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Cracking CAT: The 50-50 rule

April 22, 2009 12:00 IST

As CAT 2009 approaches, the pressure on B-school aspirants is mounting. Strategising, mock CATs, time management -- each have their own importance and value when it comes to making your CAT attempt meaningful.

To help test-takers, we asked students who have taken the CAT to share their tips and tricks. Here, Anshul Sharma, a student at IIM Lucknow, shares his experiences.

The biggest mistake a student preparing for CAT can make is that of either underestimating himself if he's getting low percentiles in mock CATs or falling into a sense of complacency if he's scoring high percentiles. One key thing to remember is: the performance in mock CATs is not going to affect the performance on D-day. Having said this, I don't mean that performances in mock CATs and success in CAT 2009 is going to have no correlation, what I mean is that getting 99.5 percentile in mock CATs doesn't guarantee you'll succeed in CAT 2009 and getting 96 percentile doesn't mean that you are out of the race!

Through this article, I'd like to address the concern of those students who want nothing less than IIMs but find themselves performing just about average in mock CATs and some of whom give up when they are unable to break into 99-plus percentiles. I believe that the major chunk of IIM aspirants belong to this category. Others who are performing great or below average would also find this article very useful.

IIMs look for the complete package
The fact that the IIMs give importance to the complete profile can't be emphasised more. So many of you who are hovering around 95-96 mark and have a good profile (with work experience and/or good academic performance) should feel reasonably confident of getting some calls if you can step up your performance a notch to around 98.5. Most of you must have experienced that getting to 98.5 is not as tough as moving from 98.5 to 99 and beyond. So just keeping a cool head, and solving the problems on merit should enable you to score 98+ if you've been consistently been around 96-97 in mocks. And this is good enough to get you calls if you've cleared all the cutoffs and have a good overall profile.

Aim reasonably
Most IIM aspirants have a tendency to aim very high. This problem is further compounded by the kind of competition they see around them, on various CAT forums and at top-notch coaching institutes. Suddenly everybody wants to score at least 50 per cent and get calls from all the IIMs. While setting a goal, students should realistically assess their ability.

For a student scoring around 90 (out of 300 based on CAT'06 and '07 format) it would be unrealistic to aim at 130 or more, which was approximately the score for all calls in the last two years. There is nothing like getting all the calls, but when you look too high you lose sight of the ground on which you are standing. Aiming too high, students are prone to feeling pressurised to solve more and more questions during actual exam. As a result their problem-solving ability and accuracy suffers and in some situations the last section gets completely messed up. This happened with me in one of my previous attempts at CAT, and I've seen many of my friends committing the same mistake.

Thus in above scenario, students with around 90 marks would do well to aim at 110 first: the score which was good enough to get three-four IIM calls in the last two years.

Clear cut-offs come what may 
This may sound cliched, but this is where most of the average performers fail in the actual CAT and many even from the bracket of 99+ percentile as well. Now how do you know if you've cleared the cut-off? Assuming that you've been performing at the 95-96 percentile level in mock CATs and you don't have any particular weakness, there are realistic chances that you'll most probably clear the cut-off for a section if you've spent 50 minutes on it, even if you have done badly in that section. In a typical CAT paper, based on the pattern of the last two years, a typical cut-off for a tough section is 22-28 marks and for an easy section is around 35.

The 50-50 rule
This is a simple rule to give you a reasonable assurance to clear cut-offs. "Don't spend more than 50 minutes on the first section and always start the last section at least 50 minutes before the end of test." The rest of the timelines may be modified as per the need of the hour.

Let's see how this rule helps by taking a possible experience during CAT'07 (which had an easy DI section, English was tricky hence tough, and the QA section was tough).

Suppose a person starts with the DI section. A test-taker would typically be thinking: "The section is easy; most of the questions seem to be a cakewalk. I know I should be able to clear the cut-offs, so I'll spend fvive minutes extra on it to maximise my score".

And he spends 55 minutes on it. Keeping VA section between two mathematics-based section, he takes up English next. "I'm marking the answers alright but I'm not sure if my answers are correct or not. The questions on the face of it seem doable, seems like I'm struggling unnecessarily." Moving further in the section, he thinks "This section is actually tougher than I anticipated. I'd need to spend more time on it to get the accuracy as well as attempts right."

Tentatively, he spends 50 minutes but still is not satisfied with his attempt because of the sheer nature of the section. The pressure on him is high and now he enters arguably the toughest section in CAT '07, QA, with only 45 minutes left. "I need to do questions quickly in this section as I've only 45 minutes with me, and I need to score because my last section went bad. These first few seem to be tough, let's move to the next bunch since I don't have time to ponder over these roadblocks. Even these seem to be tough. I'll have to pick one of these now."

He had wasted three whole minutes searching for an easy question and then spends five minutes trying to solve the first one he chooses. He thinks, "Only around 35 minutes are left and I've not solved even one question!"

Roughly, he effectively has only 35 minutes for the section where he should have had 50, that too when he's already feeling a lot of pressure. The pressure only mounts as time flies by. The end result: only the first section has gone well, the second average and the third messed up!

The very fact that he devoted more than 50 minutes to the first section led to the chain reaction where he found himself pressurised to do the next section faster than usual. What compounded the problem was the fact that both of the remaining sections were difficult. So he felt the pressure of time and scoring in VA section, which further resulted his delaying the start of last section as well. Unfortunately that was the toughest one and there the story ended. People naturally gifted in VA and QA may still get through and crack the test but not many of us are so blessed!

Spending a maximum of 50 minutes for the first section helps because you don't know about the other two sections and by not spending too much time on the first you still have some flexibility. Starting the last section with 50 minutes remaining is also essential as is apparent in this case. First, you know that you are giving a fair amount of time to this section so you are not in a hurry. Second, you can always go back to the other section if you feel like. Third, if you've spent 50 minutes or less on the first section then there is fair chance that you've done well in the second one as you've spent more time on it. As a result, you're not under ny added pressure.

The rule holds even if you choose the toughest section of the paper first. In fact, I believe that it is the best way to go since your mind is fresh. In this case, you should not spend more than 50 minutes even if you attempt somewhat less questions because first, you know that other people will also struggle in this section so the cut-off will be lower; second, not everybody is lucky enough to start with the toughest section first, those who are picking it up at the end will most probably fare worse, more so if they are not following 50-50 rule!

In the end, it's a matter of performing on that one day. Mock CATs don't matter much and you can easily add 4-5 percentiles to your score just by keeping calm, actively thinking about the difficulty level of the paper, moving to the next section (and specifically next question!) appropriately and using the 50-50 rule to avoid getting stuck below cut-offs!

By the way, I scored 98.01 percentile in CAT '07 with a pretty even break-up of 93.17 - 94.51 - 96.4 (QA-DI-VA). I had three years of work experience and got calls from IIM B, L and K.

Have you aced the CAT? Do you have tips that could help students improve their scores or stress-busting strategies to beat pre-CAT nerves? Send in your advice to and we'll publish your strategies right here on

Anshul Sharma