measured the accuracy levels. Comparing this data with the data for the timed tests, I was able to zero in on the broad level domains where timing was not proving excessively detrimental to accuracy.
This helped me to identify the broad areas where I was stronger and the areas I needed to work on a bit more than the others.
Further in-depth sub domain analysis
I refer here to the sub domains and the sub-sub domains – for example, simple equations and equations in two-three variables respectively. The next step was to note down the time and accuracy for each of these sub domains. So I started maintaining an Excel sheet. For every question, I noted down the approximate time as well as the time that I ended up saving at the end of the test. I was also keeping a track of the accuracy in each sub domain. The idea was to form a graph which would tell me the sub domains where I was saving the maximum time with maximum probability of getting the question from that domain right. This was useful during the full length tests when I had limited time left at the end and I had to choose which questions to attempt.
While analysing sectional tests, I also analysed the mistakes and classified them under three heads: conceptual errors, errors in calculation, and problems with speed. This last type of error was very important – the case where I was not able to complete a question which I could have done correctly otherwise or where I guessed the answer due to paucity of time and that guess went wrong.
I also analysed the correct answers and looked at the solutions to understand if there was a shorter way to arrive at the correct answer, or if I had arrived at the correct answer by fluke or multiple mistakes.
How many mocks to practise and how to analyse full length tests
I never practised more than one full length mock test per week. To put this in perspective, I had not enrolled with any coaching institute, I was not doing any kind of self-study – I was just brushing up concepts based on the practice sectional tests and full length mock tests’ results. With the analysis that I had done with the sectional tests, I was able to identify clearly my strengths and weaknesses. This helped me focus specifically on those areas that needed improvement. This is where the in depth analysis helped a lot in improving my mock test scores and gave me a lot of confidence.
For the full length tests also I applied the same analysis technique. The key was that I was practicing a limited number of full length tests and hence I was able to find sufficient time to analyse each one of them. Consequently, this was helping me improve my scores slowly and gradually.
The experience of my batch mates
Most of my other batch mates were people with work experience, who followed a similar strategy of in depth analysis. I was spending close to 40% of my preparation time on result analysis and reworking and revising the concepts where I was going wrong. The same was true for most of my batch mates – since they all faced a paucity of time they all agreed to the fact that analysing your mocks was the best way to get the maximum “bang for the buck”. Another important technique that they used was to use the first 2-3 mocks as diagnostic tests only to analyse strengths and weaknesses and then focus on improving them. In fact, it was this need for in depth analysis that led me to design and co-found an online platform (see the article footnote) for helping people analyse their sectional tests in much more detail and then work on improving their mock test scores accordingly. Thereafter they drew out charts for their performance mapping.
Hope this helps candidates understand the nitty-gritties of mock test analysis. Feedback welcome.
(Deepak Nanwani is the co-founder of One52.com, an online adaptive solution for GMAT, MBA and UG exams. An alumnus of IIT Guwahati and IIM Bangalore, he is a master strategist for all competitive exams.)