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CAT: A holistic approach to VA

June 15, 2009 10:54 IST

As you prepare for CAT 2009, the first thing you need is a change in philosophy.

The Verbal Ability section of the paper tests your ability to:

  • Understand the nuances of the written word
  • Identify and differentiate the subtleties of meanings of words
  • Correct syntax, structure and formation of sentences
  • Identify the complex ideas presented in the paragraph and link it to the overall theme

As far as the English usage (EU) section is concerned, over the years CAT has moved from being an English language test to being an English usage test. The same is expected to continue this year with the computer-based CAT. It implies that until a few years back, a lot of questions on grammar, vocabulary and fill in the blanks were pretty straightforward. Either you knew the answer in 10 seconds or you didn't. No amount of deliberation and reasoning would help you if you didn't know the exact meanings of words and core concepts of grammar.

Over the last three or four years, CAT has been laying more emphasis on the contextual understanding of the language. It is not enough to merely mug up 3,000 high-frequency and high-power words as one would do in a GRE scenario. It is also not enough to know a Wren & Martin inside-out or to know all the parts of speech with their rules and exceptions.

One needs to understand and appreciate how these rules and words are used in particular contexts. For example the usage of the word 'tension' becomes entirely different in different contexts. It would be a part of quantum mechanics with an entirely different meaning in physics, be in the context of demand-supply gap in economics, existential issues in philosophy, wars in history or emotional stress in social psychology. How one understands the word and its application thus depends upon one's fundamental understanding of the subject matter. Needless to say, the more one comes across different subject matter, the better one is placed to maximise the chances of understanding complex subject matter during the CBT CAT 2009.

Man is a product of his habits
We are talking about inculcating, improving and then expanding reading habits here.

Let's begin by comparing two students, A & B, who are preparing for the online CAT.

Student A takes all the preliminary tests, goes through all the concepts, takes all the mock tests diligently and sticks to a time schedule till the day of CAT. He is not a voracious reader and doesn't feel the need to read anything extra. As a regimen, he reads through online newspapers daily, an occasional magazine and a rare novel.

Student B is not as disciplined as A in taking the tests or undergoing concept notes and skips a few mock tests. Instead she spends a lot of time reading fiction and non-fiction material on variety of topics ranging from biographies, religious and motivational books, philosophy, architecture, fluid mechanics, mountain biking, psephology, psychiatry, astronomy, finance and economics, Chinese culture, entertainment and media, etc.

Who do you think has a better chance of clearing the test? Surprisingly it is Student B. And the reason is the change in the system of test. Unlike university tests where one needs to revise the entire syllabus and go through last few years' tests to clear the exam, the English section in CAT has every material ever written in English in the last 250 years at its disposal.

As overwhelming as it may sound, it implies that all the literature in English is open to the CAT test maker to choose from. So how does one maximise one's chances of clearing the cut-off in the EU section? One obvious but humanly impossible task is to read all the literature in the world. A more realistic and do-able solution is to read some of the best books on as many diverse topics as you can. RC passages, Idea Completion Questions, Multi-blanks, Jumbled Paragraphs, etc have appeared from very diverse areas. So why not read up a sufficient amount of material in each area and make yourself at least less uncomfortable, if not more comfortable when they appear in the paper.

Also, when you have read more and read diverse topics, your comfort level and understanding (especially of passages) will shoot up dramatically. This will save valuable time in comprehending very complex data and make you more convinced about the answer that you think is the most appropriate one among the five choices. The same logic holds true for developing a habit of reading online.

The crux of the matter presented in the paragraphs above is this -- there is no other answer to ensure competence in the EU section than reading extensively, reading a lot, reading diverse subject matter and developing a habit of reading on a computer. The more varied books and magazines you read, the more familiar you become with different presentation styles and techniques of sentence formation. Subconsciously you are also soaking in good forms of English, learning new and unfamiliar words, internalising the correct forms of grammar and of course forming the much needed habit of reading on a computer.

I know what to do, tell me how to do it
It would help to form a reading habit of:

  • Online editorial page of one daily: The Times of India, Indian Express, Hindustan Times, The Hindu, Deccan Chronicle, Deccan Express, The Telegraph etc.
  • Online editorial page of one finance daily: The Economic Times, Business Standard, Financial Express, Businessline, etc.
  • Online material from any international magazines: The Economist, Time, Far Eastern Economic Review, Harvard Business Review, McKinsey quarterly, etc.
  • International dailies: Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, Financial Times, etc.
  • Books by Isaac Asimov, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (author of the Sherlock Holmes novels), Dan Brown, Ayn Rand, Richard Bach, Stephen Covey, Adam Smith, Nicolo Machiavelli, Karl Marx, PG Woodhouse, etc.
  • War speeches of Winston Churchill, letters of Abraham Lincoln, autobiographies of Andrew Carnegie, Adolf Hitler, Benjamin Franklin, MK Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, writings of Vivekananda, etc.

Begin somewhere, anywhere, with a dedication of about 45 minutes a day. As you become more comfortable, you may want to increase your reading time and material, and cover all the six areas mentioned above. The idea is to read more and reduce the surprise element in the CAT.

Getting the holistic approach
Apart from reading extensively, it helps to keep practicing a few questions on verbal everyday. If you are new to the CAT format, you may want to begin with two questions a day for the first week (basic level). If you are already comfortable and know the pattern, it would help to push 10 questions a day to begin with (intermediate level). It can be a mix of one passage with five questions, three parajumbles, and two fill in the blank questions. As you become more familiar, move on to other types of questions by the third week -- Critical Reasoning, FIJ, Paragraph completion, Multiple blanks, Analogies, etc.

The idea is to start from areas which are more comfortable and then move on to areas which are less familiar. With reading on diverse subjects going on simultaneously, one should be in a position to firm the grip on questions more and more as practice continues. About three-four months before the CAT, you should be able to move to the difficult level of questions in the area.

Reading Comprehension is the key
As Reading Comprehension forms about 35 to 60 per cent of the EU section, it is an area where more attention and detailing is called for. You can try different strategies of attacking an RC, after going through the concept chapters provided. For eg:

1. The PQ approach (passage first, then the questions)

  • PQ: Read the entire passage thoroughly first and then read the questions
  • Pscan Q: Skim and scan through the passage and keep going back and forth with questions and passage.
  • 2PQ, 4PQ, 6PQ: Read the first two paragraphs, scan all the questions and see what you can answer, then read para 3 and 4, scan the questions and see what you can answer, then read para 5 and 6 and so on.

2. The QP approach (questions first, then the passage)

  • QP: Read all the questions with their answer options first and then the passage
  • 1QP, 2QP, 3QP, 4QP: Read question 1 with all the options, then go through the entire passage to answer it. Then read question 2, go through the entire passage, and so on.
  • Qstem P: Just read all the question stems, without reading the answer options. Then read the passage and try answering the questions by reading them with the options.

Once you have tried these different strategies (recommended minimum of three passages with each strategy), identify which strategy you are more comfortable in and which one gives you a lot of difficulty. It is possible that in passages having certain subject matter for eg economics, globalisation, public policy, you may be comfortable with 1QP, 2QP approach. Whereas in some other topics such as philosophy, literature, you may be very comfortable with the QP approach.

Once you have identified your comfort areas, try to solve a few more passages with the frozen strategy and see if your attempts and the number of correct answers go up within the allocated time. Keep reshaping and polishing your strategy based on:

  • Length of the passage
  • Familiarity and complexity of the subject matter
  • Number of questions

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