Vijay Jha, 37, will be among the lakhs of students sitting for the Common Admission Test (CAT) scheduled on October 16. This will be the 14th time Jha will take one of India’s most hyped entrance exams.
Jha first heard about CAT in 1999 from his friends in law school at Delhi University and decided to appear for it on a whim, with little preparation. He says he was never very studious but loved maths and solving puzzles by Shakuntala Devi, the Indian Maths wizard popularly known as “human computer”.
“In 1999, about six or seven questions came from Shakuntala Devi’s puzzle books and I promptly got down to solving them,” says Jha. Back in the ‘90s, students did not get scorecards so Jha doesn’t know his percentile. “But I got calls from IIM Calcutta and Lucknow,” he adds.
While most students appear for CAT to get through prestigious B-schools, Jha took to coaching MBA aspirants for some “quick money”. He scored a 99.75 percentile in the last CAT he took in 2011 and topped CMAT in 2012 but never fancied being a corporate honcho. He is now senior vice-president and head (Academics) at Career Launcher. “I feel the need to routinely test my competence levels. I can’t pontificate about climbing Mount Everest when I haven’t done it myself,” says Jha. But 14 times? Jha says he enjoys solving CAT questions and finds the exam challenging. The one time he couldn’t take the exam in 2012 he was depressed for days.
It is now standard practice for those in the business of coaching classes to take CAT multiple times. Chennai-based Rajesh Balasubramanian (33) has cracked the exam five times, securing 100 percentile in the last two attempts. He is already a celebrity among CAT aspirants. “The serial success has given me much recognition as a teacher,” he says, politely refusing to disclose his income.
Balasubramanian, an alumnus of IIT Madras and IIM Bangalore, left a lucrative career as an investment banker to follow his passion, teaching. He runs a coaching institute, which has branches in Mumbai and Bangalore. “I love teaching, especially training students for competitive exams because they are highly challenging and test entirely different skills.” He appeared for CAT for the first time in 2001 as a final year BTech student. “Incidentally, I had a job offer in hand despite the dotcom bust. So, I wasn’t stressed at all. CAT was more or less a speed test back then —150 questions in two hours. I managed to get 99.98 percentile,” he says.
For other teachers, appearing for CAT multiple times allows them to gauge the changes in exam pattern. Mumbai-based CAT tutor Patrick D'souza, 37, has aced the examination several times. In 2006, Patrick scored 99.95 percentile followed by a 100 percentile the following year. The run of success has continued since then. “As a teacher it was important that I understand the changes that occur in the test every year, identify trends and experiment to know the methods that work best,” says D'souza.
D'souza first took the examination when he was a final year student of engineering at Motilal Nehru National Institute of Technology, Allahabad in 1996. “I aspired to go to one of the IIMs. I got a call from IIM Calcutta but could not get through. I tried once more and secured a seat in Jamnalal Bajaj Institute of Management Studies (JBIMS),” he recollects. D'souza is the father of three children, who he considers lucky since he topped the exams around the time they were born.
What according to these management test experts is the key to an almost perfect score each time? “It is about the methods. We tend to go by the book but it is more about how you think and hence, logic,” says D’souza, who is also an internationally-ranked chess player.
Jha offers an experiment as an answer: “If you give students the CAT paper and just rename it MAT, you’d see a marked improvement in their performance. It’s just the fear and hype associated with the test.” Jha has never prepared for the exam but managed to score because his life didn’t depend on it. A cool head, apparently, does help.
Munira Lokhandwala, who used to run a coaching institute in Mumbai till 2010, says today it is purely about good luck. She is now out of the “CAT industry” since she feels the exam is no longer a good test of managerial aptitude. When Lokhandwala was still coaching students, she appeared for the exam from 2004 to 2009, scoring close to 100 percentile. “I loved taking the exam and used to go into a ‘zone’ while solving the questions,” she says.
According to Lokhandwala, CAT, as long as it was paper-based, truly tested managerial skills. “It was about being sure of yourself, quick decision-making, focusing on one thing at a time and moving on to the next question,” she says. The computer-based exam now has fewer questions and more time, and some questions are repeated from last year. Besides, she feels, the exam’s normalisation process is faulty. Lokhandwala will get back to teaching soon after her daughter grows a little older, but says she is done with CAT. “I used to like the fact that CAT was the one test that did not go into general knowledge and was an objective test of aptitude. It is no longer driven driven by logic,” she says.
(With inputs by Kanchan Srivastava and Vinamrata Borwankar)