CAT 2019: Knowledge Sessions for Group Discussions, Written Ability Tests and Personal Interviews

The article was first published in The Assam Tribune on 9th December, 2019 . It's target audience is students appearing for CAT 2019 and other competitive examinations.

On November 24th, 2019, ~2.1 lakh students across India appeared for the Common Admission Test (CAT), the entrance examination for admission to the 20 Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) and other leading Business schools in India. Since 2017, the CAT has seen a 5.5% increase in the number of test-takers – a reflection of the emphasis placed by students and their guardians on the merit and utility of a good degree in Management, notwithstanding the recent slowdown in the economy.

CAT 2019 admission procedure:

The CAT 2019, in keeping with historical precedence, has a dual phased admission process. Candidates appearing in the written examination and clearing pre-defined cut-off marks (based on the score obtained in the examination held in November) and eligibility yardsticks (marks in 10th and 12th board examinations, CGPA in Bachelor’s degree, years of prior work experience, etc.) would be eligible for the subsequent round of the process, scheduled to be held between January and April, 2020.

The second phase of the admission process consists of Group Discussions and a Written Ability Test, followed by a round of Personal Interview. This phase is often the determining step in a candidate’s final selection – and is abound with stories of meritorious students faltering due to their inability to succinctly convey their points of view or express their thoughts to the evaluators.

In order to complement one’s performance in the written examination, it is imperative that the candidate is well equipped to address the volley of statements, questions and topics that she is expected to encounter in the second phase of the CAT admission exercise.

Group Discussion (GD):

For Group Discussions (GDs), shortlisted candidates are divided into groups of 7 – 10 individuals and are provided a topic to deliberate upon. Topics in CAT GDs could range from current affairs (eg. How will you address India’s sliding GDP growth?) to technology (eg. Will Robotics and Automation lead to large scale unemployment?) to abstract statements (eg. What does the colour Red mean to you?).

The Group is provided approximately 10 – 15 minutes to discuss the topic in question. Candidates are assessed on their verbal and non-verbal communication skills, body language, leadership traits and their group behaviour competencies. A moderator helps moderate the discussion, especially if it either becomes fractious owing to differences of opinions of the candidates, or to lend a desired direction to the conversation. Candidates who can provide inputs that change the course of the GD or who can succinctly summarize the discourse usually stand out from the competition.

Increasingly, it has been observed that a number of IIMs are shifting away from conducting GDs. IIM Ahmedabad, IIM Bangalore, IIM Lucknow and IIM Kozhikode, among others, now favour a Written Ability Test (WAT) or Analytical Writing Test (AWT) to assess candidates.

Written Ability Test (WAT):

The Written Ability Test (WAT) or Analytical Writing Test (AWT) is a pen and paper based test that assesses the candidate’s skills in analysing a given topic from multiple perspectives and subsequently penning down her thoughts on paper, coherently.

The test itself is of approximately 30 minutes’ duration – the candidate is expected to understand the topic, weigh its merits and demerits, decide on the logical flow of her argument and finally, express her analysis and comprehension on the given sheet of paper. Very often, logical and well worded arguments in the essay reflect highly of the candidate’s ability to view a problem from various angles – an attribute that finds favour among the admissions teams at the IIMs. Consequently, apart from most IIMs, other renowned institutes like XLRI (Xavier School of Management) and IIFT (Indian Institute of Foreign Trade) conduct WAT to shortlist candidates.

Similar to a GD, the topics for WAT could encompass the entire gamut of our society – politics, economics, sports, current affairs or international relations. It is important that the candidate does not allow her personal biases to cloud her essay discourse; rather, candidates are judged positively when an unconventional or alternative point of view is provided – even at the risk of political incorrectness.

An example will be to speak favourably for the arms and ammunition industry, in that it helps provide large scale employment, which, in turn, fuels economies. Of course, the essay should also highlight the ill effects of the industry and the enormous social and economic pitfalls that it brings in its wake. The essay could be summarised by the candidate with a line highlighting her personal opinion, but only after both sides of the argument have been placed in the treatise.

Personally, and upon speaking to colleagues and friends, it is recommended to use the PESTLE framework to scope out arguments for and against a topic. PESTLE is the acronym for Political, Economic, Sociological, Technological, Legal and Environmental – an almost fool-proof operation to obtain a 360° viewpoint on an issue. Candidates also stand to benefit if they can attribute - where relevant - gender, caste, religious fanaticism and other social dogmas as underlying factors or consequences of the issue being discussed.

In terms of weightages attached to the eventual score used to determine a candidate’s performance, IIM Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Calcutta and Lucknow associate a 10% weightage to the WAT, which is the average among all leading IIMs. IIM Kozhikode apportions a 20% weightage to the WAT while evaluating a candidate.

Personal Interview (PI):

The Personal Interview (PI) is considered to be the most important (and often, most difficult) phase of the CAT admission process. IIMs lay significant importance to PIs – IIM Ahmedabad has a 50% weightage, IIM Calcutta and IIM Lucknow correlate PI to 48% and 40% weightages respectively, while IIM Bangalore and IIM Kozhikode apportion 30% significance to PIs during final evaluation.

Nervousness and the pressure to perform are primary reasons for candidates underperforming in a PI. This stems, quite often, from the panellists’ (usually 2 or 3 professors from the IIM to which the candidate is seeking admission) proclivity to create an atmosphere of friction and uneasiness – commonly referred to as a ‘stress interview’ – to observe how the candidate absorbs pressure and delivers under duress and discomfort. Multiple questions may be asked of the candidate simultaneously, answers provided by the candidate may be interrupted or the candidate may be questioned on topics not pertaining to her field of expertise (eg. a Civil engineer being asked questions on electric circuit design). The trick is to remain composed, answer questions sequentially, not be afraid to mention that one does not know the answer to a question and most importantly, not rebuff the panellists or display annoyance.

There have also been instances of a PI being simply a conversation between the candidate and the panellists. Candidates from say, a remote geography of India may be asked about her place of origin, its tradition and customs, an average day in her home town and how she spent her childhood. On other occasions, a candidate may be questioned on a particular project she may have undertaken during her Bachelor’s degree, or, for candidates with prior work experience – how she may have overcome an unpleasant co-worker or client.

One professor, who I happen to know, had mentioned that, while interviewing candidates, he tries to ascertain if he can ‘teach’ the student once admitted to his college. In other words, the candidate should present a pleasant demeanour, be amendable to critical feedback, show empathy and consideration for fellow citizens and display character traits (leadership, independence, optimism, among others) that shall hold her in good stead upon graduation, and beyond.

One must also prepare oneself with certain questions to ask the panellists, should they enquire, “Do you have any questions for us?”, which they often do. It is advisable to ask about the pedagogy in the IIM (most IIMs follow a case-study based discourse), the opportunities for growth via industry interactions, internships and live projects, the general mix of students in a batch (freshers v/s students with prior work experience, male – female ratio, international students, etc. – the more diverse the batch is, the greater is the opportunity to learn and grow!) Questions asked of the panellists will help the candidate make an informed choice, while also conveying to the panellists her interest and willingness to seek admission in the IIM.

GD, WAT and PI preparation in North East India:

Guwahati and other cities in North East India have witnessed the mushrooming of a number of institutes to prepare students for CAT and other MBA entrance examinations. There are also a number of online forums that students can avail of to prepare for GD, WAT and PI.

It is essential that candidates prepare well by participating in ‘mock’ sessions – especially for GD and PI. Very often, knowledgeable and self-aware students stutter in these penultimate rounds of the CAT admission process, owing to a lack of practice and proper guidance. The situation is exacerbated by many institutes in the region providing facilitators who have never undergone the CAT admission process themselves to moderate mock GDs and PIs. Needless to say, it is advisable to check the credentials of the entire faculty enlisted in a coaching institute. Alternatively, one may avail of the services of institutes which conduct webinars or online classes, hosted by faculty who are professors or alumni from the IIMs.

Diversity in IIMs – how do students from North East India benefit?

One must remember that IIMs encourage and thrive on diversity – gender, demographic and economic – which bodes well for aspirants from North East India. There is also the underlying assumption that, in the long run, a less developed region would stand to benefit if more students from the region would occupy positions of relevance in public and private institutions.

While the tuition and boarding fees may act as deterrents, numerous scholarships by various state governments in the North East, coupled with attractive remunerations upon graduation with an MBA degree, should outweigh concerns to forego a seat in an IIM due to economic considerations. To also encourage aspirants from marginalised and reserved categories, most IIMs follow positive affirmative bias, by way of lowering cut-offs and relaxing other admission qualification criteria for certain students.

The establishment of IIM Shillong in 2007 and the graduation of the 10th batch of its flagship programme earlier this year are nascent, yet promising, steps to groom well qualified managers and entrepreneurs in the region. Over time, it is hoped that the pan North East IIM alumni will only grow and become more prominent and in a Utopian world, feed into the economic and socio-political development of the eastern region of India.

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