Increasing speed for CAT

Let us think about this with a simple experiment. Pick a passage from the Hindu editorial, read it at your natural speed, and write down the time it took to read this passage. Now, pick another passage from the same newspaper, and then psych yourself up and try to read this much quicker. Odds are that you gained a maximum of 2 minutes through your “efforts” at speed reading, but do not really remember anything in the second passage that you read.

For the love of god, do not chase speed.

I cannot say this emphatically enough. Do not chase speed. If you get the basics right, speed will follow. Students have the idea of speed hardwired into their heads very early in their preparation and it messes with their minds. Doing something quickly is a consequence of preparing well for it, it cannot be seen as a target to attain while in the exam.

Post hoc ergo propter hoc

Someone who has prepared well can attempt 25 questions in Quant in 60 minutes and get 99th percentile. However, 90% of the students go into the exam hall thinking “I need to attempt 25 questions in order to get 99th percentile”, and chase this 25 attempts. This 25 attempts becomes a target that consumes everything else.

Attempting 25 questions is a necessary but insufficient condition to get a great score. Chasing a particular number of attempts and achieving this might give an artificial high immediately after the exam, but does not guarantee a good score.

Is speed irrelevant? 

Of course not. This is a competitive exam, so it goes without saying that speed is vital. The approach to building speed needs to be fine-tuned. One has to focus on different things in a bid to improve natural speed, and not fret continuously about number of attempts. Put differently, speed is a parameter that you observe, it is not something that you can directly impact. The more you try to directly govern speed, the more out of whack accuracy goes.

So, what do we do to ‘inadvertently’ increase speed?

Now that is an interesting question. If we need to be quick, and cannot directly chase this, what proxy should we choose. I would go after three variables – Intensity, automaticity and prudent question-selection.

Intensity

During mock exams, students usually have two spells of 15 minutes each where one attempts only 2-3 questions. This is because the brain tires and starts wandering a little bit. Find these spells and address them, and you will find yourself attempting 6-7 questions more easily. Note that this is not an issue of speed per se, but one of stamina. Staying sharp for 180 minutes is tough. Unless you train aggressively, this is not going to be easy.

Automaticity

An extract from an interview with a Cognitive Scientist reads thus – One of the more important mechanisms is the development of automaticity. When cognitive processes (e.g., reading, writing grammatically, reading a map, identifying the dependent variable in a science experiment, using simple mathematical procedures) become automatic, they demand very little space in working memory, they occur rapidly, and they often occur without conscious effort.

Everyone can figure out that the roots of x^2 – 8x + 15 = 0 are 3 and 5. Some just know it as 3, 5 without any apparent effort. Do enough drill so that a great many of the processes get done without conscious effort. This automaticity helps us do things quicker. More importantly, it ensures that you stay fresh for the trickier bits. If you have to concentrate for every little bit then fatigue gets to you sooner or later.

Question-selection

Andy Flower, a wicket-keeper batsman from Zimbabwe scored nearly 5000 test runs at an average of more than 50. On ability to execute, Andy Flower was just above average, where he excelled in was figuring out which shot to play for which delivery. He was probably one of the greatest ever in shot selection.

Most mock CAT providers provide an interesting pie chart at the end that breaks time into three segments – time spent on ones that you get correct, time spent on ones that you get wrong, and time spent on questions that you skip. Students will be surprised to know that nearly a third of the time is spent on questions that remain unanswered. This time spent cannot be taken to zero; but beat this down and you can easily squeeze in another 7-8 questions. Simplify the decision-making. Leave questions merrily, and do all this with a bit of joy. 

Frenzy does not help, stay calm

Many of you might not have heard this name, but there was a fabulous footballer Juan Roman Riquelme who used to play for Argentina and a small club called Villareal (he had played for Barcelona also, but was not successful there). He was a ‘game’ maker, who practically just ambled on the pitch, rarely tackled and did nothing much defensively. The one criticism that fans and pundits regularly heaped on him was the fact that he was too slow. He played his best football under too coaches – Pellegrini and Pekerman. Both understood that Riquelme does not slow the game, he transforms the game to his speed. He dictates the pace of the game, he slows it down so that the sudden acceleration would be a surprise. In an interview, Pekerman said it best when he said “It is the ball that needs that should do the running, not the player.”

I have given this elaborate background to convey the idea that one can do things quickly, wonderfully, efficiently without operating in a frenzy. Speed often gets mixed up with working in a frenzy. In rushing through all the parts of the paper in a state of heightened excitement, the kind of excitement that is unsustainable beyond 20 minutes. The best people operate ultra-efficiently while at the same time remaining calm and composed. They function with an intensity for each question while staying calm enough to know the overall picture. 

To continue with sporting examples, Zidane and Iniesta are footballers who control the tempo without looking like they are rushed into anything. Mark Waugh and VVS Laxman exude calm even at their most intense. Dhoni when he is plotting a chase is a picture of calm. 

To conclude, quit the idea of chasing speed. Focus on building intensity and on getting the fine details automatically. You might be surprised at how much of a boost this can give your score. 

Best wishes for CAT.

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