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'Focus On Raising Intelligence'

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Sheer boredom started it all. Arun Sharma, an IIM Bangalore alumnus, discovered his passion for training students during a two-month long vacation. Author of two of the most sought after books on CAT preparation, namely, 'How To Prepare For Quantitative Aptitude For The CAT' and 'How To Prepare For Data Interpretation & Logical Reasoning For The CAT ', Sharma is a CAT prep instructor and owns the online portal called Mindworkzz, which allows 30 hours of live classroom sessions and provides access to more classes. After acing the CAT successfully 13 times in a row, the author has come up with a new book called CAT Online with Tata Mc Graw-Hill - a unique product that integrates the print, electronic, online and mobile medium for CAT preparation at just Rs 1,295. The printed book is a comprehensive support system for CAT aspirants with coverage of all sections supported by plenty of practice exercises. The CD has tips and techniques video, recorded classes, mock tests and a walkthrough on how to join the online classes. Businessworld Online's Poonam Kumar spoke to Sharma about the CAT's changing pattern, strategy and more. Excerpts:
Why and when did you start training people for CAT?
It all started as a small experiment after I graduated from IIM-Bangalore. I had a job offer from IIM placements but there was a two-month gap between my graduation and joining and I didn't want to get bored. I had gone to my grandparent's place in Patna and hardly knew anybody as I was there after a decade. We just put a small advertising in newspaper and lots of students started coming. It was just a two-month programme. Then I joined the corporate life but realised my heart was somewhere else. I realised that training those students was actually a good thing to do, specially when I noticed the kind of change I could bring in people. This motivated me to get back to training students. I quit the corporate life after 6 months and took a plunge to see what happens next.

Our faculty's advice came handy when I decided to take up training as a profession. They always said if you are a fresher, you have 3-5 years to decide on what you exactly want out of life. You can experiment in your first year. That advice lingered in my mind. So I have started my life with experiments.

You have been appearing in CAT for 13 years now. How has the CAT changed over the years?
There has been a transition in the test. Look at CAT in the nineties, the initial trend. CAT basically used to be a speed game because you had around 150 to 180 questions and you needed to solve more than 100 to get a single call and more than 120 would give you multiple calls. So you had 120 minute for 120 questions in the mid nineties. It actually was if you wanted to score 120. You needed to solve around 130-140 questions via 10 per cent of accuracy, the effective time per question was 50 seconds. Then the CAT also started changing along with the idea of measuring aptitude. What test makers started feeling was if they were testing people in aptitude then they needed those people to be tested on the same questions.  If you get 180 questions and solve 120, it means you have left 60 questions. For every two questions, you are leaving one question, so you are allowed to choose. Thus, aspirants are not solving the same questions. Different people are solving different sets of questions and getting through.

Keeping this phenomenon in mind, test makers started reducing the number of questions. This started happening from 2000-2001. It remained at 150 questions till 2001-2002 but when it came to 150, the question quality also went up, so the amount of work you needed to do to get one question right was more. Naturally the number of question you need to solve went down.

It means 70 attempts in 120 minutes (at most 1.7 minute per attempt). This required you to think more about a question.  This was the trend that continued from 1999 to 2003. The year 2003 was the last year when CAT had 150 questions.

From 2004, test makers further started reducing the number of questions and the 2004 CAT had 123 questions. Then it came down to 90 questions in 2005. In 2006 they increased the test time and went on to decrease the number of questions to 75. It had become a selection game. It was the same till 2008, the number of questions were 75 only and to get calls from IIMs, one had to convert 45 questions only. In 2009, the CAT pattern changed drastically.

Why are you giving CAT for so many years though the CAT papers are available after the exam?
I started training students in 1996 when papers were not available to the aspirants. The IIMs used to print 30 sample questions out of 150 questions. So if you look for the CAT 1996 paper you will not find it anywhere. You might find its reconstruction but not the original one. I took my first CAT in 1992 and my 2nd was in 1996. In February 1996, when I was training, I was blank about what the paper because I had seen it three years back. I had a three-year-old perception about CAT.   That's how I started off. IIMs started giving papers in 2003. I made nine attempts between 1996 and 2004. This is a very technical training. How can I train people if I don't know what is happening in the examination hall? I will give CAT three more times till the paper stabilises.

What is your strategy for training people?
I define my training as both intelligent and developmental. The mind of the students who comes into the class has to be enhanced when he/she goes out. In the context of what we are teaching be it the calculation based session or a chapter on mathematics or some questions on data interpretation or reasoning, the whole challenge is to enable the students to think. When a student faces a question which he/she has never seen before, it's a kind of disadvantage for him/her. On the other hand if you have prepared properly, your mind will automatically start working.

What is the batch size of your class?
It depends upon where you are teaching. We are teaching IAS students also, where the class size is around 300. However, for CAT, we have 45 to 50 students in a class. We have our own institutes named Mindworkzz which are focused on online training. For the virtual and live training we have centres in Lucknow and Patna.

How can students with non-engineering background compete with those having an engineering background?
Engineering students definitely have an advantage as they have already across 10 out of 20 questions in CAT in course of their studies.  However, irrespective of the fact whether you are an engineer or a non-engineer, you have to give your best to succeed in the exam. But most students get confused because of time pressure.
Do you think it's important to know such nitty gritties of mathematics to become a manager?
Quantitative ability is not about Mathematics. It's about quantitative thinking which is critical. And that is one of the keys. QA is very different from Mathematics in CAT exam. Unfortunately people use it interchangeably. When people think about QA, they think about Mathematics and prepare for it mathematically. QA is totally different. And I personally believe that even an eighth standard kid taught properly can crack the QA in CAT. Every time I teach in my class I ask the students if we did anything that an 8th standard kid couldn't understand. And the answer is always no. Unfortunately, people don't realise this.

What kind of research and rigour did you have to go through while authoring your books? (These books are said to be must haves for serious students.)

I looked at what could be the questions that would be asked. I cleared the question on that base. So my definition for every chapter was that nothing outside the book should come. Most of my books which were written in 2001-02 can be used even to take the CAT today. 

There is a lot of criticism about my books that they don't carry solutions for every question. The reason behind not writing all the answers in the book is that it's a training manual.  When a student takes a problem book, he tries to solve the questions for one-two minutes and immediately looks for the solution - the moment he/she does that the learning out of the question is gone. He/she might do that questions but did not learn that. My logic is you can't learn the driving unless you are behind the driving wheel yourself. If some serious student comes to me and says that I really want to crack the CAT, I will tear his answer keys also. But people don't realise that logic. That is the one area where my book has faced a lot of criticism. At least smarter people realise this. If you look at all the engineering colleges, my books are very popular. People do take that as a challenge - "we have to solve this book".

The CAT is changing, should the student's strategy to crack CAT also change? How?
The CAT has changed its pattern drastically compelling students to change their preparation strategy as well. Earlier people with little knowledge and good speed would get through. Now you need knowledge in all the areas with good speed. In Mathematics and DI - the strategy is that you have to go deeper because the number of choices has gone down. The number of questions released have gone down too. You don't have the option of quitting the question. In a couple of years, the paper will become similar to GMAT. If it becomes the way GMAT is, it will become very difficult to skip the questions because students can't skip the questions in GMAT. In CAT, out of 50 questions, earlier a student could skip 30 questions. Now out of 20 questions, you can only skip six.

Over the past few years it was felt that CAT had become more and more a quantitative paper - with 2/3rd of the paper focused on quantitative and Data Interpretation abilities. There was only one section dedicated to verbal ability. Even if this was not a conscious strategy by the IIMs to make a more balanced paper - that will be definitely one of the effects that this change will bring about. So the good news is for the non quantitative people and gives them a best shot at cracking this examination.

Getting rid of the DI/LR section makes things different in two ways. a) Test takers now have to manage only 2 sections- instead of 3. b) One doesn't need to focus on time distribution  - it is more about now doing your best in the given time frame in each section - so definitely the pressure element reduces.

The numbers of CAT applicants are declining? What could be the reason?
One of the reason is the jump in the CAT numbers that had happened earlier in 2006-08. The year 2008 was the peak year when the number of CAT applicants increased dramatically. The number of aspirants jumped partly because of the mis-information about placements. All the media hoopla about IIM-Bangalore graduates bagging Rs 2-crore offers created enthusiasm among the aspirants. People from various backgrounds were driven to complete MBAs with dreams of high salary. However, when they graduated from tier III B-schools, they ended up getting only Rs 3 to 4 lakh per annum instead of the Rs 20-30 lakh they had hoped for.

Second reason was recession. Placements in business schools suffered for two consecutive years. Also the fees have increased considerably in the past few years, which could be one of the factors. Now the quality of people applying for the CAT has improved. People who are doing an MBA are actually those who should be doing an MBA. A person who has done his graduation and worked for a couple of years in a good place and built his profile and then he realises that he has reached a point where he cannot get a leg up unless he gets a degree from a good institute. So that would be the profile of the person who is doing an MBA.

How will the new 'CAT ONLINE' (Tata McGraw Hill's Study package CAT Online) ] (book and CD) help the students in prep? Are live classroom sessions different from the online ones?
The book and the CD with 30 hours of recorded classes is a complete package. The power of online usage is amazing. I used to believe that internet takes much time because in early days when I used to work on internet I ended up wasting so much time. But that was back in 2008. When an old friend from the US met me and showed me the possibilities of training through the internet, I realised, internet is a wonderful tool. We can talk to other people anywhere in the world. And the training and teaching tools are available on the net so that you cannot miss any session. If I were a student I would opt for online classes. I will not waste 2 hours in travelling to classes. I personally believe this online training is the future specially for specialised courses.

The only difference between virtual classes and online classes is physical appearance. I can write and speak what I want to and students also can write what they want to ask me in the online class sessions. Online classroom gives you a white board to write and sends questions through private chat windows. We give facility to speak out when the questions are too long. It has a hand raising facility too - name of the person starts flashing on the teacher's screen if someone raises the hand and has any question to ask. The interaction is much more in a virtual class. Face-to-face, sometimes many students feel shy while asking questions.

I found the online classrooms to be better for students as CAT is online too and you can repeat the classes as many times you wanted to.

You train people for civil services too. How different is the study method for civil services?
The profile of the CAT aspirants and the students who are preparing for the civil services is different. Civil services students are dedicated towards the preparation. Also the civil services exam is supposed to be much easier than the CAT exam in terms of the questions quality. It might not be as tough as CAT. Other key difference, civil services examination has lot more subjects than the CAT students has to prepare for the GD and interview.
Any message for aspirants?
My message is that the focus should be on raising your intelligence.