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Online CAT: What to expect

By Sidharth Balakrishna
Last updated on: April 15, 2009 11:43 IST
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Students might have seen the news articles circulating recently announcing that the CAT might go online this year. This bit of news has, understandably, created quite a bit apprehension among prospective test-takers, since this mode of testing may well mean a big change for them.

So far, students have been quite used to taking written exams and now suddenly they are faced with an exam on a computer -- and that too such an important exam!

The first question that comes to mind is why is this shift to the online system being contemplated? There are two possible reasons:

  • The previous few years have seen a massive increase in the number of applicants taking the CAT. Last year, this figure stood at approximately 2.3 lakh and the number is likely to keep increasing. The infrastructure required to handle such volumes was becoming unmanageable -- more test centres, invigilators etc had to be hired in an ever-increasing number of cities.
  • Plus, the IIMs want to build an internationally known brand. The GMAT, for admission to institutes in the US, has been online for several years. If the IIMs want to compete internationally and build a global brand-name for themselves, the test procedures too need to be similar and maybe the old paper-and-pen test now appears outdated.

However, there are several challenges that an online format could face and it remains to be seen how the IIMs will manage these. There are major infrastructure issues: a huge database with thousands of questions will need to be in place for the computer to pull out questions. Several hundred test centres with the required number of computers will be needed and there problems could occur in processing data to award the scores to candidates. Power back-ups would be needed at all centres, in case power cuts occur. Can all these issues be tackled successfully? We shall just have to wait and see.

Changes which could occur

As for the actual test, there are various possible changes that could be introduced in order to make the online version usable. Some of these are:

  • If the test goes online, it is likely that the exam procedure itself will see changes. Instead of the test being held across the country on just one day, the exam could well be held in phases/ in a staggered fashion: there will be different time slots allocated, perhaps even on different days to various students. This will also mean that like the GMAT, there will be several sets of papers or questions (different test papers for different students) of approximately similar difficulty levels.
  • Next, most experts expect that the test will be 'computer-adaptive'. That means the computer chooses what questions to give you, depending on your success in solving the previous question ie if you demonstrate the ability to do the easy questions, the computer will give you tougher ones and so on. Your score will thus reflect your ability in solving higher and higher difficulty-level questions. This also means that instead of a percentage, you are likely to be given a score reflecting a grade.
  • Third, students may find that the type of questions appearing in CAT have undergone a change, since some types of questions cannot be easily amended to appear in a computer-based format. Think of lengthy Reading Comprehension passages or Analytical Reasoning questions, for example -- these questions may be amended a little. You may see shorter Reading Comprehension passages with more inference-based questions.

A possibility
Since candidates are allowed multiple attempts at different times for the GMAT/ GRE exams, their scores too are valid for more than just one year. Should the CAT go online, will the IIMs also allow the scores to be valid for multiple years? It remains to be seen.

The author is an MBA from IIM Calcutta and is employed with a management consultancy. He has also been a visiting faculty with MBA coaching centres in New Delhi, and can be contacted at

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Sidharth Balakrishna