Okay, so, I have a confession to make.
I had a phone conversation with a friend today. We discussed the dilemma surrounding B-School admissions and debated the pros and cons of a few IIMs. Most texts I receive these days are about “CAT advice.” They are not seeking advice on cat, the animal, but the exam you take to get into various B-Schools in India. The questions can range from asking about preparation strategies, and the best reference materials, to seeking my opinion about the best IIM (it’s actually IIMA, but whatever!)
Most questions go along the lines of: “When is the best time to start studying for CAT?” “What books did you refer to?” “Which is the best test series to refer to?” “Should I get some experience and then apply for an MBA?” “Which IIM is the best? (again, it’s IIMA!)” They seem to think that I have the answer to all these questions.
I mean, I get why people might think that. I was very fortunate to study at a good school, graduate from an elite college, and take a few famous courses. I even managed to get into IIMA and IIMB. I don’t know why the professors who interviewed me thought there was any substance to a random kid discussing Taylor Swift and Kanye West’s feud or that my knowledge about the state of Tripura counted for anything. Of course, as someone from the state, I should know answers to all the basic questions they asked about Tripura. There’s no rocket science there.
The truth is, I have no clue what I am doing with my life. In fact, my friends would tell you that I am one of the most chaotic person they have met. I check all the boxes, whether acting childish, having a random train of thought, or cracking jokes at every possible opportunity. In fact, I almost got negative class participation in one of the classes at IIMA for making a reference to Wonder Woman. As you can see, I’m hardly an expert. A friend of mine would tell other friends that most points that I make in class amount to nothing more than a reference to pop culture. I think he might have a point.
I am not a CAT-topper. I did not graduate at the top of my UG class. Nor did I score an excellent grade in any of my IIMA classes. I’m just a clueless kid trying to understand the ways of life and realize his dreams while also laying the path for his sister. Ok, I lied about the course grade bit. I did actually get a perfect 4.33 in one of the courses, but that’s about it.
I look at my incredible batchmates; CAT toppers, CAT (girl) toppers, UG Gold Medallist, Institute Ranker, years of work experience, astonishing PPT making skills, other-worldly presentation skills, people with master’s degrees, etc. I feel an incredible sense of pressure. Frankly, I feel like a fraud when I look at them and their achievements. And I have nothing for them but respect and admiration. I wonder if they get such requests about CAT and MBA too. The point I’m trying to make is this - many more qualified friends could provide a better point-of-view on the subject of CAT and MBA.
When I attended my first HR class in Term 1, people raised their hands on Zoom and started with, “In my organization, XYZ happened; this concept connects to ABC practice at the company I was in,” I felt an incredible sense of naivety. I had never worked for any real organization, I did a few research projects, but that’s about it. When Microeconomics came around, my friends who have bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Economics seemed to have understood it all, while I was clueless trying to figure out different curves. Accounting really had me doubt my existence. Even then, a few seemed to just sail through it.
I loved courses that talked about how businesses function and how that might impact society at large, and the role of the government and its policies in solving or worsening a particular crisis. I would talk for minutes in class and write emails to the professors asking follow-up questions. As I was writing this article, I checked my inbox. I realized that I still have a walk that I need to go to with a professor to clear my doubts about the ethical imperative that businesses have to serve the society they function in.
The more significant point is that I am interested in and know a few things while I am clueless about most other things. The assumption that I would be able to somehow help people to score well in CAT or help them choose their career paths, or help them get into IIMs is just not valid. It is heartening to see so many messages because you realize that people value your opinion. It is very depressing at the same time because I really wish that I knew the way or that I had the answers to their questions. The sad truth is, I simply don’t know.
To narrate my story, I was set on going to the University of Auckland, New Zealand, for my master’s in Computer Science. However, COVID-19 restrictions necessitated a change of plans, so I decided to take a shot at M.Tech. in AI at the Indian Institute of Science. I was living with my friends in Delhi at the time and could not take the GATE exam, which was scheduled in Tripura. And so the GATE to M.Tech. in AI was shut! Perhaps years later, the story of why I missed out on GATE could be the subject of another essay. I still wonder if I’ll go back to get that degree. We’ll see. Coming back to the story, having skipped my college placements, IIMA and IIMB were my best shots at that moment. To make matters worse, I had applied to IIMA and IIMB only because I thought that if I was doing an MBA, I might as well do it from the best. Yeah, IIMA is still the best IIM.
I took the test, and many unfair advantages helped me. My engineering background helped me with the math side of things, and I would consider myself a decent reader. That came in handy while doing the VARC section. And well, logic is just logic, I had a good day, I suppose. I ended up scoring a fair bit. I know it doesn’t sound very intense or stressful, because it really wasn’t. I went to Guwahati (the nearest center for residents of Tripura!) the day before, took the test and flew back home. I did not discuss how it went or where I could have improved after that. If I recall correctly, I bothered to check my scores only after I received a call for interview from IIMA. I checked the detailed shortlist report that they publish every cycle and added up various component scores (10th, 12th, UG, etc.), and estimated my chances like every dumb kid would. (Don’t do it, please!)
I familiarized myself with the question pattern in terms of preparation because the syllabus seemed like it covers portions only up to Class 12. I took a few tests on an online platform to simulate how it might look on the actual day. Plus, the portal had nice color schemes. :) I did not attend coaching or write an elaborate series of tests. I checked out a few online lectures, though. I tried going through previous papers because I thought it might familiarize me with the actual pattern. I mostly attempted the quant section because I got pretty nostalgic solving Class 12-level math. Let’s just say the logs were tempting. Plus, I wanted to try out my new Apple Pencil and iPad. I downloaded pdf of the previous papers, and solved like the old days. It was oddly satisfying.
Please don’t misconstrue this as me bragging or anything; I’m just letting you know what I actually did. There are countless online articles (and actually good ones) that would tell you how to prepare step-by-step. Maybe you should read those. As I previously mentioned, I had many unfair advantages from the start: my math background, likes to read books, having a good day in the LIDR section, etc. You may not be as fortunate, so maybe you should follow the serious advice online, idk.
I had many sleepless nights, unsurprisingly. What if I did not get in? Would anyone hire me if I got in? (Spoiler: They did!) Was it all a mistake? These questions constantly ran at the back of my head as I tried to complete my final semester of college. My ever-supporting friends fed me and supported me throughout, and they did not lose confidence in me. They told me that I’ll get into the IIMs, and I did. I really do not know how to repay their kindness.
Of course, not everything was left to chance. I wrote a decent essay for IIMB’s interview. I could answer whatever the IIMA professors asked about Taylor Swift and protein folding. I even gave them a good 1 answer on why I would prefer Manali over Goa. I would also say that my UG professors were kind enough to write me decent recommendation letters to help me make the cut. To reiterate, I’m aware that I did good in a few things, and I know a few things but my point about not knowing how to help with CAT scores, CAT reference material, and ways to get into IIMA still holds.
As I write this, I’m aware that various coaching institutes and forums have sprung up around the CAT-craze 2, if I might call it that. Some of them even monetize it. Good for them. I can’t help but think that someday, someone from one of these IIMs would develop the perfect preparation strategy, create an ideal guidebook for every aspirant and a computer-guided interview tool, and release it for everyone. Then, the prep companies are truly screwed. Until that happens, keep sending DMs, and keep rocking in CAT. See you at IIMA if we ever cross paths!
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