The changed CAT 2011 pattern: What does it mean for you?

Editor’s note: This ia an analysis of the CAT 2011 test pattern changes by Ankur Agarwal, a guest author and an IIM Lucknow alumnus who works in a senior position at an Ahmedabad-based coaching institute. The views expressed here are his own.

(Original photo credit: terren)

The new Common Admissions Test (CAT) pattern looks interesting prima facie and is a step closer to resembling international testing systems. One can’t say for sure if this is a long-term step because the CAT has been previously known to change its pattern between years. Such pattern changes obviously keep coaching institutes on their toes and also provide an opportunity for people with genuine aptitude for management a greater chance. This move by the CAT is a step in the right direction and to some extent, it may address issues faced in the previous versions of computer-based CAT. The following points in my opinion constitute the broader impact of the CAT 2011 pattern.

Time limitations

Earlier CAT papers allowed test-takers to show their skills at time-management and smart selection of questions to derive the most out of their strengths and accommodate their weakness by spending more time on their weak sections. But in CAT 2011, you can’t do this anymore. This is obviously good for test-takers who can perform equally well in both the sections.

One may say that this is a disadvantage to those with engineering backgrounds because they will be time-bound while solving the Quant and DI questions but I don’t agree. The real problem is that you will be forced to spend 70 minutes on 30 questions, which means that you will have to face the tough questions in each section and these tough questions will be the eventual differentiators between a sectional 94 percentiler and a sectional 99 percentiler. Being good at selecting questions smartly, leaving out the tricky ones may no longer get you an IIM call. You will have to face and conquer the tough questions. The prognosis is identical to that of a person targeting 760+ in the GMAT.

Two Sections

Quant and DI no longer contribute to forming two-thirds of the paper. Since the weightage of verbal increases in the net score, your overall score will be affected. But it’s good that you already know about this change, three months prior to the test. Imagine the plight of those taking the CAT back in 2008 when test-takers were shocked to find that there were 40 questions in verbal and 25 questions each in DI and Quant only after sitting in the examination hall.

All I am simply saying here is that the CAT changed patterns drastically in its previous editions, so there is no reason to panic but to be excited that you are aware of this change 80 days in advance. You have the time to rethink your strategy and prepare accordingly.

What to expect?

On the face of it, CAT 2011 seems like a step towards standardization on the lines of international tests such as GRE and GMAT which have matured over a period of time, compared to the CAT which is only 2 years old in its computer-based avatar. This may take the IIMs a step closer to having a year-long testing window for CAT in the years to come. But at Endeavor, the coaching institute where I teach, we view this as a self-correction exercise by the IIMs to bring the faith back into the testing system.

Difficulty Level

The difficulty level is all set to go up. We observed that CAT 2010 was overall tougher than CAT 2009. Expect the toughness of questions to go up further this year.

With a sectional time-limitation of 70 minutes, the makers of the CAT would have to increase the difficulty level of questions so that students are tested really well in that period. This may mean that Quant and DI questions may involve intense calculation work. At the same time, Critical Reasoning might make a comeback. Critical Reasoning has a big share of questions in GMAT’s Verbal section and used to frequently appear in the paper-based versions of the CAT.

In CAT 2009 and 2010, a 20-question section didnt allow the paper-setters enough leeway to balance the section with adequate questions of varying ease and difficulty. But with a flexibility of 30 questions, you can easily expect seven to eight really tough questions in each section which will eat into time. The relatively easy questions too would continue to be a tad tedious and tricky.

Fairer Results?

I have subscribed to the theory that the problem with computer-based CAT is not the varying difficulty between slots, but rather the number of questions in each section. You see, having 20 questions in each section is not a large-enough basis to normalize between sections, especially when it is common for a question or two to contain bugs. A 35-question section on the other hand will relatively be free of these inherent pitfalls but a 30-question section is not a bad start either.

The makers of the CAT have always maintained that they do enough to equate the difficulty level of question papers across slots and that their normalization process sorts out any further unaddressed issues. Both these claims are easier made than done, especially in their original format of 20 questions per section. A 30-question set per section will be relatively free of subjectivity in judging the difficulty level of questions in the paper creation stage. There will be further correction because of the fact that one section does not impact the other section, thanks to the sectional time limit.

So there is a greater reason to believe that the normalization process will be far better this year and test-takers will get relatively just results compared to CAT 2009 and 2010.

Key Takeaways

  1. The sectional time limit would also raise the overall difficulty level of the paper, giving the CAT an opportunity to regain the lost crown of being a difficult paper. This however also paves the way for tougher CAT papers over the next few years.
  2. The Verbal section will play a greater role. Start working on your foundations in the English language and reading skills.
  3. If you are targeting the IIMs, be prepared to tackle a few tough questions as well and not rely merely on smart selection of questions.
  4. Silly mistakes will count you dearly. Accuracy will be the differentiator!
  5. Keep your fingers crossed. The normalization process just might evolve and make the way for fairer results.

All the best!

The author Ankur Agarwal is an alumnus of IIM Lucknow and is currently working as Vice President – Finance at Endeavor Careers and is also associated with the design and development of its online testing portal