To CAT or not to CAT? – By CAT Author M S Ganesh

Many of you reading this article are interested in an MBA or planning or considering taking a CAT shortly. I wish to state upfront that the decision to live your life in a way you want is your personal decision. I am neither qualified nor interested in advising you on how you should prioritize things in your life, but if an MBA figures somewhere in those options, what I have to say may make some sense to you and will be helpful to you. 

With 17-years of mentoring and training experience for CAT (since 2003) and having written a few CATs over that period, I have studied this intent very seriously and professionally. Having interacted with 100,000+ potential MBA students over that period and having studied it deeply, I have observed some things which I felt will be helpful to share with you and possibly benefit you.

I, myself, took the CAT in the late 70s, for my selection into an IIM, during my final year in IIT Bombay and was successful in getting selected into IIM Calcutta and completed my two-years MBA there and finished a professional managerial career spanning over three decades. When I started mentoring for CAT in 2003, the first thing I observed was that CAT had changed. It had changed in every conceivable mode. There were way too many people taking the CAT (in 2003, over 250,000 people) compared to the seventies, for starters. Also, the type of questions & the method presented was a more complicated pattern. Since then, I have observed that the only sure thing about every subsequent CAT is that it is different from the previous ones. This makes preparation for CAT seem like shooting a ball at a moving goalpost!

One of the first questions or concerns that I have seen with many students finishing their undergraduate program – engineering, commerce, arts, science, etc. is how to proceed further. The need for taking a job and building a career, enjoy it and make sufficient money to live the life of their dream is a standard in everyone. A few may know exactly what they want – they are truly blessed, but the majority is clueless and free-floating. If you happen to be an engineer, there is an additional aspect -they want to get out of engineering! At this stage, the little bird on the window sill starts chirping out the three-letter word – MBA! Further investigation, amongst peers and others, focuses on an MBA program and then the CAT. The first question is, thus, should I try the CAT?.

Let me explain that there are over 3,000 business schools in India that offer two-year full-time MBA programs, with over 300,000 MBAs passing out every year. Most do not need the CAT. Multiple aptitude tests are available to enrol for these programs. The CAT is just one aptitude test that the IIMs administer, but this test’s results are taken as one selection criteria by 150+ top business schools in India. The rest of them do not need you to take the CAT. So, the desire and interest to take the CAT should keep this aspect in mind. Why would someone want to take the most challenging test when more accessible options exist?. 

It is essential to realize that when starting an undergraduate program in India, most students are probably 16-17 years young and are relatively unclear why they chose a stream in college like arts, commerce, science, engineering, law, architecture, insurance, etc. It is thus natural that within 2-3 years of commencing this undergraduate program, their interest wanes. They need to decide all over again as a mere undergraduate degree in India is insufficient to get social status and earn sufficient to live. Bringing them to the doorstep of a graduate study program (called post-graduate, in India) and some meander into the Garden of Management!.

Thus, doing an MBA is almost like putting the icing on your undergraduate cake for many of you. How good your undergraduate cake is, I am clueless, but I am confident what will “sell” the cake has to be the “icing!” If this is valid for you, you will realize it is imperative to select the “best icing” available in the market today. Hence the need to pursue an MBA at one of the best business schools out there herein comes into play the CAT exam, which is required to enter the top business school.

I will now address another critical angle to view this decision problem. By the time you come to this fork in life, most of you will be in your early twenties and maybe mid-twenties, if you have been working for a few years, since your undergraduate degree. The full-time MBA takes 2 – years, and you will thus be two years older by the time you start your managerial career – in your mid-twenties. Most corporate retirement happens around the mid or late sixties, and thus all professionals have a career lifespan of around four decades. Forty years or so is almost twice the time you have lived on the face of this earth and for you to take a call based on such an unseen time frame is practically impossible.

How can one learn something in two years of a business school term and expect to remember and further implement what is known, over a career span of four decades, when one can barely remember anything learned in the previous semester? Thus, the critical thing is not only what is what you learn, but also where you learn it (the quality of the school), how it is understood (creativity), and with whom it is discovered (networking). These three legs, on which your career will take the long walk of four decades, is done best in one of the best business schools and entering the portals of one of them needs the CAT.

I have established a case, through sheer logic and experience, as to why taking the CAT is so critical, should you wish to pursue an MBA. That decision to do an MBA must be yours and yours alone, as you must be responsible for four decades of your professional life and the rest of your personal life. Many of these ideas have been covered in my book 99 PERCENTILE, which I recommend you read. Having established a basis for taking the CAT, I will address the issues of what is CAT, how one prepares for a successful outcome, and other downstream activities needed to succeed in my subsequent articles, coming on pagalguy.com

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