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CAT 2009: What to expect

Last updated on: June 30, 2009 11:36 IST

After threatening to for more than three years, the CAT is finally going to be a computer-based test (CBT). And this means BIG changes for a CAT aspirant. And until the IIMs give more clarity to their potential students (all wannabe MBAs), there is confusion and questions galore. Amit Saboo from Career Avenues (www.catavenues.com) tries to answer some of the key questions and suggests strategies for students to adopt now until the IIMs come out with more information. So here we go:

What is the official information that IIMs or Prometric ETS have shared (as on June 8):

  • CBT CAT will be conducted over a period of 10 days, sometime towards the end of the year. The test will be held three times each day.
  • Prometric ETS of the US will manage and administer the test, and provide the computer-based testing platform. Prometric also conducts GRE and ToEFL worldwide. The content will be designed by IIM professors who make up the CAT committee.
  • The cost of taking the test for the student will be marginally higher than last year.
  • The test will not be an adaptive test like the GMAT or the GRE, ie it does not seek to identify the exact aptitude level of the student by increasing or decreasing the levels of difficulty of the questions based on responses to previous questions. A predesigned test will be administered to a student. However different students would get a different set of questions. Hence, theoretically there would be a database of questions of predefined difficulty levels and all students will overall receive questions of the same level.
  • There are multiple versions of the test (reports say 30) that will be administered, that is for 10 days, 3 test times a day.
  • The nature of the test, however, will remain the same and CAT candidates can carry paper and pencils for rough work. They will be able to go back and forward in the computer-based format as well.
  • There would be security features like fingerprinting, digital recording and manual invigilation at the test centres.
  • An on-screen timer will continuously advise candidates as to the time remaining.
  • Scores will be made available to examinees several weeks after the end of the 10-day testing window.

There are many questions that still remain unanswered, however. Let's explore their probable answers:

  • The actual dates are yet to be announced, but if the CAT is held in the second half of November as it usually is, it is likely that it will be spread over two weekends to ensure that people with work experience (and those who are currently working) are not inconvenienced. So, the likely dates are either around November 13-22 or 20-29.
  • Do you get to choose the date or will the IIMs give you a random date on any of those 10 days? The IIM release says: "Students can choose their own date, as the test will be spread over 10 days". However, what happens if 25 per cent of the students choose a particular date. Obviously some of the students would be given another date by the IIMs. So, is it likely that the IIMs would ask the students to choose their three most convenient dates or something along those lines. However, it is still possible that a greater number of students than the current capacity (in terms of infrastructure) choose a particular set of dates.
  • Our analysis shows that even with using randomisation theory, it is unlikely that the IIMs would be able to satisfy 100 per cent of the students from their set of chosen dates. A likely reason for this is that more students are likely to choose from the last few days of the 10-day period to take advantage of other test-takers' knowledge and experience of the CBT environment and that there would be a clearer idea about the pattern of the paper and questions.
  • If there are 30 versions of the test, does that mean that all students taking the exam at a particular time slot will get the same questions? Possibly yes. However, students could get the questions in different sequences, just like the old practice of the CAT to have four different papers with the same set of questions.
  • How many questions will the test have? My guess is that it is likely to be around 75 questions, maybe even marginally less. GMAT has 75 questions, is easier compared to CAT and the MCQ questions section are to be completed in 2.5 hours. CAT has already moved to be a 2.5-hour test, and has flirted with 75 questions in the last few years (2006 and 2007). Moving to a new platform will add additional pressure on the student. The IIMs have two options if they want to increase the questions from the existing 90 (CAT 2008). Make the test easier or increase test duration. They are not likely to go the first way as they publicly proclaim that they are proud that CAT is the toughest test in the world. And increasing the test duration is not possible due to logistical issues under a CBT format.

    So it is likely to be 90 or less questions. I would go with less so that the decrease in questions compensate for the complexity caused by CBT format. After all, it is not the same to answer questions when it takes time to shift between questions and sections, and also because you cannot do scratch work on the screen (next to the questions). My wish list, however, is a more balanced test (easier test) with probably a few more questions to offer more choice to students (around a 100).
  • Will you be able to see all the questions at one time or will you be only able to see one question at a time? Can you move between sections or is each section going to be separately timed? Can your first attempt a Quant question, the second a Verbal and the third a Data Interpretation question? These are the most important questions as these determine test-taking strategy.

Technically speaking, ETS has the capability to serve the test in at least four different formats.

    • One question at a time with no flexibility to go back and answer a previous question. This way, either you answer a question when you see it or you skip a question but you cannot come back to it later. This is how GMAT and GRE are currently structured. We predict that this is not likely to be the scenario as this requires the test to be highly scientific and questions to be well researched (prior testing in a simulated environment) as the sequencing of questions alone can make a significant difference in different students' scores. The IIMs are not likely to use previous CAT questions though they have been tested as those questions are already in the public domain. And neither the IIMs nor Prometric can test approximately 3,000 plus questions sufficiently in the given time on a similar profile of candidates as CAT takers.
    • One question at a time but with the flexibility to go back and answer a previously unanswered question. So either you answer a question when you see it or you skip a question but you can come back to it later. In this format, test-takers would also have the flexibility to change their answers to a question that is already answered. This is a good method, especially if the software allows you quick navigation to come back to an unanswered question and allows you to mark questions that you may want to come back to. In this format, prior testing of questions is not a very high pre-requisite. There is a probability that this format could be used, albeit low. This is because CAT has always been a test that requires a good test-taking strategy (time management, time allocation between sections, managing surprises in test), and in this format, that does not get sufficiently tested. Especially true because the IIMs are not likely to make a significant departure in future test structures in the online testing scenario, and the deal with Prometric is for five years. If implemented, this would take the zing out of CAT and it would become a mechanical test of solving questions.
    • One section at a time. In this format all questions within a section would be easily accessible on a scrollable page. Maneuverability between sections and sectional time limits are variables that the IIMs can play with, which can change the rules of the paper. Initiating either of both leads to limiting the test strategies. Our guess would be that the IIMs would use neither of them.
    • This would mean that IIMs are likely to present a format that is exactly the same as the current CAT, with the only difference being that it is a CBT format. So 75 to 100 questions in different sections, with the flexibility to jump to any section at any time, and within a section being able to see all the questions at one time. Based on inputs from industry experts and our analysis team, this seems to be the most probable scenario.

Okay, so there are multiple options. Does it mean that your CAT prep strategy needs to change? Yes, definitely. In the next article we look at changes in test prep strategies. We have compared the transition of CAT from paper-based test to CBT with the similar transition in GMAT a decade ago. There is rich learning in the issues faced by students at that point of time and what did successful students do differently. Also the changes made by leading GMAT test prep companies have been analyaed.

The author of the article is CEO of Career Avenues and now ProAvenues, who has helped thousands of students into the IIMs over the past 12 years. You can reach him on amit@catavenues.com

For more articles and CAT updates, visit the blog on www.catavenues.com