How to BELL THE CAT – A Consultant’s Approach!

With about a month or so to go, the question that junta is asking at this point is not “Do I have it in me to crack CAT?” as much as “Do I have it in me to crack me in crack CAT in a month?”

Now let us presume that you present your problem to a management consultant like say McKinsey, what would they come up with? Remember they would give you only strategic advice, no actual implementation level micromanagement. Here are a few pointers that could actually turn up in their analysis report:

(1) Don’t boil the ocean

Simply put, don’t try to do something unimaginably huge (boil the ocean) to bring results that are not proportionate (get salt). This ways you will just cause more anguish when you realize half way through that the latent point of boiling for the ocean is pretty huge. Another way to put it is: Work smart, not hard.

Try to come up with a list of possible tasks for CAT and try figuring out what the amount of effort required to do it is. At the end of it, you can either lessen the effort or cross it out completely. Here is an example. A lot of you may be wondering if it is really wise to “do” the word-list. Go through a realistic run of where you are. This is a good time to go through the kind of words given over the last 4 years (over which CAT has kind of streamlined the questions) and figure if you really need to go through those huge word-lists. Amazingly at the end of the exercise, you might want to do away with it all together, or go through a selective portion just to ramp up your rusted skills. (For example, you might decide to do only the “High Frequency” words from Barron’s GRE.)

(2) Pluck the low-hanging fruits first

An important point that many students don’t realize at this juncture, due to immense pressure, is that it makes more sense for one to consolidate what he/she knows, rather than make an immature attempt to try learning everything. Do not attempt anything that is difficult. I have seen many students coming to me at the nth moment asking if they should be attempting “Permutation Combination”. My simple answer is – If you have not done it in your schooling, if you have not done it in college, if you have not done it through out your CAT prep so far, then the chances that on November 21st the neurons in your brain actually go into a synaptical surge and the answer will plop in front of you are ………well, to be frank – quite bleak! Rather I would strengthen topics I know well – percentages, profit-loss, mensuration etc.

On the flip side, is it wise to be completely ignorant about these topics? The answer is a resounding NO!!!! I strongly suggest you take out some time (a few hours perhaps from an otherwise eventful study schedule) for each of these dreaded topics and figure out which are the formulae and basic types of problem. The test-setters of the more diabolic variety are known to sneak in a few deceptively. Most test-takers are blissfully unaware of this till the coaching institutes print a bold “SITTER” next to that question a day after the CAT and the cutoff seems all the more further away. Better safe than sorry!

(3) Think out of the box

Edward De Bono once famously remarked “An expert is someone who has succeeded in making decisions and judgments simpler through knowing what to pay attention to and what to ignore.”

Try to ensure that whatever you do from now on is not something that is mechanical or by rote, but something that involves you actively in the process. So take up each problem and try figuring out stuff like – can it work with some variation? How can anyone twist this problem? Is there a simpler way of doing this? How I can design a problem for someone along these lines? etc. etc. In short – try to “internalize” the problem you are solving.

A classic example is the mock CATs you have taken so far. Even for those questions which have helped you inch towards the elusive cut-offs – try to figure which were ill-considered attempts. I have seen many instances in the past when my reason for choosing a correct answer was preposterous to say the least (I have, in good humor and on occasions, picked up answers because, from among others, it “sounded” correct!) and yet managed to get them right. Try to sit and figure if the same problem has a better way of doing it.

(4) Peel the onion

Layer by layer……one thing at a time

Let us presume you have a problem with reading large data in DI. In short, number crunching is not exactly one of your virtues, (normally these are areas you would not touch with a ten-foot pole!), yet is a necessary evil which cannot be avoided (like say P&C;). We need to figure out how best to deal with this.

Take a couple of the mocks you have taken and try figuring out how you have done in it. See what is it that actually stopped you from getting in the top percentile. “I suck at numbers” is an answer which will neither aid your morale nor help you analyze yourself better. Be more objective and tough. Speed? Bad at approximation? The questions were too ambiguous? Whatever the reasons – try making a list of those things. Now instead of racking your brain alone over what can be done for that, speak to someone at your institute. Better still, catch a friend/mentor who has “been there and done that” for his/her insights on what can be done to help bridge this gap. Remember that you may also use the “boiling the ocean” principle here and remove any ideas of indulging in frivolous activities like learning Vedic mathematics at this point.

(5) Pareto’s principle

The 80/20 rule. Some of the variations are :

20% of the time goes in doing 80% of the tasks, 20% of the business brings 80% of the revenue,20% of the world controls 80% of the money etc. The point here is: Try to figure which is the 80% that is bringing you the marks and focus on that. I read somewhere what one of the CAT 2003 100%iler had written – he had wanted to maximize on Verbal and tried to get cutoff in quant. And sure he maximized in Verbal with a score of 45 (and just around 17.5 in QA)!! There is no use spending all 1hour in quant and getting 2 marks more than the cutoff and spending 20mins in verbal and get barely get the cutoff.

(6) Parkinson’s Law

The law states – “Work expands to fill the time available to do it” I think the scourge of every self-respecting graduate is doing a “night-out” to write that college journal a day before the submission. And we carry this habit with us to the work place too. Just look around you it keeps happening all the time – software project, advertising campaigns, government decisions – you name it! So is it with CAT.

Set yourself challenging schedules and stick to it. Tell yourself you are going to analyze those dreaded mock cats which have been piling on a corner for the last few months. Sounds impossible right? But as the Nike ad says “Just do it!” Even if you are not able to complete it, so be it, at the least you started and finished in a go. Keep challenging yourself; try sneaking out every last minute you have to get something done. Do those distasteful tables when you are having your smoke after lunch. Do those obnoxious RC practices when you are reading the morning newspaper.

And remember you cannot really challenge yourself unless you have a hard target to achieve.

(7) The fish cannot bat and I cannot swim

Words from Boycott could not be truer in the CAT perspective. Realize what your areas of strength and areas of weaknesses are. But still at the end of the day there will be the odd ball “stud” who licks the field clean. So in your approach you would be wise if you remember to steer clear of any ego-issues. Don’t try tackling that extra toughie DI problem set which goes into 3rd decimals of approximation or the arcane RC passage on Madhubani paintings just because you are out there trying to prove you too are one. The point in case is that if you were one, you would not have been struggling.

Last year there was this guy in IIT Chennai. He was a math and physics Olympiad with an IIT-JEE AIR of 12. He ended up with a 100%ile (and a score of 103 in CAT 2003!). He went on to join IIM-B. Realize that there are always going to be guys like this. Instead of worrying about them, realize that at the most there are going to be around 100 odd guys like this. Forget about them. Think about the 1100 others who are vying for the same seat as you. And if you are really bothered about such guys, then stock your fridge with some cold beer!

( Fail to plan then you plan to fail

Put in excruciating detail into the planning/scoping work before you start out. Make sure every waking hour is accounted for. Doesn’t mean you have to go overboard and start planning to account for each minute. Rather, a detailed account of how you are going to spend time over the next month. A caveat to the fore-mentioned point. At times we do things just because it was in the original plan. Make sure your plan is flexible. If a week before CAT you figure that doing more practice in RC is going to pay off, so be it!! But make sure you constantly check your plan and ask “Is it the right thing to do?” rather than “Am I doing it correctly?”

(9) Life is what happens when you are busy making plans – John Lennon (1940-1980)

Some words of wisdom that I keep telling myself everyday, CAT or no CAT. “The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill. It will make or break a company… a church… a home.

The remarkable thing is we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past… we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude… I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it. “

At the end of the day it is a just an exam. Nothing more. Nothing less. No reason why you should treat it differently. No reason why you should worry more. No reason why you should not think about other things in life. No reason why you should not keep your cool. If you were expecting a list of dos and don’ts I am afraid I might have disappointed you. But this is not meant to serve as one in the first place – the institutes are already doing a pretty good job of that. What I have done is tried summarizing a few points (which I believe are neither mutually exclusive nor collectively exhaustive) to give you a checklist against which you can verify the usefulness of everything that you would be doing from now on.

Arun ‘Psychodementia’ Jagannathan

(The author himself is a consultant working as an Associate – Technology for Sapient Corporation, who gave up any notions of cracking CAT after having failed for the third time last year)