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CAT, MAT, CMAT, GMAT; The way to realize your MBA/PGDM dreams

Prof Rajeev Sreenivasan

MBAWe know post-graduate programs in business management are a perennial favorite with students because of the potential of good employment. Now that the season for management program entrance exams is here, let us strategize your approach to get into the best possible college given your capabilities and potential. Given the highly selective nature of the best business schools in India (and indeed in the West) it is important to put in your best efforts to gain a high score.

These exams have become much more difficult over time: competition has become much greater (less than 1% of those who take the CAT get into one of the IIMs). I took the exams a long time ago, and did well then (I had All-India Rank 1 in the CAT, I was told informally, as the administrators do not give official ranks) and I also had a 99th percentile on the GMAT. In my day, I did not have to study separately for these exams, but today it is imperative that special studies are followed.

Many of the students who do well go to various coaching centers (unfortunately, I am not allowed to name any). These centers provide several advantages: focused and specialized learning based on prior papers; the invigorating effect of competing with other students studying for the same exam; and the discipline of taking a large number of practice tests.

The major exams, such as CAT, MAT, CMAT (all of Indian business schools) and GMAT (for primarily US and other western scholars), test your potential to succeed in business studies and later on in your business career.

In practice, these tests will test your quantitative skills, your verbal ability, your understanding of data sufficiency, and your logical reasoning. In some cases, your general knowledge of the business environment is also tested. Since all of these are in English (which is also the medium of instruction in business schools and generally in the business conducted in India), a pre-requisite for success in these exams is your general English skills, including good vocabulary.

Second, you should have a general familiarity with business concepts. Thus, it is important to read a major business daily or weekly so that they understand things like macroeconomics, the impact of global industrial and social changes, and the market and technological forces affecting major industry sectors.

Third, you should be comfortable with 10+2 level mathematics. There is no calculus or advanced mathematics of the kind engineers and scientists study, but there is no substitute for understanding simple arithmetic and algebra. Those who have had a liberal arts or biology background may feel intimidated, but fortunately, it is not hard to get proficient to the required level if you put your mind to it.

Finally, there is a pattern of the exams. It is important for students to understand the way these exams are structured, and to become accustomed to them. The CAT, in particular, has so many questions that it is virtually impossible to complete all of them unless one is extremely familiar with the structure of the questions and the various sections. Besides, the fact that there are negative marks for wrong answers means you cannot afford guesswork.

One of the keys is time management. If you attempt a question, and have at least a 50% belief you know the answer, then you should proceed. Otherwise, it would be better to move on to another question. That quick judgment as well as the ability to budget only a few minutes to each question is learned only by experience; that is, taking many practice tests.

I must re-emphasize that part about practice tests. The more tests you take, especially timed tests based on actual prior exams, the better you will do. This is an example of how practice makes perfect. In addition to the tests that a coaching center may give you, you can also find books with sample tests. You must take the tests with a stopwatch, so you know how to pace yourself exactly as you would have to in the real exam.

None of the other exams are quite as hard as the CAT, so if you are preparing for the CAT, that is often good enough for you to do well in all the others. CAT is the test required by the IIMs and some other colleges; Hyderabad’s ISB is one of the few in India that accepts GMAT scores; MAT is accepted by a large number of colleges, and CMAT is the official test from the AICTE (All India Council of Technical Education). CAT is only given once a year, but GMAT and MAT are offered multiple times. A web search will give you the details.

You should identify a few business schools based on research, discussions with current students and alumni, and then identify the tests your preferred schools require. Then it would be best for you to join a coaching center, or in any case practice the tests, identify your weak areas and take remedial action. The time to do all this is now for the 2014 academic year.

The exams are not the only criteria for admission, though. There is the Group Discussion and Personal Interview in Indian schools. In the West, there are the Essay and Letters of Reference. At my alma mater, StanfordBusinessSchool, there is also a focus on diversity in the student class, so that even if you have great scores and references, you don’t get unless you stand out in some way, perhaps in your extra-curricular activities.

Indian schools are also now diversifying their programs; for example, IIM Kozhikode now has 50% women in its incoming class. So this is a good time for women to attempt to get into business schools. At the Asian School of Business, too, we get a diverse set of students into our program, so that students may learn teamwork with a broad group of colleagues.

Prof Rajeev Sreenivasan, Director, AsianSchool of Business